I, like so many, was saddened this month to learn that author Anne Rice had died. She has left a tremendous legacy. One of the best ways in which we can pay tribute to her memory is to do our best to carry this legacy forward. Not only may we emulate her storytelling, we should emulate her stewardship of the craft of writing itself.
Perhaps the most important way in which Rice practiced this stewardship was by acting as a mentor. Like many authors, Rice publicly offered other writers her advice. One of the central themes of her advice was to tell one’s own story in one’s own way regardless of admonitions to the contrary. She described her art in the same sensual language she used in her fiction, speaking of pain, pleasure, and a world crying out for new ideas.
Rice’s recommendations stand out because many advice-givers take the opposite approach. Where Rice declares that there are no rules, others present checklists of instructions on topics ranging from adverbs to omniscient third persons. Where Rice speaks of ignoring critics, others speak of learning from criticism. Where Rice speaks of new ideas, others speak of conforming to genre expectations. Where Rice is passionate, others urge professional detachment, and where Rice urges following one’s enthusiasms, others urge doggedly adhering to a work ethic.
Here one must acknowledge that the second kind of advice is often more useful. No one is born capable of putting their ideas into words lucidly or profitably. Writing is a skill which one must develop. To do so, one needs direction. One most certainly needs feedback, and feedback is useless unless one is at least provisionally prepared to revise one’s work in response to it.
Thus, rules have a purpose. The reason why Rice’s advice is uplifting has less to do with her attitude toward method than with her attitude toward people. A phenomenal amount of writing advice is given in peremptory, patronizing, psychologically undermining tones. Through word choice and framing, it slides aspiring writers into the role of weak-willed dabblers, and it presents likely objections to its teachings as the feeble excuses of losers. It does indeed offer beginners examples of how to use language subtly and powerfully, but only if one treats it as a case study in manipulative speech.
One may, perhaps, learn from a domineering teacher. Whether one can do so while maintaining one’s personal integrity is another matter. It is, however, harder to learn from multiple domineering teachers’ frequently conflicting observations about general topics. Those who attempt to submit to even a fraction of the diktats one encounters while reading writing advice will quickly find themselves too bogged down by mandates and taboos to write anything at all. At some point, all writers must take matters into their own hands, and if they have internalized the disempowering messages which suffuse so much of the writing self-help literature, they may benefit from having someone like Rice to reassure them that they can.
Rice’s encouragement, however, is more than a coaching technique. Her concern for nurturing genius puts the focus back on the reasons why we became readers and writers in the first place. Her readiness to credit us all with the capacity to set our own creative course suggests a generous conception of what it is to be a thinking, feeling being. I would venture to say that we should accept this generosity gratefully, that we should make the fullest use of it, and that we should offer it freely to others. We should also admire it, for generosity is among the highest expressions of greatness.
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One can find Anne Rice’s writing advice at the following sites.
Anne Rice’s official website.