by Dinah Lenney
Not that you’d do it just for kicks (you’d have to have slew of much better reasons)—and yet: half the fun of jaywalking is that it’s jaywalking, right? That is, it’s breaking the rules. Although—you wouldn’t break them to hurt anyone. And you wouldn’t want to get hurt yourself. So say you’re in the San Fernando Valley on Ventura Boulevard between Laurel Canyon and Colfax and you’re compelled to jaywalk. If you know the way the traffic flows, if you have, on occasion, calculated the time that it takes for the lights to change in each direction—if you’re deeply familiar with that quarter mile stretch, you might get a ticket, yeah, but chances are you’ll make it safely to the other side.
Or say a woman chooses to get married in red (or pink or yellow, or blue or black)—there’s nothing gratuitous about any of those choices, right? If she decides to get hitched but not to wear white, she’s making a statement that once contextualized, tells her guests (and her groom or her bride) something about her history, her values, her personal style.
And have you ever watched “Chopped”? On the food network? Just for instance: in a recent episode, three chefs competed to make an edible entree from the following: mint julep, rack of lamb, eggplant, apple spiced cake. Which doesn’t mean they had to break any rules, but they sure had to know a few, didn’t they. You can’t play that game if you aren’t adept with large and small appliances (knives, whisks, Cuisinarts, convection ovens ) and a wide array of seasonings besides.
Here’s something else: it’s an experienced actor who can actually turn his back on the audience; who isn’t afraid of upstaging himself or being upstaged.
And it’s an accomplished singer who can bend a note to break our hearts—
a trained artist who is as comfortable with oils as with charcoal—
a real clown who can fall down a flight of stairs without breaking his neck.
I’m just riffing here because I was recently asked about breaking the rules—the writing rules—which got me thinking about whether or not they’re important to me.
So at dinner, with rules on my mind, sitting around a table with a bunch of writers, I took a poll: “Which rules of writing are you willing to break?” One of the guys remembered a story about Cynthia Ozick, which I eventually found over at the Paris Review—the whole interview is pretty great actually, but let me quote for you:
Ozick says: “I was taking a course with Lionel Trilling and wrote a paper for him with an opening sentence that contained a parenthesis. He returned the paper with a wounding reprimand: “Never, never begin an essay with a parenthesis in the first sentence.” From that point on, according to Ozick, she made a point of always beginning that way.
And good for her. And see above how I’ve taken up her cause. Except who am I kidding, she did it first: besides which I’m a sucker for rules—the real ones especially (like out of Strunk & White), but also the ones that come in long inspiring lists from famous writers.
As if anyone could tell any of us how to write. The notion is a little ridiculous, which is maybe why Elmore Leonard’s list of ten—some of which seem very sensible—begins with: Never open a book with weather. It’s as if he’s winking at us, right?
And the same thing with Orwell—his rules are great. But the last of the five is the most valuable: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. Which is not to say you can’t write barbarously, too, if you know what you’re doing—if you’re doing so for some good reason (you be the judge).
The truth is, if there were rules for writing—hard and fast rules?—we wouldn’t want to do it. We wouldn’t have to do it. Writing would be like crossing in the crosswalk. Like following a recipe. Which brings to mind the old adage: “If you can read, you can cook.” (Is it true of cooking, do you think? I’m not so sure. What I do know: just because you can read, doesn’t mean you can write. Although if you don’t, it’s likely you can’t.)
Anyway. The reason to learn the rules, such as they are, isn’t so much to follow them, as to develop both the fluency and the confidence to be able to break them when breaking them is called for—not out of ignorance or laziness—but purposefully. You (that is, I) want the reader to be able to take for granted that you know how to punctuate a sentence; that you’re clear on the difference between past and present tense; that you can conjugate the verb “to lie.” You don’t want to be suspected of breaking the rules by accident. Nor would you break them only to be clever, right?
So why ever break them then? I read a piece in last Saturday’s New York Times, William Grimes on various authors who have chosen to write in a foreign tongue. Francesca Marciano, an Italian who writes fiction in English, is quoted as saying, “You discover not just words but new things about yourself when you learn a language.” And Karen Ryan, a scholar of Russian émigré literature cites “a sense of play and inventiveness” in the work of writers who learned to speak English in their 20s. Nancy Huston, a Canadian, says that writing in French, her second language, was easier: “I didn’t have the memories and the dreams and all the baggage.” And Yiyun Lee explains, “If you are a native speaker, things are automatic… For me, every time I […] write something I have to go back and ask, “Is this what I want to say?”
Mono-lingual as I am, dependent on my fluency as I am, glib as I sometimes can be, I can’t even imagine. Though I’m envious— though it seems to me there’s even a rule in there somewhere, having to do with not taking anything for granted, least of all language.
Otherwise— with genuine respect for a whole lot of the rules—I guess it’s not so much a question of which ones I’d break, as much as which ones I wouldn’t in order to say what I want to say. Because who’d want to be accused of writing by the rules, right? I’d rather be caught jaywalking.