Sunday, July 13, 2014

In Praise of Rules

Do you write? Excellent! I do as well.

Now: Do you wish to get better at writing? Do you want people to adore the ink you spill? If not, then read no further. If you write only for yourself, only for release, then continue to do what you do. You lead a simple and pure existence, like that of a child belting out sounds for the sake of the sounds, and while someone may say something churlish to you someday, understand that—in reality—we are all just jealous that your love is purer than our love. So if that is you, then for the love of God, read no further.

But suppose that is not you. Suppose you have bitten into the sweet-smelling apple by sharing your work with another soul and suppose you wish to hold the fire in your mind against another’s brain—suppose you want to see those flames crackle and consume. If you want to produce in others the same patterns you have before your own eyes, then I have some sad news.

Eventually you must sit down and learn the rules.

You must learn grammar, all of it, every drop of it all the way down to the en dash and the em dash. You must make friends with semicolons and make your peace with the comma, you must know when to protect your punctuation with quotation marks—which will vary, depending on whether you are American or not. If you don’t know what I am talking about, you are not done learning.

You must write vast swaths of prose, all of it “show.” You must learn how to make rhythm with your sentences, yet not meander for marathon lengths. If you plunk all your words into your reader’s arms like one bag of groceries too many, they will begin to drop things. The eggs might break.

You must know how to start a novel—how to end one. Worst of all, you will have to write all the stuff between, and that is no picnic. You will probably have to do it more than once.

You will have to work until you have made all the mistakes, and then until you have unmade all of the mistakes. You will have to work until you notice whenever your fingers tik-tak the wrong marks down.

Why do you have to know all this? Why is writing not free anymore, why do you have to labor the fields, and why can’t you go back to the garden? Well, I’ll tell you a secret.

We are learning the rules so that we might break them. You see, when a child rebels, it is meaningless. Of course the child rebelled. The child knows nothing about the rules to start with. A true rebel is one who has the power to obey—and chooses not to. Disobey as a child and you will be laughed at. Disobey as one with knowledge and power, and only the fools will laugh.

We learn the rules so that we will know their power, know their purpose, and when they come so naturally to us that we have to think about breaking them—then it is time to break them.

I was always told by a certain set that art has no rules. This is a bold lie. Art is nothing but artifice, nothing but technique and mastery of technique. But a time comes when you realize the power behind the rules.

There are rules to everything—and rules are the things we must master in order to arrive at the place where there are no rules. 

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