I’ve always been skeptic about storytelling courses, first of all because I think there’s onlyone rule in writing: either you can write or you can’t. It’s the same thing for a painter: either you can draw and paint, or you can’t. All the rules in this world can’t teach you to be creative, art is something you can be expert of, but the capability to make a work of art is totally another story, and no one can teach you how to do that. Of course this is just my arrogant and useless opinion, I know.
Anyway, it happened that, being curious, I enrolled in an online course of storytelling whose aim was to “let me understand how a character could be interesting for publishers.” Let’s try, I said. Let’s see “how a character can become interesting,” let’s see if there are rules. Of course, I think, when we talk about money and publications there should be rules, otherwise there would be much more stories on the libraries’ shelves.
So, I enrolled. In the first lesson, focused on “what is narration,” I saw all my literary studies, in high school and university, and my two degrees become summarized in some little sentences, and I thought “oh my, there’s much more than that.” Then I thought “and if there’s not, I wasted a lot of money in my studies! I could just have learnt these two sentences and that would have been all!” But then I became polite and kind, and said that, at the end of the day, the amount of information was enough for an online course. There wasn’t enough time to develop the subject, maybe.
Then all the “students” have been asked to write a subject for a possible story. I wrote it. And the comment was “ do not write in first person, and do not address the hypothetical reader. Be outside your story.” And then “you have to develop another character, because it seems you have only one protagonist.” The thing was that I thought of a story in which there should have been only one protagonist. And that I did not want to write in third person, I wanted to engage the perspective of a character inside my story, and the subject I wrote was exactly giving that idea! You could tell me what makes a character interesting, or at least you can try to define people’s taste in some way, but you can’t tell how to write my story. Otherwise it would be YOU to write it. The funny thing was that the initial motto of the course was “you can write whatever you want. There are no rules.” Oh, well, except a thousand you will tell me along the way. I do not doubt that teaching how to write is an impossible task – that’s precisely what I think – but at least in trying to do that you should not contradict yourself.
So, here are a couple of stories of authors who have been said to write in a certain way and they didn’t’. And succeeded.
“Writing is not a thing you should do for a living. You should marry a rich man and that’s all. Writing is not for women.” Something like that was said to Jane Austen and many others before and after her. Well, she never married and became a famous writer.
In response of what has been said to me – “write in third person, and be outside your story” – I mention Fitzgerald and his Great Gatsby which is written in first person, engaging the reader, and – hear, hear – the narrating voice is a character of the story! To that I add Henry James’s style – see The turn of the Screw- and also Jane Eyre by Brönte, in which the narrating voice always addresses the reader, and talks to him.
To me it has been said “you are not the author of If on a winter’s night a traveler by Calvino, in which the author addresses the reader… True. But why can’t I write something like that? There’s a rule which says that I should not write in a “Calvino style”? Or “Henry James style”? Or “Fitzgerald style”? I guess that’s not a rule you can impose me, saying that that’s what will make my character more interesting, not to write in that style. But the teacher did.
I don’t know if you have ever read The Malavoglia, by Giovanni Verga. Anyway, he is famous for having invented a new style of discourse which is called “free indirect discourse” that is a sort of direct speech in third person and without markers of report. One should have said to him “oh you’re breaking the rules of grammar here! You should not do that! Bad boy.” Well, in that case we would have lost a masterpiece and a new form of writing. But he wrote it anyway. And succeeded.
James Joyce and his “stream of consciousness style.” No commas, no dots, nothing, for us to become crazy reading Ulysses. Someone should have let him know that it was grammatically incorrect? – sarcasm. He did it anyway, and succeeded.
Virginia Woolf, not only followed Joyce and his narrative technique – or was he to follow her?- but also broke the scheme of narration, which was supposed to be made by stories of different events and much more longer in time that just one day: think of Mrs Dalloway, instead: the book is focused on just one day. No, Virgi, please, let’s do something following the rules and structure of narration!
I could mention many other authors here, but my point won’t change: there are no rules for creativity. And I know what you’re thinking: you’re not as good as those authors you mentioned. True. And I was not aimed at making any masterpiece. But judging a work of art is God’s job. If there were rules for artists – ‘cause writing is nothing else but art – we wouldn’t have innovation and we wouldn’t have works that change the perspective of the critic and become masterpieces. What if Jane Austen would have followed the rules? What if Fitzgerald would have listened to the publishers saying that his book would have been better “without that Gatsby character”? What if Verga would have used markers of report? What if Joyce would have kept the commas? What if Virginia would have done the same? Art is not conformist. Art is art. You can’t put art in a cage. You can’t have rules when it’s about art. Because that’s precisely the point in creating: making something different, making something new, to escape from the rules.