Gimme More Rules So I Can Be Free!


“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit… the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution.” — Igor Stravinsky

Students often want to know why an author did not say something in a more straightforward way. Why didn’t Shakespeare just say the girl was hot? Why did he have to get all “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” about it? Yet when we turn the question around and ask our students to write descriptively about, well, anything, they often hit the blank white paper wall.

With no guidance, no restraint of any kind, I too am cast adrift in a sea of everything and nothing. Ideas swirl around in a vast stream of consciousness, and it is difficult to know where to grab on to something to make any sense. Tell me that I must write in rhymed couplets, and I have something to push against. Suddenly I know that “underwear” will not work to complete my rhyme with “genuine,” so I go off in search of something specific, a word ending in “-ine.” I now know what I am looking for.

And then think of all those glorious literary devices. Asyndeton, polysyndeton, chiasmus, tricolon, transferred epithet, zeugma, hysteron proteron, aposiopesis, euphemism, metonymy, synecdoche, pleonasm…why, the list is endless! Exploring the sheer genius of authors to write a piece in a particular time and place that nevertheless connects with people in other times and places all while navigating the wild turns of a particular structure is to see the intricate beauty of galaxies themselves.

But don’t stop there! Bring it back full circle. Now that we, as a class, have delved into the intricate rules that some writers have adopted, we get to try them out ourselves. Try writing a sestina or sonnet. Try writing in the style of Dante or Dickens. Play with the language. Play with the structure. See what happens when you submit yourself to rules that have shaped the greatest literary works of art and rules that are just plain silly, like refusing to use the letter “r” for an entire essay or poem. By the time you are done, your head will be dizzy, you just may have a deeper appreciation for the art of great literature, and you almost certainly will have a more extensive set of tools with which to work as a writer.