My most helpful creative writing “rule”

The aesthetic contract

For many writers that I’ve worked with and certainly for me, the most helpful “rule” of creative writing is this: be true to the aesthetic contract you set up with your reader. You can create any contract you wish and put in any clauses at all. Your aesthetic contract might simply be, “This is a romance novel that inherits all of the genre’s conventions regarding character, plot, theme, and so on.” Such contracts imply their own ideal readers. If the reader “signs” the contract, that means he is ready to engage with your fictional world on its own terms. He is willing to do the work required to become your implied reader. If, on the other hand, the reader says something like, “I hate all romance novels–they’re sappy and dumb,” then he isn’t part of your audience anyway, and you don’t have to warp your art to meet whatever his demands might be. You don’t have to write to his gaze.

Of course, almost no novel actually comes out and explicitly states its contract. It might even be impossible to state the entirety of a contract since it’s made up of infinite clauses (e.g. those related to cultural context). Instead, art creates such contracts almost entirely through implication, through choices regarding language, character, theme, plot, voice, subject matter, and so on. The opening of Harry Potter deals with wizards and witches roaming the streets of London, all of them celebrating some mysterious event. The language is geared towards middle grade students. There is a wry humor in the portrayal of Vernon Dursley’s anger. Such an opening creates the aesthetic contract by setting up expectations in the reader: “This is going to be a children’s novel with magic and a lot of humor.” Those who say that Harry Potter is unworthy because it is “too simplistic for adults” have failed to sign the aesthetic contract that it forms. Their criticisms are the intellectual equivalent of being angry at a painting for not singing for the viewer.

Consider what happens if you break the aesthetic contract. Let’s start with a dramatic example. Since we’ve mentioned Harry Potter, imagine if at some point the Death Eaters came to a magical battle armed with AK-47’s and grenades. I’m not saying genre-mixups are outside of the purview of art (far from it), but I am saying that after heavily and consistently implying a children’s audience, introducing such thoroughly adult, war-zone-appropriate elements would be a betrayal of the aesthetic contract and therefore of the reader. A less dramatic example from the everyday: you turn on a podcast expecting pure comedy and then hear someone’s tragic life story. It might be beautifully told, and you might be glad that such a brave account exists in the world, but you also didn’t want to sign that particular kind of aesthetic contract at that moment. You probably feel jarred rather than immersed in a beautiful story.

To further illustrate, your aesthetic contract might be something like, “This novel will be a soundscape of language, full of Irish slang and references to classical antiquity, and it will change not just style but also POV and linguistic pattern every single chapter or sometimes even every sentence,” meaning that it’s a rough spin-off of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In terms of artistic quality, this is perfectly fine. Such a contract can be well within your power to create, and if you execute your artwork/your writing consistently with such a contract, there will be ideal readers out there who appreciate it. Keep in mind, however, that in terms of commercial appeal, aesthetic contracts that are far removed from most readers’ expectations can prove to be a barrier for you in terms of getting your work out there. This is the subject of an entirely different post.

Almost 10 years ago, while I was teaching creative writing at NYU, Goldwater Hospital, and elsewhere, I noticed that a lot of craft pointers and “rules” in the world of creative writing don’t really help with a first draft. They might prove useful to framing craft issues during a late draft, but they mostly get in the way when you’re actually sitting at your desk, filling up a blank screen or page. But the notion of a consistently executed aesthetic contract is one of the few “rules” that doesn’t do this, at least not for me. It actually guides me even while I’m in the grip of the Muses. I think I’ll save how it does this for me for another post.