How to Break All the Rules

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:

  • Break the rules as a last resort. Whether you’re talking about writing and grammar, music composition, artistic composition, marketing, business management, or anything else, the rules that people usually follow exist for a good reason: most of the time, they work. Stepping outside the rules requires more energy, more forethought, more planning, and more creativity — in short, more work — and effective writers, composers, marketers, business people, and people from every other walk of life don’t lightly waste their efforts fixing what already works well. Rule-breaking is the step you turn to when the rules fail to work.
  • Rule-breaking gains its power from the strength of rules, not their weakness. The ability of the great rule-breakers to shock and amaze us — from Van Gogh to Philip Roth to Ron Paul to Steve jobs — relies on the expectations the rules create. Constant rule-breaking creates the expectation of constant rule-breaking, which pretty soon loses its appeal. Master rule-breakers walk a narrow line between genius and incoherence; inexpert rule-breakers are usually simply incoherent.
  • For every broken rule there are a dozen unbroken ones. Or a hundred, or a thousand. The ratio doesn’t matter, it’s the fact that the best rule-breakers follow almost all the rules. Consider the rules of grammar and style: almost all great writers know the value of simple sentences, a lack of unnecessary verbiage, and adherence to basic rules of grammar — and their writing is generally built around those principles, because to ignore them is to create a morass of incomprehensible gibberish. A word salad, if you will: throw everything in a bowl, toss it around a little, and slop it onto your plate.
  • For every broken rule, there is a reason. The inexperienced rule-breaker breaks the rules because s/he doesn’t know any better. The master rule-breaker breaks the rules because, after careful consideration, s/he has decided that the most effective and meaningful way to get something done was to break a rule. They have an explanation for every single step outside the accepted boundaries of the “right and proper”.
  • Accept the consequences. When called on the carpet to defend his or her choices, the ignorant rule-breaker is defensive and feels put upon. S/he tries to wriggle out of the consequences, seeing them as “The Man’s” effort to keep her or him down. The master, on the other hand, embraces the consequences, knowing that s/he was right to make the decisions s/he made — or that, if those decisions turned out to be wrong, that s/he made them in good faith and for the right reasons.

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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