The Thing About Rules...


A plumber once told me that it’s not hard to learn plumbing.  There are only three rules to remember:

  1.   Hot on the left, cold on the right;
  2.   Water runs downhill;
  3.   Don’t put your fingers in your mouth.

Years ago, I had a teeny-tiny role in the CBS miniseries “Chiefs,” starring Charlton Heston, filmed in Chester, South Carolina.  It so happened that I arrived on the set to film my bit part as Mister Heston was finishing a scene.  “Any advice?” I asked him.


He passed along Spencer Tracy’s rules for being a successful actor:

  1. Remember your lines;
  2. Show up on time;
  3. Don’t bump into the furniture.

I recalled those two sets of simple rules as I was preparing to lead a fiction workshop at the Appalachian Heritage Writers Symposium at Southwest Virginia Community College over the weekend.  Do I have any rules that I try to abide by as a writer?  The closest I could come was these:

  1. Be honest with your characters.  Present them as they appear in your imagination, warts and all, even when they embarrass and aggravate you.  Their rough spots are invariably more interesting than their smooth ones.
  2. Stay out of the way of the story.  Don’t fall in love with your own clever words.  The story belongs to the characters, not the writer.
  3. Keep the momentum going.  When the characters bubble up from your imagination and you set them in motion, visit them every possible chance you can.  If you miss a couple of days, they’re likely to say, “Where were you?  We had some things to tell you, and you weren’t here.  And now we’ve forgotten some of them.”

Rules?  Maybe just guidelines, but I do try to follow them because experience has taught me that they work.

And I think I’ll stick to writing.  Rules or not, I wouldn’t make a good actor or plumber.