In 5th grade, Mrs. Painter taught us how to write in cursive.* She was a kind-hearted woman but strident in the need to follow rules. Thus, our cursive had to be perfect – the right height for the loop up into the capital P, the whirl at the end of the capital W, the two peaks in the lower case R. I was a rule-follower – still am – so I learned to write in cursive just like Mrs. Painted said we must. I still write that way – two peaks in the R and everything.
Rules give us boundaries. They give us bumpers against which to ram without hurting ourselves too much, and they also force us to think in new ways without their strictures. For that reason, I like them. I appreciate the limits of the sonnet form because it gives me something to play against, lines and breaks and bounces of rhythm that push me to new words and word patterns.
But sometimes, rules can become ligatures by which we snare ourselves into immobility. If we believe that we can ONLY write first thing in the morning but find that time interrupted by the needs of small children, if we are told that “good writers write every day” and then find that we – because of illness or work obligations or the need to till the garden – cannot write for two days, if we try to heed the folks that say write by long-hand only or type your first drafts or dictate your ideas into your phone, we can find ourselves buried in the silence of advice we are holding too tightly and the shame that comes when we feel like we have not lived up to expectations.
Instead, I am learning to hold most advice and guidance very loosely – like a kite’s rope that I am watching soar. Grab it too tight, and I’ll cut my fingers. Let go altogether, and it sails away without me. Thus, I hold it loosely and learn to twist and twirl that string to make that kite whirl and spin with color.
So if outlines help you write, use outlines. If they don’t, don’t. If it works for you to write at 5am, then do it. If you find that the quiet space at the end of the day is best, write then. Or grab 15 minutes at lunch. Or rent a cabin and go away for three days. If reading books that are akin to your own gives you ideas and encourages you as you write, then read them. If reading books like yours makes you feel inadequate or like a mimic, don’t read them.
If we try to follow all the advice out there, we’ll find our own voices get choked off by the rules. We have to test the wisdom we’re given against our own natures and our own voices and swallow what works and cut free what doesn’t. We have to make our own writing wisdom.
Mrs. Painter was a good teacher. She read us Where the Red Fern Grows every afternoon, and through her voice, I learned how words can rip your hurt with sorrow. But she also ate her potato chips with a fork. So I take her wisdom for how it works for me – books yes, forks full of fried potatoes no – and I make my own way, with my two-peaked Rs intact.
In what ways do you make writing advice – or advice in general – work for you?