Following The Anti-Rules
By Jennifer Edelson
May, 2005, 07:02
Humans are way too hung up on convention. You know, rules, rules and more rules.
According to my handy little Encarta World Dictionary, a rule is: “An authoritative principle set forth to guide behavior or action; or, a prevailing condition or quality.” Authoritative means: “Convincing, reliable, backed by evidence, and showing deep knowledge; backed by an established and accepted authority.” And accepted means: “Widely used and recognized.”
Of "accepted"’s few synonyms, the most ridiculously apt are, “usual” and “conventional” – i.e., “conforming to socially accepted customs of behavior or style, especially in a way that lacks imagination.” (Or, ahem, just plain boring).
Conventional. Yikes, somebody toss me a Xanax before it sinks in. I mean please, raise your hand if you agree. When it comes to art, rules are oxymoronic. Creativity should defy convention – sucker punch it into a violet mass of exceptional ingenuity.
Free expression, as far as I know, isn’t about catering to authority. Which is why I just don’t get the concept of conformity when it comes to writing.
Except maybe when it involves grammar, and even then, well, think how different Nabakov’s work might be if he always used grammar properly.
Encarta defines art as: “Beautiful or thought-provoking works produced through creative activity.” Well, I'm here to tell you, thought provoking gets hard when you’ve got certain P’s and Q’s chasing after you. So if we must have structure of some sort, I propose something more in tune with natural law. Let’s be more lion than person in our writing, attentive to plot and character and prose in a vacuum of instinct and feeling.
Or let’s make our own anti-rules. Principles that keep us, us individual writers, real. Here are my own, seven golden, wholly un-authoritative, unaccepted, unconventional Anti-Rules of Writing:
Anti-Rule One: When someone offers up “an authoritative principle set forth to guide behavior or action,” or tells you that there is some “prevailing condition or quality” about writing that you must abide by in order to succeed, tell them, nicely of course, what to do with their no-good ideas. Unless it’s your mother, in which case, remember to nod really enthusiastically like you agree.
Anti-Rule Two: Reliable and backed by evidence, or by an established and accepted authority is really, really boring. You are not a dog. You do not have to obey because other people do. Most accepted authorities in the writing world are people like you and me, who at some point dared to defy accepted convention and authority. And so on.
Anti-Rule Three: Don’t bother with socially accepted anything. “Socially accepted customs of behavior or style” last about as long as it takes you to read this article. Tides ebb and flow – and artistically speaking, social standards change with every new non-conformist breakout that wows us with great magnitudes of uncommon creativity.
Anti-Rule Four: Unless you are purposely making fun of the status quo, if your writing “conforms” to an established cultural, moral or social writing standard, burn it. Conformity only confirms that you sold your soul somewhere between kindergarten and college, and it makes your writing far less interesting than the unrivaled prose it could be.
Anti-Rule Five: Be honest with yourself. Dumbing down your work for a certain audience, when it’s really sharp, is as stupid as the audience you want to read it. By the same token, writing to impress your friends is really super annoying. Everyone, and I mean everyone spots the guy who writes to stroke his own ego. No one wants to read a glorified dictionary.
Anti-Rule Six: Be honest when you write. Most of us are human. We’ve all had lustful thoughts. We’ve all grown up, felt insecure, suffered embarrassment, been dumped, said bad words, pooped, cried and barfed at a party (haven’t we?). Sweeping yourself under a blank piece of paper when you write for the sake of political correctness, or because you can’t stand the thought of uncle Bob reading a sex scene straight out of your head, is deceptive. Readers know when they’ve been duped. We notice when a character or scene is out of touch with reality and it makes us angry.
Anti-Rule Seven: Break every rule you can when it comes to writing. Experiment. Develop a voice that suits your own unique personality. Don’t read every book under the sun in the same genre unless you’re doing it to confirm your own distinctive deviation from normalcy. People with agendas are frightening. When they say they don’t get “it,” assume it’s because they don’t get anything.
Jennifer Edelson is a Minnesota attorney and legal writing professor. Her writing has appeared on all the finest refrigerators in the Twin Cities. Jennifer can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org