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.

Break form.


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.


§ 36 Responses to Yes Writers, You Can Break Form

  • mosheprigan says:

    The title of your article drew immediately my attention. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I highly recommend you to read several books of GERALD MURNANE – one of the greatest writers nowadays, one who knows, better than any other writer I knew, how to break form in his fiction writings. Never seen before.

    • Thank you so much for suggesting another writer who breaks form. I’m anxious to check out his work.

      • mosheprigan says:

        Start first with his “Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane” and then to “THE PLAINS” – his notable chef d’oevre. ALL his books are a must for the discern reader though they aren’t an easy read; he is considered as a writers’ writer and very much uncategorizale. And then, some time in the future I would like to hear your take on his writing. Thank you.

    • Mary Ann says:

      Thank you for pointing me to Gerald Murnane’s work. I will check him out.

      • Mary Ann says:

        Thanks for the titles. His list of publications is quite long – and he doesn’t write fiction only. It’s good to have a recommendation about where to start.

    • Mary Ann says:

      Moshe, I started by reading Gerald Murnane’s memoir because I prefer nonfiction and rarely read fiction. What a great read and what an interesting man. His obsession with racing and how he translates life through racing is completely captivating. His continual listing of racing colors gave life and intimacy to the subculture of racing. Having read the memoir first was of help when I read THE PLAINS, which I found mystical and ungraspable, as the plains themselves are in the book. I plan to read his first collection of essays next. I love how his words provoke images. Thanks again for the recommendation.

  • Thank you for this acknowledge that we don’t have to comply rigidly to established forms. Excellent post!

    • Mary Ann says:

      Exactly, Lynette. You can’t chain up creativity.

      • mosheprigan says:

        As I told above to Lynette, start first with his “Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane” and then to “THE PLAINS” – his notable chef d’oevre. ALL his books are a must for the discern reader though they aren’t an easy read; he is considered as a writers’ writer and very much uncategorizale. And then, some time in the future I would like to hear your take on his writing. Thank you.

  • bethtillman says:

    Enjoyed this piece and appreciate the reminder.

  • Thank you! I needed to read this. I would say good advice for writing and for life.

  • I suggest that when you receive comments about your work from others that seem wrongheaded, or idiotic, instead of rejecting them outright and comparing your work to other great artists’ consider that perhaps these critics are unable to verbalize what is actually bothering them about your piece. If the critiques come from writers and teachers whom you respect, tell yourself their objections might not be accurate but might signal that something is amiss . Try to figure out what that is.. Ask questions. .

    • Mary Ann says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Vicki. I wish I could compare my writing to that of John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Jo Ann Beard, Virginia Woolf, Baron Worrmser, Joan Wickersham, James Baldwin, and so many, many others who have broken form… what a dream!

  • annavteditorgmailcom says:

    It sounds as though the workshop leader’s “gotcha” demeanor gave the next speaker tacit permission to bully you. There’s no place for bullying in a critique group. Glad you survived to tell the tale.

    • Mary Ann says:

      Thank you. This bit of workshop “survival” allowed me fruitful time for reflection and subsequent writing, which I always think is a good thing.

  • youngv2015 says:

    Amen. And the same goes for the statement: You can’t break this rule unless your the famous writer so and so.

    • Mary Ann says:

      You make me think: how will we get to be famous writers if we don’t make people gasp and wish they’d thought of that first?

  • Nancy Newman says:

    Thank you for this. I’m curious to read the workshop piece! Did it get published?

    • Mary Ann says:

      Thanks for your interest in the piece, Nancy. After the workshop, I put the essay aside so that I could think about all of the comments offered about it – not just the comments narrated here, which serve only as a lead-in for a reflection about breaking form. During that thinking time, one of the people featured in the essay died in a heartbreaking way. The essay would need a major rewrite, if I decided to seek a home for it. So, no, it hasn’t been published. Thinking time is a big part of my writing process and I am grateful I took plenty of it for this piece, given the person’s death.

  • First and formost, I’m not an native English speaker. Whatever English I have learned, I have learned it by watching English dubbed anime, or other animated shows. (I like animated shows, even if people keep telling me that I shouldn’t watch them at my age.)

    Second, when I write, I write with my instincts. I use the words which most accurately reflect the picture in my mind.

    Third, thanks for writing an article about it. I believe that people do not need to conform themselves to one way of doing things, even though writers are very conservative when it come to experimentation.

    Fourth, if you’re writing a story, it is best to write the way people talk in real life. I believe that the characters would have a better chance of connecting with the readers that way.

  • Margaret says:

    Great read Mary Ann, good to ignore the reproving fingernails and sceptical eyebrows.

  • Lisa says:

    Thank you for this piece. I guess the fingernail hadn’t read this guideline from the New Letters Editor’s Choice Award: Entries must cross the traditional boundaries of genre and form.

  • sherrylowry says:

    Mary Ann, I found your piece riveting from title to the very end. It is a valuable topic and I thought you did a terrific job with the research, the tone, the pacing, and the most distinctive approach.

    I want to file this away to revisit periodically because it feels like a piece that will continue to give as I explore “form” more – with each new reading.

    Thank you for your perseverance and belief in the piece, and for the terrific reframe – a whole separate art form.

    • Mary Ann says:

      You are very kind and encouraging, Sherry. I think that’s the type of support we all need to keep on persevering. Thank you.

  • Janet Alcorn says:

    Wonderful piece. As you indicate, we need to learn the rules, learn the forms, so that when we break them, we do so intentionally. But we don’t get innovation, we don’t get new forms, if we don’t break the old ones or remix them or rearrange them in interesting new ways.

  • Shannon Thomas says:

    I was an English major in college and often said that everything I learned was so that I could break the rules. I think that the most brilliant authors know exactly how to break the rules and break form. And, just maybe, my daughter will one day follow in my footsteps since she breaks the 4th dimension whenever we play dolls together. 🤪😳

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