Break the rules (Crimes for writers to commit – Part 2)

Yes, Part 2 of Crimes for Writers to Commit (read part 1) is not going to be about how to deal with constructive criticism, because I have thought long and hard and decided that dealing with constructive criticism does not involve any “criminal” activity. I will, however, blog about it some time in the future.

Today we move on to crime #2, which involves general, broad-reaching criminality: break the rules.

When I say that, I do not mean for writers to go out and create flat characters, implausible plots, and cliché-filled descriptions with glaring grammatical mistakes and expect to produce a timeless work of art. What I mean is that maybe we should change the way we usually think about writing.

Writing, unlike most disciplines, and like most arts, is the antithesis of formula. When you go to the hospital for treatment, you definitely don’t want the doctor to break the rule of washing his or her hands before touching you. You also wouldn’t want a doctor to be so rebellious as to decide that despite all the signs and tests indicating that it is your appendix that requires removal, taking out your tonsils instead would be “wicked cool”. Likewise with lawyers: you don’t want your lawyer to show up in court in gangsta-style clothing to convince the judge that you should have custody of the children after a particularly nasty divorce. No. There are some professions that simply do not lend themselves too much to rebelliousness these days (the past is a different story).

But with writing, a lot of the time, it is breaking the rule that shows us new brilliance. A sentence with inverted word order can show you the English language in a whole new light. Genre-fusion (where two or more different genres are fused to form a completely new and never-read-before genre) is another example of how writers who break the rule end up “making it”, so that the new “way” becomes “a rule”.

I don’t agree with what I see as a primarily elitist view that writing is the domain of a select few brilliant people who are born to enlighten the dull masses with their genius. No. I believe that everyone can write. Even those who are illiterate.

But in my opinion, it goes beyond that.

I think that in a world that is increasingly becoming defined in 140 characters or less, we have forgotten that history and literature were purely oral during times considered as the heights of civilization. This oral history, often recited in poetic form, is as literary — if not more — than today’s bestsellers, and the proof is… in the poetry. To this day, the pre-Islamic epic poems recounting the history of various Arab tribes, still exist, although for centuries, they had remained purely oral, with no written records. The same is true of Greek and Mesopotamian epics, for example.

Even today, I am amazed at the number of Arab poets who can rattle off entire, well-constructed and linguistically flawless and beautiful poems on the spot. A few years ago in Lebanon,  I met a wizened old — and technically “illiterate” — woman from a small southern town who answered a question about the political situation in the country with a long improvised poem. She hardly even stopped to think of the next line. It just came out of her naturally, as if she was singing a lullaby, making tea, or merely breathing.

Would anyone dare claim that this woman is not a poet? Would the act of physically writing those same words down on paper give them more power? I think not.

So here’s me breaking a huge rule of writing: “writing” is not about putting words down on paper (or a screen).

That is only one part of the whole. The words exist before they are physically recorded. They exist in the mind of the writer, and — according to a personal theory of mine — they exist in a realm quite beyond our physical senses (this may sound wacky, but I assure you, I am NOT on any kind of drug — except chocolate, maybe). Oral traditions still hold a lot of power in many parts of the world, and they also belong in the world “writing”.

I think we should stop talking so much about “writing”, which is the medium, and go back to talking about “storytelling”, which is the art.

What do you think about writing vs. storytelling?

What rules do you think writers should break?



Filed under Writing related

10 responses to “Break the rules (Crimes for writers to commit – Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Break the rules (Crimes for Writers to Commit – Part 2) « Writer … | arablives

  2. Chitra

    Hey Marwa,

    Very thoughtful piece of writing – or shall I say storytelling? 🙂 More, more.

    Don’t know what rules to right/write about, but I think writing every day makes for good practice. Look forward to reading more. 🙂

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      Thanks Chitra for stopping by. I’d love to see more of you (both online and offline;)) You’re right about writing every day as good practice. It’s something I’ve heard and read over and over again, and for many many years, I’d want to write every day, I’d plan to write every day, and then I’d just allow the rest of my life to intervene. I’m reading a book now in which the author keeps saying this phrase that’s really striking home: Your writing is important, so give it a priority. (my paraphrase). And now I think it’s time…

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  4. Dalia Salaheldin

    Keep flourishing… my friend 🙂

  5. Dalia Salaheldin

    I think that a writer should break nearly “all” the rules and simply sit down to express him/herself.

    Maybe except daring spelling mistakes and immoral messages.

    Otherwise… I believe that writing is a talent and a skill. It should never be handled as a “profession”, even if the writer is a noble-prize winner.

    I writer should simply give what he has to the world (the ideas.. the taste… the flavor) and leave the rest for the editors and revisors….

    Never write for money, for deadlines, for people’s appreciation…. Just write to speak out what you feel and what you want to say and what you visualize…. “Feel out” what’s inside you…

    Kill all the rules, but please, don’t kill the writer!

  6. Robert C. Nelson

    Writing should be the art of storytelling in written form. It sounds pretty simple, but it’s not. How many of us writers read our works aloud to ourselves? We should. If our words are forced, contrived, or quite obviously not formed from within our souls, they’re just a bunch of meaningless words: no feeling, no reason to bother with them. When I was quite young, every week we would go down to the local library and this most wondrous of women would tell us stoties which enthralled all of us kids. Not most of us: all of us. She was a large woman with an incredible range of voices at her command. She had the power of mesmerization. Her entire body would tell a story; the waving of her arms, her scowling, her smiling, soft laughter, and maniacal laughter and expressions as well. This dear lady could even cry when the moment called for it. How many of us writers can do this? Not enough. Maybe we should try a little harder. My grandfather was a master storyteller as well. For 88 years of his very long life, he had been a man of the sea. Oh, my god, how I miss that man! His stories always had me sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for more, yearning for more, NEEDING more! Yes, he told some of the saltiest tales I have ever heard spun, but they were real; they were magnificent. He always told me to experience life and to tell people about it. Unfortunately, I don’t have the talents he did: you see, I stutter, and I sometimes do it very badly. I must be a storyteller with my written words; I can’t do it any other way; I am so envious of those who have the GIFT. Yes,Marwa, storytelling is an art. Another point I’d like to make is that sometimes we can be around great storytellers, not even know their language and still fell the power of what they are saying- poetry especially. The rhythmic tone can be quite compelling. Speaking of realms beyond our physical senses, you are not wacky, and if you are, you’re not alone. I have discussed with you the fact that in 1966, I had the priviledge of being in Egypt. In the evening, alone in the desert, I could feel the ancient ways, experience things that happened so long ago, and was able to come to complete peace with my inner self. Maybe I just allowed myself to absorb some of the great things from the past. If that is indeed the case, I am a very fortunate man. I’m sorry, Marwa, I’m letting my soul wander all over this great post of your’s. I’ll make the rest short. What rules should writer’s break? All of them! There was a big saying in the presidential election in 1992: It’s all about the economy, stupid. For writers: It’s all about the STORY. Thankyou for this post, Marwa!

  7. Safia.

    Wow,loved this post.:-)
    I am still not able to relate oral story telling and writing,but I found the insight very thought provoking.

    • Marwa Elnaggar

      Thanks Safia, for your comment :). What I was trying to say is that the essence of writing (or its precursor), is story telling, which was historically, completely oral in the beginning. So I wanted to look at the process from a completely different perspective. These days we read so much about technique, plot lines, character development, grammar and mechanics, etc. etc. They are important, as I do point out in the post, but they are not what will make a story or piece of writing stand out. They are more support mechanisms. To me, it’s really the story that counts. Writing is just the physical documentation of a story.

  8. Pingback: Break These Rules | soul of a word

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