These "rules" totally go against every prescription for writing success you'll hear as a young writer from all quarters: the conformity-driven MFA system, the publishing industry's hype-machine, successful writers who act either like prima donnas or untouchable mystics, the marketing experts who seek to impose advertising rules on the writing product. Overpaid editors, illiterate agents, arrogant gatekeepers, and stupid reviewers want you to bargain away your soul for a pittance -- the bids in the market escalate downward, a reverse auction where you compete with the lowest of the low to be acknowledged as an entity that counts.
Why take part in the game at all? Who has ever come out of it alive, able to set up tent and build followers on the other side? Why not accept the reality that writers aren't forged in social harmony and peer input and obedient fellowship, but in a region where madmen and insomniacs find no comfort? To get you started on a regimen designed to pull you away from the mother-teat of the writing industry, here are the ten commandments:
1. Disobey the System. The system--from the MFA program to that fat-ass editor sitting in glorious judgment over your manuscript--will never reward originality. So fuck it! The more you humiliate yourself before it, shape your writing, your lifestyle, your public persona, your habits of endearment and hostility, according to what you think "they" want, the more it'll ruthlessly crush you. The system is for the benefit of insiders--and you don't get to be an insider by being an original. It's your choice: do you want to be one of the Stepford writers, whatever your genre, or do you want to issue a thunderous note of warning to all the establishment gatekeepers, a resounding Fuck You, that will get you in no one's good books? Once you're on everyone's shit list, then your mind will open up--visions you never thought possible, leaps of imagination, idle curiosity revving up into high gear--knowing that no one will ever be pleased by anything you write.
The "system"--in all its manifestations--is in utter disrepair, decadence rather. The only way to conquer it is to humiliate it. This goes against everything you've heard, all the advice to play nice. But that gets you nowhere. Or it gets you to a place where you do their bidding and become a non-entity--precisely where they want you. This is the meaning of their saccharine praise, when you've got to a point where they think they have a handle on you. Confound them. Bewilder them. Disrespect them. Mock them. "They" meaning all the authority figures in publishing. They'll come to your door and bend on their knees and beg you to give them more of whatever it is you're dishing out. You'll see, they love the humiliation and pain. They're not into pleasure, and neither should you be.
2. Ignore Publicity. Ah, publicity, you've been told you need it at any cost, in whatever shape or form you can get it. Publicity is great, it puts you in the public eye, it's how people get to know your work, it's why they buy your book, it's why they want to follow you. Don't you need fans, don't you need groupies? Publicity means that you tell the world you're going to write a book, then tell them you've written it, then tell the world how good it felt to have written it. There's always something to publicize whether or not you're in the middle of a new book--even if you've never written a book, and there's no chance you will, you can get forever enmeshed in the publicity machine, and publicize yourself to extinction. Publicity, that elusive bitch, keeping her own hours, never around when you call, raising hell if you so much as dare to assert a trace of your lost manhood.
Bullshit, I say, to all the claims made for publicity. The book will find its readers. Your aim should be supreme indifference to making claims on behalf of it. Do you want fans or do you want readers? Do you want to join the canon, or do you want cannonballs shot in your praise? Publicity lasts for a moment, leaves a bad taste in the mouth, or no taste at all. It always abandons you at the altar, making you look like a fool, since you were counting on it to be around for keeps. What you need to chase is--nothing! Let the book's mystique, its unique indifference to reception and value, chase you into immortality. Let the book speak for you. Shut up on its behalf. Discern between getting lost in the pages of the book as only you, the writer, can, and cheap whorish publicity.
3. Shun Crowds. They're everywhere. You can't get away from them. They want to tell you how to think for yourself. They're there to hold your hand when your book founders, telling you it's happened to them too, it happens to the best of them. They're there to watch that you don't deviate too far from central headquarters, where assignments about fame and fortune were made long before you came up (you didn't know that, did you?), where quotas are allocated and supply orders dutifully filled and excess inventory banished. They're there to make sure that you answer all the calls, that you're never not to be found, that you make the right connections and the right gestures at all the appropriate times. They're there, in short, to make sure that you become a cipher, eminently forgettable just as soon as your books have been issued to favorable publicity and positive reviews.
You must get out of the crowd. It's the hardest thing to do. It's the easiest thing to recreate, even in the midst of utter squalor and depravity. The crowd searches you out no matter how hard you try to hide. It comes to your door, dressed in beautiful holiday clothes, cameras around its necks, high-fiving, jive-talking, wondering why you're sitting by yourself, alone in your quarters, what's up with that? Can we just take a look at your novel? Your poetry book? Hmmm. If you changed your plot to make it a little less obscure? If you changed your poetry book to make it a little more coherent? We can help get it published--faster, much easier than you can on your own. Let's see, do you have Mondays and Wednesdays free? We'd like you to teach this class--it'll only help your own writing. You spend too much time with yourself. It's hard to write about divorce and parenthood and death if you haven't experienced those things for yourself. The crowds will take you to those places. And then you'll find there's nothing to write about. You've lived through it all with them, a unit, a blob, a speck of a point in a random rushing wave going nowhere.
4. Seek Unemployment. This goes back to our Franklinian endowment, our desperate impulse to occupy ourselves with practical stuff, feeling useful, needed, employed like everyone else. This is the death of writing. Find ways to be unemployed, doing nothing, finding enough time on your hands, after you've met your basic needs, to wander into unknown realms of thought and imagination. You can't do it when you're busy working like everyone else, collecting a paycheck, keeping regular hours, depending on the goodwill and collegiality of customers, coworkers, bosses--if you choose employment in academia, it's no different, you still have clients and bosses to please. Avoid this gentle poison by figuring out ways you can mock the system by taking from it what it needs to give you to maintain your writing, and give it nothing back in return.
What it wants from you is your time--your only irreplaceable commodity, the only thing you can't ever get back. Every minute spent teaching a student or hiring out your talents in any other way is an insult to your writing potential, and each such moment degrades you so that you can never attain greatness. They're more than happy to give you a paycheck. Heck, there are tens of thousands of writers "teaching" writing to others, dissatisfied with their own work, and they wonder why? Refuse their devil's bargain. Refuse them the blood and toil they want from you in return for allegiance. Work at something that mocks the bourgeois idea of work, and make it pay off. You don't have to work for nothing. You don't have to live on nothing. You just have to figure out how to turn work on its head so it becomes a means to feed your writing, not the other way around. Work is overrated. It's the only overrated thing in the whole human realm.
5. Converse Only with the Classics. Be swayed by no contemporary reputations. Behind most of them are hype and deceit, the desperate machinations of a system in need of validation of its own greatness. Treat every contemporary with dire suspicion, until they stand they test of time--and most of them won't, you'll see. Read no one living with attention and gratitude, unless they've proven themselves in relation to your eternal touchstones. Keep digging up the mocked and silenced and de-canonized, for it is here you'll find most of the true gold to mine--divergent veins that were too uncommon for their times, different perspectives than the consensus outlook on a given period, experiments that petered out because they were far ahead of the trends, unfinished trains of thought that you can leap onto and claim as your own. And remember that no contemporary will ever let you do that. If you climb on his bandwagon, he'll be looking to throw you off, murder you with a pitchfork, and then as the party recedes in the distance, he'll join his laughing companions and fail to report the little disturbance.
This is how vicious your contemporaries are. They're not dead yet. They don't believe in death. They give off the aura of charlatans denying the existence of death, which taints their writing with platitude and cliché, and makes them constantly run into dead-ends. Most of them are at the same dead-end they found themselves at when they were twenty-five or thirty, and not even the smartest ones realize where they are. You will learn nothing from them. Your job as a writer is to discover something no one else has yet laid claim on. You need to be insensitively myopic and farsighted at the same time, train your eyes on denied possibilities while refusing traffic with anyone equipped to pass judgment on your work. And for that you must revert to Pound or Dickens or Dostoevsky or Sterne or Defoe or whoever is far enough back in time to have shed the ugly smell of death. Your objective is to find life in death and vice versa, and your contemporaries are not yet dead enough to know that. Read all your contemporaries. Take none of them seriously.
6. Refuse Recognition. At first they'll shun you--you'll know then that there's a glimmer of a chance there's something good about you. (If you find acceptance easily and quickly, without much resistance, there's nothing in these commandments for you--you're beyond help.) They'll try to burn you, destroy you, invalidate you, discredit you, call you a son of a bitch within your hearing, pin a donkey's tail on you as soon as you turn your back, and they'll pretend it's all in the service of literature, they'll feel good about their indispensability as they do it. But this phase doesn't last long, if you have any talent at all. Then they want to recognize you out of existence. They want to give you jobs, awards, chairs, trips, holidays, labels, whatever feeds your ego, whatever makes you believe you're one of them. Refuse them in the strongest terms possible.
You should thrive not on recognition and acceptance, but absolute misery and discomfort, the haunting sense that you have failed your art, failed it at every level possible, failed at it so miserably that it would have been better had you never been born. Recognition means you've been told you're good by the only people utterly disqualified to judge the matter. Recognition means you must now play by the rules. Recognition means there's a price to pay. You want to be as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. You don't want to acknowledge that you wrote that novel or book of poetry, you want to observe it from an impossible distance, as though you were a god, and dashed off the book in innocent clamor. You don't want to be around when rewards and punishments are passed around. You don't believe in religious faith of any kind. You have no sense of right or wrong, because that is what recognition amounts to.
7. Don't Pursue a Niche. You're told, in every dimension of life, find a niche, find your own little corner, and become really good at it. Find that unique voice of yours, stemming from your involuntary pain and pleasure, find it and hold on to it and dispense it with greater and greater intensity until the end of your writing life. Don't do it. Be all over the place. The only way to expand the boundaries of your art is if you recognize no specialties. Try your hand at things you're sure you'll fail at. Find the most ludicrous, nonsensical, absurd ventures to spend/waste your time at, and you'll discover unforeseeable payoffs. As soon as you get good at one branch of writing, shoot off from it, leave it behind, disown it if you must, to get your sense of discomfort back. Jump between eras and worldviews, rush so far along a byway that you discover a new road altogether, making common cause with your former enemies and denouncers.
Critics appreciate more than anything superficiality, the familiar, the well-known and predictable. They don't know what to do with the new. You must be new to yourself each day. From time to time, insult those within your close coteries, so you can be free of the attachments, the labels, the niches, they're vainly trying to assign you. From time to time, become a blank vessel, as though your writing life hasn't started yet, and you're staring at the abyss, all but ready to take the plunge. From time to time, commit suicide. Sully your art with contamination, obvious contamination, so hideous no sane writer wants to go near the stench. You'll discover, in the dilution and addition, new factors of strength. Before you know it, you'll have left your niche behind, and the universe will be at your feet again.
8. Aim for Zero Audience. You're supposed to have a keen, appreciative, well-trained, affectionate, loyal audience--one that "gets" you, gets what you're all about, your aims and ambitions, your motivation and biography, how you fit into the circle, what chair belongs to you and at exactly how many minutes past ten it'll be your turn to speak at the table. Every audience ever known to man is stupid. It's stupid because it takes itself seriously. No great writer ever wrote for the audience at hand. And if you can't know your audience when you create, that's almost the same as saying that there is no audience at all. Is the audience your inner critic? You should have silenced that voice before you ever started writing. Criticism is for others, not for your own work. Your own work flows from passion and madness, not theories of completion and harmony and perfection. Is the audience a super-intelligent one, as well-read as you, as biographically diverse and adventurous as you, as restless for newness and experiment and reality as you? You should have killed that audience before you started writing, because why write for someone just like you? Where's the excitement in that?
Is your audience the future? Is it the past? Is it the pantheon of writing gods, with vast legions of devotees at their feet? How can any of these be true, when you don't know the first thing about the art of writing? You will be a beginner until the day you die, you will have mastered nothing, you will be vanishing into nothingness without the most basic grasp on technique and manipulation. You write for no audience. You don't even write for yourself, you don't write for anything outside the bounds of the story you're putting on the page, to make sense to itself and only its compulsions. The rest will take care of itself.
9. Accept Failure. Aim for success! Aim not just for competence, but mastery, you're told. This is the most unfair of all the traps laid out for the trusting writer. Success can't be bad, can it? It makes you feel good, and pushes you to do more. We don't believe in the downer of failure as a culture, so why should writing be immune to the principle? Jonathan Franzen is successful. Sharon Olds is successful. They're both very successful at what they do. They wouldn't know what to do with failure. They're competing with their contemporaries, and with contemporary reality, and with contemporary measurements, and coming off very well, according to all "objective" criteria. They have perfected certain techniques, they have staked out their territory and driven away the enemies and the beasts, and now they want to invite you into their cozy home to reminisce about how they got to success. But you must not follow their dirty footsteps. You must see that their houses are built on the quicksand of approval and contemporaneity, and will sink into the earth as soon as their moment passes.
Never for a moment should you think of yourself as successful. You are always a failure, and the better you write, the more you fail, because now the gap between accomplishment and ideal is growing bigger, not smaller. You fail because in your desperation to discover a new language you have only discovered faint echoes of your own disjointed claims. All the languages are known and written and fantastically choreographed; all the words and descriptions are sketched out in perfect museum pieces, and there's nothing you can do about it. You have failed because language is such an enormity of gesture, so universal in its talents to defeat you, that even silence would have been better, as you now realize at the end of it all.
10. Think Small. Think big, they tell you. There is that niche. Go and exploit it and become the biggest and best at it, become the indisputable master. There is that genre waiting for you, go at it, dig deep, embellish it, and see if there isn't something you can claim as all your own, something large and sizable and noticeable from a distance. But that's wrong. If you know the greats, you abase yourself, you humiliate yourself, you degrade yourself, finding that narrow ledge on the barred window, that tiny square inch of space on the mantelpiece, that forlorn patch of ground Novelist X or Poet Y forgot to tread on, and you look at it as though at revelation, and then squish yourself into that space, make yourself fit into it, compress your size, compress your bigness, compress your voluntary servitude into that unknowable scale of finitude, so that you become nothing, less than an atom, disappeared as into a black hole, never to be found again.
No one will be able to see you, yet you will be able to--within that apparent confined space, which is not a space of imagination or truth, but a space of identity, your home turf--leap and cross and mix and marry impossible legacies of language. You will never exit that space once you're in it, yet to the outside it'll seem like you're everywhere. What "successful" writers do in terms of abasement and worship with masters and bosses in the contemporary realm, you will be pursuing in that zero space where there is infinity of silence, and absolutely zero expectation of reward at the end. You won't know who you are until you dare to erase yourself in that space. You won't need mirrors and you won't need platforms. You will have canceled out pleasure and pain, you will have freed your art from the murderous clutches of either emotion.
Anis Shivani is the author of Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). His new books are Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (July 2011) and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (forthcoming, 2011). His just finished novel is called The Slums of Karachi.