Shavuotapalooza! (Joni's Ten Commandments For Writers)
Happy Shavuot! ‘Tis the season to celebrate the dramatic delivery of the Ten Commandments by consuming delicious dairy products! (Because the Torah nourishes us like milk, you see.) In honor of the occasion, I humbly offer…
Ten Commandments For Writers
(inspired by my hazy memories of Lutheran Catechism class)
1: Thou shalt have no other gods nor worship any graven images.
Artistic integrity uber alles. The worst mistake a writer can make is the embrace of greed or a neediness for fame. When "success" as defined by numbers is the prime objective, it pollutes every creative decision, corrupts the joy of every accomplishment, seduces us into projects we don’t belong to, and distracts us from the organic nature of our art. I don’t care if you’re writing literary fiction or catalogue copy, do it for love of language or don’t do it at all.
2: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain.
Nor vainly bandy random potty-mouth verbage. Overusing profanity dulls its effect. Make every F-bomb count by reserving the word for special occasions. My dad always said (in re the use of vulgarities on the radio), “A truly creative mind has the vocabulary to express itself without needlessly offending members of the audience.”
3: Thou shalt remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Jesus had it right on: “God made Sabbath for man, not man for the Sabbath.” It’s a gift, that day/hour/fifteen minutes of rest, and essential to prolonged periods of poker-hot productivity, not to mention ocular health. Slap a couple cucumber slices on those tired eyes and listen to some Enigma. Take a walk with kids, dogs, or love interests. Watch a “Top Chef” marathon. Go to bed, for crying out loud; whatever you’re staying up for isn’t worth it. Rest is sacred. We’re in a profession where there’s no such thing as “enough” until you say the word and mean it. Harlan Ellison says “Do 1000 words a day. Don’t go for more.” (I shoot for 1200-1400, but what do I know?)
4: Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother that it may be well with thee and thou mayest live long upon the earth.
I suppose this should be about not neglecting the family (and it’s a good idea to look up every once in a while and make sure they haven’t relocated to South Dakota without you), but since I’m pretty much the worst daughter in the world, I’m applying this to our literary forebears. A great thing about being the mother of English majors: their required reading takes me back to revisit the classics. In addition to the Dead White Guys, there’s ancient Sappho and scripture and the riches of mythology. We also need to tear our attention away from the hottie literati who dominate the scene these days and revere the icons of our industry - Ray Bradbury, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Stephen King - commercially gigantic writers who’ve conducted themselves with class, grace, generosity, and style.
5: Thou shalt not kill.
Unless it’s essential to the plot. And if it works for the plot, thou shalt not NOT kill, even if you’ve grown attached to that character who, you know in your heart, must die. Death is part of life. Each story must have its true body count, and not one gratuitously bloated corpse more.
6: Thou shalt not commit adultery.
Faithfulness and commitment to storytelling must trump the temptation to cheat with suspiciously handy Hum-Vees, wood-chippers, and other naughty little god-in-the-machine devices.
7: Thou shalt not steal.
But feel free to glean, eavesdrop, and spy on life every minute of every day. The best material isn't inside your head or the result of navel contemplation; it's all around you. Standing in line at the grocery store, hanging out in a bar on the Upper West Side, kicked back in the stands of an Astros game...stick a straw in the vast fruit smoothie of humanity and suck like a vampire.
8: Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
See #s 1 and 6. Honesty is essential to all good writing, including fiction. A theatre director friend of mine used to live by motto “No bit too small, no laugh too cheap.” That might work for Comedia dell’arte, but it just doesn’t play on paper. Every character, including the less involved comers and goers—the “neighbors”, if you will—must ring true and multi-dimensional. And on an industrial level—it means giving our colleagues the benefit of the doubt. Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment says we should “put the best construction on everything.” We work in a tough biz where gossip is gold. Let’s be kind to each other and reserve the backbiting to our morally conflicted characters.
9: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house.
You’re screwed if you measure your happiness by the size of someone else’s advance. This business is so random, so universally unfair, and such a capricious SOB, very few (if any) of us are ever going to get what we feel we deserve. A tremendous advantage I’ve had in the publishing industry is the fact that I did not imagine in my wildest dreams that I deserved to be part of it. My career has been a huge surprise party. This isn’t to say I’m willing to devalue my work or accept lowball wages. I’m not! Because I have huge respect for the art and craft of writing. I’m serious as a heart attack about my work. But I keep my eye on MY prize, not someone else’s.
10: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor his cattle, nor anything that is his.
Like I said above…although there is an upside to envy.
Happy Shavuot! Enjoy some cheesecake, be good, and prosper!