The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
Storytelling as a discipline seems to have a permanence about it. Most people, particularly most authors, would probably agree that stories are inherent in the life experience of human beings. We embrace fiction so completely and effortlessly that suspension of disbelief may someday be defined as a brain state akin to hypnosis or meditation.
This sense of permanence affects how we innately relate to fiction, but it is also possible to advance one’s knowledge as a practitioner. Folk tales spun by people in all cultures around the globe can be shaped, improved and expanded by craft, whether the intended objective is entertainment, education or propaganda. And it’s possible to go even farther.
Painting, music, food, movement, storytelling — all of these things have practical applications, but can also be turned to purely creative ends. If aspiring to art is a bit more vague than aiming for income, or at least harder to quantify, I think most people still understand the impetus. Whatever form means, whatever composition means, whatever context and content mean, all of them (and more) can be treated as ends in themselves, and subsequently explored on that basis alone. Art for art’s sake.
It is the eternal and intrinsic potential for making art that compels Hills (and me, and others) to insist that there are no rules in fiction writing. To many would-be storytellers this seems utterly preposterous: if there are no rules then what can be known? But knowledge is not what rules define. Rules work because they impose order through constraints and controls. When you drive across town you knowingly subject yourself (or not, as the case may be) to dozens if not hundreds of traffic and motor-vehicle laws and customs. But if those rules didn’t exist, or you simply decided to ignore all of them, you wouldn’t suddenly be oblivious to where you were or wanted to go.
What Hills says, what artists say, is that if your goal (art) puts you at odds with a rule or convention, then you ignore the rule and stay true to your artistic pursuit. There are no rules so inviolate that you cannot break them for sufficient cause. And yet we also know that certain methods in fiction (and other mediums) achieve certain effects: that relationships hold despite our aversion to calling them rules. [ Read more ]