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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