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Art and Anarchy - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Art and Anarchy
All great artists break the rules.

I can't argue with that and wouldn't want to. But I'm sick of it being followed by the narcissistic corollary, "So I'm not going to be bound by them, either."

Great artists don't break the rules because they're too lazy to master them, or because they've "paid their dues" in drudgery and are now free. Great artists break rules deliberately, in order to achieve a specific effect or make a specific statement. This can't be done unless the rules have been mastered to a point where they're internalized and instinctual.

You can't improvise a rap if you don't know the backbeat and understand how many syllables you need in a line and how many lines there will be in a verse. You can't play a jazz riff on the saxophone if you don't know which keys make which notes. You can't do a triple Salchow if you you're worrying about staying upright on your skates. Most people accept things of that nature without thinking twice about it, but when it comes to writing fiction or poetry, this sort of common sense seems to disappear with alarming frequency under indignant cries of "How dare you hinder my self-expression?"

Writing is like any other art. You can't break the rules effectively until you've learned them. Gimmicky stylistic techniques are not a replacement for time and practice, and in fact are usually more difficult to pull off than standard prose--in other words, don't try the gimmick until you've mastered the standard because it won't work.

As an example, the fictional diary has become a popular form. There's nothing wrong with it as a form. The trick is to make it sound spontaneous, maybe a little random, certainly chatty. That's the surface trick, the gimmick. But under it is a story, a structured and crafted piece of work. Using a diary format doesn't excuse a writer from that, it just introduces a new level to the storytelling. The point of view choice has been severely limited and the author is no longer free to make his or her own comments, because character is never broken. Slang can be more commonly used, but in order to be comprehensible, carefully constructed sentences will need to give the slang context. Being able to do this well is a wonderful thing, but a difficult thing.

Far too many inexperienced writers (I won't say young, because I believe there are some very competent young writers out there) are taken in by the casual tone of a diary-style book. They seem to approach their stories with the idea that the great advantage of this format is that it allows them to use the slang they know rather than more normative fictional language, and it is therefore both easier and "more true to life." (Convenient double duty, that.) This doesn't produce good fiction, and often produces totally incomprehensible fiction. The basics have to come first. You have to understand what makes a story tick. Establish a whole milieu, and then a reader can make sense of a fictional entry like,

Oddly enough, without structure and context--also known as "the rules"--that may be somewhat unclear.

And breaking every rule of essay writing because I'm out of time, I will just leave it at that.

I feel a bit...: geeky geeky

8 comments or Leave a comment
ashtur From: ashtur Date: December 6th, 2003 10:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I couldn't agree more. While I am a novice in writing, I am a very experienced public speaker, which also has it's own rules and concepts.

Yes, I break the rules from time to time. However, I know what the rules are, and why they are. A consistant adherence to the rule of speaking "3 parts" for example, leads to a certain predictablility. These people hear me literally every week, sometimes twice a week. I don't always consciously decide "ok, time to break the rules", but I've also long since developed my style, and after somewhere north of 700 times, can do it instinctively. However, that is the result of experience, and I would suggest a novice copy me, until they learn the basics, and work out their own style.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: December 6th, 2003 12:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I can translate that example:
This is terrible fanfiction!
It frustrates me that people can write that badly.
I will now proceed to gouge out my own eyes so I can read no more of it.

I agree with what you're saying. Breaking the rules on purpose for effect, that's good writing.
Breaking the rules because you don't know about them or don't care is sloppiness and ignorance.
From: leeflower Date: December 6th, 2003 03:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
Jediowl's pretty much got it spot on.

For instance, there's nothing more annoying than people who attempt to excuse bad grammar as 'their style.' And I'm definetely with you on the journals. You not only have to know how to tell a first-person story, you have to know what that first-person would write down and how. In many cases, it can be a wonderful excercise in the use of an unreliable narrator.
...if people would actually bother thinking far enough ahead to figure out what they're trying to say.

And you're right, it's mostly inexperience. Thanks for not tying that to age-- I don't claim to be any kind of ingenious (or even competant) writer, but I've seen people who are a lot older write a lot worse.
narnian_dreamer From: narnian_dreamer Date: December 6th, 2003 07:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I whole-heatedly agree.

But after seeing this icon for so long, I just have to ask...What in the world is INTJ?
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 6th, 2003 08:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
My Myers-Briggs personality type. I'll find a free version of the test and post it. It's kind of like a horoscope, except that designed by a psychologist instead of Trelawney. Luckily, my personality type and my sign (Leo) match pretty well, so I don't have to split myself in half...

narnian_dreamer From: narnian_dreamer Date: December 9th, 2003 08:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I know that test. We all had to take it for a freshman seminar. I got INFP. So, I'm assuming it says something like what's in your icon in the personality assessment for INTJ. Weird.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: December 9th, 2003 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
The various type prayers are at this site.
Obviously, just jokes on tendencies. :)
myf From: myf Date: December 7th, 2003 03:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hooray for someone to explain to me why I find the excuse, "It's my style! That means it can't be wrong!" so bloody useless. And you're entirely right, of course.

I remember going to a Picasso museum in Spain, which documented his work chronologically. It was fascinating to see him master the craft of painting, before deciding to break the rules and paint 85 copies of Las Meninas. Just as you say, although I never made that logical connection before.

Thank god I'm never tempted to write. I'd be one of them for sure. (eep)
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