Watching the fish in the pond this morning, I noticed that although they all swim, as you would expect from fish, they all swim differently. The huge sturgeon glide through the water with no appearance of effort at all. The one poorly fish with suspected dropsy expends huge amounts of effort to get around…yet the fat fish, who is the same size and shape, but just greedy rather than ill, swims as well as the rest of them. The ghost koi use their tails visibly to propel them at a sedate pace through the water…except Happy Fish, who zips around at top speed, jumping and playing for a few minutes then has to rest on a planting shelf for a while. The orfe, however, use their whole bodies to slice through the water… or power through it when they want to clear the area. They all take a different approach to doing essentially the same thing.
Seals swim too, so do penguins and whales…and frogs and turtles. Their manner of swimming depends upon how they are made. They all propel themselves perfectly through the water, with regard to and within the limitations of their own form and their own needs.
I remember being castigated by our games teacher for my swimming style. While my backstroke was good enough to represent the school, my breast-stroke was never up to her standards … and the less said about my crawl the better.
I often wondered who made the rules on style and why. Is it a legitimate case of energy efficiency or an aesthetic decision? All I knew was that if I fell in the water, I’d be more likely to worry about staying alive than winning prizes for style.
As I watched the fish in the pond, I asked myself… of all the creatures who move through the waters of the earth, who swims right?
It is not a question about whose method is the most energy-efficient, the most hydrodynamic, the most effective at escaping predators or catching prey. It isn’t even about the beauty of their movements or their agility in the water.
Who gets it right?
Who could possibly have the arrogance to judge between, say, otters and salmon? How would you define the rules of style and method when both are so very different in their form and need? Could you even judge between Happy Fish and his pondmates? All of them are ghost koi, but all are different in personality, desire and their means of self-expression.
Yet, we expect ourselves to conform to accepted styles all the time. We judge one ‘better’ than another by accepted standards that we seldom even question. Who made them? Who decides whether Van Gogh is a better painter than Bruegel or an Aboriginal artist?
Who is so perfect at what they do that they dare to write a style manual or impose defining criteria of ‘rightness’ on any endeavour, large or small?
For writers, there are so many ways to be judged wrong. Some of them make a certain amount of sense. Spelling and punctuation, for example, are largely universal within any language… they are designed to be symbols of communication, showing what should be read and how it should be read. But other criteria? Style manuals? I am not so sure.
Fashions change in writing, just as in any other art form and what was true for Dickens or Shakespeare and their contemporaries would be unacceptable to the literary fashionistas of today. It is their content, not their style, that really stands the test of time. Most of the other ‘rules’ of how to write serve only the bank accounts of the publishers, who want a safe bet for their money.
Granted, if you want to hit the bestseller list, you are more likely to succeed in getting that book deal, advance and promotion if you adhere to the rules as laid out in the style manuals. It is also true that writing mainstream fiction that sits neatly in one, perhaps two, of the accepted categories is far more likely to appeal to a broad readership in search of an entertaining read, than if you write something odd or challenging. But does that mean no-one should step outside of fashion and create a style of their own?
I do not think so. In fact, I feel that by forcing oneself to conform to a prescribed style…unless it is a style that feels ‘right’… we risk stifling the natural flow of a writer’s voice and inspiration… and may lose something unique in the attempt to conform.
One of the real joys of the Indie publishing movement is that there are so many writers out there now who are doing their own thing. To me, that is cause for celebration. Regardless of whether a story seems well or poorly penned to some, it will appeal to someone… and even if it did not, it was penned in an act of creation, and creativity is one of the greatest gifts of humanity.
There are millions of blogs out there… and the blogosphere is a veritable hotbed of creativity with many people writing every day, in every possible style, on every subject under the sun…. and people are reading those blogs. Even this little blog has had over half a million views*. We are sharing knowledge, opinions, stories and thoughts. We are actively seeking out the weird, the wonderful, the practical or the inspirational… we are learning, laughing and benefiting from sharing in a global community of creativity.
I find that incredibly beautiful and hopeful… a true expression of the human spirit in all its complexities, from the totally ridiculous to the sublime.
So, next time you pick up a pen or are poised over the keyboard… don’t let anything tell you that you should swim like a tadpole if you feel yourself to be a frog.
*The small dog insists that it is all down to her and, I admit, she is probably right. She has always been cuter than me and far more likely to win hands down if we were in competition. But as this is neither a popularity nor a beauty contest, I feel qualified to speak for the pair of us on this occasion and say a huge thank you to everyone who reads what we write.