Recently a writer asked me which was more important: Observing the "rules" of grammar, construction and all that, or to follow one’s own creative impulses?
The question set up an automatic conflict in my own heart. On the one hand, I'm a bit of a compulsive editor; I cannot bear to see a typo even in something as meaningless as a shopping list. On the other hand, like many creative types, I'm not a big believer in "rules," nor a big fan of people who enjoy imposing rules on others.
I suspect one reason many writers abhor the concept of "rules" is that it reminds us too much of school. In the classroom, we were told what "rules" of writing and grammar we must follow, and faced the penalty of bad grades if we failed to observe them. While creativity was often encouraged, it was never encouraged to the point of "rule-breaking." I'm sure many of us can recall the sort of teacher who was far more interested in checking the commas in our compositions than in reading what we actually said.
However, if we can't put our commas in the right places, we lose the ability to communicate clearly, or to engage the interest of our readers. If, like the t-shirt, we aren't sure whether to write "Let's eat, Grandma" or "Let's eat Grandma," we alienate readers who don't feel like wasting time trying to figure out what we meant to say rather than what we actually did say. Most of us became writers because we fell in love with the way other writers manipulated words and punctuation to make us see and feel and experience things through the printed page that we had never imagined possible. We wanted to do the same. We set out to discover how--and, quite often, got handed a list of "rules."
The problem with rules is that the very word conveys a host of negative meanings and implications. Rules control us. Rules govern us. Rules constrain us. Rules translate into requirements, into the need to conform to the standards of others. They tell us what to do. They literally rule us.
Creative types tend to dislike being told what to do, even when that instruction is offered in the most well-meant and gracious way possible. To be creative is almost by definition to be a rule-bender; it is to have a penchant for non-conformance, for seeking out the roads less traveled, to find one's own way. And yet... What shall I do, if I don't want my readers to suppose that Grandma is on the menu?
Here's one possible solution: Change the rules... to tools. Because, basically, that's what they are. Grammar is a tool. Punctuation is a tool. Vocabulary is a tool. Story structure is a tool. Dialogue is a tool. Everything that we use to create our written worlds is a tool.
Once we start thinking of these elements as tools, they fit into our grasp far more easily. Tools are things that one can pick up or put down at will. We all understand the need for good tools, and the importance of being able to use those tools effectively. Just as a carpenter quickly learns that a saw is not a hammer, a writer learns that a comma is not a semi-colon. One tool serves one purpose; another tool serves a different purpose. But most importantly, all tools serve us.
When it comes to tools, we are the master, not the servant. We control them, rather than the other way around. We use them; they don't use us. We define them; they do not define us. We choose when to use them and how.
We also have no difficulty understanding the importance of having good tools. If you were a carpenter by trade, you probably wouldn't be satisfied with the little plastic hammer that you allow your two-year-old to play with. It's cute but it's not a very effective tool. You would want something that works. As a writer, you're no different. You're well aware that the more tools you have, and the better those tools are, the better equipped you are to create the works that you want to create.
Mastering tools is also important. Having a hammer that you don't know how to use isn't very helpful. And so, as we seek to improve our craft, we recognize the need to continue mastering new or more complex tools, or the need to improve our mastery of tools that are fairly basic but that we haven't quite come to grips with yet. But the key element, again, is the word "mastery" -- tools don't master us. We master them.
Perhaps the most important issue of all is the issue of choices -- which is the issue this writer was inquiring about in the first place. Rules give the impression of removing choices, or constraining them: You must do this. You must never do that. Tools, conversely, empower us by giving us more choices. The more tools we possess, and the more that we can use effectively, the more choices we have about how we pursue our creative goals. If we have too few tools, we quickly discover that we can't achieve our goals. The bigger our tool-kit and the better our tool-using skills, the greater our chances of achieving our creative dreams.
Nobody particularly likes having to live with a lot of rules. But you can never have too many tools. There's another old adage to take to heart here: Take care of your tools and they will take care of you. Learn to handle your tools with skill and wisdom -- and, unlike rules, they will surely take you where you want to go!