As You Like It: Rules for Writing

Back in February 2010, the Guardian posted an article titled “Ten rules for writing fiction.” Celebrated authors had been invited to submit ten of their writing rules. But rules often break down under pressure, we might find writers breaking their own, or the examples held up for adulation contain so many exceptions that the rule is nullified early in the game. Take Jonathan Franzen’s rule regarding using then as a conjunction, for example.

Franzen gets pretty worked up about it. Over at the FS&G “Work in Progress” blog, he expounds on his “Comma-Then” rule. Basically, Franzen frowns on the use of then to connect, particularly when the intent is to avoid using and. Fine, I thought, but unmoved, as usual, by this kind of nitpicking, then thought to check his examples.

Franzen explains why he dislikes “comma-then,” and cites Dickens and the Brontes in support. Is it a rule? Should it be? The OED gives this example of the use of then as a conjunction: “The president spoke and spoke well, then sat down. The OED example would appear to violate Franzen’s rule. But Franzen didn’t say the “comma-then” construction was ungrammatical. His argument is stylistic and idiosyncratic. But he cited Dickens and the Brontes as examples of writers who avoided “comma-then.” So l took a look at some Dickens and two of the Brontes, but what I found does not seem to support Franzen’s argument:

From Dickens’s “David Copperfield”:

“Uriah threw the ball to Mrs. Heep, Mrs. Heep caught it and threw it back to Uriah, Uriah kept it up a little while, then sent it back to Mrs. Heep, and so they went on tossing it about until I had no idea who had got it, and was quite bewildered.”

“But I looked so serious, that Dora left off shaking her curls, and laid her trembling little hand upon my shoulder, and first looked scared and anxious, then began to cry.”

From Dickens’s “Bleak House”:

“Jo searches the floor for some time longer, then looks up for a moment, and then down again.”

“My Lady turns her head inward for the moment, then looks out again as before.”

From Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”:

“I listened doubtingly an instant; detected the disturber, then turned and dozed, and dreamt again.”

“Pausing in her lamentations, she surveyed him with a glance of awe and horror, then burst forth anew.”

“He took the book from his hand, and glanced at the open page, then returned it without any observation.”

“He laid them on the table, looked eagerly towards the window, then rose and went out.”

From Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”:

“I walked to the window, across the room, then close up to her.”

“I stood and warmed my numbed fingers over the blaze, then I looked round.”

“Half-an-hour’s recreation succeeded, then study; then the glass of water and the piece of oat-cake, prayers, and bed.”

“He scrutinised the reverse of these living medals some five minutes, then pronounced sentence.”

Not all of the rules in the Guardian article mentioned above are about the mechanics of writing. Some of the rules are about the behavior of the writer, rules to improve productivity or efficiency. The Guardian list opens with Elmore Leonard, whose first rule speaks to writing strategy: Don’t open with the weather, Leonard says. But that’s exactly how Jonathan Franzen begins his novel, “The Corrections,” his first paragraph reminding me of the opening to Dickens’s “Bleak House,” bad weather and sentence fragments. Dickens opens with “Implacable November weather…Fog everywhere,” Franzen with “an autumn prairie cold front…Gust after gust of disorder.”

Implacable, too, the rules of writing. Speaking of fog, rules for writing often fog the glasses of our desire, streak the windows of our prose, our fingers go blind, then despondency.

The Seven Ages of the Writer Amid Rules

Maybe the rules of writing are like Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, found in the play “As You Like It.” In the first stage (of a modified Shakespeare, the seven ages of the writer), the writer is an infant, and there are no rules. In the second stage, the infant grows into grammar school, fidgeting against the rules. The third stage, he’s in love with the rules, whatever he determines them to be. Then a soldier of rules, the professor, or the professional writer looking for an easy gig between novels. Then wisdom sets in for a spell. Then his time passes, and a new generation of writers watches him slip on the banana peels of his rules. And in the end, “mere oblivion” is the rule, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

A Literary Thanksgiving Feast

"Hard Times for These Times," Charles Dickens (1854). Drawing: "Mr. Harthouse Dining at the Bounderbys'."

On a big platter in the middle of the full table sits the fat novel, its dust jacket a cracking bronze, peeling at the edges, its pages sliced and curling, its story stuffed with, well, stuffing: characters mixed with plot in a warm, moist setting, everyone talking at once, voices waxing, then waning, then waxing again, still louder.

A bowl of essays is passed around the table; there’s plenty for everyone. There’s a new dish, something called “creative non-fiction.” I try some, but find it’s not so new, after all, for isn’t all writing creative? And anyway why would we want to read writing that is not creative?

“Pass the poems, please,” someone at the other end of the table says. Poems are like olives. Some have pits, putting your teeth at risk; others are pitted, hollow. Some poems are saltier than others, and may be filled with white almonds or cherry red pimento peppers. If you squeeze a poem you get cooking oil.  And like olive oil, the oil from poems might be extra-virgin, refined, or not potable.

A gravy bowl of APA-style sauce spills across the tablecloth and an argument ensues as to who is at fault, an argument of causation. “Why is that nasty stuff even on the table?” someone asks. A short scene flashes into a drama that quickly subsides with a denouement of dessert: The Emperor of Ice Cream appears with chocolate covered couplets.

But that’s not all, for then Sestina rolls in a six-layered, short story torte. It’s a literary feast, and in these hard times, we are thankful, at least, for literature.

Addendum: My sister Barb’s comment reminded me that I neglected to include beverages in the literary feast post, and I suggested she pick up a six pack of Ballads and maybe a couple of bottles of Memoir. Limericks might be served for pre-meal cocktails, unfermented satire for those who like less bite, but large jugs of stream of consciousness should be kept full and within reach, for readers will surely be thirsty.

Update, Nov. 24: Thanks to Berfrois for joining us at the table!

Gold in these pines

“We look before and after,” Shelley told his quiet skylark, “and pine for what is not.” Shakespeare would have enjoyed Percy’s pun, knowing naught comes from knot, “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” this from the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and of Hamlet’s replies, “a happiness that often madness hits on,” follows from the bumbling fool of wise quotes, Polonius. Hamlet suffers the curse of anxiety, and one imagines the prince of plotters distracted by his Facebooking and Twittering, there staging his feigned feelings, for his mood is not hopeful.

And to what do we owe this staged post? To Jill Lepore’s “Dickens in Eden: Summer vacation with ‘Great Expectations.’” But just this, Jill quoting from one Andrew Miller, academic from Indiana, who, Jill says, “…argued that the novel [Great Expectations] is defined by ‘the optative mode of self-understanding,’ an experience of modern life, in which everything is what it is but could have been something else” (New Yorker, 29 Aug. 56). Ah, where’s a physicist when you need one? For how does one understand oneself when one’s creation is a matter of chance? But the mood of chance may be ever hopeful for a changed ending, a substitute ending, a revised ending.

And this is McTeague country, Naturalism, where Trina wins a lottery, an experience of modern life, for she might have lost, as everyone else does, and is not winning the equivalent to losing? And we were still considering the Greenblatt  (New Yorker, 8 Aug.), wondering if Rerum Natura might still come at a bargain, “By chance…By chance…By chance…” (29). But if everything happens by chance, why bother introducing any event as having happened by chance? Anyway, the chance of naught creates part of Hamlet’s anxiety, certainly, but even if he takes a Lucretius pill he still has his bad dreams – thus the not of the nutshell and infinite space.

In the pine, Shelley’s bird sings of jobs, of the disappearance of guilds, for what is not, and of winter in summer and the irony of discontent. This is the anxiety of our time, that it didn’t have to be this way; it “could have been something else.” Yet the physicist tells us that not only could it have been something else, it was something else; in fact, it was what it is and everything else. This is why we tell stories – like one of Leonard Cohen’s “lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes,” who would “like to tell my story before I turn into gold,” where gold is an antidote to anxiety.

Christmas Platterful

Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been filmed again and again, but one must read it to savor the chef’s cloves of exclamation points that spice the prose of the platterful Cratchit Christmas table: 

“Hallo! A great deal of steam! The pudding was out of the copper. A smell like a washing day! That was the cloth. A smell like an eating-house and a pastrycook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that! That was the pudding! In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered – flushed, but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” 

Yet this is nothing compared to Joyce’s engorging in “The Dead,” the last story in Dubliners. Here he sets the stage for a food fight good and large: 

“A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colours of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.” 

Hemingway, reporting from Switzerland for The Toronto Star Weekly, in a piece entitled “Christmas on the Roof of the World” (December 22, 1923), tells how, after a day of skiing, they 

“…hiked up the hill towards the lights of the chalet. The lights looked very cheerful against the dark pines of the hill, and inside was a big Christmas tree and a real Christmas turkey dinner, the table shiny with silver, the glasses tall and thin stemmed, the bottles narrow-necked, the turkey large and brown and beautiful, the side dishes all present, and Ida serving in a new crisp apron. It was the kind of a Christmas you can only get on top of the world.” 

Meantime, at the bottom of the world, Faulkner’s people eat a Christmas dinner of “possum with yams, more gray ash cake, the dead and tasteless liquid in the coffee pot; a dozen bananas and jagged shards of cocoanut, the children crawling about his [Bayard Sartoris’s] feet like animals, scenting the food.” 

We are neither at the top nor the bottom of the world this Christmas eve morning, but we are where we have chosen to be, with the smell of a fresh cut tree mixing with coffee and the sound of jazz and family filling the air – our platter is full.