Sam Ruddick writes about breaking fiction’s rules in this recent Luna Park post. He highlights a story by Erika Mikkalo called “Your 2nd Husband” in the current Fence as exhibit A. The story, he says, breaks several “rules” branded into the asses of MFA students in late night work shops. For instance, she uses 2nd person throughout, switches points of view regularly (pov!), offers no real plot, and is unconcerned with the so called main character until later in the story. Sounds like heaven to me but I acknowledge the thesis statement of Sam’s post is mostly correct: bring that story to an MFA workshop, and you will probably get scribbles that say; pov–pick one! What is this story “about?” I’m confused! Why are these people so weird? And, hold me. Sam champions Fence for continuing to publish work that goes against the grain and I champion them, too.
If you are going to break one rule, Sam says, you have to break a couple. However, what is a rule to one person can be a suggestion to another. A professor told me once why he thought it can be more challenging to write experimentally than it is to write “straight.” When you veer away from rules, or dare to create a world of new ones, there is less to hold onto, and more imagination is called into play. The experimental writer has to invent everything from the characters to the milk they drink; if you create a world where no one sits down, what do chairs look like? But there are those of us who revel in this kind of play, who were born on the wrong side of the reality tracks, who would find it harder to write straight than to write experimentally. I am one of those people. While I enjoy reading a myriad of styles, I am not interested in writing a standard relationship unless someone can levitate or someone else is secretly a refrigerator. Perhaps as my mother says, I’ll grow out of it. I doubt it. Ethics question: If a sign says Do Not Walk on The Grass, but you feel there is no ethical problem with walking on the grass, do you walk? My smug answer in college: No doubt everyone else will obey the sign, so I can walk on the grass and one person’s feet won’t do much damage. Civil Disobedience is not just a river in Egypt. I wanted to learn the rules in an MFA so I could know what I was breaking, and because I respect the “learn ballet before you attempt modern” philosophy. Picasso could render realistic drawings like a pro. He just didn’t want to.
My assignment to everyone: write a story that goes against your “rules,” whatever they are. Figure out what you are avoiding and write it. If you avoid dialogue, write a page of nothing but dialogue. If you are a person who walks on the grass, who goes by his or her own hip set of rules, first: stop being so smug. Second: figure out what your rules are, and write against those; for example, write a simple story about two people who are not refrigerators falling in love. Or, try writing a love letter to someone/thing unexpected; a fruit juice you enjoy, a bus driver who doesn’t groan when you drop your token, a supermarket. Whether or not you’ve been branded by an MFA, it will be a hair let down feeling.