As I was sitting down to make a post today I realized that my topic had actually been staring me in the face for a few days and had been brewing behind my eyes without me even realizing it. Last week I made a post that exceeded the “word limit” that I was lead to believe should largely be monitored when blogging. Upon realizing how far over that 600-800 rule of thumb I had gone I threw in an apology for those of you who had stuck with me long enough to make it to that point. The next day I was pleased to find a comment from one of my readers (http://heroicallybadwriters.com/ ) who told me that I shouldn’t apologize for the length of the piece because it worked and was a strong post. This really made me feel good and got me thinking in the back of mind about how often we are subjected to standards, rules of thumb and general restrictions and negativity that our work should never be bound by.
A good author can pen a story in as little as two words, should the story only take that many, but the same author can need to use thousands of pages to tell the story the way it deserves (and demands) to be told. Neither of these is more correct than the other and neither of these is necessarily better than the other. Every story is unique and every story has a certain amount of space needed to come through in its full glory. So why do we let negativity in? Negativity, of course can mean more than just listening to those who say a good paragraph only contains 5 sentences or a good story stays under 20, 000 words. It can also be those who directly insult a completed piece of your work. I think what I may do, in order to fully address both of these issues, is make them two separate posts. So today we are discussing the limitations put upon us by others and how it is perfectly acceptable to break them.
How many of you have heard, either on your own or in a class somewhere down the line that stories and letters and any other sort of writing must be kept under strict control lest it break free and lose all meaning? All of us, I’m betting, have heard this in some form or another. But how much truth does it hold? Admittedly, words of caution like this can be very helpful in the process of training your brain in the art of professional writing (i.e. journalism, technical writing and the like) but when it comes to creative writing they do more harm than good most of the time, in my opinion.
Take, for example, the art of Flash Fiction. Yes, it is a wonderful concept and I’ve written some myself, but let’s look at the ‘rules’ behind it. Flash fiction is typically story that has to be told in under 100 words (or 500, depending on the venue in search of the piece) that must have a solid enough plot to be understood, which sometimes has to follow a certain theme. Like I said, this is a great form of art and a wonderful challenge for some writers and some ideas, but for others it can be devastating. When an idea hits it can be something that may be told in one sentence or it can literally take years of your life to write and come out in such a large hunk that it has to be split into seven books for publication’s sake. Imagine being a beginning writer who is hit with an idea that falls somewhere in the middle of these two examples who tries to write that idea for a flash fiction contest somewhere. The process of trying to cut down huge, multi-faceted idea like that into a manageable 100 word piece may be enough to send the poor soul right out the door and prevent them from ever writing again.
As another example, let’s look at a magazine that really inspires someone and allows them to come up with an idea that they absolutely adore, but maybe falls just short of their 2,500 word minimum (yes, they do exist). This person may spend hours or days hacking at their story and trying to add enough material to make it reach this limit only to find that the story no longer resembles the masterpiece they originally felt it was.
Both of these examples may seem like they’re easily avoidable, but that’s likely because you’ve been in your craft for a long time. Once these two beginning authors took the time to examine their possibilities, I would hope that they would see there are other avenues for their work and they would move forward, but trust me when I say that isn’t always the case. Obviously, a good portion of the lesson to be learned from those two examples is just as much to do with finding the right place for your work as it is about breaking the limits put on you by others, but the true lesson is that we have to learn the work itself. We have to able to set it free. There will never be a time that our work will set limits for us, so why should we adhere to limits others try to set on it?
Art is about freedom of speech and creativity and allowing our true selves to explore parts of the world that we haven’t before, right? Of course. So if we start a story and immediately try to put chains on it and tell it that it can only do so much, it will never be a piece that fully satisfies us. Of course, looking at grammar rules and standards of language and syntax and everything else is what we, as authors, should do, but if Faulkner had decided to write The Sound and the Fury without using stream of consciousness because it didn’t follow standard rules, where would the book be now? What would it be? Would it have any real standing in the literary community as a record breaking piece that truly allowed us to see into the characters’ point of view? Probably not.
My point here is that while, yes rules for writing and for art can be very helpful and useful, no piece should ever be changed from what it wants to be in order to fit the rules, especially if those rules limit it and change its meaning. When you are taken by a piece and it comes out in its full glory and your final product is something that doesn’t adhere to rules or guidelines made for other pieces, don’t fret. Your work knows what it is doing. Sometimes the guidelines laid down for art are really little more than that. Guidelines. There are guidelines everywhere in life. Obviously some are more important than others, but some – like those involving the arts – can be bent. While it is absolutely crucial to drive on your own side of the road and follow traffic signs, it’s more than acceptable if we read the newspaper out of order or sleep for less than 8 hours a night. Yes, guidelines are important, but as an artist you should NEVER allow someone else’s opinion control your work. Editors and agents will work with you to improve a final piece, yes, but under no circumstances should you be afraid to write a piece the way it needs to be written because you think someone else will judge it in one way or another.
Art is about freedom and power and idealism and more things than I can possibly name here, and in no way should you try to restrict your creative abilities because you think your final product won’t fit into one genre or another. So the next time you are overcome by an idea and you want to let it out, don’t try to put a leash on it so it will fit someone else’s idea of a ‘good’ piece. Don’t put your work under a microscope and change it if that change alters the meaning of the piece itself. Allow your work to run free. Allow it to be what it is meant to be. It will make you much more satisfied in the long run and will allow others to be blown away when taking it in. Because, no matter how much we may doubt it or be told otherwise, there will always be at least one person out there who would love to have our work as it is meant to be see. Why should we deprive them of that?