You Gotta Know the Rules to Break ‘Em

Last week I put up a post, “The Foibles of Self-exploration,” knowing full well that I was using the word “foible” incorrectly.  It refers to a minor weakness in a person’s character, and cannot, therefore, apply to a practice. I knew some of my word-loving friends might call me on it, and one of them did.

I’d looked at other synonyms, though, and none of them had the rhythm or lightheartedness I was going for. When I mentioned this to my friend, she said, “Sometimes I think using a word that sounds good is better than one that conveys the exact meaning. And then the reader can be engaged as well, whether or not the word fits.”

Ordinarily, I’m going to be a stickler for the correct term, but in this case, it didn’t serve my art. And judging from the positive responses I’ve received to that post, you agree.

You’ll often hear me say, “You gotta know the rules to break ‘em.”  But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to use poor grammar just because you’re too lazy to look up the rule.  Or to change the lyrics to a song simply because you didn’t have time to memorize them. Or to improvise in the middle of a scene, without understanding why the scene was written that way in the first place.

But as artists, it’s our job to question the rules and ask if they are relevant or outdated, necessary or arbitrary, helpful or oppressive.

I remember when we were all reading Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, and there was endless discussion among the literary crowd as to whether his decision to omit quotation marks interfered with the story. But Kent was a master writer, and somehow it worked. I’ve seen other authors try to do it and wind up confusing the reader. Just because you can break a rule, doesn’t mean you should.

Breaking the rules isn’t about rebellion for the sake of rebellion, it’s about pushing boundaries and challenging the status quo, but more importantly, it’s about exploring something unique that only you may offer; something that may inspire others or bring them joy. It’s not about ego, it’s about engaging your audience and helping them to feel something.

As always with art, it comes down to connection. And though people may disagree with your decision, and though, technically, they may be right, if the overall response to your work drives people to experience something powerful, you probably did the right thing.