Rules for Writing

PencilIn 2010, The Guardian published a series in which some of the most prominent contemporary writers in the English language gave us their 10 Rules for Writing Fiction. I like returning to this list every now and then in order to enjoy the various takes on this deceptively complex task. The authors reveal their aesthetic predilections and what they value, both in their writing and in the works of others.

Some advice appears to speak directly to the craft of fiction itself, like Jonathan Franzen’s “Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting,” but can easily be translated into music composition terms if one substitutes the word “chords” or “orchestrations” for “verbs.” I generally take this sort of statement as a challenge and try to create work that specifically defies these supposed axioms. One of the most interesting of the craft-based rules is Roddy Doyle’s “Do give the work a name as quickly as possible.” I know very few composers who follow this path in their music, perhaps because beginning with a title gives abstract compositions an element of literalness that experimental musicians eschew.

Some writers created dicta that are designed to help budding professionals navigate their way through the world of book publishing, but that might be equally applicable to musicians. Geoff Dyer reminds us to “never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project,” and Helen Dunmore suggests that we “join professional organisations which advance the collective rights of authors.” In advice echoed by Alexandra Gardner’s posts on this site, Anne Enright adds: “The first 12 years are the worst.” Richard Ford focuses on these sorts of postulates with edicts ranging from “don’t have children” to “don’t drink and write at the same time” and “try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.”

My personal favorites are the 10 rules given by Margaret Atwood, which you can find here. She spends her first three points discussing exactly what one needs in order to write on an airplane, which seems rather odd at first glance since these are a remarkably specific way to utilize nearly one third of the space delimited for her most essential aspects of writing. The cumulative effect is to limn the importance of making space in our lives so that we are always capable of working on our art. The seven rules that follow continue to give a sense of some truly essential elements we need in order to create something out of nothing, and none of them specifically speak to the nature of the finished product itself. She leaves that up to the writer.

As I re-read the various takes on the 10 Rules, I’m struck by how much the authors reveal about themselves. I wonder what sorts of results might emanate from a similar project with composers.

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