When I was sixteen I received a wonderful piece of literature, a book which has inspired literally millions of young readers, a book which has been the key which has opened the door to boundless possibility in my life and the lives of others. The name of this book? The Florida Driver’s Handbook.
The Florida Driver’s Handbook was a book of with instructions for new drivers as well as lists of many wonderful rules concocted by the government to keep me from dashing my young brains out on the dashboard of my car.
Hey, I wonder if that’s why they call it a dashboard? Because people dash their brains out on it? Man that’s pretty gruesome and [tangent alert, tangent alert, please correct course]
Oh, right. Where was I? Oh, yeah. The handbook. I studied those rules hard, because I knew if I was going to get my driver’s license I would have to pass a rigorous test of my knowledge of those rules. Eventually I did pass that test, and after a shaky jaunt through the tiny oval-shaped course behind the DMV I walked out the proud owner of a shiny new drivers license.
Fast forward ten years. I can’t tell you a single thing I remember out of that book. Except for the rule about not using your turn signal to let someone know it’s okay to pass. That one stuck with me for some reason. But everything else is gone. And yet, I’d say I’m still a passable driver. Not a great driver, as my wife will tell you as we skid to a halt behind a car that has been stopped at a red light for approximated forty years before hand, but I do get by, and so far haven’t been in any major accidents.
So what’s the verdict? Where the rules useless? Did I waste my time learning something that ultimately didn’t matter?
Well, yes and no. I can tell you that if I tried to drive by the rules now, I’d be so distracted trying to remember all of them that I’d run up on the sidewalk and mow down a bunch of power walkers. But there was a time when the rules played an important role in my life.
When I was a new driver, I knew literally nothing. I had to be told to only use one foot instead of two, I had to constantly check myself to make sure I wasn’t wandering out of my lane, I had to consciously calculate how soon I need to start breaking to come to a successful stop. If I hadn’t had the rules back then, I would have likely killed myself.
What does this have to do with all of you wonderful writers out there? Well in a way, writing is like driving a car. See, when you’re a freshly minted writer you go out and buy all the writing books that tell you how to craft good prose and write gripping scenes. They’re full of advice like “show, don’t tell” and “use active verbs instead of ‘be’ verbs” and a whole host of other tips to keep you on the writing road. And all of those rules are good for you.
But here’s the rub. You don’t learn to drive by reading the Driver’s Handbook. You learn to drive, by driving. Writing is the same way. Memorizing all the rules in the world won’t make you a great writer without practice.
When you’re driving they give you something called a learners permit. And when you’re writing you get the infamous First Novel.
Now I know you’re the exception to the rule. I know you’re going to write that puppy straight and edit it hard, and then come back and edit it again, and when finally you send it off to the publisher’s you’ll have a world-wide best seller on your hands.
But let me tell you about an author who didn’t sell the first book he ever wrote right off the bat. No, it isn’t me. It’s Steven King. Everyone probably knows that his first published work was Carrie. What you may not know is that the first book he wrote was called The Long Walk. And yes, he did eventually get it published, but not until after he got some experience under his belt.
Why? Because Steven King had to learn just like the rest of us. He had to start somewhere. He had to figure out how to let go of the rule book and start writing. It didn’t happen all at once for him, and it won’t happen all at once for you either. Call yourself a writer? Then know you’re in this for the long haul my friends.
And that isn’t a bad thing. I know I sound like I’m being negative here, but really I’m trying to encourage you. See, if you let yourself get into that “my first book will sell and I will be famous” mindset you’re hurting yourself more than you know. Writing, like driving, is a lifestyle, and you’ll cripple yourself if you forget that. Because when that first book is done and you don’t sell it you’re going to get super depressed. You’ll think to yourself, “I’m really just a terrible writer. I don’t know why I thought I could do this in the first place. Nobody wants to read my crap.” And you’ll give up.
But the truth is you were just on the verge of something greater. So sit back down in your chair and keep writing. You’ll notice that you start to feel a little more comfortable letting go of the rulebook every day. And before you know it, you’ll be soaring along like an uncaged canary tracing your own rules in the skies of possibility.