Becoming a Storyteller: The 15, er, 10 Commandments

I’ve discussed rules for writing on this blog in the past–you can check out that post here–but in piecing together my last post, I came across my old creative writing notebook from my days at Florida International University. While most of my days at FIU were forgettable, many of the classes I took as part of the creative writing program are indelibly etched on my memory. So, flipping through the book I found my notes from a Narrative Techniques class I took with John Dufresne.

In his book called The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, Dufresne presents his Ten Writing Commandments. The book was published in August of 2004, and since I took the class the Spring semester 2001 I was privy to the working draft of Dufresne’s guide to writing. I can see how the scribbles in my notebook morphed into what’s presented in the publication–and that’s awesome.

Here’s Dufresne’s list of Commandments from The Lie

  1. Sit your ass in the chair.
  2. Thou shalt not bore the reader.
  3. Remember to keep holy your writing time.
  4. Honor the lives of your characters.
  5. Thou shalt not be obscure.
  6. Thou shalt show and not tell.
  7. Thou shalt steal.
  8. Thou shalt rewrite and rewrite again. And again.
  9. Thou shalt confront the human condition.
  10. Be sure that every death in a story means something.

Sitting my ass in the chair has always been difficult, but I’ve resolved myself to do just that more often. As I’m sure many of you know, it’s harder than it seems. There are any number of excuses I can find to not sit in the chair, but, as the saying goes, novels don’t write themselves. Dufresne and others say Writer’s Block is nothing more than an excuse that gets a writer off the hook, and I tend to agree. In an interview with Southern Scribe, Dufresne goes on to explain his first commandment:

First Commandment–sit your butt in the chair. I’m not sure there’s a secret to this except loving what you do and wanting to do it so badly you miss it if you’re not in the chair. This means being patient and tenacious and trusting in the writing process.  Nothing good happens in a single draft. Writing a story wasn’t built in a day. You need to get to know your characters before you can care about them. Once you care about them, you won’t have any trouble getting back to the writing desk. You need to make writing a priority in your life if you’re serious about it. You need to sacrifice something. Writing takes time most of all. And you have to want to write as badly as you want to watch TV or go to the movies. You manage to get those done. And you can probably manage all three.

I think the concepts in play there are invaluable, but also difficult to come to grips with–at least for me. I may be passionate about my dream–my goal, but I struggle with making it manifest. When he discussed the writing process, Dufresne quoted Blaise Pascal, who said: “most of the evils of life come from man’s inability to sit still in a room.” He continued by saying that, in the crafting of a story, time leads to place, and place leads to character, and character leads to destiny.

Regarding destiny, he said: “Destiny is making a choice to seize the opportunity of chance.”

Here’s the list of commandments as John Dufresne presented them to that Narrative Techniques class waaay back on January 17th, 2001.

  • Sit your ass in the chair
  • don’t bore the reader
  • don’t be obscure
  • don’t create passive central characters
  • surprise the reader/yourself
  • don’t confuse the reader with audience
  • be accurate, get the details right, be particular
  • don’t write the unimportant
  • go for the precise gesture
  • revelations lurk in the details

I see how many of the notes I took in 2001 became part of the manuscript published in 2004. I understand the economy of words in the published version, and the polish of them. I get the implementation of theme.

But I love my notebook.

The very first line from my notebook reads as follows:

That’s what we are: thieves, writers are thieves.

Since he said that, I guess he won’t mind that I’m stealing all this shit from him.

3 thoughts on “Becoming a Storyteller: The 15, er, 10 Commandments

  1. I love that book! I went to FIU too, but didn’t take his workshop! I’m actually using Dufresne’s newest book, Is Life LIke This, a guide to writing your first novel in 6 months now. That’s really cool to run across someone else who took creative writing at FIU. Good luck with your work.


    • Thanks! I really enjoyed mot of the classes I took as part of that program at FIU, my favorite being the workshops with Les Standiford. I haven’t read the book you mentioned, but I’ll check it out now. Good luck with your novel, and thanks for reading!


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