becoming an artist: blundering vs. style

| Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Today's Tune: Neutra Face

Sometimes the life of a writer can get pretty numbing. Okay, a lot of the time. There are so many things to keep in mind while we're creating in order to produce a functional, quality work. It's hard. Rewarding, but hard. Any literate person can write, but not every literate person can create. Creative writing isn't just about stringing words together in a functional way. It's art. It's crafting images and emotions in the medium of text.

But sometimes writers get a little too caught up in their "artist" mindset. Sometimes "art" becomes a wall to hide behind; an excuse for laziness or unwillingness to hear criticism. There's a fine line big, bold gap between intentional style intended to illicit a response in the reader and claiming you're using comma splices because IT'S JUST MY STYLE, SHUT UP, I'M AN ARTIST. I'm not about to go all SnobFace and insist that only certain types of art are "real" art, but you cannot couch lazy crafting in the guise of artistry. That's not how it works.

Let's talk about the difference between artistic style choices and doing whatever you want without caring what the "rules" say because you don't know them/don't care enough to learn about them.

The Rules Exist for a Reason...

Grammar has a purpose. Writing rules exist for a reason. They're not intended to keep you down or stifle your creativity or tangle you up in menial editing. They exist to set the standard for communication. Unless you are keeping a personal diary, when you put words to paper, you intend them to be read and understood by other people. Sloppy punctuation, misplaced modifiers, homophones... these are all obstacles that muddy your meaning for the reader.

You cannot claim artistry and mastery of a medium until you have learned as much about it as you can and truly understand what its "rules" are meant to accomplish. Ignoring or being ignorant of the rules of writing is not art. Art is intentional. Unless you wrote a run-on sentence with a specific intention in mind, it's just a run-on sentence. You cannot defend sloppy craft by claiming it's your "style."

There is no excuse for ignoring the foundation of your craft. Understanding the rules is the key to breaking them with grace and intention. You do not have to be perfect -- we all have our weaknesses and blind spots -- but you absolutely cannot claim to be an artist if you refuse to put in the effort to learn.

This is not art:

"Sally was like a flower and Emily, was like a thorn; two sisters; one stem."

This is not art:

"The air -- it was so hot -- sizzled around me, and Jordan screamed 'DON'T PANIC!!'"

This is not art:

"When my grandma was a little, girl, she wanted to be a singer and I know how she felt because I wanted that too with all my heart, just like her."

Why aren't they art? Because there's no purpose behind my word and punctuation choices, except perhaps being intentionally bad (maybe that's an art in itself, har har har). I made up sentences off the top of my head and didn't intend any special meanings with the choices I made. The commas aren't supposed to signify pauses, I'm not trying to put a specific image in anyone's head with my phrasing, there's no reason for me to leave out or insert the punctuation I did. It's not art. It's just slapdash.

... and the Rules Were Made to be Broken.

The first part may have made me seem like a stickler for THE RULES, but I'm really not. I love it when the rules are broken, so long as it's done intentionally and well. This is why knowing how writing functions and breathes is so important -- it allows us to bend the medium to our own whims. It allows us to use our knowledge with purpose.

This is where artistry begins. Ask yourself WHY. WHY did you choose to use that word or phrase? WHY are you placing a comma there? WHY is that sentence a run-on? WHAT IS THE REASON behind your choice? You should be able to explain confidently and exactly why you made the style choices you did. THAT is your style. Intentional brush strokes, not haphazard splashing.

I use run-on sentences to indicate urgency or stream of consciousness. I use short, blunt, or fragmented sentences to indicate confusion or because I like the way they sound to the ear when they're broken up. I like to use round, soft words for touching moments and hard-sounding words for emotionally turbulent moments. I sometimes incorporate onomatopoeia for ambiance. This is my style. I understand that if I want to break a rule, I need to have a reason. An intention. A goal.

Our greatest literary minds broke rules and thought outside the box. You can, too... so long as you know what you're doing.

I'll leave you with a few atypical quotes to ponder over. Can you see what the author intended and how they crafted these words to give you that image?

Not leaving: an act of trust and love,
often deciphered by children

-- The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

-- Coraline (Neil Gaiman)

"We enter a time of calamity. Blood on the tarmac. Fingers in the juicer. Towers of air frozen in the lunar wastes. Models dead on the runways, with their legs facing backward. Children with smiles that can’t be undone. Chicken shall rot in the aisles. See the pillars fall."
-- Feed (M.T. Anderson)


{ Matthew MacNish } at: March 30, 2011 at 10:08 AM said...

I love this. I completely agree. You have to know the rules, so that when you break them, you make sure that you are doing it on purpose, and with good reason.

Personally I can't seem to get away from writing gerunds, but I'm an artist, so it's just my style.

{ Andrew Leon } at: March 30, 2011 at 11:24 AM said...

This actually reminds me of Picasso. People, generally, don't seem to understand that he was a classically trained artist, and he was extremely good at that. One of the best in his day. But he wanted to do something different. Have a style that was his own. And, thus, we have a new style of art that broke all the rules of his time period. But he new the rules. Knew how to follow. Chose to break them.

All of that to say I agree completely. Know your stuff before you break the rules. After all, if you don't know the rules you can't respond to challenges about why you break them.

{ Andrew Leon } at: March 30, 2011 at 11:25 AM said...

and a non-post because I forgot to click the subscribe box :/

{ Old Kitty } at: March 30, 2011 at 2:43 PM said...

Oooh fab post! It's like "knowing your enemy is half the battle" - except of course writing rules are not there to be your enemy or your friend but to give you a solid foundation to spring from. Once you have this solidity - go ahead and run riot!!
:-) Take care

{ Jemi Fraser } at: March 31, 2011 at 6:56 PM said...

Great post! Totally agree - you can only break the rules when you understand them - and you understand the effect breaking them will have!

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