Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bad Advice For Writers

In art there is one rule and one rule only: Whatever works, works. They could engrave those words on a wall somewhere in Iowa City and close down the Writers Workshop forever. Sometimes I suspect that creative writing programs, seminars, guidebooks, etc. all exist solely to promulgate rules that must be broken. Here are a couple of my least favorite "how to write" rules, a pair of hoary old cliches that are still frequently retailed to aspiring writers:

1. Write what you know. First of all, it's as unnecessary as instructing someone to "fart through your butthole." How can anyone possibly write what she doesn't know? (This is not to say that her knowledge might not be partial (like all knowledge) or incorrect (like the 'knowledge' of the Tea Party); in reality, what we know is always and only what we think we know--I think I know that.) Second, the rule implicitly (and, one hopes, fallaciously) assumes that student writers are unimaginative, ineducable and incapable of research, that their knowledge is a static quantity, an experiential dungheap from which they will fertilize the garden of prose. In fact, as everyone knows, "what you know" changes every day of your life (or should) and includes anything you might learn while researching a book about something you "don't know." Third, as MFA program dogma, this rule has produced a glut of books by writers intent upon parading what little they know, often limited to their own lives as middle-class American former English majors with MFAs in Creative Writing, the "here's a book about me and how I got from Podunk to Iowa City to Brooklyn" crowd. Fourth, to quote The Greatest of All Gores, "write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all." Vidal contrarily counsels writers to "[w]rite what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect..." This is fabulous advice. (Literally: it frees you to write fables, if that's the form that amuses your muse.) Vidal's is a relatively liberating injunction that resounds with the breaking of MFA-forged manacles. (The quotes are from the last paragraph of "Thomas Love Peacock: The Novel of Ideas," in Gore Vidal, United States: Essays 1952-1992.) Fifth, the rule privileges a kind of social realism that was already a battered Dreiserian fedora in the Thirties and has its roots in pre-Modernist naturalism, so it arguably constitutes a reactionary swerve away from the Modernist formal revolution (which includes postmodernism, magic realism, postcolonialism, Philip Roth's jism, and just about every other literary -ism since 1900). The writer of what he knows and only what he knows is an instantly forgettable Bartleby who would prefer not to engage with modernity.

2. Show, don't tell. The old distinction between showing and telling is multiply bogus. Historically, an argument from authority has invoked Flaubert and Henry James in favor of this rule, but Wayne Booth ably showed us (fifty years ago!) in The Rhetoric of Fiction that both masters violated the 'rule' whenever they felt a violation necessary. Both of them, that is, secretly subscribed to the 'whatever works, works' school. The show/tell distinction also collapses under its own feathery weight, because everything in a story is 'told' by a narrative voice; 'showing' is merely and obviously an illusion produced by competent telling. Another level of bogusity 'shows' itself when we remind ourselves that language neither shows nor tells; language signifies, a much more ambiguous and problematic process that may never escape from a purely linguistic pseudo-reality where the ghosts of Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty dance an eternal homoerotic tango. Showing and telling are both metaphors used to describe rhetorical strategies that, as I have 'shown,' tend to collapse into one another. Both concepts might further be considered manifestations of that very 'metaphysics of presence' that was the bete noir of Derrida and the white-collar deconstruction crew. Both concepts, that is, create an illusion of immediacy that conceals the Derridean differance, the indefinite deferral of meaning that defines language. In short, go ahead and tell, if you want to; telling is fine; telling is all we ever do--or think we do, within the illusion of metaphysical 'presence,' that oblivion of differance where bogusities unite, their lips locked and tongues intertwined in a final, fatal French kiss... And showing is OK too, as long as it works.

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