Yes Writers, You Can Break Form
October 15, 2021 § 36 Comments
By Mary Ann McSweeny
It was one of those writing workshops after which you go home asking yourself why in Heaven’s name you ever thought you could write.
My submission to the workshop was a much-revised essay that a highly respected author had told me needed just a few tweaks to be publishable. The tweaks were made, and I was open to any final polishing suggestions that my fellow writers might propose.
The leader of the workshop said to me, “What’s it about?”
“It’s about compassion,” I said. There may have been a “duh” undertone to my words.
“Even though no one in it is compassionate?” he said. There was definitely a “gotcha” undertone to his words.
“Exactly!” I said. Because that was the whole point of the essay and I was surprised he had to ask. He sat back in his chair. The raised eyebrows revealed his judgment of me as a writer.
One of the other participants jumped in. She tapped a page of my manuscript with a glossy red fingernail. “You’ve broken form,” she said.
My head tilted. My eyebrows did their own thing: drew together in puzzlement.
“You can’t break form,” she said.
Now my head tilted a little more and my mouth dropped open.
“You. Can’t. Break. Form,” she enunciated, as if the grey in my hair also indicated a hearing loss.
Several years later, I still don’t understand what she meant about my essay, but I have reached a verdict about her emphatic, unequivocal statement. My conclusion—and it’s not an original idea—is:
Form is meant to be broken.
The Beatles. From “Love Me Do” to “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a matter of three years. Tell me about breaking form.
Bob Dylan. Who broke form by giving a pop music artist the Nobel Prize for Literature? The poet or the Nobel Committee for Literature?
Jo Ann Beard. The Fourth State of Matter breaks form by working creative nonfiction to the point where I had to look up the events to be sure they really took place. One of the most brilliant aspects of the piece is the insertion of the narrator’s imagination as a detached witness-character to relate the horrific details that didn’t happen in the writer’s physical presence.
Instinctive innovation is how I would describe breaking form. It’s as if something—perhaps Lorca’s duende, the unstoppable creative power that commands an artist—tells you the words aren’t flowing together or don’t quite express what you want to say, and so you dare to work them in a different way, your way, not a way that imitates, but a way that releases the deepest energy of your narrative.
You have to start with the basics. You have to know how to write a sentence. A simple sentence. Compound sentence. Complex sentence. Know where to place a paragraph break. Learn about tenses and points of view. Now you can break form and write run-on sentences or a stream of consciousness story or mix up tenses or switch between viewpoints, or, like Virginia Woolf, write with sympathetic understanding from the inside of a mentally unstable person’s mind, or, like Baron Wormser, intersperse quatrains with prose in a novel—on purpose.
And you have to know language. You have to understand nuances and connotations and sounds. Carlos Fuentes described Spanish as “a language that can be kidnapped, impoverished, sometimes jailed, sometimes murdered” to make the point that language cannot be separated from the people who speak it or the experiences they endure. Learn to use language as a dynamic event on the page.
When John Lennon wrote a song based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead, he probably didn’t have a notion that this song would influence the path of electronic music. He had a compulsion to turn a vision of a soul-longing into words and music. The vision and the longing and what he created from them is what I would call breaking form.
When Joan Wickersham turned the chapters of her memoir into the entries of an index as she looked for the solution to her father’s death, her willingness to break form not only avoided a predictable chronological narration, but also underscored a desperate need to bring order to the never-ending repercussions of the family tragedy of suicide. Read The Suicide Index.
When James Baldwin worked with a variety of voices—meditative, preaching, journalistic—in The Fire Next Time, each voice became a servant to his prophetic teaching. Breaking form is hardly an adequate description of his genius.
My writing tends to be pretty conventional. Subject, verb, object. But I also listen to that inner urge that sometimes presses me to take my love affair with words beyond flirtation. So here’s what I’m saying: If the experience you’re on fire to put into an essay, story, or poem demands it, ignore the reproving fingernails and the skeptical eyebrows.
Mary Ann McSweeny is an educator and instructional designer. Her essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, Brevity, The MacGuffin, Months to Years, and So It Goes literary journal. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.