Rules, they say, are meant to be broken. Not all the time, of course — we are, after all, trying to have a society here. But while rules help, most of the time, to create an orderly and well-regulated society, sometimes their lack of flexibility hinders our creativity, and thus our ability to solve the problems that confront us.
Months ago, I wrote a post about improvisation advising readers to “Learn the rules, so you can break them.” Too often, people think that the breakability of rules means that they should be broken, early and often — and if that’s the case, it’s not worth bothering to learn them at all.
That’s not the case; in fact, it’s a pretty simple matter to tell the consistent rule-breaking of the ignorant and inexperienced from the proficient rule-breaking of the master. The master’s rule-breaking gains strength from her or his understanding of what the rules do, how they work, and why they are, most of the time, crucial.
There are, one could say, rules for rule-breaking, and it is these rules (along with all the others) that the lasy rule-breaker doesn’t know or understand. Here’s an example:
There’s a scene in Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard that sums up perfectly this approach to the rules. Rabo Karabekian, an artist reknowned for his giant canvases covered with single colors of household latex paint applied with a roller, is talking with his friend Slazinger in his studio:
“Tell me, Rabo–” said Slazinger, “if I put on that same paint with the same roller, would the picture still be a Karabekian?”
“Absolutely,” I said, “provided you have in reserve what Karabekian has in reserve.”
“Like what?” he said.
“Like this,” I said. There was dust in a pothole in the floor, and I picked up some of it on the balls of both my thumbs. Working both thumbs simultaneously, I sketched a caricature of Slazinger’s face on the canvas in thirty seconds.
“Jesus!” he said. “I had no idea you could draw like that!”
“You’re looking at a man who has options,” I said.
For the “wild child” who just can’t be bothered to learn the rules, because they were meant to be broken anyway and because his or her creative spirit is too strong to be held down by rules, man, there are no options. There is only a string of broken rules and all the misunderstanding, chaos, and incoherence that goes along with them. The master, though, knows that the rules are not only options, but usually the best options. And when they aren’t, s/he knows. S/he has in reserve what Karabekian has in reserve: true mastery.
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