Monday, March 3, 2014

Breaking the rules

One of my favorite moments on The Andy Griffith Show came when Barney Fife explained the two rules at the rock (the Mayberry jail) to his prisoners. "The first rule is," he said, "obey all rules!"

Francine Prose essentially has but one rule for beginning writers in her book Reading Like a Writer (2006): Ignore all rules. In one wonderful chapter she recalls a time in the late 1980s when she taught a writing class at a college located more than two hours from her home. While riding the bus to and from the college once a week, she read Anton Chekhov short stories. She recalls formulating various rules for her writing students (never give your characters similar names, for example, or stick with the same point of view throughout a story) and then she would read a great Chekhov story, often that same day on the way home), that violated the very rule she had expressed to her students. Finally she came to the conclusion, as she puts it in her book, that "literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none."

Vladimir Nabokov said this about the Chekhov story The Lady with the Dog: "All the traditional rules of storytelling have been broken in this wonderful story of twenty pages or so. There is no problem, no climax, no point at the end. And it is one of the greatest stories ever written." In fact, many of the greatest works of fiction you might think of, including Nabokov's own Lolita, violate somebody's rules for good writing.

Yet I do have one caution. James Joyce wrote Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before he wrote Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, just as Pablo Picasso and Salvador DalĂ­ learned to draw realistic images before they painted their surrealistic masterpieces. There may be something to be said for learning the rules and heeding them before daring to break them in the spirit of creativity. Not everyone, after all, is a Chekhov.

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