Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

About That What-Not-To-Do Fantasy Writing Meme, or The Art Of Losing Isn't Hard To Master

This post about cliches in fantasy novels (fated love, irresistible Celts, etc.) set off this flurry of writerly vows (e.g. no rhyming prophecies, no salvific elves).

Okay, cool. A vow is a kind of formal constraint, and few things force a writer to be truly creative as well as a formal constraint does. I'm a formalist by training and temperament, for all my Dionysian tendencies, and my religious practices are chock full of vows. Voluntary, open-ended vows are great occasions for finding out what you really want, what you really can't abide. Cheers and godspeed to everybody who took vows.

True, some of these cliches are truly awful, and I have a long list standard fantasy tropes that don't entertain me. I've even got a few I've sworn off, such as the Violet-Eyed Heroine.

But I look at some of these vows people are taking, and I think to myself, yes, that's a thing that could be done badly, I've seen it done badly, and it would be easy to do badly, but that doesn't mean it never works. A lot of the vows arising in response to Nicoll's post say far more about personal taste than they say about what constitutes good or bad writing.

And then my willful perversity kicks in. Whenever people tell me a thing can't be done or that I can't do it, my first visceral response is, Oh, yeah?! Watch me! I don't always follow through--probably I will not take up bungee-jumping anytime soon--but damn, these vows make me want to choose the oldest, most done to death cliches and make them dance. Just out of pure orneriness.

Here's the thing I learned about formalism in poetry: the constraint, whether old or new, is not there to constrain you. It's there to free you from your assumptions. It's there to force you to relinquish the easy phrasing and to come up with something that's surprising to you. I love Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," but by playing it straight, Thomas missed the point of the villanelle as a form. I'm not fit to pluck the crumbs from under A.R. Ammons's table, but he misses the point of the sestina. The thing to do with a cyclical or repeating form is to force it to tell a linear narrative, because there's no brighter burst of energy than the one you release when you force a form to do exactly what it doesn't want to do.

That's why Fountains of Wayne had such an unstoppable pop hit in "Stacy's Mom."

Millions of people all over the world could not get enough of a song steeped in bubble-gum sound that was, in its eroticism, Just Plain Wrong. What makes "Stacy's Mom" a brilliant song is that it steals its cliches, rather than just roboting them out. What makes Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" the best villanelle in the history of poetry is that it forces a form that's all repetition to escalate in a subtle, merciless progression from lost keys to the loss of a universe that is the loss of love.

Bishop's right, of course, that the art of losing isn't hard to master. Start by losing your assumption that you know what the cliche is for, what its limits are, what you can or can't crash into it. Then go on losing farther, losing faster. Lose your fear of censure. There is nothing you can write that sucks so badly you can't fix it, if your revision process runs deep and ruthless enough. There is no trope so shopworn you can't salvage it, if that trope is the thing that makes you feel the top of your head has been opened up to let the cosmos in--though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
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