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Breaking Rules

Posted by Priscilla on May 21, 2013

Have you ever noticed how quickly we learn to break rules? I tell ten-month-old Julia, “Do not pull the books out of the bookcase,” and not five minutes later, she walks over to the shelves, looks back to see if I’m watching, and pulls a book down onto the floor.

Now, it’s true that some of us learn to be great rule-keepers. I wonder if that’s because we’re afraid, somehow, that broken rules bring chaos. 

On a surface level, that’s true. The rule that makes you stop at a red light, keeps me safe as I go through the green. Imagine the chaos if no such rule existed. Even rules in families provide structure and safety. Be home before dark. Tell Mom where you’ll be. Come to the dinner table on time.

Fear of the chaos of life can keep us in a straitjacket of rules. If I follow all the rules, bad things won’t happen to me. So I begin early: I won’t step on a crack, for fear of breaking my mother’s back. I will line up my peas in rows and eat them one by one to make sure there is order in my world. I won’t cry. I won’t tell. I will. I won’t.

I believe in the freedom to break rules. When needed.

An easy rule to break is the red-light rule. If I’m about to deliver a baby in the car, my husband had better not stop at red lights. Most rules are man-made constructs, to fit most situations. And rules mostly work. But if “man” made the rule, “man” can break it and re-write it to make life better. That’s what I did when I taught English in one of Philadelphia’s worst city schools. I’m not allowed to give a student a time-out in the hall? Tough.  He needs consequences and my class needs a break from his antics. The central office will never let me do _________ (fill in the blank with almost anything you can imagine)? Tough. If my students are going to learn, I need to break the rule.

This week I read The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman, a novel which breaks so many “rules” of writing it makes your head spin. Yet the novel works. Tremendously. Reviewers said things like “extraordinary,” “beautiful,” “stunning debut,” “heart-breaking,” “haunting,” “irresistible.”  Stedman provides us with a crazy number of POV characters and hops from one to the next without warning.  This rule breaking gives us, in little snippets, a sense of who these people are and how their desires collide. Linda Morris, who spoke with Stedman by phone, says this:

Such a free-wheeling style accounts for the way The Light Between Oceans unfurls in small acts, at first feeling slight to touch, then building in emotional substance. Into the spaces between words, Stedman breathes an anxiety and pulsating intensity that roils with the ocean and the lighthouse beacon…

Sometimes, as in this novel, breaking rules is the only way to get to the heart of life. If we can get past the fear of chaos, we can break a rule in order to create order. If we can get past the dread of confusion, we can break a rule in order to shape beauty.

What does this mean for the writer?

Don’t be afraid to break a rule. But don’t break rules unless you have first learned to follow them well, until you know why the rule exists in the first place, until you can see a higher beauty, a higher order than you will achieve by keeping the rule.

Now, that’s a near impossibility for most of us.

What do you think?



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