The One Rule of Writing

I’ve taken to saying this a lot in classes. The only rule to writing is You can’t be boring.

Every other rule you might come across is breakable. Use vivid verbs. Structure your essay with scenes. Show don’t tell. Write what you know. Don’t bring out a gun at the end of your story to resolve the conflict.

One student last term said that her old writing teacher?a much beloved and now dead writer and critic?pronounced in class Don’t write flashbacks, because?he actually said this?nobody has written a good flashback since Proust.

Every “don’t” spoken in a creative writing classroom is an invitation to do. Except Don’t be boring. And yet, there’s an important corollary to the One Rule: Only you get to define what “boring” means.

If, then, the only rule is Don’t be boring, I need to change the way I teach. It’s no use teaching craft techniques when all of them are ignorable. If it’s true that every artist decides for themselves what’s boring (and thus what not to write), then I can best help students by getting them in touch with their boredom. More specifically: how to cultivate it. The artist is the person more bored than others?perhaps more bored by others?and through that boredom creates something new and fresh.

“Writing can’t be taught,” say any number of tenured writing professors.[a] These same idiots would maybe also argue that you can’t teach boredom. You can’t teach people to Daria their way through books and the art world. To which I say: Watch me.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. This was a great tweet by Victor LaValle the other day.

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