The rule is not to get too sentimental. Never confess love, never cry, never think about the deceased, never focus on only the good in the world. All of the ways we live fulfilling lives; don’t let them show when it’s time to write. Instead, start the scene with the ashes of the bridge filling up empty sneakers. Start with something breaking, a relationship ending, a high school student’s head in the toilet, a cigarette burn in a cashmere sweater. Let everyone know that their way of living is hypocritical, remind them they don’t care that the world turns itself or that blood is 83% water.
The rule is not to be lonely, unless it is romanticized. A woman cannot simply lay in bed alone and wish the ceiling would collapse on her. No. The ceiling must be the wooden floorboards of the room above her, filled with thick cracks, so that while she is lying in bed alone, she can hear the family above her. She knows the weight of the husband’s steps and can measure the wife’s anxiety by the follicles of dust that shake down. She knows when the pregnancy tests turn up negative, because she isn’t the only one trying to keep quiet when she sobs at night.
Writers magnify every emotion, each a dead leaf waiting to be burnt under the lens. They use their own, painted over with stage makeup or mud, and let them fill up the hearts of other people. The rule, then, is never to be seen. Play a game of hide and seek with your reader, tell them you will count to fifty and they had better be hidden. Then leave them to play your game on their own, taking only what you’ve given them. Get a cup of coffee. Answer a crossword puzzle. Wait and see how long they will believe what you have told them, their hands over their eyes.
Sometimes, it’s easy to become nostalgic for your childhood. You thought that every writer wondered about all the foods a green caterpillar could eat, and imagined their toys coming alive. You thought it was romantic to be unloved, and to sit alone on the swing sets at recess, kicking your penny loafers in the gravel and humming a song about birds. And maybe it was, but no writer would see that. They would see that you were scuffing up your shoes and think you probably caused your mother endless anxiety. Then they would decide you were mistreated at home and maybe your mother didn’t care because she was a meth addict and then they would throw in something about suicide, because, why not? Everything hurts and no one is happy. How could they be, when there is a child outside in the cold all by herself? What does that say about the world she lives in?
The rule is not to let their criticism hurt you. The rule is to listen to what they have to say and remember that they are probably right. The old woman dying was, indeed, abrupt. Old women don’t just die. It doesn’t matter if all she had to live for was watering her ferns, she should have at least kept living, kept on watering those damn ferns of hers. Her death is a crutch. You were lazy. Because, you know, that’s what lazy writers do. They snap their fingers and kill their own creations. So, in a way, the rule is not to be lazy.
Listen. Writing is an easy mask to wear. It’s comfortable, it changes form. It doesn’t take much to become someone else. Someone else who can say what they want, be numb to emotions – their own and those around them. They don’t have to take criticism. They don’t have to follow rules. They aren’t the ones writing. Maybe that is why a little girl would be attracted to fairy tales and poetry; the literary equivalent to carnival masks.