All rules of construction hold good only for novels which are copies of other novels. – D.H. Lawrence
The other day a friend and I were talking about the nature of jobs.
He is a successful business person and says that he can’t imagine having to go into an office where he does the same thing all day.
In this age of knowledge work many of us will probably agree – what engages us in the workplace is the variety of projects and tasks we get to work on.
At the same time we only get better by spending the time doing the same thing again and again and learning from the resulting work.
We all start by imitating others – often a central figure acts as the model for that which we aspire to become.
It might be a parent, a teacher, a leader, someone you’ve read about in books, but that person seems to sit at the centre of a world they’ve created, in control and at peace.
Imagine then, at the centre of it all, there is this model person – someone who has attained a deep shade of blue.
Surely if you do things the way they did, if you follow their teachings, you will too become blue?
But the irony is that there is usually only room for one person that is truly blue – the rest are washed out copies, pale imitations.
They look like the real thing – but they will never be the real thing.
This is the kind of thing the quote by Lawrence is getting at – copying other people’s works or trying to behave the way they did will only get you so far.
So, some people opt out of the system – they throw their arms up in disgust and go away to pursue a career as green jelly.
They’re as different as different can be.
They are monks and artists and wastrels – but some of them are invested in being unique for the sake of being unique.
And how do you tell the difference between someone who is unique and someone trying to be unique?
Often you can’t – the surface appearance is the same.
What matters is what happens over time – what happens underneath the surface.
In Edgar Willis and Camille d’Arienzo’s book, Writing scripts for television, radio and film, the authors write that “one of the things beginning writers must do is undertake a voyage of exploration to discover the nature of their own resources.”
This is good advice in every endeavour – when you first start doing something look at how others have done it and try to copy what they’ve done.
You could start completely fresh – with no reliance on what has come before – but don’t be surprised if the world ignores you.
By building on the past you’re at least on solid ground when you start.
But the thing to remember is that you won’t get to where they are by doing what they did.
And it’s not really what you should want anyway.
If you apply yourself for long enough then, over time, you can’t avoid learning the rules – realising what works and what doesn’t and why thing are done in a certain way.
If you’re alive and alert and interested and hungry to learn, that is.
And then, when you know the rules, you can try our what happens when you change a shade.
Perhaps even an entire colour.
And now you have something unique, built on what worked before but customised to you and your future.
The right time, then, to break the rules is when you understand them inside out – and know what you can and can’t do.
And then you go ahead and do what you must do.
Create new rules.