Breaking the Rules of Art: With Experience and Time


Earlier this week, my professor gave me permission to break a citation rule. His note read, “With your background and skill as a storyteller and writer, you have all the authority you need to make this statement without a citation.” In all my years of writing hundreds (seriously, hundreds) of papers, I have never had a professor tell me this.

The fact that he gave me permission wasn’t what surprised me the most. It was what he said to validate the permission that surprised me. I’ve written about six papers for him thus far. Prior to this course, I was a complete stranger to him. He never read a written word of mine before.

Yet, he gave me permission to break the rules. It got me thinking about the above quote by Picasso. For one, I think his statement holds validity simply because of who said it. Picasso wasn’t your average guy stating this. He was one of the best artists known to man. He had the experience and life filled with amazing work. I am sure he also had pieces he never wanted to see the light of day.

He was trusted. He did not seek to be a trusted artist. He simply did what he could do best—paint. I understand that. I felt the same way when I read the comment from my professor. It hasn’t ever crossed my mind to blatantly break the rules in English. But, I do recall moments when I have disregarded tips to improve certain phrasing or terminology simply because I have years of experience to guide me.

I think that’s one thing people may or may not realize about this above quote. Picasso isn’t by any means declaring to intentionally break rules. He’s saying one’s art and their lifelong knowledge should come so naturally that breaking a rule isn’t a deliberate action.

As an artist, in whatever medium, through the years, one learns their niche in the field. One first learns all he or she can to truly understand the technicalities and foundation. Then, one learns where he or she stands in the middle of it all. Take, for example, the poet e.e. cummings.

The fact that I wrote his name in all lowercase letters is proof enough. Cummings learned the rules and broke them in such a way, that those who know him and his work can simply say, “Oh yup, that’s a Cummings piece.” Not only did he always lowercase his name, he also ignored most punctuation rules. He purposely had the words of his poems shaped into a certain design as a whole to enhance his overall message.

If you have experience in a field, there will come a time when you will break the rules naturally to maintain your specific voice and style. It’s not bad. But, it can’t be forced either. If you try to force yourself to break the rules simply to break them, it’ll be tacky and people will notice.

It will take much time. It will take many butchered stories, or poems, or songs; or many burnt cupcakes, or casseroles. You get the point. There will be far more failures than successes at first. Then, you will gradually improve. Not because you have to, but because you want to out of passion for what you love to do.

I think part of the reason why my professor may have said what he said was because he could see the heart I have behind my writing in every discussion prompt or paper I present. Anyone who meets me will shortly learn I love God, coffee, and writing. I am where I am in my writing because I have spent 10 years and counting constantly and diligently learning and growing in my craft. I constantly ask questions about my field. I research why one rule occurs over another.

And lastly I tell you, you can’t be the one to tell yourself it is okay to break the rules. Being a genuine artist takes relentless feedback from others. It takes consistently asking someone you trust, whose opinion you value, and who knows your style and voice well enough, to critique what you created.

In order to break the rules, one must first follow them, which means going through the sometimes painstaking process of creating something. It means hearing someone offer suggestions on a piece you’ve already fallen in love with.

I challenge you: If you possess a strong talent or gift that you sincerely enjoy, then consistently strive to improve. There is always more to learn. If you don’t know what you excel in, or you just began deeply learning about something you love, be patient. Art doesn’t happen overnight. Yes, having a natural born talent does help, but it isn’t everything. Most importantly, find your voice and style in your chosen field, even if it means breaking some rules.



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