On Breaking the Rule About Breaking the Rules

I recently saw trotted out again that old maxim: “You have to learn the rules to break them.” Here’s why I think that’s wrong: First, we don’t learn language that way. Children learn language rules by breaking them, repeatedly, and *not* being corrected, at least not overtly. They try things out, mimicking and attempting to match what they hear around them; they get encouragement when they succeed, not criticism for failing; they play with sounds and language (small children are the most unconscious poets and metaphor-makers you will ever encounter). In short, they learn oral language through immersion, listening, experiment, failure, support, and self-correction. They do this because they are highly *internally motivated* to express and interact.

Then, of course, they go to school, which emphasizes the rule-first method. They are increasingly discouraged from experimenting and failing so that, by the time they got to my college writing courses, they only cared about the rules and avoiding negative evaluation. Their interest in expression and interacting was mostly gone, and *external* motivation in the form of grades dominated. They knew lots of rules, but rules unmoored from purpose or function. To this day, I would rather read boatloads of shit writing by someone genuinely engaged, disciplined, and trying to improve, than endure a page of highly polished, formulaic prose. And I say that as someone who spent years having to read both. Sometimes I wonder how much more we all would make our own art and appreciate the art of others if we hadn’t been taught to focus at the outset on “doing it right” or “following the rules.”

Of course I don’t mean that order doesn’t matter. Language can’t function without it, and art, to have meaning, requires structure and context. Nor do I suggest that those who want to begin with rules and handbooks and proscriptions are wrong. But I do object to laying down maxims that writers can only legitimately develop by learning rules first. I believe that just as drawing and carving preceded art theory, and spirituality and wonder preceded religion, so stories and poetry came before writing theory. We have built our rules on the successes and failures of what’s come before. Each artist is entitled to go through that same process and deal with its consequences.

Art develops through transgression, by someone stepping outside the current rules of usage or structure or language. But how do you teach people to risk and break rules when we begin with the premise that rules come first? Those with the discipline and desire to do serious creative work can find the guidelines they need in the process of honing their work. So I wish upon anyone who wants to create the chance to experience some kind of fall-flat-on-your-ass failure, as often as she can possibly stand it.The question becomes how a writer should learn what rules will work for her. My approach to that is simple:

  • Read voraciously and closely everything you can—immersion.
  • Write what you want in the way you want, experimenting and trying anything and everything that comes to mind: switch genres and point of view and tenses midstream, leave plot holes (hell forget about plot if you want)—experimentation.
  • Find someone whose judgment you respect who will read your writing and tell you what they see that works; hone in on those things and do more of them—feedback.
  • Repeat the above endlessly: read; write; experiment; get feedback; digest it; apply it.
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Learning to Love Shitwork

Lately I’ve seen several blog and discussion board posts mentioning the difficulties—even burdens—of editing. Some have praised the value of it; others have bemoaned or even questioned the necessity of it. Two experiences have skewed my own perspective. First, I had an excellent copyediting professor as a college undergraduate, and excellent editing supervisors during my professional work as an editor. Second, from a couple of decades of teaching college-level writing, I read, surely, thousands of pages of unedited writing, and became good at recognizing it pretty quickly. Based on that background, I learned a long time ago to take the value of editing as a given.

But editing represents a larger issue I’ve encountered in a variety of work I’ve done, and it seems especially crucial in trying to write well. That issue is how practitioners in a given field approach the shitwork related to that field.

Because every occupation has its shitwork. If you work on a farm, as some of my high school friends did in Kansas where I grew up, shitwork takes the literal form of the manure you have to shovel, step in, spread, sweep, and even purchase. If you don’t like dealing with shit, a farm is not the place for you. Nor, for that matter, is medicine. You may decide you want to become a pediatrician because you love children or like helping people, but if so you’d better quickly get used to bodily fluids in a wide variety of odors, colors, and viscosities. Doubly true if you want to become a nurse.

And make no mistake, I don’t mean shitwork as a term of denigration. I mean the grease on your hands that lubricates the machine; the networking that helps you meet people who challenge you; the slow review of rows and columns of data that confirm your new theory. I mean the sometimes tedious, line by line, point by point, beautiful grind.

Performers have to rehearse; athletes have to practice (as even basketball star Allen Iverson learned to his dismay); both have to travel. Politicians have to smile and shake hands and listen to everyone’s complaints. Construction workers have to ply their skill in unfriendly elements; entrepreneurs have to raise money. Even the pope—the man who supposedly holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven—has to hold audiences, smile beatifically, and keep his cardinals somewhat placated.

That kind of inevitable, ongoing, potentially grinding interaction allows for only one productive response: love.

Let me propose a correlation between competence and the acceptance of shitwork. It goes something like this: The mediocre complain about shitwork; they resent having to attend to the picayune details that are part of any craft, and they deal with them grudgingly if at all. The competent tolerate shitwork; they accept it as a necessary part of performing well at something that matters to them. The adept come to love shitwork. This is not to say they always like it, any more than a loving parent always likes being in the same room with his children. But they welcome it as the stuff you can feel between your fingers; they to relish its odor not because the scent is sweet but because it grounds them in the work itself and in what it takes to do that work well. And more than anything else, doing the work well keeps them going.

Someone said that if you want to be a writer, you’d better love working with words and sentences. That’s why, although I’ve by no means mastered the shitwork that good writing demands, I love exploring it in detail, as some wonderful bloggers I know have done here, here, here, and here, as well. And on a good day, you will find me on my knees, nose down, up to my elbows in it, as it should be.

Found in Translation

How do I know what I think till I see what I say?
E.M. Forster

On discussion boards, I occasionally see writers present their process as something akin to transcription. They plan every detail of a scene before drafting, and then execute that plan virtually without deviation. These writers focus on efficiency. Who needs writing as discovery? Why meander when you can take the most direct path possible? It presents the essence of writing as an act of will and control.

Of course, I plan my writing too—if not before I draft, then certainly during and after. But I write on more shifting ground. I invariably say something I did not know I was going to say. My characters end up in unanticipated places; the essay subject shifts, altering the trajectory of the piece; the voice of a poem takes a turn that colors the experience of reading it. I have celebrated when this metamorphosis easily improved the writing, and I have despaired when it meant extensive revision. But as I’ve learned more about writing, I’ve come to believe this happens because of the mediating nature of language itself.

So often we speak of mediating in terms of position. A mediator stands between entities—people, experiences, world views—translating each to the other. Writing mediates between writer and readers. We complain when a medium (or the media) doesn’t translate verbatim. “They’re leaving out what he really said,” we say. “That isn’t what really happened.”

This comes from our mania for the “real”: reality television, films “based on real events,” and memoirs that will reveal, at last, the real story behind so-and-so’s life. The more neutral the mediator, the better, and what could be more neutral than “indisputable video evidence”? In sports, we want to see the replay before we believe that the winning basket left the player’s hand in time, or that the soccer ball fully entered the goal. We’ve become addicted to video clips that, unlike written representations, present what happened “unfiltered.” Or so we think.

But I’ve stopped thinking of mediating as neutral. Language has a long history all its own. Each word comes into being at a particular time for particular reasons, and as time has passes, so do the echoes and nuances of that word. In addition, each person’s encounter with a word differs from everyone else’s. Because of this, every reading of a text leaves some elements untranslated. The shift from one way of making meaning to another is always incomplete. To write and to read are like trying to reach through an opaque curtain to grasp an object I can’t see, that I can’t be sure even exists.

I can lament this as language’s failing or celebrate it as language’s power to redirect what it touches. The reader and I meet at the dual surfaces of the text: the side that I experience as its creator and the side that the reader experiences as co-creator. The reader doesn’t receive my writing; s/he creates it with me, in response to what I’ve written. The written text hovers between us, drawing us into collaboration.

The electric circuit between reader and writer that flows through words, syntax, content, and structure gives writing its power over us. It provides the energy that can make reading a book one of the most significant—even transformative—events in a human being’s life. Words have altered my values, my perspective, my actions, and even my identity. Sometimes I’ve encountered those words in the works of great writers; sometimes I’ve found them in the works of writers unknown or forgotten; I’ve even encountered and been surprised by them in my own prose and poetry. That is what keeps me reading and writing.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Shape the Experience

I’ve left shaping, the most ruthless writing lesson, for last.

In essence, it’s simple. Shaping means ensuring that every detail of the text contributes to the experience I want the reader to have. Whatever fails to meet that test—be it a word, a comma, a bit of content, a phrase, a sentence, a structural device, or an organizational strategy—has to be fixed or has to be cut.

When I shape, I take myself by the nape of the neck and methodically excise the excesses lingering on the page. That includes those unnecessary flourishes I performed purely to announce my talent and the prettiness I can create. Instead of showing the reader that I can bend words to my will, while shaping I bend my will to what the writing demands.

To shape is to peel away the writer’s ego, leaving only that which executes my intention.

Sound difficult? It is. It would hurt when an editor told me that a word didn’t work or a sentence sounded jarring in the paragraph or my beautiful turn of phrase contributed nothing to my overall story. Not infrequently, I felt a sense of loss deleting the metaphor I had labored over but still sounded clunky. So why suffer through what can be a bruising process? Because, to paraphrase a saying, good writing reads better than mediocre writing looks.

The ruthlessness of shaping gives me the freedom to play and the courage to draft. It is my safety net. I can make a complete ass of myself in the draft—take all sorts of risks, allow myself wild tangents that lead to dead ends, indulge in verbosity and obscurity and all manner of useless showing off—because I know that when I shape I will surrender my ego to the specific demands of the writing, to the experience for the reader that I’ve committed myself to create.

To that end, and as the discussion here explains so well, shaping goes beyond proofreading or copyediting, correcting mistakes or cleaning up problems, important as those activities are. It clears the clutter so that a more powerful and coherent voice can emerge from the text. When I identify what doesn’t belong, I can accentuate what does belong; when I eliminate what impedes my reader’s experience, I can develop the elements that will enhance that experience. Shaping externally makes manifest the internal animating spirit of a given piece of writing.

Journalism taught me that shaping, like the other lessons I learned, happens best as part of a conversation. I can have that conversation with myself by setting my writing aside for a time, then returning to it later with a fresher, more detached perspective. But ideally, that conversation includes others: an agent, an editor, a mentor, writing friends. I’ve come to see the pervasive myth of the isolated, genius author is just that: a myth. We borrow our language from our culture, internalize it, develop it with the help of colleagues, then send it back out into the world for readers to experience. At every step, the work of writing connects to others, and that may be the most important writing lesson of all.