Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Breaking the Rules

On an episode of  The Golden Girls, Rue McClanahan's Blanche sarcastically asks if Betty White's Rose was a wild woman.  Rose replies, "Oh, you bet I am! I eat raw cookie dough. And occasionally, I run through the sprinklers and don't wear a bathing cap. And at Christmas, I've been known to put away more than one eggnog."  In contrast to her dimwitted, good girl image, Rose Nylund liked to break the rules. She was a rebel.

Some people love to live by rules.  They don't speed or roll through a stop sign.  They never wear white after Labor Day and they wouldn't be caught dead eating red wine with fish.  The rest of us like to push the envelope occasionally. 

Certain rules need broken or at least challenged.  I had a friend once, many years ago, who was studying to be an actor.  He took classes in dance, voice, movement, and acting.  He went to a well known theatre school and studied at a private conservatory.  He did everything he could to prepare for a career in theatre.  Everything except audition.  He didn't actually have any theatre experience because he was waiting to learn all the "rules" first.  By the time he learned all the "rules" he was no longer interested in theatre.  To this day, he rarely does any acting.  I think I read that he started a garage band somewhere and works in computer science.

Whatever vocation, or hobby, or fleeting interest we have comes with a set of rules.  The trick is to know which rules you can break and which ones you can't.  Sometimes its more fun if you do it before you know the rules.  

I have two great passions: writing and photography.  Theatre is a close third, but I've learned too many rules so it doesn't hold the same joy for me now. 

In photography, any beginner's manual will tell you to NEVER center your subject in the frame.  It makes for an uninteresting picture.   That may be true on many occasions.  A different angle is sure to make for better composition, but sometimes the best pictures come from breaking the rules.  The photo at right by Steve McCurry, is a famous exception.  Afghan Girl's face is centered, horizontally and vertically, and it's a haunting photograph.  The photographer knew the eyes were the story. Why try to deny that?  Put them front and center.  There are many exceptions to this rule throughout the history of photography.  If no one ever dared break the rules, we'd be without such beautiful photos.

As most of you know, I love to write and writing has its own set of rules.  Show don't tell. Don't end sentences with a preposition. Too many adverbs make for uninteresting reading. Backstory shouldn't be told in chunks. Short stories shouldn't have flashbacks. The list goes on an on.  I have a theory that some writers who can't sell what they write, like to write books telling the rest of us what the rules are and warn us against breaking them.  

What I like to do is throw out the "rule book" and refer to those ideas as suggestions or guidelines.  After all, calling it a rule just makes me want to break it.  Like Rose, I too sometimes like to eat raw cookie dough.  I'm a rebel like that.  And I might even begin a sentence with "and."  That's a no no.

Of course we need to have some rules, but we need to be flexible enough as writers, photographers, actors, artists, singers, etc.. to experiment with bending them or breaking them in the name of creativity.  Its not always going to work, but at least we will have tried.  Having a checklist is good.  Living by the checklist is not.  

If writing is all about following the rules of what's trendy today, we might as well be making widgets on an assembly line.  Not something I aspire to do. 

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. Bottom line, if a story is good, with a basic reverence to grammar, spelling, etc. then rules are just guidelines.