by Graeme Wood
The Guardian's rules for writing fiction, a compendium of advice from writers, include platitudes (Andrew Motion: "Think with your senses as well as your brain"), morsels of wit (Elmore Leonard: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it"), and sound practical advice (Zadie Smith: "Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet"). Most of all, the rules sound haughty and dismissive, which is about what you should expect when you ask skilled craftsmen to reduce their craft to a few simple rules.
The great Atlantic correspondent Jeffrey Tayler, a writer of nonfiction, recently meditated on the question of how one becomes a writer. He settled on a much more onerous approach:
The question for me was not, then, how does one read to write, but how does one read to live? I conceived early on the conviction that one should lead one’s life as if one were the protagonist of an epic novel, with the outcome predetermined and chapter after chapter of edifying, traumatic and exhilarating events to be suffered through. Since the end is known in advance, one must try to experience as much as possible in the brief time allotted.
The protagonist of “The Death of Ivan Il’ich” died moaning, in agony, overcome with the realization that he had wasted his days on earth following social conventions. He lacked l’esprit frondeur, and he paid for it. Conventions now are hardly less pervasive than they were in Tolstoy’s day; we’re pressured to start a career, build our résumé, earn a certain amount of money, and so forth. But remember: None of us gets out of here alive. So don’t fear risks. Rebel. Be bold, try hard, and embrace adversity; let both success and failure provide you with unique material for your writing, let them give you a life different enough to be worth writing about.
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