Words to Live (Read, and Write) By
Laying out standards of reading and writing into a new set of artistic principles.
Let me say something right up front: I’m not a subscriber to the “no rules” side of writing — and I’m tired of bad writers abusing the patience of readers. Simple as that.
This isn’t a diatribe against anarchy or artistic freedom. I believe in the usefulness and beauty of frameworks. I believe in having a principled foundation for life and art.
To that end, I’m laying out a few principles for writing and reading that I believe will result in a better relationship with literature.
I believe frameworks can aid freedom — especially creative freedom. Having a framework is like responding to a writing prompt, but in the realm of purpose. For a while now I’ve been brewing a sort of writer’s credo to keep me on track.
Some of my personal artistic principles are:
Err on the side of empathy
Simply put, I believe in writing characters that are not good or evil, but human. I don’t write villains. The writer is a packer and unpacker of human emotion. If you don’t understand a person you cannot write about them with sufficient agency and interiority.
Think deeply about ‘undeep’ things
Turn over rocks as a writer. Find the worms. Study the paths they have made. Everything is deep because life is a profound accomplishment of nature. An accident or miracle if you like, but there’s nothing simple about even the simplest things.
Even a light switch is more than on and off. It is on-off contained in a single switch. Contradiction is the container for possibility: what is and what isn’t, what could be. The contradictions of life foster the greatest stories.
Listen first, listen exclusively
You learn the most from listening. People who do all the talking are not learning — and they’re not even really teaching. Listen to the way other people talk and listen to what they say. Listen to nature and inanimate objects and find the stories they tell, too. I learn about the weather from the birds in the tree outside my window before I even open my eyes.
Write for yourself as part of the world
Recognize that you are part of the world first. Humans are social animals and art is an expression of that. Write for yourself as a social animal and it will find an audience.
In writing and everything else, I aim to live with larger ends in mind, focus on continual improvement, and work for the good of humanity. It isn’t religious or exclusive to interpersonal relations. My principles help me stay above the fray and do the best artistic work I can do.
These principles have helped me in the last year to find narrative direction and be more conscious about the voices and tenses I choose. They also help me create characters that I care about.
Let me ask you: have you ever read a book and gotten a few chapters in and thought, “Why should I care about this narrator?” or “I (still) don’t care what happens to these characters”? I have. And to me, that represents a devastating failure. If a reader isn’t invested in the character, my feeling is there’s substantially less literary value to the work.
Over the past year, I’ve seen so much blasé “encouragement” along the lines of “just write for yourself, who cares if nobody else reads it?” And more than ever, I want to say: this is trite, unhelpful, dismissive advice to new writers.
The suggestion we shouldn’t care whether anyone reads us — whether we’re in a room alone, talking to ourselves — dehumanizes us.
It almost goes without saying: Write what you want to write. And write as well as you can, and enjoy it. Be passionate about it. Obsessed.
But my feeling is the reason we write is because we want to say something that matters, that changes people, that gets inside of people and affects the way they see the world.
Writers are part of the world, part of the history and culture of literature. I want to say to new writers:
- It’s healthy to want, and seek, an audience.
- It’s healthy to care about what you leave for posterity.
- It’s healthy to seek a channel of expression and communication.
- The suggestion we shouldn’t care whether anyone reads us — whether we’re in a room alone, talking to ourselves — dehumanizes us. It disenfranchises us of our creative vitality, our language, our voice.
Principles in reading
One of my goals is to read better books and stories — and read them with an eye to some of the artistic principles I outlined here.
Read actively, read critically
To apply my writing principles to reading, ask these questions:
Does the author err on the side of empathy with their characters?
Do they write revelatory passages about mundane things, bringing new awareness and sensitivity to me?
Do they explore the contradictory and interdependent nature of life?
Do they demonstrate that they have listened and learned more than they have talked about a topic?
Do they immerse themselves in humankind?
Quit a bad book
I’ve suffered through too many bad reads, given too much of my attention to bad writers. Haven’t we all?
I really think readers deserve better. Reading is such an investment. We sit far too long with (for) writers who let us down. (Sometimes I wonder if it comes from the same giving, or forgiving, tendency that I’ve incorporated into my own creative output!)
We sit far too long with (for) writers who let us down. Our patience and sense of duty have been abused by writers to whom we, as readers, owe nothing.
But I think our patience and sense of duty have been abused by writers to whom we, as readers, owe nothing.
My sense of completionism has also dragged me along through books I really ought to have abandoned. So I’m breaking myself of the “clean your plate” principle and finding a healthier balance. Life’s too short for bad books.