In the children’s story “The Runaway Flying Horse,” a carousel horse tires of the restrictive Merry-Go-Round, longing for the freedom that the real world seems to offer. So one night, he jumps off the carousel and escapes, only to become a bit tattered and beat up as he encounters the world’s “freedom.” To add to his despair, he’s treated poorly by spanking-new toy horses in a toy store, so he returns to the carousel, wiser and more content to go ‘round and ‘round and ‘round for the children, circumscribed through his movement may be.
Like the carousel horse, many writers wish they too could be free of restrictions—whether it be those characterizing a particular genre or all those surrounding punctuation and grammar—and instead just write. No more drafts or editing—just write. What freedom!
I once worked with a woman who said whenever she wrote a poem, it was “one and done.” Why? Because, she claimed, the muse had been the driving force behind her work—and who was she to mess with inspiration?
Form is a crucial part of writing. As one of the great Henry James critics, Donald Mull, wrote, “The desire to be limitless becomes in itself a limitation” (he wrote the book, aptly titled, “Henry James's ‘Sublime Economy’”). And poet William Blake, notwithstanding the fact he liked sitting around naked, once wrote, “The want of a determinate and bounding form evidences the want of idea in the author’s mind…leave out this line and you leave out life itself; all is chaos again.”
I’ve worked with plenty of people in various English Composition departments who believed in offering little writing instruction for students—no models for thesis sentences, no counter arguments within arguments, no topic sentences for paragraphs. Nothing. Just let them take pen to paper and write.
Frankly, student work suffered with that approach. If your audience has genre expectations that aren’t met, or finds work incomprehensible because of non-existent punctuation or hapless grammar—not to mention a mushy center— then communication—and expression—suffer. But try to tell that to a free-wheeling English Comp instructor!
They would be well served to know even the Romanticist Coleridge wrote, “The spirit of poetry must of necessity circumscribe itself by rules…it must embody in order to reveal itself.”
One of my favorite writers, Henry James, wrote extensively on form. One of his observations was this: “Who can imagine free selection—which is the beautiful, terrible whole of art—without free difficulty?” His work “The Art of Fiction” still offers valuable advice, mulled though it be in the goblet of Victorian prose.
Critic Murray Kreiger offers a compromise between the two extremes in his concept of “still movement…the freezing principle within the free flowing…the still recurring in the still moving,” characterized by language that is alive, still in motion, though it is fixed in symbols upon the page. “There is the aesthetic need and the thematic need to freeze experience in order most fully to feel its flow,” he wrote so tellingly. Visionary language, such as that found in timeless works, has this “motion in stillness, a stillness that is at once still moving and forever still.” That's a great touchstone to aim for, although most of us will fall short.
Many writers have felt the pull from both poles—language or genre rules vs. the desire to just write whatever comes to mind. Classic vs. Romantic; Apollo vs. Dionysus. I admit to having more anal instructors than unfettered ones. As the graphic at the top of this post shows, I had to learn how to diagram sentences as an English major at college; in fact my final for prescriptive grammar was to diagram "The Lord's Prayer." Nowadays, for better or worse, both prescriptive grammar and "The Lord's Prayer" would both be, essentially, verboten in the classroom. I will say, however, diagramming sentences forced me to learn the parts of speech, something a lot of current students do not know. And knowing as much about language certainly can't hurt the novice—or accomplished—writer. Writing needs bones.
My revered rhetoric teacher in grad school told me that as a teacher, the best advice I might give my students was this: Your writing is composed of conscious choices. I know, what else might a rhetoric professor say? Yet, it's good to know the rules so you can break them. That's a choice. A look at just a couple of pages of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” manuscript shows him to be a serial choice-maker, making edit after edit right up to the final publication of that timeless book. This is true of all of the great writers.
I understand, too, the need not to be Mrs. Thistlebottom (a name from a book of grammatical rules published a while ago), but maybe to strike a nice balance, the Golden Mean, the mid-point between two extremes, a good touchstone for more than writing, especially in a world so filled with extremes.
As we get older, many of us—in both writing and life—gravitate toward the predictable path of the Merry-Go-Round, one that presents fewer surprises, fewer risks. As comforting as that is, we still get visited from time to time by a glimpse of what Matthew Arnold called “The Buried Life”:
But often, in the world's most crowded streets,
But often, in the din of strife,
There rises an unspeakable desire
After the knowledge of our buried life;
A thirst to spend our fire and restless force
In tracking out our true, original course;
A longing to inquire
Into the mystery of this heart which beats
So wild, so deep in us—to know
Whence our lives come and where they go.
Writers should be ready to act upon that “hard, gem-like flame” (Pater). We ought not to tamp it down. Go with the thrill that comes with the first draft of anything (just don't send it out quite yet). Go back to it. Add, delete, tweak, polish.
All analogies leak, a wise person once told me. What applies to writing doesn't always apply to life. As human beings, if we are to err on one side or another, we might look to Amy Lowell’s exquisite poem “Patterns” for the answer. Here we find the narrator walking down a perfectly manicured garden path in her “stiff, brocaded gown,” her hair powdered, her fan jewelled. “I too am a rare / pattern,” she tells us. But no matter how perfect a figure she cuts, her “passion / Wars against the stiff brocade.” She envies the daffodils who can “flutter in the breeze / As they please”:
My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whale-bone and brocade.
She longs for her lover, who has been killed in war, “to lead him in a maze along / The patterned paths, /A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover, / Till he caught me in the shade, /And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me, / Aching, melting, unafraid.” Those last three adjectives convey all that is natural and sensed without bounds or constraints, suggesting the formlessness of feeling, the abandonment of that which is brocaded and whaleboned and shut up or shut away. Of love deeply experienced, its movement stilled in language yet still moving.
But her lover is dead, killed in battle. War is a pattern, she reminds us. As a result, she, too, has died inside, a pattern that no longer moves. The borderless abandonment of deeply felt emotion is more meaningful to her because she has learned through experience that patterns not only can be stultifying; they can also take away all that is treasured because loved:
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?