Language, or at least the corners of it that we can reach, rarely suffices, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of something to say must be in want of just the right way to say it.
It’s not like this is news to any of us, of course. But it still scares me shitless every time I sit down to write a new story, and usually I end up seeking refuge in silly openings such as Bigfoot trying to squeeze through a giant photograph, or a drunk teddy occupying Sartre’s seat on a bench, or a group of actors pointing rubber chickens at a man. And I’ve come to accept that; I’ve even come to appreciate it. I’m a writerly coward, and I disguise it by being an artist
On the rare occasions that I don’t, however, when I’m feeling bold and boldly face the inadequacies of my vocabulary head on and challenge it to a fistfight (‘cause, come on, honestly, that’s how all of us like to picture it), I never forget the importance of considering anthropomorphism.
If you ask me, very few human concepts and inventions come as close to perfection as the word anthropomorphism.
She’s a beauty, ain’t she? The queen of all mots justes.
Few words come as close to perfection as she does. She describes a process and a technique that, at the core, is always going to be a little silly, and looking at her, taking her in, your eyes bobbing and weaving themselves up and down and round her syllables, you can’t help but get the feeling she’s proud of being who she is. She’s a silly word denoting something silly
, and that’s precisely who she wants to be.
You have to admire that.
But most important of all, when you read her aloud, it’s almost as if, without warning, she might come sashaying down your tongue and spring to life right in front of you. Don’t just trust me; taste her for yourself. She feasts on the attention, and she’s the one I really cuddle with at night.
And when it comes to these infamous purported rules of writing, at least as far as I can tell, many writers, when the light’s out and the shadows dance and grim is the adjective of the moment, cling to them as firmly as I do anthropomorphism.
Thou shalt not have any other approaches before minimalism. Thou shalt not take the name of thy Editor in vain. Remember to never contradict, and twice on Sunday. Honour your genre. Thou shalt not tell. Thou shalt not dump info. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s garden path sentence. And above all, every opportunity you get, always, always repeat these rules to anyone you meet.
And so on and so forth.
We all know them, these rules
, and sometimes it’s like they’re everywhere. They’re that pimpled fella at the pub who’s always there, or the strange woman behind you in the line at the supermarket, intermittently sniffing the back your neck, or that guy from the office with the bloated nose and a name like one of Santa’s reindeer.
Or, rather, we don’t know them know them. For the most part, they’re awkward acquaintances. You rarely speak to them, and when you do you always make sure there are other people around. You may even have a crush on one of them. I know I’ve always had a guilty thing for the rule that says it’s illegal to end sentences with prepositions. And prepositions are naughty by nature, you know, constantly insinuating themselves into sentences and paragraphs where they have no business being.
At the end of the day, though, while they may look pretty and whisper pretty things, or just sniff you in inconvenient spots at inconvenient locations, what do we really know about them?
I’ve never actually been to an office, much less interacted with any of the natives there, and I’ve only once been to a pub, in London, which, at the time, I think I mistook for a phone booth, and for the past year or so I’ve desperately been trying to forget any incidence involving any kind of sniffing whatsoever. So, I may not be the ideal candidate for what I’m about to attempt, but for what it’s worth, here goes.
But first, I think we could all do with a short break
In general, the advice these ‘rules’ seek to lord over us makes, you know, sense—within the right context, of course. The problem, however, is that they’re essentially not rules at all. And they’re certainly not part of Santa’s white-collar herd.
At most, I find, they’re ghosts of arguments past. Behind any one of these rules there’s rarely more than just one side of a decidedly bigger argument. In that sense, they’re more like conclusions to various previously-made arguments. And detached from these arguments (i.e. the line of reasoning through which someone is able to discern whether or not the conclusion arrived at actually makes sense), the conclusions quickly lose their relevance—or worse, as in the case of poor little was and the whole ‘passive voice’ imbroglio, a whole host of detached conclusions may take up refuge together under one umbrella ‘rule’.
I fear not everyone recognises this ghostly aspect, and instead perceive writing as having these rules (such as 'white room syndrome’ or ‘always avoid alliteration’ or ‘desperately eschew -ly adverbs’), and then exceptions to them.
And I can certainly understand that. It’s a very reassuring idea to cling to, after all, and especially in this era of human history, where a notion such as ‘scientific truth’ carries the weight it does (and with good reason, mind you), because it affords to the arts an illusion of a governing system. And wherever there’s a governing system, there’s a formula or a road-map to help you navigate it, and once you think you’ve got your fingers on this magic road-map, you can feel safe, because the mystery of language is no longer a mystery to you, and as such, there’s nothing to fear, no thoughts or emotions or experiences that you can’t convey precisely as you want to, no silly stumbling into a story, no need for things such as drunk teddy bears and rubber chickens.
So it’s easy to lull yourself into a state of false comfort. (This, I think, is also one of the primary reasons why discussions on such topics like this one often boil up so fast. It’s not because all writers and artists are necessarily stubborn fools incapable of appreciating other people’s perspectives. On the contrary, if there’s anything that defines an artist, it’s the ability to sympathise with different and opposite points of view, right? But it’s because, you know, it’s a scary world out there, and sometimes we need something to cling on to.)
Therefore, instead of a matter of rules and exceptions, perhaps it’s best to see it as there being these arguments and whether or not they apply to any given situation.
When critiquing, where the purpose is to remain critical and actively seek out trouble spots, something like, say, an adverb, is easy to spot, and since we all know that, because of these ‘rules’, adverbs are generally frowned upon, many will probably point out the adverb for no other reason than it being such a blatant example of itself.
Which is a good thing. I say, rather they point something out that may or may not be a problem than they don’t. As long as you’re aware of the issue, you can decide whether or not to do anything about it. And that’s where knowing the argument(s) behind the rules becomes important, because what you decide necessarily depends on your interpretation of said argument behind the conclusion(s) inherent in whatever ‘rule’ referred to by the initial comment.
At the end of the day, as with everything else, it all depends on context. If, for instance, you have a series of paragraphs filled with characters turning angrily on their heels and eating hotdogs mysteriously and looking at each other dubiously while sniffing the back of the neck of whomever’s in front of them, you’ve probably got an abundance problem. Very few things are good in extreme quantities (waffles, of course, are exempt from this), and I imagine this point is what makes up part of the argument behind the detached eradicate-all-ly-adverbs conclusion.
There are pros and cons to everything, and our job as writers is to acknowledge that fact and aim to make the best decisions. For better or worse, that’s how I define knowing-when-to-break-the-rules. It's not as much about breaking them as it is about knowing when they apply and when they don’t.