Three Writers Who Broke the Rules

Creative writing is wildly different from drafting a business plan or marketing email. Although the basic building blocks are the same—nouns, verbs, the occasional adjective—novelists and poets take liberties with creative language that, for anyone else, would be considered mistakes. They break the rules of grammar and composition, but they do so with intention. Here are three writers whose work would have earned them a failing grade in English class.

Emily Dickinson was a notoriously reclusive writer who spent most of her life sheltered in her family’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Born in 1830, she wrote more than eighteen hundred poems—although fewer than a dozen were published during her lifetime. Although Dickinson’s life was quiet and uneventful, her writing was revolutionary. Most poets in the mid-19th century wrote lyrical pieces, such as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or narrative poems like Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” Dickinson’s gloomy, disjointed work, punctuated by aggressive dashes, was like a knife to the heart of her contemporaries’ flowery sonnets. Here’s a stanza from one of her most famous poems:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –

The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air –

Between the Heaves of Storm –

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People simply weren’t writing poetry like this, and certainly not shy American spinsters. Dickinson bucked the conventions of society, contemporary poetry, and grammar with her work.

E. E. Cummings (or, if you insist, e. e. cummings) used punctuation in ways that would make an English teacher blush. In a 2005 essay for Slate, poet Billy Collins observed that by “breaking down words into syllables and letters, employing eccentric punctuation, and indulging in all kinds of print-based shenanigans, Cummings brought into question some of our basic assumptions about poetry, grammar, sign, and language itself.” Cummings, born in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, rattled around Europe during the heyday of Modernism, rubbing shoulders with avant garde writers like Ezra Pound. He wrote almost three thousand poems in his life, as well as several novels and plays, and although his work can appear at first glance to be nonsense, many of his poems are technically sonnets. He essentially exploded traditional forms, pushing the limits of what language can do.

As he wrote in his poem “Since Feeling Is First”:

for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

James Joyce is one of the most famously difficult writers to read. While his earlier stories, such as those in the collection Dubliners or his coming-of-age novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, are written in fairly standard English, his later works are often impenetrable. Ulysses and, to a greater extent, Finnegan’s Wake are written in a stream-of-consciousness style that mimics the inner thoughts of the characters. He railed against his publisher for using what he called “perverted commas” to offset dialogue, preferring to uses dashes instead. (The joke here is that in British English, quotation marks are called “inverted commas.”)

Joyce’s work is full of run-on sentences, fragments, and made up words not found anywhere else in nature. For example, here’s a line from Ulysses, “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.” English majors have spent long hours trying to decipher Joyce’s work, but although his writing isn’t grammatically correct, there’s a reason he’s considered one of the luminaries of modern literature.

Before you can break the rules of grammar on purpose, you need to learn them. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (the OWL) is a great resource, as is Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl website. You can also check out Grammarly, the world’s leading writing enhancement tool that enables you to check your writing in a variety of genres, including creative writing.

Comments: 2

  • miguel says:

    A useful bit of writing, but you lost me at the old “Before you can break the rules…” I think that’s the first rule every writer should break. In fact, it’s the opposite of how we learn language in the first break. Toddlers don’t learn and then break them; they break the rules constantly, get them wrong, overgeneralize, twist the language all around, and *through that process* learn what the rules are. How do they manage this? First, they aren’t afraid to experiment and fail and fail and fail. Second, they are constantly immersed in language: they listen all the time to everything. Third, they make constant use of feedback; when they don’t get the response they want, they keep trying, tirelessly tuning their ears. I think writers get better by reading insatiably, writing voraciously, and being ruthlessly honest with themselves.

  • marie says:

    this was such a great post! and I actually liked the part about “Before you can break the rules of grammar on purpose, you need to learn them..” because I think in order to chop things up and to effectively play with and work with words – it springs off of a solid foundation – but I also think there can be great poets and writers who have never learned proper grammar – because it is also an art. :)

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