Arty rules are rubbery

It’s not that I hate saying it; I hate having to say it. Arty rules are rubbery.

When writing, whether for a fiction market or in a memoir, the rules aren’t immutable. They weren’t etched in granite via lightning strike nor by vengeful gremlins nor even by well-meaning bureaucrats with no concept of unintended consequences (as if there were any other kind). You can break the rules anytime you need to. The operative word here is “need.” I’m convinced that the “arty” rule set evolved as the result of countless writers making the same bad choices so often, that some editor somewhere screamed “There oughta be a law!” so loudly and with such anguish, that other editors also took up the call. However, since few had the power to enact legislation, thereby shifting the duty for enforcement to the state, they had to settle for mere rules.

rulesAlas, the landscape is riddled with rules, everywhere for everything, and they’re often wildly different. The rules for golf, for instance, bear no resemblance to the rules for football, or bowling, or fly fishing (or to much of anything else, come to think of it). Try comparing the rules of etiquette with the rules for mud wrestling. And in most cases, there are exceptions to every rule. (To be ruthlessly honest, I’m not sure there are any rules for mud wrestling. Thinking about it did provide the opportunity for me to search for representative images, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though I failed to find any suitable for a <cough> family-friendly blog like this one.)

In writing, more so than elsewhere, the exceptions are so common that calling the rules “Rules” is pretty silly. Calling ’em suggestions would be more accurate, but who heeds suggestions? (That business about suggestions is probably something someone should point out to the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee. But I digress.)

Seemingly endless lists of Dos and Don’ts exist for writers. Don’t start your novel with a dream scene; don’t over-do dialect; kill all your darlings, but don’t let your children grow up to be cowboys, etc. One can’t be expected to remember them all. Knowing and understanding most of them, however, is essential. We’re all going to make mistakes, and that’s okay. It’s a learning process after all. No one is expected to ski flawlessly the first time out on the slopes. They are, however, expected to ride the lift chair the same way as everyone else. Obviously there are down sides to ignoring the rules. On the ski slope it could mean breaking a limb. In writing, it could result in having readers laugh at you or your work.

The point of this rant is not that you should ignore the “guidelines,” or whatever the writing world chooses to call them, simply because you can. The idea is to learn the rules so well that when the time comes, you can sidestep them without doing your opus any cheater catharm. And yes, I know it may sound trite. The reality is anything but.

Sometimes my writing students adopt the attitude that the rules are holy writ. They definitely aren’t. But they aren’t arbitrary or capricious, either. In most of the countries of the world, folks drive on the right. That doesn’t mean they can’t swerve left to avoid colliding with something. You have my permission to do the same thing when writing. Just understand what you’re doing when you do it.

There. I feel better now. Don’t you?

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
This entry was posted in Memoir, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Arty rules are rubbery

  1. pcartist says:

    I guess it doesn’t apply to tenses.

    • pcartist says:

      I know, it’s right up there with me trying to say ambulance and aluminum. It’s dastardly frustrating to me and truly escaping my understanding. I am not stupid just ignorant. I wish I could find something practical that doesn’t tell me which word is incorrect but, points out you may want to look at this sentence.

      • joshlangston says:

        I doubt the word grammar checker is sophisticated enough to do that, but I could be wrong. But, by the by, the verb tense usage in your note above is perfectly fine.

  2. joshlangston says:

    I’m trying to imagine a scenario where it would be okay to intentionally misuse verb tenses, but I’m not having much luck. That doesn’t mean such a scenario doesn’t exist, however!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s