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Writing as Art: Is it really my prerogative to write however I want?

Final post  the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”

I could sing the praises of forums all day long. In fact, I’ve had a free education from them and owe them many dues. Still, I hold this one offense against them.  They are full of people who refuse to listen to helpful advice and keep on writing bad stories.

An argument that’s often made is that the author has the liberty to create whatever they wish. If they want to self-publish their dribble, they’re the ones out the money and it doesn’t hurt anyone except for them and the ten people that purchase their books. Maybe so.

It’s always hard to listen to criticism, even when it’s given in the kindest spirit. Still, it’s 100% essential.

At the same time, sometimes it’s just as important to not listen. Not everyone who gives you writing advice will give GOOD advice. Also, it’s important to find your own voice and style.

Bausch’s final piece of advice is “Be wary of all general advice.”  He says:

Destroy everything that precedes this commandment if, for you, it gets in the way of writing good stories. Because for every last assertion in this letter, there are several notable exceptions. Finally, try to remember that what you are aiming to do is a beautiful, even a noble, thing _ trying to write or make the trust as straightly and honestly and artfully as you can.

Once, I had an art professor lean a broom up against a crate and challenge the class, asking us if it was art.  After much spirited debate, we decided that it depends on who you ask. I think a story is the same way, even a poorly written one.

After all, at the end of the day, why do we do it? We all have a story burning inside us that we want to get out. And audience or no audience, fame or no fame, there’s a lot of merit in just getting the words down on paper. True writers, I believe, write for themselves with the tiny sliver of hope that someone else might someday read and enjoy it.

Bausch says this much more eloquently than I can, so we’ll finish this post up with his words.

It is also always an inherently optimistic act because it stems from the belief that there will be civilized others whose sensibilities you may affect if you are lucky and good enough and faithful to the task at hand. No matter how tragic the vision is, it is always a hopeful occupation. And, therefore, you have to cultivate your ability to balance things, to entertain high hopes without letting those hopes to become expectations. To do your work without worrying too much about what the world will have to say about it or do to it. Mostly, of course, the world will ignore it. And so, you will have that in common with many very great writers, good men and women who came before you.

Putting Dreams to Paper

Post eight in the discussion from Richard Bausch’s “Letter to a Young Writer.”

My favorite quote in Bausch’s entire essay:

You are trying to tap a part of yourself that is closest to the dreaming side, the side that is most active when you sleep.

A few years ago when I read the first Twilight book, I remember being insanely jealous that Stephenie Meyer could just have a dream and jot down a story that sold like wildfire. After all, I’ve had dreams that would make a great story. can do that. I realize now that she must have put in a lot more effort than just penning a dream, but she made it seem so easy.

For several years, writing was on my mind, but I credit this moment for being the turning point that made me decide to be a serious writer. First, I got a notebook and started writing down every dream I had. I churned out some crazy, bizarre stories that would make me blush if anyone ever seen them. And then I shared them with a few people who most likely had inward groans going on behind those polite smiles.

I used to get frustrated when I’d go to sleep and wake up dreamless. I’d even take naps just on the off chance that I’d dream something. To me, dreamless meant idea-less, and I’d turn to writing these stiff responses to challenge prompts.

Then, one day I realized that writing IS dreaming–dreaming while you are awake.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve strayed from my outline because I’ve gotten “lost” in the story. The characters have taken me places I didn’t mean to go. The setting has turned into something completely different from what I’ve envisioned. And it’s been a great thing.

Bausch advises:

Dream the story up. Make it up. Be fanciful. Follow what comes to you to say and try not to worry about whether or not it’s smart or shows your sensitive nature in the best light or delivers the matters of living that you think you have learned. Just dream it up and let the thing play itself out as it seems to want to. And write it again, and still again, dreaming it though.

I’ve had similar advice from people on the forums–get the story down and then you can rewrite it to get it where you want it to be.

Bausch continues:

And then, as you educate yourself each time through more as to what it is, try to be terribly smart about that. Read it with the cold detachment of a doctor looking at an x-ray for a lump. Which is to say, you must learn to re-read your own sentences as a stranger might. And say everything out loud. Listen to how it sounds.

Great advice, but I think sometimes it means you have to put the work aside and let it simmer a while before that detachment can be achieved.

Don’t Feed the Bunnies (or maybe you should, just don’t expect to sell them)

Plot bunnies are ideas, usually those nagging, annoying ones that you can’t get out of your head until you get them down on paper. They aren’t always good, but they do get the creative juices flowing, so I generally reserve them for those days when I can’t think of anything else to write.


At the beginning of the story! I might write 12,000 words of nonsense, indulging the characters and idea to go wherever they want. It’s the perfect brainstorm, and more than that, a great resource for ideas when you write yourself into a corner.

That babbling rough draft might be full of comma splices and dangling participles, but you can analyze the characters a bit and get a picture of what you want them to be like in the story.

Also, I think indulging the plot bunnies helps to define WHEN the story should start. It helps me get a feel for the sequence of events that I want to happen and explore the “what if” from a specific direction. If I don’t like that direction, I can outline in a different way.

So yes, feed the bunnies as much as you want to.  Just don’t expect a Plot Bunny indulgence to lead to a polished draft of a story.

I participate in critiquing on several writing forums, and I think that’s the biggest issue I see.  People keep posting their indulgent writing and get their feelings hurt when someone tells them it’s not New York Times Bestseller material.  You can’t expect to write a single draft of a story in a few days and come up with something brilliant and ready to publish. Don’t do that to your readers, and don’t do that to yourself.

Most of the published authors I’ve met have spent at least a decade writing, rewriting, editing, re-editing, and polishing their debut novels. So, as I tell my children, like the old Kung Fu master said, “Have patience, young grasshopper. These things take time!”