Breaking Rules and Making Babies

 It takes a while for me to process things. It’s been about a month since The Guardian published an article offering several well-known writers’ advice for other writers, in the form of 10 rules. I read it eagerly, squinting at my iPhone while my 16-month-old son squealed and tore around the playroom in our apartment building basement. Some of the old saws were there (Adverbs: bad! He said, she said: good!), and while I don’t know everything about writing, I know enough to realize that no one should follow any of these rules zealously, because the result would be stiff and artificial. But I found myself feeling, oh, a little guilty of certain writing sins, and then came the anxiety, and then came Richard Ford’s Rule #2: Don’t have children.

It was a little mysterious. It came in the midst of seemingly sound advice, like that you should marry someone who believes it’s a good idea for you to be a writer, and that you shouldn’t drink and write at the same time. But no babies? Plenty of great writers had/have children: Joyce, Shakespeare (ok, he basically never saw them, but whatever), Toni Morrison, Alice Munro…. It didn’t seem to impede their genius. Or did Ford mean it in a personal happiness kind of way (i.e., “It’ll be hard on you to be a parent and a writer at the same time,” or “Writers make bad parents.”)?

Yes, of course, having a baby derails the writing process for some time. And I will be the first to say that I have essentially no social life, because there’s just nothing left after being a mom, professor, and writer. I used to be big into rock climbing. No more. A lot falls by the wayside.

But I’d argue that having a child improved my skills as a writer, and I’d be surprised if I were the only one. Toni Morrison didn’t claim this, per se, but she does mention in a Paris Review interview how she writes early—like 4:00 am early—because she got into the habit when her children were younger, and it seems like she’s fairly happy with this. There’s an almost euphoric quality in the way she describes writing while the sun comes up.

As part of the NYC Teen Author Festival a couple of weeks ago, I participated in a panel on editing. About half of us on the panel had small children, and it was interesting to hear a thread of our conversation weave itself around how to survive as a writer when babies appear on the scene. It became clear to me that there are at least two benefits (in terms of one’s writing career) to having children:

1. Procrastination no longer becomes an issue. If you have an hour of free time, you seize it. If the baby naps, you write. No more dithering and web surfing (or, well, less)

2. You get better at “pre-writing.” What do I mean by “pre-writing”? That’s the time you spend thinking about your book, plotting out narratives in your head, sorting through options in dialogue. It requires a good memory, but it’s the perfect thing to do when your hands are not free (which is almost always) to physically write.

I wouldn’t say that Ford’s rule made me mad, but it did give me pause, and that pause broke the spell the article had over me. Suddenly, I DID find myself getting mad at some of the rules. Like “Cut out the metaphors and similes.” WHY? As a reader, I love them. They are what allow us to feel the writer’s world. Why would one ever be so insane as to ditch a perfectly beautiful metaphor? Cut back, of course, prune if you like, so that the best metaphors are clear and sparkling. But I will throw out unread the book that promises me no metaphors inside.

So, writers…which writing rules would YOU break? Readers, which writing rules do you believe in?


Marie Rutkoski is the author of the young adult fantasy novel The Cabinet of Wonders and its sequel, The Celestial Globe (published on April 12, 2010). Both books have received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, which described the first novel as a “heady mix of history and enchantment.” Her novels have been or will be published in eight languages. Marie holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard University and currently teaches as a professor of Renaissance drama, children’s literature, and creative writing at Brooklyn College. She lives in New York City with her husband and son.

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