The Horse Ate An Alligator: Follow the Rules... unless you don't want to.

by Jennifer Paros

Recently I was teaching a writing workshop at an elementary school for their Writers In Residency program.  Part of the opportunity was to work with kindergarteners. One day, I sat with one of the classes and we started making up a story.  I asked them to pick an animal as a main character.  The group agreed upon a horse.  I asked them where the horse was going.  They said: a farm.  I asked them what the horse was doing.  They said: eating.  I asked them what the horse was eating.  And one little girl, filled with enthusiasm, shouted out, “The horse ate an alligator!”  There was laughter from the other children, and then another little girl suggested that the alligator idea was incorrect.  Horses, apparently, don’t eat alligators.  She knew this and wanted this knowledge to be implemented, immediately. 

I pointed out that we were making up a story and that the story could be anything we wanted.  And we really couldn’t get it wrong-- different, but not wrong.  I asked the second girl what she would have her horse eat.  “Hay and apples,” she replied.  I said that would be fine for her story.  But when I let her know that the alligator version could be “right” also, her face drained of all color. 

She had been taught the rule on horses and what they eat and it was uncomfortable for her to hear someone breaking it.  She wanted to get it right, and if the rules could be bent, how was she to have that good feeling one derives from being right?   My reassurance that both stories could happily coexist brought her no peace at all. 

Following a rule sets up the notion that: 1.we will get it right 2.we will succeed.  In other words, others will perceive of what we have done as correct. It can make sense that we should be drawn to pursue this course, but what happens when one tries to abort one’s own alligator-including impulses repeatedly and forces the apple issue?  We may, in this situation, find ourselves doing it right but feeling all wrong. 

Years ago  I was in art school taking a class in painting in which the emphasis was on color mixing and studying the methods of The Masters.  So, as we learned about under painting and layering colors I fussed intently to create an accurate color wheel and meet the teacher’s criteria, I listened to the rules of painting and strove to apply them as best I could, and I asked many questions, checking-in repeatedly for reassurance and guidance. I ignored my own instincts and applied myself to learning this system for painting.  And because I was working with a system outside of myself, suddenly it seemed there was a Right and a Wrong way of doing things, and I became fearful of getting it Wrong. How much more peaceful it had been when I was just doing it my way, and right and wrong had been left solely up to me to determine. 

Questioning my own choices constantly, I was now perpetually insecure and unbalanced, and my efforts were repeatedly met with impatient, irritated responses from the teacher, even though I was trying so hard to get it right.  The more I focused on trying to get it right and follow the rules, the weaker I felt, the less confident I was, and the more cloyingly needy I acted. But it seemed the point of the class was for us to learn these rules, and that is the goal for which I strove. 

Then one day, the teacher said to us, “Now just paint how you want!”  I started painting instinctively-- the way I always had.  Soon, she wandered by, watched me work for a few moments and said, “Now you’re getting it!” 

I wondered what I had “gotten”.  Isn’t this where I had begun?  I thought: This isn’t following the rules, is it? I’m “getting” what I already knew before I twisted myself up trying to implement the rules. 

In writing, as in many aspects of life, rules are often implied. In art, the general unspoken (and sometimes spoken) proposition is that one must first know and live by The Rules before one can responsibly, purposefully, meaningfully, and successfully break them. But my suggestion is if you already have instincts about what you want to do, do it.  In this context, trying to follow a rule will only feel like restriction rather than guidance or help, so why bother? 

If we persist long enough in our insistence that there should be no alligator in our story—even if we really want one—then all we’ll be doing is working against ourselves. The rules we work to follow must remain in service to us after all, enabling—not hindering—the writing of the stories we most want to write.  And then, of course, we’ll get it “right”.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

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