Many years ago, when I was a young, broke writer waiting tables for a living (well, most of that hasn’t changed), I sent away for the brochures from several writing programs. At the time I didn’t have any hopes of getting into them, but there was one that I found particularly interesting and useful, anyway. Part of the design was that the background of each page had several short, creative writing prompts on it. Things like “Go to the movies and write during the film” and whatnot. They were all fun things that I decided to try even though I couldn’t attend the program. But one of them still sticks with me to this day.
“Make 5 rules for yourself. Break them.”
Following this advice has produced some of the best writing I’ve ever done.
One notable instance was when I made a rule for myself that said, “Don’t write about romantic relationships.” I followed this rule for the longest time, thinking, “Things that you write about your romantic life will only be interesting to you and the person involved.” I still think that’s a good rule. But then I went and broke it and wrote about a lover of mine. The story didn’t focus solely on our relationship, but a big part of it was there. And you know what? That story almost immediately got published in a webzine.
Then there was my rule about not using a thesaurus. What’s the point in using a word that isn’t in your vocabulary to begin with? But then I found myself writing a short story in which I did very bad translation of a very good French poem (I don’t speak French at all). Why not obfuscate the language further, I asked myself, but using other words that weren’t on the tip of my tongue, other words that might not even make sense in the context? And so the thesaurus rule was broken.
Then, recently, I took on the idea that cultural references make for bad writing. Why use something that’s not universal to get across any kind of theme? And I wrote a short little story to prove to myself that maybe something could hinge on a cultural reference, and still make some kind of sense.
Rules in your work are important. They help shape the kind of writer you are, and your voice. But it’s also important to not limit your creativity, even if they are limits you put on yourself. I mean, if some kind of writing authority made a rule that no writer could ever use a thesaurus, I would probably use one as often as possible just to prove that rule wrong. So why should I treat self-imposed rules any differently?
It’s important to push yourself. Sometimes pushing yourself means setting up parameters and knocking them down one by one.