No Fences, Please

On January 31, 2011, in Work, by Meghan

A fenceline contains cattle-grazing grounds below Montana's Beartooth Mountains (June, 2007).

Writing is an art, a work that is bred, born, raised, and, sometimes, made dead in the synapses inside our skulls. Verb-first sentence structures like Yoda, co-opting one word for another use, creating a metaphor that brings a person two thousand miles away right there with you: these and the other wild wanderings of our minds are the foundations upon which our art is built.

What makes the wide world of writing appealing to me is its bookend-less nature. Our species has been writing stuff down for a long time. Most archaeologists would agree that Homo sapiens has had writing implements in its proverbial hands for more than 3,000 years. We’re still getting after it, too. We haven’t said everything there is to say, or every way to say it quite yet. Much remains to be written, it seems.

There is a lot of Internet speak right now about the stuff that we writers should not, could not, would not do. I read it and want to weep. These words of advice read to me like fences inside which I must egg-shell walk, folding myself neatly behind them like the crisp creases of dress pants.

I get that there are a few hardened rules. Like being ethical and breaking laws only when they need to be for the sake of telling a story that needs telling. And spelling correctly, and using the right their/there/they’re. And using colons and semi-colons for their intended purposes. And peppering language with just enough commas. And honoring our subject matter by justifying our opinions with reason and ration if we care not for someone or something instead of firing off a name-calling nasty gram.

Articles titled “50 Things a Writer Shouldn’t Do,” “Easy Mistakes to Avoid as a New Writer,” “8 Clues That Your Agent Just Isn’t Into You,” and “Why I Won’t Hire You” from well-known folks in this business, they read like reference texts. Like long, biblical checklists into which we must silly-putty mold ourselves and our writing.

I mean no specific offense to any of these people, but articles like these are the opines of mostly one or two, or maybe five people. For every editor who begs his writers to refrain from cursing, there’s another who will say, “Aren’t you balls-y enough to call a spade?”And, for every publisher who wants her writers to develop separate personal and professional Internet identities, another publisher will say, “Why won’t you let your readers find out what you’re really like?”

The expression of personal preference? Absolutely. Promoting the opinion of one like standardized rule? Notsomuch. Writing world: I’d like to write toward an unfenced horizon.

The snow-covered Uinta Mountains are still bounded by an old fenceline.

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10 Responses to “No Fences, Please”

  1. SteveQ says:

    Unfortunately, writing is full of stories like John Kennedy Toole, who couldn’t get any publisher to read his “Confederacy of Dunces.” After he committed suicide, his mother took it to about 20 publishers, one at a time, until her printed copy was all dog-eared and smudged. Now it’s considered a classic. Writing is not for the squeamish!

    • Meghan says:

      Boy are you ever right about writing not being for the squeamish. Moment to moment can be a true emotional ride. Rejection here, someone proclaiming their love for you there. But, you exemplify perhaps writing’s greatest gift, that everyone experiences it differently. Thanks for your boost of support!

  2. Danni says:

    Yeah be weary of advice about writing. I remember my dad’s editor got on him for using big words a lot. Whatevs. Sometimes the right word isn’t a short one :p

    • Meghan says:

      That’s funny. I imagine the dialogue:
      Editor, “Uh, these words are too big.”
      Danni’s dad, “Too big?”
      Editor, “Isn’t there a shorter way to say ‘shorter’?”
      Danni’s dad, “Oh, back to the drawing board, then.”

  3. Gretchen says:

    I have no doubts that you will continue to write towards unfenced horizons, as you do now. But here’s the thing: Most of this advice, I think, is just that – advice. Don’t think of it as a collection of fences to trap you. Think of them as signs on the trail, indicating a direction. Go forth with the confident knowledge that you have the ability to, if you choose, ignore those signs and blaze your own path, cross-country like, through the woods of this writing world.

    True, when things are written with such obdurate titles, they read as fences. (And really, when someone titles a post “Why I Won’t Hire You” either they’re being tongue-in-cheek, or they’re giving the reader pause to ask “Why would I WANT you to?”) But perhaps this tone is just the author’s attempt to be utterly convincing? Perhaps it’s a less-than-shining personality shining through?

    Personally, I have learned so much from the writing advice of others, and I feel a great deal of gratitude for that. Sharing advice, opinions, suggestions – it’s one of the ways we grow. I will relate to you this one experience, however:

    I read a blog post, quite a while back, by an editor and writer whom I adore. I eat up so much of what she has to offer! She was doing a page critique, and advised against a certain word choice for the author. I didn’t really understand why, I actually liked his word choice, so I asked her about it. She graciously posted a response, further explaining her reasoning. I appreciated her input, but I still struggled because I found myself disagreeing with her. How could this amazing woman be wrong? Was I wrong? I didn’t feel wrong. And then I remembered – there really is no “wrong” in writing. This was simply her opinion, and I happened to hold a different one. It was a bit of an epiphany for me to know that I could disagree with someone whom I held in such high regard. I realized that I knew enough about writing to listen to the pieces of advice that speak to me, the ones that make me sit up and shout, “Oh that’s brilliant!” and then immediately sit down and start writing, but to ignore those “rules” that just don’t sit right with me.

    As you astutely noted, writing is an art. Even the conventions of punctuation can be ignored, if done with intent and done well. You are an incredible writer, Meghan, and an inspiration to me. Don’t shed tears over the opinions of others, please! Even when they are expressed in a tone or manner that feels off-putting. Roll your eyes, maybe. Laugh, certainly. But those people are just saying what they think, as are we.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, and keep ’em coming! I love the inside of Meghan’s heart and brain.

    • Meghan says:

      You are 100%, absolutely, positively, unequivocally correct.

      Thank you so much for the story and reminder. I, at heart, know these are people’s opinions. It’s so fun to read those public critiques that are out there because of the wide ranges of responses they incite. As you say, there is supreme value in that diversity.

      And I, at heart, know that I don’t have interest in working with the specific people who associate their opinion with fact/truth beyond the scope of their minds.

      What makes it all ache some is the closemindedness and the thought that, well, is everyone passing through this same, bitty bottleneck of opinion as fact? I know that everyone is not doing this, that this is mostly my irrational fear. 🙂

      You’re so wise and kind and everything I need in a friend. Thank you, Gretchen!

  4. Tony Mollica says:

    Nice article! I definitely would agree with your No Fences, Please idea. When you hear about someone selling a “One size fits all” item I have to laugh because one size most definitely does not fit all. It’s ridiculous to even claim that.

    Reading preferences are another example where one writing style does not suit all readers. Some readers love to read the work of Hunter S. Thompson; while he would not impress my Dad at all.

    Your article title reminds me of the cowboy song “Don’t Fence Me In”. I think we’d both agree with that sentiment.

    • Meghan says:

      Tony, I didn’t even think of that song, but you’re absolutely right. The words echo exactly my sentiment. Thanks! By the way, thanks for stepping out of the woodwork and commenting here. I’ve seen your voice around at iRunFar, but wanted to say thanks for being here. 🙂

  5. Ahhhh, thank you Meghan. Once we learn the “rules” of writing, then we get the right to break them. Or, once we learn the “rules”, we’re equipped with the tools to make rules and create a style of our own. ART…Creation…Self-Expression…JOY…
    I’m sure I’ve got all kind of “rule breakers” in this comment. But I was happy writing it and i’m sure you get the point. That speaks volumes above the “sterile field” of the grammar perfect, yet silent, paragraph.
    Love the organic feel of your blog!

    • Meghan says:

      Alexandra, thanks for coming on over from Twitter and saying hi! I’m also grateful for your emphatic response about creativity and diversity in our field. Thanks, also, for the blog compliment.

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