Rules mostly are goddamn nonsense, and not just the ones about writing. The rules of life are so often goddamn nonsense that I often wonder why I and everyone else don’t break them more often. I’m not even talking about the big ones, the obvious ones, like stomping on babies or stealing condoms out of a single mother’s purse—nothing quite so heinous. But what about those little rules of conduct, like having your money ready at the drive-thru window (something I rarely ever do) or returning your grocery cart to a cart corral (something other people rarely ever do)? There are thousands of these little societal rules that, if everyone stopped obeying them at the same time, would bring our culture to its knees. Of course, not everyone is going to stop obeying them. There will always be just enough conscientious people to make up for the complete societal uselessness of everyone else. Or, if that fails, corporate dollars will pay for the fix. Let’s use the grocery carts from a few sentences past as our example.
Nobody returns their grocery carts anymore, so stores employ cart gatherers, the much less heroic, modern version of a Western cowboy. These cartboys amble through the parking lots all day long and through all types of weather, spending their working hours cleaning up the mess left by the rest of us rule-breaking Neanderthals. It wasn’t always this way. It used to be the case that the grocery bagger, those pimply-faced adolescents of yesteryear, would not only bag your groceries, but take them out to your car, taking the cart back with them when they left. Then as money tightened, stores stopped offering this service and expected the customer to return the cart to the store themselves. This, of course, was ridiculous and stores quickly realized that not only was nobody returning the carts, but that customers were selling them to passing homeless people in return for half of their goods. It was a great deal for both the customer and the homeless person. Not only did the wandering indigent quadruple their capacity for transporting treasures of the road, but the customer received all the rotten banana peels and dead puppy carcasses they could ever desire. Then it was that the fun ended and we ended up where we are today, with people using the cart and then giving it a cursory shove in the general direction of a cart corral, which it misses entirely and instead scrapes along the previously pristine, gleaming flank of a custom painted, vintage Corvette. The world did not end; this is the point. Humanity struggled onward, not noticeably better or worse off than before.
Comedian Louis C.K. muses aloud about this topic in one of his more recent specials. He recounts how he had rented a car and was in the process of returning it at the airport when he realized he was about to miss his flight. As a result, he simply parked the car in front of the terminal and left it there with the keys still in it. Calling Enterprise, he explained the situation.
Incensed, the attendant sputtered into the phone, “You…you can’t do that!”
But he had done it and there wasn’t a fucking thing they could do about it. As Louis C.K. said, with that now-famous, self-deprecating half smile, “What were they going to do about it? They obviously wanted their car back.” And it occurred to him, Why don’t more people do this?
The point is a valid one. There really isn’t anything the company could do about it at that point, outside of charging a no-return fee, and if you’re in a position to afford the fee…then who the hell cares? This explains why so many rich people are assholes. They have now reached the point where they can afford the added expense of breaking the rules. If you can’t pay the fine, then don’t break the rule. As an aside, this may be the greatest argument in favor of societal classes. As long as there are classes of people who can’t afford the rule breakage fees, they will continue to obey them, thereby maintaining at least a certain level of order.
Rules in writing are much the same. There are writers who will obey the rules because they don’t believe they can afford not to. Some may be afraid the reader will think they don’t know the rules if they break them, so they fall into line for fear of being scorned by their audience. Others keep all of the rules because they have matured as a writer past the point of not knowing the rules, but not to the point of knowing when to break them. However, the writers who will truly break through and write those great books (and I’m not putting myself in their company, by the way) are the ones who have learned to understand but not give a shit. This lends an amazing level of freedom to the writing process. Rules about writing, while they can provide a basic structure, can just as easily shackle the writer and freeze their creativity. I am convinced that this is one of the major causes of writer’s block, an evil, reeking, oozing creature we will discuss in a later post.
One of the other issues with rules is that no one can agree on exactly what they are. There may be statements in this certain posts that contradict what the reader has read elsewhere, to which I say, “Fucking great!” My philosophy is not really about rules. This isn’t to say that I won’t write any imperative sentences, such as, “Don’t call your reader a moron,” but keep in mind that whenever I do so, there is a twinkle in my eye and a knowing smile on my smug little face, because I know what all writers should know: that rules are meant to be broken. This doesn’t mean that one should muck about and break all the rules willy-nilly, simply because one can. There is a revised and, I believe, more accurate and encompassing version of that rule about breaking rules that I alluded to earlier: “Learn the rules and then break them.” A well-broken rule can make a story come together and stand out from the pack.
The dusty little secret, kept as secure as nuclear codes by the stuffy writers of actual rule books, is that there are really not that many unbreakable rules in writing. In fact, the only one I can conjure as I’m typing this (there may be one or two others) is that something has to actually be written in order to be called writing. Something must appear on the page, electronic or otherwise. And a rule that is considered unbreakable now will likely be viewed differently in a decade or two when someone has the audacity to break it. It wasn’t too long ago that the previous sentence would have been attacked by an editor’s pen for beginning with a conjunction. Some still cling to that idea, although most have realized that the rule itself has no grammatical foundation and that a sentence, by definition, must only contain a subject and verb to be considered viable. We are also at the stage, achieved longer ago, where fragments are acceptable in creative prose as a method of creating pace and realism. Quotation marks, while still an excellent and strongly recommended method of indicating dialogue, are nowhere to be found in a surprising number of more recent books.
The point is, having arrived here through an ever-narrowing labyrinth, is that rules are just fine as guides—we could even think of them as compasses to be used when we lose our way—but should not be allowed to become dictators. Nothing spoils creativity faster than restraint and nothing imposes restraint more effectively than a heap of rusty rules. Don’t worry too much about what the “right” method is or what someone else demands you do. Robert Masello, an award-winning writer, says it nicely in his delightful book, Robert’s Rules of Writing: “…the only real secret is that everything works—for somebody. Finding out what works for you is all a matter of trial and error” (Rule 102). (Mr. Masello is so charming throughout his book that we’ll forgive him for putting the word “rules” in the title.) Pay your respects to the rules and give them room to work, but if they get in your way too much, don’t be afraid to show them who’s really in charge.
(“Rules” is an excerpt from a chapter in the upcoming book, An Affair with Words.)