I grew up with a lot of rules. They were rules designed to elevate and educate. Secretly they were to make us seem better than everyone else but you didn’t hear that from me.
‘Different from’, not ‘different to’. ‘Lie down’, not ‘lay down.’ ‘Supposedly’ not ‘supposubly’. ‘Specific’ not ‘pacific.’
There were rules of etiquette. Only eat chicken from the bone with the left hand. Never lick your fingers, one must always use a napkin. Speak when you’re spoken to, give your seat to the elderly — the list goes on.
During the second world war, my mother was sent to live with a spinster aunt. A lot of children were sent away. The aunt was headmistress of a private girls school and she had a maid who cooked and cleaned and a man servant who did the gardening and odd jobs. Like shovelling the coal, I imagine. My mother was taught needlework, playing the pianoforte, elocution, operatic singing and other ladylike pass times.
Years later, we were raised as if we were in an episode of Downton Abbey, except we didn’t have servants. We moved to Australia when I was nine years old and the rules didn’t work as well. Mum kept trying anyway.
In our family, critical thinking was expected. Dad was an academic and mum was the perfect hostess at dinner parties. This made us hyper critical of everything and everyone. We never held back from correcting other people’s mistakes in order to educate them and subtly put them in their place.
I know, it was painful. I’ve changed, promise.
Then there are those people who can’t help it, they have to correct typos, grammar or misinformation. I saw one today. It was a photo of a Wallaroo in the snow. It’s hard to imagine a cute photo of a Wallaroo and it’s joey causing an argument, but it did.
Calm down people we all know it’s not a cross between a Wallaby and a Kangaroo, Yes, it’s a different species. Thank you for the biology lesson. Can we all calm down and let it go?
Don’t get me wrong, I see the mistakes and my inner critic wants to say something, but I hold back because there are more important things to get on with. Like living. Not everyone wants to be corrected. Some people are ok with spelling ‘definitely’ with and ‘a.’ Move along, nothing to see here folks.
The problem is – I still make up rules for myself.
I take on a creative project, a story or a drawing or a poem and I bombard it with rules until it can’t breathe. My current work in progress choked to a grinding halt because I took a comment from an expert and made it into a rule. I do it all the time. I usually carve them in granite with gold lettering.
‘Thou shall not work on more than one story at a time.’
I don’t even realize it’s happened until I am well and truly stuck.
It frustrates the life out of me.
Well you know what? Who says?
That’s right, take that you stupid rule. I can work on more than one project at a time, in fact, it’s how I work best. I need to take a break from one project and work on something else for a while. Everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for another.
Shaun Tan was talking about this in a Duck Pond master class this week. He was describing how he puts down a project to let it rest while he works on something else. That was when I realised I had set a rule in stone – again.
Lightbulb moment. Oh! That’s why I’m stuck.
The one good thing about those rules I was taught as a child? They gave me something to rebel against. Something to make me ask ‘why?’
Rules keep us safe, we need them. Can you imagine driving with no speed limits on the roads? Rules in our creative life are important but they also need to be questioned. That’s where curiosity lives.
‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’ Pablo Picasso
Maybe, like me, you are not even aware of the rules you have made up which are stifling your creativity. The next time you are working on a creative project and your inner critic pipes up to remind you of the ‘rules,’ try saying:
Remember, you are the artist, they are your rules. And in the end, there are no rules.