Writing Lessons

Break the Rules

By Ann Beattie | October 6, 2014


I went to public high school in Washington, D.C. I only met the guidance counselor once. She didn’t suggest any colleges. In looking over my SAT scores, she suggested I “learn a mechanical skill.” This will provoke laughter from anyone who knows me, including my agent, who once came to visit and observed my attempt to use my mechanical skill to get the food processor to work. The top wasn’t tightly closed over the part where you can place a coffee grinder, so the thing wouldn’t turn on. I eventually beat it with a spatula. “Why don’t I take everyone out for dinner?” she said.

In my high school days, one creative writing class was newly offered, which you could only take if you could switch your gym period. Who knows why I did that—but I believe it was my only A of high school. I did well because I didn’t exactly do the assignment. If I was told to describe the room in which a party took place, I would write dialogue between two people who wished they weren’t having a party. That’s the only specific example I remember—but it has reinforced a lifetime of anxiety; just before every party, I, too, always wish I’d never had the idea (friends: I always end up enjoying your company). But being rewarded for not sticking to the rules was an essential thing for any writer to learn. This one is no exception.


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