Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Rules

Due to a major technical snafu on our part, this post disappeared for several hours this afternoon. Not that it was missed. --The Eds.

Never did I envision myself marrying another writer. I knew artists could be selfish, insecure, and prone to fits of undecipherable emotional imbalance, and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to hitch my star to someone who so closely resembled myself.

But I met a fellow scribbler -- far more stable than most -- and fell in love. Early on in our courtship, Girlfriend (now Wife) and I, sensing that we needed such a list, devised our House Writing Rules that have served our relationship well:

1. You can only read the other person's work for pleasure. You cannot critique it, even if it resembled random scrapings from the bottom of a police boot (my stories, actually).

2. Jealousy is verboten. You can only support the other person's career, and can’t say anything negative about it, such as, “Bookfraud, it’s time to quit or commit suicide.”

3. I can't remember what this one was. Oh, yeah. If you read the other’s work and don’t like it, you can say anything except, “Well, that was interesting.”

Writers: ignore this man

If we did not adhere to these rules, Girlfriend probably still would have become Wife, like caterpillar transforming to butterfly, but I promise you that it would have been much less smooth a metamorphosis and filled with awkward, embarrassing moments, like trying to explain to Wife why I called her a caterpillar.

So it was with some surprise when Wife recently asked me to help her make changes to a short story. Granted, the conditions were extreme: the piece has been accepted for publication but the editor asked for last-second changes, and not minor ones. Wife's usual trusted readers were out of pocket, so I found myself discussing with Wife the merits of adding a character here, some dialogue there.

Because Wife was thoroughly exhausted from working endlessly on this story, her defense mechanisms were down, and when I said, “The beginning sucks, the middle sucks, and the ending sucks,” she took it for the constructive, loving criticism it was meant to be.

I’ve come to realize that a bunch of non-codified rules have governed my writing world for several years.

To wit, graduate school, where I spent many wasted hours toiling over a craptastic novel that would be my “thesis” for my MFA. In workshop, where I had major “issues” with some of my fellow scribblers, I had a list of very simple rules when my story was critiqued:

1. Never talk while the class discussed my work, no matter how boneheaded any given comment might be.

2. Never make excuses for the work ("It's a first draft;" "No, what I meant was 'The president loved boating with guys;" "But I was trying to create an emotional flashback with the 400-pound trapeze artist."). Every person who made excuses came off like a loser who couldn’t have been bothered to correct their mistakes.

3. Quickly identify stupidheads. When they speak in class, close eyes and fantasize about keying their cars. Throw out their written critiques without reading them. Crass, I know, but otherwise I would end up screaming at a piece of paper.

Unfortunately, the fine writing program I attended had some unwritten rules of its own. These were made very plain when I had the audacity to criticize particular students’ work.

In the first workshop of my grad school career, politics and pettiness ruled the day. One story we critiqued was an overwrought mess, with a protagonist who managed to be both a psycho-bitch-from-hell and boring. It was also chock full of hateful secondary characters who made Holocaust jokes, and contained language that read like a cross between a Harlequin Romance and "Naked Lunch." (just one example: "She worried her rival had the biggest breasts, the most money, the tightest cunt"). It was badness at such a rarified level that I had several non-graduate school friends read the story, in case my senses had departed me; my senses were just fine.

But in class, it was a different verdict. Everyone loved her story. Loved it! Raved about it. When I raised my voice in disbelief and dissent, I was shouted down like a homosexual dancing Jew gambler at a tent revival. I later discovered the school’s code of omerta: never slam the shit when the shitter is friends with most of the class. You might see why I wanted to have guidelines for dealing with these people.

(Not surprisingly, the writer was a psycho-bitch-from-hell who tossed out grand pronouncements about her other writers' stories even though she hadn’t bothered to read them before class. Thanks for sharing!)

Marriage material

Rules are made to be broken, naturally, and the best example I have has nothing to do with writing. Several years ago, a friend of Wife’s was casually dating a fellow who worked for a record company. On a Friday afternoon, he asked her if she would be free that night, after he picked up some musicians at the airport.

But she was reading “The Rules,” that wonderful dating guide by now-divorced authors, which posited that a woman shall not accept a weekend date offered less than three years in advance. She demurred, watched “Home Improvement,” had a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, and went to bed.

The next day, the boyfriend called, excited, screaming. “Too bad you didn’t come out last night — I picked up the Rolling Stones at the airport! And we partied all night!”

When Wife’s friend related this tale, I quite literally screamed. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" It was as if I had been denied a night in the loving embrace of Sir Mick and Keith.

Now we are at the ending of this piece. But I have no good way to finish. And rule number one in the writing business is always to have a great lead and a great kicker.

So. Beware of the Ides of March. As well as my perspective on anything.