I wasn’t a particularly troublesome child. I was able to keep myself entertained, didn’t act out, and stayed out of the sort of trouble that could have inspired multi-volume children’s books. I pretended a lot. Not because I had to, but because I had (and still have) a wild imagination. There’s one time in my life that stands out in particular.
While living in California with my mom and my aunt, my cousin Nathan and I would be forced to take naps in the afternoon. I wasn’t a napper. I never was, really. So my mom and I made a deal: if I could wait until Nathan fell asleep, I’d be able to get up and play with my toys for an hour while he slept. Of course, I’d have to be quiet, but that wasn’t a problem. So, I’d go through the motions and lay down in the middle of the living room floor like we did, and I’d do my best sleeping impression as though it’d cause him to fall asleep faster, and when he was out, I was off to the toy bin. This happened for months and Nathan didn’t know any better for it. I wasn’t breaking the rules, necessarily, but instead finding a way around them that satisfied everyone—my mom, the authority, myself, the restless one, and my hyper cousin Nathan’s need to sleep midday.
The world is full of rules. There are rules surrounding what clothes we can wear or not wear in public, where we can ride our bikes or skateboards, areas we’re allowed to walk through without trespassing, and on and on. Some of these rules are enforced with the power of law behind them and others can be skirted as a means of protest or preference. In the end, no rule is free from being broken. Writing is no different.
There’s nothing more frustrating to me as a writer than to hear from a professor or publication or fellow writer that the rules mustbe followed. No rule must be followed, but doing so will often cause you less trouble. Many of us desire order for fear that hysteria and chaos will prevail, so these rules, from a societal standpoint, serve a purpose. But there’s nothing more condescending to a writer or artist to not only demand that the rules be followed, but to say that the artist’s brand of experimentation or rule-bending is flat out wrong. It’s not. The greatest revolutions in art have come as a result of breaking rules.
I decided somewhere around the middle of my Cormac McCarthy undergraduate literature class that quotation marks were dead to me. It was terrifying and exhilarating. I was uncertain about the choice because I’d, in the past, fought with the rule-breakers, argued against writers like McCarthy. But here I was, doing the same thing. However, when I chose to stop using quotation marks, I was painfully aware of the potential consequences—that out there, there were people like I was, that would condemn and lift their noses to that sort of blatant disregard for grammatical rules. I remembered the purpose of any punctuation: they’re marks on a page used to provide clarity. What I needed was to bridge my lack of mark usage with clarity, and if I could do that, not following the rules would be mostly inconsequential. The page would be better looking in my opinion, cleaner looking, without the scribbles of punctuation marks everywhere, but the dialogue and exposition would remain clear. I committed and I’ll never look back, even considering the consequences.
Understand that when you’re a rule breaker in art, you may very well be damning yourself to a life of being overlooked, not based on the quality of your work, but instead based on someone else’s impression of what is right and what is wrong. I’m sure I’ve submitted to more than one publication that has come to my first line of dialogue, saw the missing quotation marks, and threw the manuscript out. That’s their prerogative (no matter how silly or foolish that makes them). With art, everything is about integrity. If there’s no integrity in your work, you’re just another goddamned artist. Don’t be. Be yourself. Accept the rejection that comes as a result of your rule-breaking. Because someday we might be the ones that change everything.