Matt Bell has posted Padget Powell’s notes on “What Writing Should Do”, and the post seems to be getting a lot of Tumblr love. Here are Powell’s guidelines:
Well, okay — but aren’t these guidelines really badly written? For instance, while the passive voice isn’t always wrong, Is it actually true that “Brave wild failure is applauded”? If so, by whom? Padget Powell and … anyone else? The other noteworthy passive, “It should be remembered also that,” clunks horribly; “Please also remember that” would be much better. But at least the phrase has some discernible meaning, unlike “Be alive.” (Be alive? Gee, thanks.)
A similar emptiness afflicts “Obey tenets of economy, verve, etc.” So what are the tenets of economy and verve? Does Powell think “tenets of” means something like “commitment to”? Is he just saying “Write economically and vividly” in a more abstract and colorless way? (Not that that would be more helpful than “Be alive.”) And what might be encompassed by that “etc.”? That is, what are the related “tenets” that must be “obeyed,” if indeed it’s possible to obey a tenet?
Powell asserts, “You shoud be less comfortable if you’re pretty sure of what you’re writing about.” Less comfortable than what or whom? And what does it mean to be “pretty sure of what you’re writing about”? Confident that you know what your subject is? Confident that you know a lot about your subject? Those are two very conditions, and I can’t tell which one Powell is referring to.
Now, Padget Powell can write. His work is not especially to my taste, but he is a thoughtful and skilled stylist. Consider this passage from The Interrogative Mood, a novel written wholly in questions:
Are you a man? Will you place two hundred dollars in the traditional red envelope and give it to me? Have you ever had to concern yourself with the imminence of freezing water pipes or deal with frozen water pipes? How is your health? If it might be fairly said that you have hopes and fears, would you say you have more hopes than fears, or more fears than hopes? Are all of your affairs in order? Would you have the slightest idea, if we somehow started over, how to reinvent the radio or even the telephone? Do you recall the particular manila rubber buttons in the garters that held up ladies’ hose before the invention of pantyhose? Who would you say is the best quarterback of all time? Between an automobile mechanic and a psychologist, which is worth more to you per hour?
When you read a passage like this, and then look at the “What Writing Should Do” guidelines, don’t you start to feel that the latter constitute a parody? A comical illustration of the old saw, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches”? Or, perhaps more likely, a sardonic reminder that there really aren’t any “guidelines for writing” that can be communicated in a neat little list? In any event, surely Padget Powell is playing a little trick on us.