Best-selling writer Anne Rice was the featured interviewee in the Nov/Dec ’13 edition of Writer’s Digest. It was so refreshing to hear Anne stress that there are no rules in writing. In fact, she’s been frequently told that she isn’t a “real writer”:
I was discouraged very early in my college years by people who told me I wasn’t a real writer because I didn’t write every day. Things like that should not be said. And anybody who says anything like that, you have to ignore them. You know, there are no rules.
And I love how she openly shares her struggles with certain parts of the writing process:
The biggest problem for me . . . is getting into the story. I can see the whole thing. The whole shape, all the characters, what they’re doing, and I can’t seem to find a way to break in. And I rewrite the opening pages over and over and over again. It’s like OCD—it’s like hand-washing. And finally I get so frustrated that I go and pick up something like The Godfather by Mario Puzo, which is great storytelling, but just any way he wants to do it. I mean, he may introduce Luca Brasi here, and never get to physically describing him until 50 pages later, to never get to telling who he really is until 100 pages after that. And that clears up my OCD. OK, just plunge—just start. Just go.
(She also added that it isn’t until she’s two or three hundred pages into a manuscript when she finally knows she’s not going to quit!)
I especially like Anne’s parting thoughts at the end of the interview:
Protect your voice and your vision . . . Do what gets you to write, and not what blocks you. And no matter where you are in your career, whether you’re published, unpublished, or just starting out, walk through the world as a writer. That’s who you are, and that’s what you want to be, and don’t take any guff off anybody.
We all have writing or writers we admire and aspire to. It is not easy to abandon your ideal in order to accept what you perceive, at first, as your own meager self. It can take time to hear the power of your own voice, and until you do, you may keep hoping that you sound like George Eliot or Djuna Barnes, Stephen King or David Halberstam. Trying to sound like so-and-so is a fine exercise when you’re building your chops, but once you start your work in earnest as a relatively mature writer, it is literary suicide. To write falsely is not to write at all.
I have spent a good many years since – too many, I think – being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.
Even 200 years ago authors knew that a book cannot – and should not – please everybody. Here’s Jane Austen (in her usual tongue-in-cheek style) writing a letter to her sister the year that Pride and Prejudicewas published:
I had had some fits of disgust [with Pride and Prejudice] . . . The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade, it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style. I doubt you’re quite agreeing with me here. I know your starched notions.
Ironically, it’s when a writer writes with a narrow scope and only a small target audience in mind that her work has the greatest chance of pleasing the masses. So hunker down in your literary niche and let the world find you.
Reading is a vital part of a writer’s job – it’s just as important as the writing itself. If you’re struggling with your work (especially with your voice or style), pick up a good book and soak it in.
A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen topflight authors every year.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to his daughter
If you read good books, when you write, good books will come out of you. Maybe it’s not quite that easy, but if you want to learn something, go to the source . . . Dogen, a great Zen master, said, “If you walk in the mist, you get wet.” So just listen, read, and write. Little by little, you will come closer to what you need to say and express it through your voice.