Saturday, June 28, 2008

Imagine This

My grandmother, Mary Elizabeth Sweeney Robertson, was a fabulous cook. She feed ten children and a hard-working husband all through the Depression. She had to be creative, often times only having in the house a bag of flour and a head of cabbage.

Before I share how her baking relates to writing, I want to share one brief story of her life. One day, during the Depression, a 'forgotten man' knocked on her front door. He was dressed in old clothes. His face unshaven. He told her he was hungry and asked if she had anything to spare. She told him she had just prepared her family's evening meal. But it was humble in the extreme; cabbage sandwiches. He was welcomed to come inside and sit at their table with them, but he declined. Instead he sat down on the street curb and ate his sandwich in peace.

After the Depression, my mother saw a black limousine pull up in front of her parent's Washington D.C. brownstone. A dabber gentleman was let out by a chauffeur, and stepped up to the door. It was the 'forgotten man'. He returned and thanked my grandmother for feeding him that day and restoring in him a sense that there were good people in the world. He offered her a roll of money. She was gracious to him, thanked him but requested that he take the money to the church up on the corner that she attended and give it to the poor.

Her cooking paid off for some unfortunate man and later for some poor parishioners at the church. Grandma Bess attended cooking classes at Betty Crocker's Cooking School. She could make anything taste good. Now, even though she took these classes, she was so keen on what went into a recipe that she could measure out flour with just her hands.

How do I relate this to writing?

Imagine a stout lady dressed in a 1940s floral dress standing beside a world renowned chef who graduated from a prestigious culinary school. Each is to bake a pound cake. Carefully the chef measures out the flour in a measuring cup. She skims the top with the edge of a table knife to get it exact. She follows the rules of the recipe to the tee.

Bess scoops her hand into the container of flour. "One. Two. Three," she says putting it into a mixing bowl. She tosses in some eggs, pours in a bit of vanilla, and whips them in with a pound of butter, adds the flour and pours the batter into a pan.

The chef does the same, except precise measurements are taken.

Bess drops the bunt cake pan on the floor several times to release air bubbles. The chef is appalled. This is just not the rule. How can she dare to drop cake pan and batter on the floor like that! It is just not allowed. It's an example of poor baking, is it not? (I used to think as a child that this is why it was called 'pound cake', when my mother did the same thing.)

Both cakes come out golden brown and delicious. Who was the better cook? Who deserved a blue ribbon? Both.

In writing you have people who follow strictly to the rule book. Others are more creative, less uptight, and are not put off by words ending in 'ly' or 'ing'. Both deserve publication if their story
is good. Both deserve to win writing contests and be called 'author'. Certainly there are some guidelines to writing that should be adhered to, but rules can make a writer tense if they allow them to overwhelm their creativity.

For me the best advice I've ever gotten came from my cousin, Nora Roberts, last year at our family reunion. She told me to always remember that everyone works at their own pace, and to never compare myself, in the speed in which I finish a novel, or in style, to another writer. Also she told me to not allow myself to be paranoid over the rules of writing, because what publishers want is a good story. If you get overly concerned and freaked if you use a 'ly' or 'ing' word, the quality of your writing might suffer by being too technical.

She went on to say that a lot of aspiring authors are so concerned about the rules they forget it's all about the story, and the execution of it. Not about what's allowed. A book can be perfect technically and fall flat because it just doesn't have that spark that keeps people reading.

On Rachelle Gardner's blog, she asks writers to post what was the best writing advice they have ever received. I'd like to do the same, except to ask you what is the best writing advice you ever received regarding the rules of writing. What advice have you been given that has freed you to be creative and to write the stories you have in your heart?


Chiron said...

Wow. What an excellent story! Truly, I was riveted.

The best piece of advice I've ever received is simply to Write The Story You Want To Read.

There are so many rules these days, both writing and marketing. Yet the real work comes in composing the story. Although I certainly want to sell, I can't imagine being happy making major changes simply to get that book on the shelf. I'm not talking about editing. That's to be expected and as the story is tightened, I learn more about the craft of writing.

No, what I mean is that I can't chase the market. Even if a genre is hot-hot-hot, I need to write what I love.

Thanks, Rita, for another exceptional essay.


Winona said...

What a lovely blog. I read all of the latest entries. Enjoyed all of them.

For quite some time I've kept pictures from magazines, catalogs, photos and other things to remind me and help me visualize my characters and settings. I never considered using art. I will from now on.

I know just what you mean by knocking the air bubbles out of baked goods. I do it with cakes, cornbread, cookies and muffins. My mother did it.

I am working on my first novel. It's historical. I'm flying by the seat of my pants. I received some excellent advice just today from someone at ACFW about "writing it through" then worry about editing and chapter breaks.

Thank you for including the links to historical blogs and sites. I will use them I'm sure.

Lake Charles, LA

Ane Mulligan said...

It's so true, however...if I may add this: when you're starting out, those guidelines help you learn. It's like when you first started school, you learned to print. Once you learned that, you learned cursive. All your letters had to slant a certain way and fit within the confines of the lines.

BUT - once you mastered those skills, you then added your own flourishes to make a unique signature. Your art in writing.

The same goes for the rules or guidelines of good writing. Once you've mastered the basics, you find your voice and add those flourishes. You learn when to break the rules and how to do it with panache. Only then does the writing sing.

Pressing on to be a virtuosa ...


brendalottakamaggiebrendan said...

Nice blog site, Rita. The best piece of writing advice came from my writer, brother, Jess McCreede. "Finish what you start!" So before I move on to something else,I finish what I'm working on. That's doesn't mean that I can't write something else or jot down story plots for another book. It simply means stick with it and be persistent. Maybe that's one reason I won the ACWA Persistence Award in 2004 in Atlanta.

Donna Alice said...

Just happened on your blog via the ACFW loop. I'm not sure I have even had anyone give me any advice on writing or the rules.

But, I did find a super book that freed me to just get on with the writing. What was this wonderful tome? I can't remember the name! But it was written by Elizabeth Berg and it was on writing. While I never cared for her fiction, her book on writing was so fresh it gave me new hope.

Pat said...

Oh my goodness, I was linked to you from Tonya, a gal I met at a writer's group, just about a month ago!

I loved this section about not comparing yourself! It is truth and well-said.

For eleven years I pondered and finally knew I'd never be like all the other I decided I was not a writer and almost gave up my dream of becoming published.

EDWINA was put away for two years, safe from anyone's eyes.

One day the opp presented itself, and God was moving...I self-published and held my first book in my hand! It has been the most amazing experience.

From then on God took over. The story is something different to every reader and I had no idea whatsoever what each of them found, that I never saw.

It was not about ME, it was about the readers!

They found themselves in her.

You are so right about writing without worrying about style and ly and ing.

I heard from all sorts of women, and a few of men (mostly my husband and three sons, of course), but they like the story!

And I almost quit! Thank you for an inspiring article! I will be back to this site for more inspiration!

Thank you...Pat Strefling