While listening to the latest episode of The West Wing Weekly, there was a great comment from presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg that
“Your job is to decide how much you’re willing to conform to [what’s expected of you]. It’s often ocurred to me that all the ways in which you — in any profession, not just politics — but all the ways in which you conform to what’s expected of you, the sum total of that becomes your professionalism. And then all the ways in which you decide not to conform, the sum total of that becomes your style.”
This comment encapsulates a lot of the things I try to get across when talking to writing students.
You learn the rules, tactics, and techniques of writing not so that you can follow them religiously, but so that you know what’s expected of you.
What do people who consume a lot of material see frequently, and what conforms to their expectations? What has worked for other writers in the past? What can you draw from the past that applies to your work in the present?
But you also have to find ways to make something your own. To differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace of ideas.
A thousand other people could be writing a story just like yours right now, so what is it that you’re going to do that subverts the expectations of the audience? What bends (or breaks) the tropes and rules and traditions of the kind of story you’re trying to tell?
And this quote makes a case for thinking on a continuum, where every choice moves your position just a little bit between one end where you’re all professionalism (but no individuality) and one end where you’re all style (but with no sense of accountability or being responsive to expectations and norms).
It suggests a mentality where skill comes from learning to serve expectations where it makes sense, and carve your own path when necessary. And that seems like a pretty healthy mindset to aim for.