Once upon a time, long, long ago, I packed my bags and went traipsing down I-35 to Baylor University. I was a bright-eyed freshman, looking forward to living away from home for the first time. The college of my choice had accepted me and the future awaited. I couldn’t wait.
I was lucky, although I didn’t know it at the time. My parents held expectations, reasonable ones, on me growing up. They expected me to work during the summers, whether it was babysitting or at the local theme park or the local burger joint. I had to keep my grades up. I didn’t have a curfew but they expected me to tell them what time I’d be home (and who I was going with and where we were going) and I was to call if I was going to be late. If I ever felt unsafe somewhere or if I’d drunk too much, all I had to call. I wouldn’t get in trouble. Implied was that we would have a serious talk about my choices the next day.
In other words, I was prepared, or at least as prepared as possible, for college.
Or so we all thought.
What I wasn’t prepared for was freshman English.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew the rules of grammar. I knew how to write a kick-ass research paper, complete with primary and second sources. I knew how to write fiction. With the exception of one semester under the teacher from hell, I’d never made less than a B in English throughout public school. When it came to writing, I made As.
But I wasn’t prepared to sit in a class where the only goal was to beat creativity out of us in favor of following the rules.
There I was, a bright eyed, excited 17-year-old, sitting in my first English class of the semester. Our teacher was a small, unassuming woman. At least that’s the way she appeared. Then she walked up and down each aisle, slapping a single piece of paper on each occupied desk. That should have been our first warning. A silence fell over the class as we scanned the page, one in which the only sounds were the ticking of the wall clock and the click-click-click of the instructor’s heels as she moved around the room, handing us what might as well have been an execution order of creativity.
- Three misspelled words, you flunk the paper.
- Two comma faults, you flunk the paper.
- Two dangling modifiers, you flunk the paper.
- Two split infinitives, you flunk the paper.
- Any combination of the more than twenty ways to flunk the paper and you flunk the paper.
- Failure to have a C average on the last three papers and you flunk the class.
Think about that. Here was a class filled with students, many of them like me who had not only come from high schools that put great value on giving their students a top-notch English education but who had scored in the top 1% on the college entrance exams. Add to that every week saw at least one, if not two or three papers being required in the class.
And this was English 101.
My first paper came back looking like the instructor had slit her wrist and bled all over it. I flunked. I’d never before come close to flunking an English paper and I didn’t understand. We’d been asked to write a 500 page story with dialog. Easy-peasy. Or so I thought.
You see, my characters didn’t speak in complete sentences. They used slang and split infinitives. In short, they spoke the way we speak in real life. But that wouldn’t work in this class. Every word had to be written with the rules in mind. Context didn’t matter.
I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Nor could most of the rest of the class. The only ones who seemed able to conform were those the rest of us realized weren’t creatives. These were the ones who would become professors. They parroted the lessons back to the instructors without any interpretation. Hell, let’s be honest, they did it without any feeling. They were the Stepford Students.
They were, in short, exactly what the instructor and, by extension, the English Department wanted–good little group thinkers.
I hung in there. I refused to give up. I knew I was a good writer. I came from a family of writers, going back generations. We were also good communicators. So what was wrong? Why was I having such a hard time?
Why were any of us having such a hard time?
It took me a long time to figure it out. Mind you, the instructor gave us part of the answer toward the end of the semester. The rules were put in place to kill creativity and mold us into literary writers. Okay, she didn’t quite put it that way but close enough. She did tell us they wanted to mold us into literary writers. She also told us the rules regarding genre fiction didn’t apply and they were doing all they could to force us into a new mindset.
Since I knew I was transferring to another university because I needed to be closer to home to help with my Dad who had been seriously ill that semester, I let it go. Hell, I even said a thank you when the ability to follow those rules snagged me a job the following Fall semester at UTA as an unofficial TA in the English Department. I couldn’t have the official title because I was a lowly sophomore, but I did the same job the “real” TAs did.
That’s when I started looking at how different teachers approached the subject. The exceptional professors taught the rules. But they also taught that rules were sometimes meant to be broken. Those teachers who were too rigid, or who lacked creativity, conducted their classes the way my English 101 class had been conducted. In classes taught by the former, students learned the rules but their creativity was allowed to flourish. They became better writers, both for fiction and non-fiction, because they could allow their creativity to come out. The latter were so focused on making sure they followed the rules, creativity and originality often went out the window. It took a backseat to conforming.
What I didn’t realize for a long time, not until I met Sarah and Dave and started looking at the publishing industry, is that this same mentality has run rampant there as well. Too many editors and traditional publishers want their writers to follow the rules. That often happens at the cost of the story. After all, if you are having to worry about making sure you include non-traditional characters–and at the same time worry about not being accused of appropriating someone’s culture–creativity may suffer. If you have to worry about making sure you check off all the requirements to be sufficiently “woke”, story may take the backseat.
I’ll admit, I want a story that entertains when I’m reading fiction. I don’t want to be hit over the head with the author’s politics or social beliefs. I don’t mind if they weave those into the prose, letting it sneak in as part of the story. In fact, I appreciate the skill an author uses when I find a book like that. I might not agree with the politics, but I love the craft, if that makes sense.
In non-fiction, I expect more formality when it comes to following the rules of grammar, etc. I expect it to be well-researched. I want sources, primary and secondary. I will point, laugh and mock if you want to be taken seriously but only use innuendo and “unnamed sources” to support your points.
What I don’t want, either in fiction or non-fiction, is for a writer to be so focused on following the rules that they lose the creative spark, that something that makes your work different from everything else out there. In fiction, it can be the “voice” of the piece. It is also how your characters speak. A character in today’s world isn’t going to speak in proper Queen’s English every single time they open their mouth. A character set on a distant world in the far-flung future very well may have slightly different sentence structure, slang, etc.
So here’s a note to creative writing instructors. You are teaching more than the rules of writing. You are teaching your students to be creative. Don’t focus so much on rules that you kill the creative. Listen to your own children when they talk about the books they enjoy. Ask them why they enjoyed a particular book. I bet not one of them will say it’s because the writer followed all the rules of grammar. Instead, they’ll talk about the story or a character they liked or could identify with. Remember, most readers don’t read a lot of literary anything. They read non-fiction and genre fiction.
Rules are there for a reason but we shouldn’t be slaves to them–at least not when it comes to writing.