Rules: Broken but Never Ignored

The following story regarding a live creative writing group I ran years back is not a transcript, although I have related it so many times that what appears in quotations is probably darn near to the actual words spoken. In any event, it’s close enough to get the gist of the event.

About 20-or-so years ago, I operated a live creative writing group in a northwest suburb of Chicago. We had seven members who met every Wednesday. One week a young fellow brought a poem that included the phrase: “blue stone lamp.”

When it came time to critique his poem, a female member offered a few positive comments, but when she came to his “blue stone lamp” line she asked what it meant, what it referred to. She admitted, somewhat shyly — as if she felt kind of stupid for not getting it and maybe everyone else did — “I have no idea what the phrase blue stone lamp means.”  Every other  member looked at one another nodding in agreement. I know it was one of the things I had meant to ask about.

Quite literally, it was as out of place in that poem as if one had changed the Marine Corp song to:

From the halls of Montezuma
To the Shores of Tripoli
Blue stone lamp
On the land and on the sea.

It just did not fit and seemed unrelated to anything else in the poem. It looked like a cut & paste error of some kind.

Anyway, the writer responded simply: “It’s a blue stone lamp.”

The girl replied, “But why is it there? What does it mean? It doesn’t seem to relate to anything else – just kind of plugged in there.”

The writer’s response: “It’s a blue stone lamp.”

As group leader, I asked permission to interject and said: “Yes, we understand that you say it is simply a blue stone lamp, but since the poem doesn’t seem to be about lamps or stone or even light, we are puzzled as to why you chose to include a blue stone lamp in the poem and in that particular line.

The writer responded: “It’s a blue stone lamp. It’s just a blue stone lamp. It’s no big deal; I just wanted it to be there.”

I replied: “That’s fine. We’re not saying you don’t have a right to include whatever you want in your poem, but you presented it for critique, we took the time to read it and consider it, and the “blue stone lamp” phrase has all of us puzzled so we’re asking.

The writer’s response: “It’s just the way I wanted it. I don’t have to explain why I put it there, it just is.”

No one else cared to offer critique.

What happened in this case is we had a writer who believed simply because he wrote something that it belonged. It was his “darling” and he refused to even acknowledge the possibility that it needed attention, clarification. In  fact, by his tone it was clear that he took our confusion over the phrase as an affront to his writing abilities.

He never returned to the group.

“Rules,” as they relate to writing, do not exist to make every piece of writing identical; rather, knowing a rule makes it possible to write more easily, more correctly and more understandably while also allowing us to more effectively break those rules to achieve various effects, without adversely affecting our work.

One fundamental rules of writing is: Kill your darlings.

Kill your darlings means that if a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, page or even an entire chapter that you really-really-really love and worked really hard to compose doesn’t further your piece, doesn’t make sense to readers, you need to revise, reduce or cut it altogether. It doesn’t belong in that piece of work. Save it for something else.

The aforementioned “blue stone lamp” might have been a peachy element in some other poem, but it did not belong in the piece being critiqued yet the author refused to acknowledge its damage to the work.

Rules, or conventions, or mainstream acceptable methods — however you choose to name them — do not mean every single piece needs to be written precisely the same way. They are not meant to make all written works into cookie cutter copies of each other. Rather, rules are a framework around which your unique fabric is stretched.

However, when we decide to break a rule or convention it is best to have a solid reason for doing so. For example, it’s generally accepted that starting a sentence with “But” is incorrect form, yet there are times when it serves its purpose. You might, for example, want to begin every single line of a poem with “But” to give the piece a fun feel or to act as a kind of chime or ticking of a clock. Knowing the rule about but at the beginning of line lets us know that although we are using it in a piece we know it is not the norm; we are doing it for a solid reason, not simply because we are ignorant of the rule.

Another such example might be a poet who, knowing that the beginning of lines in poems generally tend to begin with capital letters, decides to use no caps in the poem at all. They are not ignorant of the convention, they simply feel that ignoring that convention in this poem adds some extra something to the piece. Poet e.e. cummings, for example, used all lower case letters in his name, ignoring the convention. Yet he used the conventions of capitalization in other elements of his work that showed that his use of lower case in his name didn’t mean he didn’t know the rules. In fact, if you look at the structure of some of his work you’ll see myriad examples of rules tossed out the window. Take his poem “Buffalo Bills,” for example.

Buffalo Bill’s
by e.e. cummings

Buffalo Bill ‘s
defunct
        who used to
        ride a watersmooth-silver
                                                                                       stallion
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
                                                                                         Jesus
he was a handsome man
                                                       and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

Just look at the lack of caps, except the title and names, the displacement of lines, the use of “onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat” to give a rapid-fire sensation.

Clearly, cummings knew the rules and conventions, as other of his work follows them quite nicely, but knowing the rules and conventions empowered him to know exactly how to break them effectively.

Simply put, if we ignore rules and conventions simply because we want to, it is likely that much of our work will appear as if we didn’t know those rules and conventions. The trick is to know the rules so that when we break them it clear that we know the rules but have broken them as part of artistic license

As I stated in past posts, if a writer intends to write exclusively for his or her own pleasure, that’s great. They can write it however they wish and no one will ever know. If, however, a writer seeks critique of their work they must accept that most writers in a critique environment are there to learn and grow as writers. The expectation is that work presented for critique is shared because the author wishes to know its strengths and weaknesses. Broken rules and conventions tend to be among those weaknesses. Ignoring them simply for the sake of ignoring them and feeling they don’t apply to us is no justification in the mind of a critique partner for such lapses. There must be a valid reason, one that furthers the work in question in some way, to break rules.

I liken this to publishing a book. If you present a work to a publisher, an editor will point out flaws and ask you to address them before they will publish your book. If you take the position that changes are unnecessary because that’s the way you want it, your remaining options include publishing online, a vanity press, an e-book or to not publish at all. However, few readers will read through much of your work if it appears you don’t grasp the rules, even fewer will recommend or buy your work. If that’s okay with you, alrighty then.

In a critique setting, if you expect others to spend time reading your work and offering opinions, you owe it to the people who are dedicating time to your words to try to improve and to not use the excuse that because you’re not interested in publishing that none of that stuff matters. If none of it matters, if you don’t care to improve because you don’t intend to publish, why should anyone devote time to offering suggestions?

If you are one of those with no intention of ever publishing, there is one way to participate in a critique group without creasing your creative license. you could simply let members know, directly and up front in each work, that you present it purely for reading and wish no feedback, or you could note specific feedback you’re looking for. Be aware, however, that many critique group members will not likely appreciate being asked to serve purely as an spell checker or grammar/punctuation cop. Fewer, still, will have patience for complacency and an unwillingness to improve all aspects of a piece.

The old saying, “Rules are meant to be broken,” is probably more true in creative writing than in any other area of life. Although rules can be broken, they must first be understood and never arbitrarily ignored.

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About Bill Weiss

Bill Weiss is a creative and freelance writer and founder of the Writerspark creative writing group.
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