I’m teaching my class on how to break the rules on Saturday, May 25th. Rules can put fiction in a box; let’s talk about ways to explode out of it.
There’s an old adage: Learn the rules before you break them.
I grew up with that rule. I learned it for the first time in an art class when I was probably still in single age digits. My art teacher painted abstracts, but her classes were aimed at giving children a strong grounding in composition and sketching. Why? Because we needed to know the rules before we went searching for our own styles of breaking them.
I like this rule. It’s a good rule. It’s generally useful.
And you should feel free to break it.
The thing is: if you insist that everyone know the rules before breaking them, you end up smothering a lot of innovation. Not all innovation! Many people are quite capable of learning rules and then doing completely strange and new things afterward.
But remember people like the outsider artists. The ones who, knowing nothing about what’s going on in the broader conversation of their art, pursue (usually) obsessive projects with their own ideas and aesthetics they’ve grown from the ground up.
Their stuff is weird and often unsettling and I think we would be poorer without it.
I also see plenty of students and young or new writers breaking rules without seeming to realize that’s what they’re doing, or what the rule is they’re breaking, or why it’s there. Usually, that fails. Think about evolution — most significant mutations aren’t beneficial, and may even be fatal. But every once in a while, one is amazing.
I’m not sure if Lily Yu knew all the rules when she wrote “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” but it’s an absolutely amazing story that breaks a ridiculous number of rules. It’s beautiful, and it’s stirring, and it’s unique. It’s one of the best stories in the past decade. It established Lily as a passionate, brilliant writer all in a single swoop. Do you know how unusual that is? (You probably do!) It’s not uncommon for people to become lightning strikes with a single novel–but for a single short story to provide that much light and electricity? Totally shocking. A wonderful black swan.
While I was still trying to learn the rules as fast and as well as I could, there was often a freedom to my writing which is much more restricted now. Now, when I’m writing, and I’m trying to figure out to do, I can list the traditional options, I can elucidate the rules governing the situation, and why they work, and the usual ways of breaking them–and the consequences thereof. I pick the one that makes most sense for me. All very tidy.
Before, I had to grab at something uncertain. Maybe it was the right tool for the job–the one I’d use now–or maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes when you write with the wrong tools, you find that you’ve made something beautifully unexpected, something you couldn’t even have predicted in yourself. Things you don’t intend can evolve into wildness, into tangles, into novelty.
If you watch reality shows, think about the unconventional materials challenges. Clothing designs made out of candy, or seatbelts, are often the best outfits of the season. The hairdressers, assigned to use hedge clippers, figure out ways to work around it.
There’s always someone complaining that it’s unreasonable to be expected to make a dress out of candy. At home, they know the rules. If they want to make a dress, they’re going to use the right material. It’s flowing so it will be jersey, or it needs the nap of velvet, or the shine of silk.
Sometimes when the rules aren’t yet deep down in your body, when you don’t know that you should search the fabric store for the shiniest silk — sometimes, you grab the cellophane instead.
And most of the time it’s going to be awkward and unattractive.
And sometimes, you’re going to make a cellophane dress that will dazzle the runway.
Writers who know all the rules might still choose to make a cellophane dress. If they’re very good at this sort of thing, it might still have the sense of unexpected freedom as the dress made by the person who ended up with cellophane because they didn’t understand fabric yet. But ultimately, the art of someone fumbling to explore, and the art of someone aiming at their goals with precision, don’t usually look the same.
I want dresses made of cellophane. I want Lily Yu to take my breath away with possibilities I hadn’t imagined. I also want to read the older Lily, too, the one who writes now with a sharper breadth of knowledge–because she’s amazing. But I wouldn’t trade away her earlier stories.
So, it’s useful to know the rules before you break them. It’s a good guideline. But sometimes, by breaking the rule you didn’t even know was there, by wandering the path less traveled by, you can find something astonishing.
(Here, again, is the link to my class: www.kittywumpus.net/blog/breaking-the-rules-with-rachel-swirsky/)