Recently, Jonathan Franzen published his “10 Rules for Novelists” on lithub. Essayist Dinty W. Moore, who also edits one of my favorite journals, Brevity, countered with a satirical “10 Rules for Essayists.” Franzen makes a lot of predictable moves in his 10 rules. Echoing Stephen King, who railed against writers watching TV in his 2000 memoir On Writing (despite now producing several TV shows based on his work), Franzen’s eighth rule states that it is “doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction,” which Moore counters in his own eighth rule by proclaiming that it’s “doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is not being observed by the NSA,” which is more accurate given the things that writers have to look up on the Internet, especially when writing historical fiction (I was once asked by Google to prove I wasn’t a robot for looking up information about trials in the USSR, because freedom).
To be clear, I love Stephen King’s memoir. It was the first writing-about-writing that I read. But the idea that writing should be driven by rules seems strange when so many of those rules are highly fluid and riddled with exceptions. It is odd to me that King and Franzen and even Moore do not mention ethics in their writing rules. I’ve never lost sleep over using too many adverbs or researching too much. Instead, what keeps me up is whether or not I should write what I’m writing.
The underlying assumption is that can should always be read as should, but I want to dispute this assumption. Writing isn’t auto-mechanics. It’s not motorcycle maintenance or plumbing. Its success or failure cannot and should not be measured by the technicalities of performance and the structural questions of craft. Maybe writers should ask the question “Does this work” only after they have answered the question “Who am I to write this?”
This is partly a question of authenticity, but for me, it is primarily about ethics. In nonfiction, I have the ability to, as Joan Didion puts it in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “sell out” the people I am around. And like Didion, I am “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate” (xiv) that my presence in any situation is like a sponge. I collect stories that do not belong to me. I have an excellent memory. I know what you said offhandedly around me three years ago. I remember the argument we had five years ago. I remember everything. So who am I to commit those memories to paper?
This is my one and only writing rule: As a general policy, I don’t write someone else’s story. If someone’s story intersects with mine, I only include them if I have their permission. I have asked friends what they think of an essay that mentions them, for approval, for accuracy, for kindness. As such, most of what I want to write about will never be written, and I’m fine with that. If I need to exploit people for stories, then I don’t think I can call myself a real writer. Anyone can write down the most memorable conflicts in their life. All interpersonal conflicts are personally meaningful, by their nature. It takes talent to find meaning around, between, and beyond those contentious moments.