The secret of creativity, Natalie Goldberg makes clear in her “Writing Down the Bones”, is to substract rules for writing, not to add them. It’s a process of “undereducation” rather than education. – Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Is it only our greatest writers who are allowed to break the rules of writing? And what exactly are these rules? Mantras such as ‘Show not Tell’ ‘Point of View’ ‘Omniscient Narrator’ or ‘Close Third Person’ seem to abound in 21st century writing guides. I doubt whether the great George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and our own Christina Stead had ever heard of these ”rules’. Yet their writing survives to this day, never out of print or out of favour. And of course, whether unconsciously or not, each of these writers were instinctively following many of these techniques. Many, but not all – depending on the fashion and flavour of their times.
In my own writing group, I’ve found the use of technical criteria for feedback limited my creativity, and constrained my writing voice. It seems to me that intellectualising the writing process is the opposite of that unconscious process which produces the best writing. It’s as if we have to cross a bridge from the so-called ‘right-brain’ which governs creativity, to the ‘left-brain’ which controls planning, logic and reasoning. And that crossing can often be a painful obstacle course. I once exclaimed to my group: ‘Away with your rules! They do my head in!’ Clumsy expressions indeed, which burst out of my mouth unbidden but unstoppable.
Sentences which flow with speed, grace and simplicity look easy to the reader, but experienced writers know it is the hardest writing of all. Like the Zen archer who does not appear to be aiming, yet strikes the bull’s eye every time, the writers untrammelled by rules and regulations, unconcerned with the fashions of the day, are the ones who stay in our minds the longest.