I’ve just finished listening to a 24 lecture series called “Writing Great Sentences.” I enjoyed it a lot–’twas all about cumulative sentences, parallel construction, writing with double rhythms, triple rhythms, and “duple and triple rhythms,” etc.
But I think my favorite lecture came at the end, and I have two thoughts to share. First, the professor (Dr. Brooks Landon) talked about “mythrules”–and I loved his word. According to Dr. Landon, “mythrules” are “rules that rule no one–other than perhaps a handful of pop-grammarians and hardened purists who lok for their authority somewhere in the sky rather than here on earth.” (Quote from Edgar H. Schuster).
As I teach writing, I talk about a lot of rules . . . but I’m amazed when I hear about even more from my students. And I never mention a rule without prefacing it with the comment, “Nine times out of ten . . .” because no writing rule is absolute. But beginning writers tend to cling to rules as if they were some kind of magic wand, and by following them exactly, they’ll somehow find their work publishable.
But excellence is a lot more than not breaking the rules. It’s writing original material, with a fresh and unique voice, and too often the “rules” tend to whittle that voice away.
Dr. Landon suggests that writers “test” their rules by picking up a work by a good, published author and reading it. If they don’t break the “rule,” then it’s probably a good idea that you follow it, too. But if they do break it, then don’t sweat that particular rule.
Another comment that struck me was the idea that we’ve all been taught–in school, in seminars, etc–that clarity in writing is the number one priority, but whittling down our words to bare bones “drains style away.” In the words of one writer, “the books” don’t teach style–they abolish it.
So I’m going to be taking some more liberties in my own writing–trying out some long cumulative sentences, working on parallelism, contrasting duple and triple rhythms, and trying to come up with some new forms. I’ve learned about “crot” (a short, somewhat paragraph-like chunk of prose that functions more like a stanza in poetry) and “Grammar B”, and I’m jazzed about entering the digital age and thinking that maybe we won’t write in a linear fashion anymore. With hyperlinks available to us in digital formats, why not write in branching story trees? You could have dozens of story endings, depending upon which links were followed when.
I really liked this observation from Winston Weathers:
“I write for many reasons, to communicate many things. And yet much of what I wish to communicate does not seem to be expressible within the ordinary conventions of composition as I have learned them and mastered them in the long years of my education.
“What I’ve been taught to construct is the well-made box. I have been taught to put ‘what I have to say’ into a container that is always remarkably the same, that–in spite of varying decorations–keeps to a basically conventional form: a solid bottom, four upright sides, a fine-fitting lid.
“Indeed, I may be free to put ‘what I have to say’ in the plain box or in the ornate box, in the large box or in the small box, in the fragile box of in the sturdy box. But always the box–squarish or rectangular. And I begin to wonder if there isn’t somewhere a round box or oval box or tubular box. If somewhere there isn’t some sort of container 1) that will allow me to package ‘what I have to say’ without trimming my ‘content’ to fit into a particular compositional mode 2) that will actually encourage me to discover new ‘things to say’ because of the very opportunity a newly-shaped container gives me, 3) that will be more suitable perhaps to my own mental processes, and 4) that will provide me with a greater rhetorical flexibility, allowing me to package what I have to say in more ways than one and thus reach more audiences than one.” –Winston Weathers An Alternate Style (1980)
So if you’re a writer, go forth today and set yourself free to find your voice. Find your unique box–or tube or tree–and write away. 🙂