Manifesto for disobedient writers

Simon Turley reviews: Lisa Goldman, 'The no rules handbook for writers', Oberon Books, 2012, pp256,

“If the law is unjust … break it”: so says John Carter, the eponymous hero of The king of Prussia, a play by the late Nick Darke. Anyone who really thinks that this glorious Kneehigh Theatre production was merely a historical romp about Cornish smugglers clearly was not paying attention. The king of Prussia is a text about second-home owners destabilising and destroying communities - now; it is a text about how to organise and drive a wedge between the state apparatus of oppression and the ruling class - now; it is a text about how to triumph - right now - by the simple strategy of bearding injustice in its lair.

Lisa Goldman’s The no rules handbook for writers is in the same tradition. It is an invitation to writers, both new and established, to join in with a literary form of civil disobedience. From the gnarled hack, gurgling out yet another sterile episode of a ‘returning series’, to the tyro about to take flight, here, at last, is a self-help book that is practicable. Comrade Goldman’s strategy is simple: identify the so-called ‘rules’ of narrative, character, etc, and then offer the means to subvert them.

When all is said and done, the self-help genre is a singularly unpromising one. Should you wish, you could hand over responsibility for almost any aspect of your life to a more or less qualified guru. Having trouble with a new regime at your place of employment? No worries; get yourself a copy of Who moved my cheese?: an amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life - by Spencer Johnson (Spencer who?). Prefer to find yourself a guru with a familiar name? Look no further than Noel Edmonds and his Positively happy: cosmic ways to change your life. And, if you are a writer who may have a problem, then you can look just beyond Edmonds’ cosmos to that realm where the Almighty Himself, aka Robert McKee, bestrides the screenwriting multi-verse clutching his sacred text, Story: substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting.

Comrade Goldman provides an antithesis to McKee (not simply by eschewing the obligatory colon and subtitle for her book cover). Where McKee’s structuralist prescriptions do the writer’s thinking for her, Goldman puts her at the centre of an agile, dynamic thought process.

No rules sets up a sequence of dialectic positions. The ‘rules’ of creative writing, which serve as the headings of each chapter, are followed by a consideration of their precise value: each chapter is completed by an anti-heading, a counterposition to the ‘rule’, which Goldman calls a “rule-breaker”. So, for example, the first ‘rule’, “Write what you know”, is eventually counterposed by its breaker: “Write to discover what you don’t know yet”.

Occasionally, Goldman’s ‘rule-breakers’ stray towards the gnomic. With the exhortation to “Let the meaning find you”, there is a sense that this might be a self-help book of the cheese-moving kind. She also sets up a straw man or two. Rule 31, for example, takes David Mamet’s dictum, “The purpose of art is not to change, but to delight”. Goldman, understandably, neglects to speak to this mimsy proposition; rather, she uses it as a springboard to argue that the purpose of art is to inspire change. It is surely no accident that one hears Marx’s 11th thesis on Feuerbach behind her ‘rule breaker 31’: “The purpose of art is to change, not simply delight”.

The tone of the book is honest and direct. While remaining free of bombast, this is an authoritative piece. And Goldman undoubtedly knows whereof she speaks. She draws on her own experiences, as a writer, with a simple and engaging humility. She also makes detailed and illuminating reference to her substantial career as a theatre director working with new writing. Both with The Red Room, and, more recently, at the Soho Theatre, Goldman has been responsible for developing a dizzying array of important new work.

No rules enlivens its discussions of each aspect of bringing creative ideas from the thought-cloud to the page, by interpolating the reflections of contemporary writers whom Goldman has interviewed for the book. She keeps great company. It might be Lucy Prebble speaking about the institutional power of the BBC in promoting self-censorship; or Bryony Lavery pointing out that, as “the only story-making species in the natural world”, we should feel safe to trust our instincts about narrative. It might be Anthony Neilson challenging what can or cannot be addressed in theatre by pointing out that “the fourth wall which needs to be broken is the one in the audience’s minds”; or Philip Ridley generously allowing us insight into his genius: “a play or novel usually takes me by surprise. For me, preparation - the way something comes together - is like an explosion in reverse.” Robert McKee’s assertions are exposed as sterile, corporate formulae.

Given Goldman’s own professional background, theatre writing inevitably occupies the centre of this book. I read No rules days after seeing Philip Ridley’s play, Tender napalm. I was fresh from witnessing how two actors, two chairs, and one continuous lighting state, can relocate an audience in a very other world: language and sweat is all it takes. Goldman is a superb advocate of the immediacy and power of live theatre: however, she makes strong connections to other literary forms, such as the novel, and, more notably, film. There is an attractive inclusiveness in her attitude to a wide range of fiction sub-genres.

No rules works as a handbook. You can dip into it to tackle a particular issue, and browse for a writing exercise that might bust you out of a locked position. It also makes a satisfying survey of the writer’s craft, tackling the entire process from researching to drafting, to redrafting, to finding an audience.

Neither does Goldman neglect the bigger picture: the point of being a writer. A section entitled ‘Principles of freedom’ offers a powerful vision of the writer’s role. Her reference to Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi, under house arrest and being “accused of the thought-crime of imagining a film about the post-election demonstrations”, is particularly moving. She adds his response to his interrogator: “I don’t know what kind of film I will make in the future. But now you are in my consciousness, maybe you’ll even be in the film. I wonder how you’ll end up - a hero, or a villain?”

When I read those words, I found myself smiling, and thinking how Nick Darke would have enjoyed that.