March 6th, 2011 / 11:32 am

Doing the Things You Ain’t Sposed To Do

J. Robert Lennon’s Ward Six blog has something interesting at least twice a week. The latest post, “Forbidden things you can do anyway,” concerns:

an amusing exchange with a friend on facebook, a fellow teacher, who presently is grappling with inexperienced writers’ mistakes.  She has been citing the mistakes, and then I have been firing back with examples of really good fiction that uses the “mistake” to greater ends.  For instance, to “it was all a dream” I countered David Foster Wallace’s “Oblivion.”  “Everyone dies in a car accident at the end” reminded me of Charles Baxter’s “Saul And Patsy Are Getting Comfortable In Michigan” (although he did bring them back to life in a later story and novel).  And when my friend complained that her students don’t even know to start a new paragraph for dialogue from a new speaker, I threw down Stephen Dixon’s Interstate.

Reading it put me in mind of a beloved former teacher who intentionally pushed everyone’s dare-me buttons by passing out a list of twenty declarations about writing he called “The Rules” at the beginning of every new class, and no one ever seemed to notice amidst the grousing that Rule #20 was: You can do anything you want, so long as you can get away with it, or that none of his own stories strictly followed the prescriptive regime The Rules would imply.

This week in one of my classes, a student turned in a story that began: Here I am, facing the blank page, and someone said: You can’t do that. But I was thinking of the second paragraph of E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, which goes like this:

This is a Thinline felt tip market, black. This is Composition Notebook 79C made in the U.S.A. by Long Island Paper Products, Inc. This Daniel trying one of the dark coves of the Browning Room. Books for browsing are on the shelves. I sit at a table with a floor lamp at my shoulder. Outside this paneled room with its book-lined alcoves is the Periodical Room. The Periodical Room is filled with newspapers on sticks, magazines from round the world, and the droppings of learned societies. Down the hall is the Main Reading Room and the entrance to the stacks. On the floors above are the special collections of the various school libraries including the Library School Library. Downstairs there is even a branch of the Public Library. I feel encouraged to go on.

A young woman I know once wrote a beautiful story from the point of view of a wine glass that sat in a room where a pair of lovers were ruining themselves. The teacher told her not to write from the point of view of inanimate objects, and as far as I know she never did again — a loss to our world, I think, a small but significant loss. I want to send her a copy of George Saunders’s The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, which out-social-realists the social realists by eschewing social realism for a fable about a world populated by beings made of discarded kitchen utensils and scrapyard parts. I think it’s about the United States and Mexico, my friend the lit professor says it’s about the Holocaust, my friend in Israel says it’s about Palestine and Gaza, my friend the economist says it’s about corporations, and in truth all of these readings adhere to it, plus seventy-three more, so why can’t inanimate objects be characters in stories?

(If we’re talking about the limitations of prescriptive ideas about literature, by the way, what possibilities are lost to writers who self-identify as experimental or avant garde by eschewing forever the conventions of domestic realism?, or to writers who self-identify as “literary” by eschewing forever the conventions of the genres?, or to writers who self-identify as naturalists by eschewing forever the possibility of the supernatural?)

What are you reading that breaks somebody’s shall not?


  1. Anonymous

  2. deadgod

      I looked it up – I tried to look it up – and “sposed” is not an accepted form of ‘supposed’ – not without an apostrophe between the first “s” and the “p”: ‘sposed‘.

      It is an obsolete form of the archaic “to spouse”, meaning ‘to marry’.

      ‘doing the things you ain’t to marry to do’ = ???

      What radical-gibberish thing is this?

  3. wrongtable
  4. Kyle Minor

      We just joined the Cormac McCarthy school of apostrophe reduction.

  5. mimi

      kyle minor, looks like you got some splainin’ to do

      ps – recently read “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

  6. 5redpandas

      1.I think if I taught writing and the subject of rules came up I would say to respect them, but if breaking a rule works for a particular story, then go with it.

      2.As for inanimate objects as characters, I wrote a story about 2 teachers stuck in an elevator with a hated supervisor. The elevator, Otis, was an integral character, groaning and showing his displeasure with the supervisor. Does the story fit most lit mag editor’s idea of a publishable story? I suspect not, but it was fun to write, and the friends who’ve read it had a good chuckle. Good enough for me.

      3. I love the last parenthetical question. What do we lose if we pigeonhole ourselves as writers? When I first started writing I probably considered myself a solely “literary” writer but I read tons of crime fiction and some other genre stuff. Now I would not say that I don’t (currently) write genre because I’m above genre, but mostly because there are things genre writers do that I’m not so great at. Also, I found myself writing a ghost story and then I felt like, hey, what the hell do I do with this? Normally when I finish a story I have a good idea where I can submit it, but where do I submit a ghost story that takes place in Taiwan? This was especially troubling when I realized that I had unconsciously paid homage to traditional Chinese folk tales and supernatural stories. That made it even harder for me to imagine a journal that would consider publishing it, even more so than the story with the somewhat sentient elevator. Again, fun to write, and I’m glad that I wrote it. I thought I shook the supernatural with that ghost story but I’ve got a story about a Buddhist exorcism, another one about fortune tellers, and part of my novel has a section about a bedroom haunted by a malevolent spirit. I’m not sure this is good for my writing career, but it’s been interesting for me as a writer.

  7. Frank Tas

      I took one creative writing class. My teacher told me she was really upset about the way I spelled “alright.” She went on and on about it in front of me and all of my classmates, seated in desks formed into a circle, so we could all see each other.

      I changed the way I spelled all right for the class so I wouldn’t get a bad grade on account of being on an academic scholarship. I’d never tell a kid to follow any rules or listen to me. Ever!

  8. SP

      Stories told from the perspective of inanimate objects and animals have a rich (and apparently anthologized) history:

      I had a CW teacher once give a list of 50 things we were not allowed to write about as a class (no keggers, no drug use, no dragons/sorcerers, no use of the word “nostril,” &c.). A number of people dropped because of the “constraints placed upon their creativity.” I rather like stuff like this, especially as a pedagogical tool, since it compels a writer to either work outside of their comfort zone or find some way to make such things “work.” Now in a fit of rebellion I try to use the word “nostril” in every story (most often twice, for an obvious reason).

  9. J. Robert Lennon

      Hey, Kyle, thanks for the link! You’ve done better on this subject than I did to begin with–and I will have to read that Doctorow.

      That is novelist Sung J. Woo, btw, grinning with me in that dorky picture you found online.

  10. In A Cocoon Waiting For Wings | Whimsy Speaks

      […] rules for writing:  “I want to send her a copy of George Saunders’s The Brief and Frightening Reign of […]

  11. Lincoln Michel

      Hopefully in a CW class, having strict rules like that is more about breaking kids out of their comfort zone (a good thing) than giving them rules of writing etched in tablets that they can’t ever break (a bad thing).

  12. deadgod

      [tsk-tsk; pitying smile]

      wrongtable talks of “abusing hyphens“, then “[r]efer[s] to [a] dash lesson” with a link to wikipedia’s (useful) “Dash” explication. There are, in my post, two uses of “hyphens”, either or each of which might be under challenge by wrongtable.

      a) In the case of “up – I tried to look it up – and”, that very “Dash” blogicle offers this support: . (Using hyphens in lieu of dashes (whether of spaced en dashes or of unspaced em dashes – another controversy that that blogicle tackles) is permissible in the blogicle’s view.)

      b) Concerning the hyphen in “radical-gibberish thing”, had wrongtable simply gone to, and, for us, linked to, the wikipedia blogicle on “hyphens”, some embarrassment would have been avoided: .

      The locution “radical-gibberish” indeed employs, when written, a hyphen and not a dash. This hyphen is the punctuation used to marshal correct understanding – and there should be no other kind – of compound modifiers: .

      wikipedia’s analysis of one of its examples, “American-football player”, might give a helpful parallel to analyzing “radical-gibberish thing”: “Without the hyphen, there is a potential confusion about whether the writer means a ‘player of American football’ or an ‘American player of [some particular or, generally, any kind of] football’.”

      The compound modifier in both of these cases is an adjective made from an adjective and noun, together which adjectivally modify a second noun: a “thing” which is a thing of “gibberish”, which gibberish is “radical”; hence, a radical-gibberish thing.

      I’m so glad the once-marred, now-cleansed page could have had its words brushed together properly in this suppositorial way.

  13. deadgod

      Well, that’s a good “school”, but here, lookit: Cormac aint leavin out the apostrophes from any words where they dont come between ‘n’ and ‘t’ and represent an elision of the ‘o’ sound. And he aint “reducin” nothin nohow neither, mister.

  14. deadgod

      If you make that an official Rule – ‘don’t listen to me’ – it’ll be hard either to follow it or to break it.

  15. deadgod
  16. Frank Tas

      I’m cool with that.

  17. Anonymous

  18. Anonymous

  19. deadgod

      It could be beneficial for writers to choose one book that they might love exceptionally, and use the “tricks” that it consists of as a sort of toolbox for all their writing. This is not the same as reading/memorizing/worshiping a select few novels, but as long as it’s possible to remember these “tricks” then the proportionate amount of literature could be tessellated as such in new writing.

  20. deadgod

      ^ badly clogged colostomy bag ^