An interesting post popped up in my Reddit feed earlier this week. In brief, the author describes their liberating exhilaration upon discovering that they did not, in fact, need to approach their writing with a sense of style any longer....
Writers should be well enough read to be able to recognize various kinds of styles, and they should have an idea of what kind of style they are aiming to have, even if, during their first draft of a piece, they sometimes need to push through some parts in a "spewy" sort of way and clean it up later. But don't declare that a writer can simply stop caring about style, or that style is arbitrary or a form of social oppression. That's just juvenile.
I've wrestled with this one a lot in the past: What is the good, and bad, in saying "I do what I want" in any creative medium? I know there's both, and Matt touches on both in his take. My take, from his take, is that trying to figure out where that divide lies is itself a hallmark of creative growth.
Most newly minted authors start in frank imitation of someone else. It doesn't really matter who or to what end; what matters is that they get their own wheel turning by having some model somewhere to imitate. Eventually, if they're diligent, they shuck off the imitation and come into their own. They really do do What They Want.
The mistake is in assuming that once you do this, the mission's accomplished. In reality, it's just the first attempt at self-demarcation, a process that goes on until you can't put your fingers to the keys anymore. Every time I've said, I know what I want to do! Blazes to the rest of you!, I've had that dragged to a screeching halt by encountering some new author, some new creator, some new model to follow somewhere. And sometimes — here's the real kicker — sometimes that new model turned out to be a figure that I'd previously discarded as a model, albeit now seen in a new light where I was able to receive from them all the things I'd previously missed.
It's always bracing and liberating when you throw out all the things that hidebound you before, whether they're how slavishly you adhere to conventional grammar or how hard you try to make a story receive an existing genre label. But that's not the end of anything; that's barely even the beginning. All you've done is cleared your shelf of the existing models to learn from so that you might receive new ones from somewhere.
I get why some people throw out their rule books. They know that all the greats, at some point in their careers, threw out the rule book and wrote their own. For them it's a sign of progress, of coming-into-one's-own. The danger is in not replacing what they threw out with anything at least as suitable, if not more so. The danger is in getting stuck with an empty shelf that can't be repopulated, re-emptied, re-re-populated.
It kinda goes without saying that perfectionism is the hobgoblin of both big and little minds, but big ones especially. One of the most intelligent and fiercely creative people I ever met, someone who could have become a writer of formidable talent on the order of, say, Thomas Ligotti, never managed to finish anything — let alone begin anything — because of his crippling perfectionism. His own standards were too good for himself. That's no way to live, but neither is countering that by saying standards aren't worth bothering with because they only get in the way.
The other day I wrote about how people who don't know how to not take themselves seriously are the most unserious of all. I see the same pattern here. People who can't do anything but enforce The Rules, or do anything but rebel against The Rules, are both at the mercy of The Rules in different ways. Befriend The Rules; make them your partner; and then learn when to spend some time away from them before coming back as you both need to.
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