Discussion #4: Rules

We have all heard the statement: Take the time to learn the rules, then you can leave them behind or break them, or something to that affect. My thought on that is: which rules are we talking about? The rules of language, grammar, word usage, or poetry and prose. In all reality, the rules differ for each of us on some levels because each of us came to write via our own individual path. And each of us picked up different rules along those paths, depending on who, or what, we might have had contact with along the way.

Some of us have read books on writing, others have taken courses, classes, workshops, or seminars. And some of us have degrees. And all of those things contain the personal biases of the author, teacher, or speaker. The most important aspect of all of that, as it pertains to this discussion of the moment, is that we also have personal biases, and because of them, chose which pieces and parts, of whatever information we gathered up, to keep and continue to use.

This discussion is about rules. Not the rules of language, or writing, but the ones that you have personally chosen for yourself and whatever form of writing you do. In other words, what do you make sure you include or exclude from whatever you write?

This may take some thought on your part. We are not always consciously aware of the rules we create for ourselves. We simply engage them, often silently, or without a lot of thought process. One way to approach it is to allow yourself to think of what particular things turn you off in what others write? What habits upset you when you see them while reading? And the reverse works just as well: when reading what makes you sigh and nod your head in agreement and satisfaction?

Recently, Viv used the word meticulous about something I had written. She unwittingly threw me back into my life before writing (yes, there actually was a time like that). I was canning pickles while a friend kept me company. Afterward, she told me that I was both methodical and meticulous about what I was doing. At first, I just laughed because those two words didn’t have much to do with my chaotic and fly by the seat of my pants existence. She realized that I had no comprehension of what she was talking about, so sat down and pointed out exactly what she meant. Whew! I certainly wasn’t aware of all the things she noticed while we were yakking.

When Viv jolted me back to that memory, I realized that the same thing was true of my writing. I am very methodical about what I post, meticulous might still be a bit of a reach. I want to be understood. That is my first rule and it comes from experiences in my childhood.

Like Annell, I started writing to see if I could figure out just how my own thought processes worked, figuring if I could see them in action, I might get some clues. Even after all of these years of playing with words, that remains my main objective. And I am thinking that my methodical approach to each of my posts might actually appear as meticulousness. I want to be clear, so find myself shaking my head when I can’t quite grasp what I am reading. Carelessness is responsible for many mistakes, that and rushing, so being careful and taking time to make sure I have been as clear as possible are definitely personal rules I have established for myself.

What that means is that I read and reread, then reread again. Often scratching out and rewriting in the process. I may start out with something that is perfectly okay, but I’m not satisfied with okay. I want something beyond okay and my personal rules were established to gain just that.

And those are the things I would ask you to take a look at and write about for this discussion. What are your personal rules, established by you, for your own writing experience? What things do you need to do and see before you are satisfied with what you have written? And no, I don’t mean finished. I agree with Viv, most poems are never really finished. They are often current drafts. Accepting that was a hard rule to establish, lol.

Podium is open.


About 1sojournal

Loves words and language. Dances on paper to her own inner music. Loves to share and keeps several blogs to facilitate that. They can be found here: http://1sojournal.wordpress.com/ http://soulsmusic.wordpress.com/ http://claudetteellinger.wordpress.com/
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10 Responses to Discussion #4: Rules

  1. anl4 says:

    Thank you for mentioning my name. What a surprise to read my name as I read your post. You spoke pretty much for me. As I try to sort through what I think, my writing surprises me, and I hope is a little surprise to the reader sometimes. I never know what I will write, before I start. So there you have it. It’s all just for fun, joy, pleasure, and discovery, and has grown to be a very important part of my life, thanks to you and those who can hear me, and sometimes smile with me, you enrich my life. What a wonderful thing to investigate your heart with my own heart.

  2. Mike Patrick says:

    My primary writing rule was drummed into me during 37 years of police work. Write in chronological order. This rule had forced me adhere to a couple of others.

    Write in complete sentences. Readers expect to be able to understand what we write, and standardized sentence structure helps. When writing informally, I write the way I speak. That means too many contractions and sentence fragments. They are often necessary in poetry in order to maintain the meter; but they are included as a deliberate act. I know I am breaking the rules. In formal writing, it is not permissible.

    Always write a complete tale whether writing a police report, a novel, a short story or a poem. It needs to have a beginning, middle and an end. Thinking about it, that probably makes most of my writing predictable and boring, but it is a habit/rule I can only break intentionally. Falling back to the readers, they expect what they are reading to go somewhere. Breaking that rule for a surprise ending or to let the reader’s imagination fill in the ending is fine—as long as it is a deliberate breaking of the rule.

    The rule of “write to your audience,” becomes almost impossible in poetry. All levels of society read poetry. Should one dumb down their writing to the lowest common denominator? I do not think so, but at the same time, if your writing is too highbrow, you may lose your readers or they may you are insulting.

    Use common, everyday language. I could probably use enough police jargon to confuse some readers, so I do not use it. I also do not write using the language that was directed at me throughout my career. I avoid profanity and totally lose the f-word and the n-word. While there may be a place for it, it offends people; besides, I hope my grandchildren will read my blog someday.

    That is all I have, but then, I’m a novice poet still learning the rules.

  3. 1sojournal says:

    First off, Annell. Your last statement was something I would circle, underline, or put asterisks around if I found it in a book. What an incredible way of saying a heart truth. I think we poets often do just that. We explore the heart of a thing, state of being, perspective with our own hearts. Dangerous to do, but we do it because we choose to. Thanks for that one.

    Second, Mike. I like how you spoke to the issue of having to break the rules intentionally, making it a deliberate thought out process. Sometimes choosing to be a poet is simply that, breaking the rules, and maybe at the heart of all of it, we writers are simply rebels acting on a need to show the world another way of looking at things.

    All writing has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But sometimes, the end is really the beginning, and the middle hasn’t happened yet. I am like Annell, I never really know where the act of writing is going to take me. I may have a vague idea of where I want to go, but often find surprises and a very different destination by the time I’m done. That’s one of the reasons I continue to write. It is an endless adventure and I’m an explorer at heart. Sometimes the rules apply, sometimes they don’t. I like that necessity for remaining open and aware.


  4. margo roby says:

    I think this is a question that fascinates all writers and I love how you tie it to us as individuals.

    I’m with Mike: a beginning a middle and an end, even if they are fuzzy. A poem needs to start somewhere and it needs to change, to accomplish something before the end.

    Punctuation. I need it. Poems without it drive me nuts. It’s a rare poet who can write a poem without needing punctuation, although I have read a couple. To me, punctuation is the guidance system for reading a poem clearly and poems should be clear about what they communicate, or what’s the point?

    My mentor [Jack] taught me all the rules by which I write and the two most important for me are that poems are written to convey a truth about people, or the world, or about life. To that end, everything else bends. If conveying the truth is clearer without punctuation I will even go there, but I will spend weeks revising! The second is that for the integrity of the poem there is nothing I can’t do. It got to a point in my writing, when I still wasn’t sure about myself, that I would ask Jack: Can I? and before I went any further, he grinned and said, Yes, if that’s what the poem requires, always, yes.

    But, like you Elizabeth, I spend hours revising, going back through, reading lines aloud, checking how a poem looks, rewriting, and then I type it and everything changes, lol.

    I like what you said Elizabeth about starting a poem going one way and ending up somewhere completely else. I love when a poem hijacks me. It is such a surprise and always fun.

    Annell: Your last sentence is heartwarming. What a beautiful thing to think and share with us.

  5. pmwanken says:

    Ok…almost a week has come and gone since this question was posed to us…and I’ve taken that long to think about it and I’m still not satisfied I know how to answer it! So, what I’m about to type will probably ramble on a bit. (You’re forewarned!)

    Last week I commented in the interview I did at Poetic Bloomings that I have a lot to learn. I even referenced that oft-quoted “you have to know the rules before you can break the rules” adage (exhortation?). Because I am only beginning to know the “rules of poetry,” I fear that I break the rules with every keystroke…and I don’t even know it!

    But I like how you asked “which rules are we talking about”…indeed, what rules have I picked up (unknowingly!) along the way? There have to be some, right? After all, my poems aren’t all willy nilly with one word here, another over there. I have something inside of me guiding my words. Guiding my phrases. Guiding my poems. What rules are being followed to do so?

    Margo, I’m with you regarding punctuation. Generally. But I find that I often leave it out, choosing to use line breaks where I might otherwise have used punctuation. As I read through whatever I have written, I’ll put whatever punctuation is needed for clarity.

    So far I’ve found another rule I’ve been following is that I cannot write what I cannot feel. For instance, much of my work these days is filled with sadness. I cannot conjure up a really upbeat, happy poem. I’ve tried. It feels forced. And it reads that way, too. So…for now, I’ve been writing what I feel at the moment. Not sure if that’s a rule, or “just where I’m at” right now.

    And I suppose a primary guiding factor is that my poetry needs to be understandable. Too many times have I been told “no, that’s wrong” when asked what a poem means. If I can’t understand what it’s saying, I don’t want to read it. I think there are a lot of people out there like that…so I want to write what can be understood. Which means (as Mike also pointed out) every day language.

    Finally, like Annell said, writing is for fun, joy, discovery. That is definitely true for me…given the fact that I’ve only recently discovered I wanted to write! And I sure have been having fun with it. Ghazals and all.

  6. margo roby says:

    Oh, I agree, Paula. Line breaks if done well don’t require punctuation. In fact, it gets in the way! The break works on its own as a literary device. I love this topic.

  7. Mike Patrick says:

    I absolutely agree with Elizabeth on writing being an adventure. Most of my poetry begins as a freewrite. I never know where it is going to end. With longer forms of writing, I am much more in control. When a character takes off somewhere unexpected (and Margo, I love your term, “hijack”), it is wonderful. This is the soul of writing. Unexpected treasures lie about like diamonds in a cartoon mine. Often, my major editing involves the inclusion of transition lines to link the primary theme to these rebel gems.

    That applies to poetry too. When I say a poem needs a beginning, middle and an end, I mean that it needs to flow from one scene/stanza to another in a natural manner. If a poem begins with a mannequin in a window and ends in a turnip garden, that may work, but there will need to be a few transition lines/sentences in between. If not, Margo is right: what’s the point.

    When I started writing poetry, I always capitalized the first word of every line, duplicating the form used by all the old masters I adore. Viv was kind enough to tell me the capitalization isn’t required on every line anymore. That was the day I began writing in standard sentences with normal sentence punctuation. It felt right and facilitated reading the poem in a manner where the rhythm could be controlled. I notice that even cc cummings, with his popular, barebones poetry style, still throws in a comma or semicolon once in a while.

    And of course, I agree with Paula on writing something you are connected with emotionally. If you feel it, you can write it. The advantages I have over Paula are, I’m old, and I lived in an emotionally charged environment for a lot of years. I slipped into and out of hundreds of personas over those years. It was the only way I could connect with people who were often experiencing the worst days of their lives. After a while, those personas became natural and no longer faked. Now, they step forward as needed for the emotion to connect with a poem. I wonder now if all those nights I drove home with tears running down my cheeks might have been poetry training.

  8. Thank you, Elizabeth for taking me seriously – it doesn’t happen often!
    You have all said much of what I feel about writing. Clarity, and comprehensibility are vital to me, as are good grammar and a modicum of correct punctuation.

    There are two kinds of rules, for me: those of formal poetry, where it is essential to pay at least lip service to whatever poetic form I am trying to use, though still feeling free to kick over the traces when the sense of the poem demands it. I enjoy the discipline of writing to a specific form and metre, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t revel in the freedom to experiment when an idea takes over the reins. Even in free verse, there has to be a musicality and flow in the writing, and to this end, I like to read my poetry aloud a few times to iron out any bumpiness.

    The other rule for me which is fundamental to my writing: truth and integrity. I cannot write well about a subject of which I disapprove, such as cruelty, violence, war, prejudice and the like. Like Mike, I have difficulty with the F word (I’ve never heard of the n-word!).

    I must also believe in what I am writing, and find fantasy to be fun but difficult where it cuts across my innate pragmatism and literal mindset. This failing on my part also leads to a problem with metaphor both in my own writing and in that of others.

    Part of that is Mike’s suggested advantage: my great age is not always an advantage, where I have been conditioned to shy away from unpleasantness or vulgarity. Which leads me to humour: I am incapable of taking myself too seriously, and love the mischief of injecting a lighter note into an otherwise profound poem. Humility is also an ingredient, in that I am frequently aware that I may be mistaken, muddled, and also careless. I find myself editing and re-editing quasi-finished-and-posted poetry to correct my own idiocies.

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for starting this fascinating topic.

  9. neil reid says:

    Late to the dance. Missed noticing this question and discussion, but it has been “big” on my mind since being inspired by an interaction with Margo Roby a little while back.

    That began a poem which is nowhere near ready as yet; ain’t all so easy really breaking rules!

    And yes, as you’ve said Elizabeth – there are rules that seem more externalized (and are easily set aside), but underneath, yes some things very personal about my experience of being here and how things fit together, how they relate and how I express – those really present a challenge to address. But I’m looking. More later (when I know!).

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