I woke up this morning, put the coffee on, and made Winston’s lunch at an unusually slow pace. You see, I could afford to go just a little slower this morning, because I’ve taken the day off to write as a sort of celebration of the start of another (third, for me) National Novel Writing Month. While I waited for the water to boil, I checked my email. What did I find? A letter from Tom Robbins to all NaNo participants meant to inspire us. It must be a sign. He’s one of my literary heros. I adore him from his silly jar of mayonnaise to his stubborn yellow legal pad. I’m posting the letter here:
When you sit down to begin that novel of yours, the first thing you might want to do is toss a handful of powdered napalm over both shoulders—so as to dispense with any and all of your old writing teachers, the ones whose ghosts surely will be hovering there, saying such things as, “Adverbs should never be…”, or “A novel is supposed to convey…”, et cetera. Enough! Ye literary bureaucrats, vamoose!
Rules such as “Write what you know,” and “Show, don’t tell,” while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.
Ah, but how can you know if it’s working? The truth is, you can’t always know (I nearly burned my first novel a dozen times, and it’s still in print after 35 years), you just have to sense it, feel it, trust it. It’s intu itive, and that peculiar brand of intuition is a gift from the gods. Obviously, most people have received a different package altogether, but until you undo the ribbons you can never be sure.
As the great Nelson Algren once said, “Any writer who knows what he’s doing isn’t doing very much.” Most really good fiction is compelled into being. It comes from a kind of uncalculated innocence. You need not have your ending in mind before you commence. Indeed, you need not be certain of exactly what’s going to transpire on page 2. If you know the whole story in advance, your novel is probably dead before you begin it. Give it some room to breathe, to change direction, to surprise you. Writing a novel is not so much a project as a journey, a voyage, an adventure.
A topic is necessary, of course; a theme, a general sense of the nexus of effects you’d like your narrative to ultimately produce. Beyond that, you simply pack your imagination, your sense of humor, a character or two, and your personal world view into a little canoe, push it out onto the vast dark river, and see where the currents take you. And should you ever think you hear the sound of dangerous rapids around the next bend, hey, hang on, tighten your focus, and keep paddling—because now you’re really writing, baby! This is the best part.
It’s a bit like being out of control and totally in charge, simultaneously. If that seems tricky, well, it’s a tricky business. Try it. It’ll drive you crazy. And you’ll love it.
Tom Robbins is the author of eight novels, including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Jitterbug Perfume, and his latest, Villa Incognito.