Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Mr. Leonard and Mrs. Post

with 3 comments

Emily Post

When I was in my early twenties and fresh out of college, I bought a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette and read through it cover to cover. I wasn’t just looking for tips on how to improve my own table manners, although I was interested in seeing if there was anything important I’d somehow missed, and I’ve never forgotten her advice on how to discreetly spit out an olive pit. What fascinated me more about the book, and which took me through more than seven hundred pages of advice on place settings, forms of address, and wedding seating arrangements, was the idea of etiquette itself. Etiquette begins as behavior, as millions of human beings collide in unpredictable ways, and over time, certain habits start to seem more elegant or desirable than others. At first, the process is collective and organic, learned by example, observation, and trial and error; later, someone writes it down, and we learn it by the book. It might seem stodgy or restrictive, but ideally, it’s a set of best practices, a guide to what has worked for people in similar situations in the past, all set down in one convenient place.

As unlikely as it might seem, I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the death of Elmore Leonard. Whenever a writer of his stature dies, it brings forth the usual tributes, and in Leonard’s case, nearly every obituary or discussion of his legacy mentions the ten rules of writing that he contributed years ago to the New York Times. There are hundreds of such lists out there—even I’m guilty of writing one—but Leonard’s collection of maxims has displayed unusual staying power, and I suspect that it’s familiar even to those who haven’t read a word of his fiction. The list resonates, first, because it’s full of excellent, pragmatic advice (“Keep your exclamation points under control,” “Never open a book with weather”) and because it embodies Leonard’s own virtues of humor, directness, and experience. Like the rules of etiquette, these are tools that have been discovered and refined over time, learned through practical use, and finally distilled into a set of guidelines to benefit others who are just starting out. And if you don’t like Leonard’s rules, there are plenty of other good lists to follow.

Elmore Leonard

The proliferation of books on writing, from the sublime Paris Review interviews to guides by the likes of Janet Evanovich, means that it’s possible to spend as much time reading other writers’ thoughts on craft as on creating your own work. That wasn’t always the case: when Jack Woodford’s book Trial and Error—the spiritual ancestor of many of the popular writing guides we see on shelves today—was first published in 1933, there wasn’t much out there like it. And although much of the advice in these books is very good, there’s a limit to how far it can take us. I went through a period where I devoured every book on writing I could find, searching for tricks or tips, but these days, I’m more likely to find new ideas by reading about other forms of craft, like theater, coding, or the visual arts. I’m a little burnt out on writing handbooks, not because they aren’t useful, but because such rules are less valuable as guidelines, imposed from the top down, than as a way of clarifying the discoveries that every author makes on his or her own. Almost everyone eventually learns not to open a book, or even a chapter, with the weather, but the reasoning behind it—that’s better just to get on with the story—is something you only learn with time.

The rules of writing are a lot like the rules of life: they only find meaning once you’ve intuited them yourself. Although it rarely hurts, reading philosophy doesn’t automatically make us good citizens, any more than reading Emily Post can transform you into a natural socialite. A philosophical insight, or a rule of good behavior, only attains its full meaning after you’ve deduced it from your own life and assimilated it into your experience. Part of this is just because of the way we think—we’re more likely to believe in something after we’ve lived through it firsthand rather than reading it in the pages of a book—and also because such rules rise or fall on their specific applications. “Love your enemies” is just a luminous phrase until we’ve been forced to apply it to a particular enemy with a face and name we’d prefer to hate, just as “show, don’t tell” only assumes its full power after we’ve relearned it in a thousand different situations. And like the best rules of ethics and life, once we’ve figured them out for ourselves, they become obvious, even invisible, until they only seem to remind us of what we already know.

Written by nevalalee

August 22, 2013 at 8:50 am

3 Responses

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  1. the economist had a fun, noirishly written obit for leonard, track it down if you get a chance, or i can show it to you the next time you visit.


    September 1, 2013 at 4:04 pm

  2. “The rules of writing are a lot like the rules of life: they only find meaning once you’ve intuited them yourself.” I agree. A few days ago, I read a blog post bemoaning the fact that most people tend to read only writers they basically agree with or writers they love to hate. The assumption seemed to be that people ought to be reading in order to have their minds changed. While I do hope in my reading to come across facts so surprising and convincing that they make me rethink my worldview, I think my more basic purpose is to have my current thoughts clarified (something your blog posts accomplish for me well!). And, to use the words of a character in the film SHADOWLANDS, I think we all “read to know we are not alone.”

    Sharon Rawlette

    October 25, 2013 at 10:11 am

  3. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments—I’m really glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog. And I hope to see you around in the future…


    October 26, 2013 at 8:54 am

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