Remember the Centipede

W. Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” This is pure wisdom.

This quote got me thinking about all of the theories that exist in our midst that claim to know how to teach us to write. If the definition of theory is – ‘a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural,’ we might want to ask ourselves a question. What is more important, theories about writing or writing itself?

Theories lead to practice and that which can be practiced is always based on theory. Writing is spontaneous. Writing cannot be practiced or theorized. Writing needs no props, no supports and no theories. You cannot prepare for writing; you cannot rehearse for writing; you can only do writing. To be “in writing” is to drop all theories about writing and simply float in it. If we could “fall into writing” like we “fall into love” we would have it. We don’t need to practice love, we just love. We don’t need to practice writing either. We just need to sit down and write. The rest takes care of itself. Writing is fundamental. It is an existential experience that needs no theory to help it along. Nevertheless, in an effort to clarify, explain and show us how to write, numerous theories have been formulated that often confuse, puzzle and prohibit one’s natural ability to write.

There is a famous anecdote about a centipede who was walking down a path one beautiful sunny morning. A philosopher frog was sitting by the side of the road with a puzzled look on his face. He asked the centipede, “Wait. You are doing a miracle. A hundred legs you have. How do you manage? How do you know which leg comes first, then second, third, fourth and so on…all the way up to one hundred? Don’t you get puzzled? It looks impossible to me.” The centipede stopped and answered. “I have never thought about it. Let me contemplate for a while.” After standing there for a few minutes, the centipede started to tremble and fell right down on the ground.

Too many theories can cripple our ability to write in the same way. Writing needs no theory and those who write and have been in the zone know this. When we simply write, without thinking about what we are writing, our stories flow naturally. The magic of writing is unexplainable and it is real.

There is nothing wrong in listening to opinions and suggestions about writing, but in the end it boils down to the relationship we hold with ourselves. Do we trust others more or do we trust ourselves more? It is our poem, our story, our voice. Who can tell it better than us? Once our story is written, there are plenty of talented editors to help us clean it up.

When I teach my writing classes, I tell my students up front that there are no magical workshops, classes or webinars that can teach them how to write. I don’t teach theories about writing in my classes. I present writing challenges, techniques and activities that stimulate, engage and inspire writers to show up at the page and put pen down on paper.  I know that if I teach individuals how to trust in their intrinsic ability to express themselves, those individuals will know how to write naturally. Soon their hearts will be leaping and their stories will be jumping off the page.

So, the next time you’re tempted to follow some writing theory, remember the centipede. Writing is as natural as walking when you leave the theories behind.

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