Issue 1. What Rules?

On advice, rules, and when they don’t work.

This is the first issue of Pulling the Thread. Currently, this is a once monthly publication that posts on the first Tuesday of the month. As time goes on, this may change, but for now, that seems like a good schedule I can manage with everything else.

The idea of Pulling the Thread started with some discussion on Threads with other writers and artists talking about rules and advice and why we write. For those that don’t know, I’m incredibly active on Threads and I’ve had a lot of wonderful conversations and discussions about a lot of different things; not just writing. But as I started interacting with more and more people, I realized something. Something that really bothered me.

A lot of people shied away from writing poetry or stories or exploring art because they didn’t feel like they were good enough. Or, more often, that they didn’t understand the rules and didn’t want to try and muddle through it. I couldn’t stand for that, so I encourage them to just go for it. To just dive right in and try writing the poem they were afraid of writing. Because the secret, the real secret of creative writing, is there are no rules.

I’ve seen this throughout my college career and beyond. It’s a very common problem, especially when people are first starting to explore writing and just kind of testing the waters. And at that stage, it’s really easy to get discouraged, which is unfortunate. This can be especially true in more formal settings, like college and graduate degrees. We get the “rules” and the “advice” but then never really get the instruction on how to execute them appropriately. More importantly, we don’t learn how or when to break the rules or ignore the advice.

You may be thinking to yourself: “If there are rules, aren’t they important and shouldn’t they be followed? And advice from professional writers seems like it would be smart to listen to.” Both thoughts are totally justified. But not entirely true. If you are at all familiar with the writing world or have taken any type of creative writing class, I am absolutely certain you’ve heard both of these:

  • Show, don’t tell!
  • Write what you know!

Rule 1: Show, Don’t Tell.

The first one is kind of preached as a type of gospel. It’s the rule and the advice that you will hear every single time you ask a writer group what you should be doing. Ask what’s the number rule you should follow and you will most assuredly hear: “Show, don’t tell!” But ask them what’s meant by that. I bet that is a harder question for them to answer. Or you might get the typical you have to show. Don’t just say he was angry, say “His veins bulged in his forehead and his eyes were threatening to escape from their sockets.” Honestly? Either are fine! For different reasons.

There are plenty of situations where simply telling something is okay. Exposition is not something to be afraid of. Exposition is necessary. But too many latch onto that idea of “show, don’t tell” as if they MUST show everything. If you actually do show everything reading turns into an absolute SLOG. It’s horrible and tedious and can really turn people off from writing and reading. A good mix of the two is ideal, obviously. But to think that this is an absolute rule? Look at any number of famous and well-known authors and poets out there. See what they do. I can guarantee they don’t all just show. In fact, I can promise that some of them only tell.

This is not to discredit that concept of “show, don’t tell.” It can be incredibly helpful; I won’t deny that. But don’t let it stop you from writing. Tell the story you want. Write the poem you want. I struggled with this when I began writing poetry. In that I felt I always had to use vibrant and concrete and stunning imagery. That I had to continuously push for each poem.

I have learned to relax.

By relax, I mean that I realized the rules really aren’t rules. That a poem doesn’t always have to be all punchy images, or just punchy images. The poetry can be in the words, the exposition, and the emotion. It can be just as powerful to state something as it can be to have a super detailed image. Telling can supplement and power up the image. The image can supplement and power up the telling.

Rule 2: Write What You Know.

The next “rule” is one that I didn’t truly understand until just a few months ago when I was talking to my therapist. This rule/advice was something I had heard since I first started writing back in high school: “Write what you know.” It’s a simple statement, but it was never fully explained to me. It was this kind of amorphous idea that you write from your own personal experiences. And, of course, as a teenager in high school and even going into college, I thought, “what experiences?” I was a quiet kid, stayed to myself, a nerd. What of interest did I have to talk about?

So, I wrote about anything but myself. I wrote in the third person and about places and magical creatures and others that I had no attachment to. I didn’t start writing in the first person until college. And my professor told me I did that kind of backwards. That most people tended to start in the first person because it was easier to write about themselves before branching out. As it turns out, I was writing what I knew. I just didn’t know it at the time.

Because writing what you know isn’t just about personal experiences or memories or what have you. My writing about the “other” and about emotions and feelings outside of myself was my writing what I knew. In that I was alone. I didn’t feel like I had a self to write about (depression and other things, now getting resolved and managed – if anyone ever needs to talk, about anything, I’m here, get ahold of me anywhere) so I write about everything outside of my self. That was what I knew.

Now, for most people (maybe a gross generalization here), writing what you know is that good starting place for poetry and stories. If you have a good memory about something, or not even really a good one, it can inform your work. It provides a solid base as you build up your comfort level with writing poetry and emotions. It’s the point where you take off. But, eventually, you don’t have to use that launchpad because you’ve learned how to write what you need. So, again, it’s a rule or piece of advice that is never truly explained. And it serves to help kickstart your journey. But you don’t need to follow it like a gospel either.

There Are No Rules.

I could go on and on, and I may even expound on some of these ideas or even talk about new ones in a future issue of Pulling the Thread, but for now I think this a is a good place to stop. I also plan to talk in depth about imposter syndrome, possibly for the next issue. But, what this all boils down to, what the key takeaway should be for you, as a new writer or even an established one, is this:

When it comes to creative writing, there are no rules. Don’t let anything hold you back from trying to write that first poem. And don’t worry about whether it’s good or bad or anything in between. The important thing is to simply write. We need more artists in the world. We need more people willing to write and share and talk and be heard. I’ve seen it before, where people let the “rules” get in the way of their writing.

I would much rather see you write that poem, rules be damned, then see you not write at all. Skill and practice come later. But first, you just have to write.

What’s Next?

Is there a topic you’d like to discuss? Something you wish I had talked about? Do you have ideas on what another issue of Pulling the Thread should be about? Let me know! Drop a comment below, hit me up on social media (links in menu), or use my contact page to send me a message.


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