The Right Note vs. the Right Feeling

In school, we learn that it is never okay to cheat.

Because cheating is bad, cheaters never prosper, you can’t cheat at life, and, in the end, you’re only cheating yourself.

This dogma is not questionable. No student may even debate the merits of it. The orthodoxy against cheating is sacrosanct to the point of being thoughtless, automatic, and unchallenged.

Which is a shame, because it’s a complete lie.

All Adults Cheat

Most of them get away with it, too. Because “cheating” is nothing more than the covert violation of someone else’s rules. And that someone else may

  1. Not have any authority to make any rules.
  2. Not have the intelligence to make their rules practical or consistent.
  3. Not care whether the rules they make are beneficial to all, many, few, or even none.
  4. Be unable to keep the rules themselves.

The very idea of “rules” is highly situational. For example, the rules about paying taxes, since they are backed by such a strong authority and are so consequentially enforced, are usually kept. But the rules of, say, an electronic game are of such little importance that many such games have cheats built into them.

And many cheaters prosper. When applying for a job, using connections to get yourself an interview, a promotion, or perks is definitely cheating. Yet the people who do this typically end up better off than the ones that insist on succeeding on their own merits and climbing the ladder one rung at a time.

Yet the school mentality is still drilled into our young people, and even taken to ridiculous extremes. They’re taught that copying a digital music file is no different than stealing a car, that using a calculator to add two numbers is a high crime, and that getting a parent’s help to make their diorama project is “unfair to the other students”.

Because diorama-making is SUCH an important skill in the real world. I’d hate to think how they’ll turn out if they never learn it.

Cheat Like a Writer

When it comes to discreetly breaking other people’s rules, writers have to be world champions.

Because while good writing is governed by a plethora of rules, traditions, and guides, the practice of writing, much like the rest of the arts, is concerned with how to break those rules.

As an example, lets take a look at one of writing’s most basic rules: every story must have a beginning, middle, and end.

Now, technically, every story keeps this rule. Every piece of writing has an opening line and a closing line, and inhabits only a finite amount of space on the page.

But not every story begins where it begins, and not every story ends at all.

Take “The Lady, or the Tiger?” by Frank R. Stockton. That story has no ending. And as infuriating as that fact is, it did not land Mr. Stockton in literary prison. Truth be told, that one story is what he is best remembered for.

Because the one thing art must be—even more important than being “good”—is being remembered. And nobody remembers you if you only spout the same conventions everyone else is.

Cheating, therefore, becomes a necessity.

The Wrong Note and the Right Feeling

Readers of this blog know that I once wrote an entire miniseries of posts detailing Emotion’s role in storytelling.

And the ideas I introduced in that miniseries is cogent to the topic at hand. Because in art, getting away with cheating depends not so much on how you cheat, but why.

If the cheat is intended to make yourself look clever, or to show off, or to signal your superiority to some perceived reader, then it is a sin and needs to be excised.

But if you break from the established order not because you need validation, but to create a genuine feeling, then you have not committed a sin, but a miracle. For both of those things require the breaking of someone’s rules, but one is enlightening while the other is merely gratifying.

And that’s how you write every scene in a story. Every sentence is just another stab at that genuine feeling, working to pin it more firmly into the text. And once it is cemented there, you move on to the next feeling and the next scene.

In the words of one obscure composer:

To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.


Now, you may still be learning how to string notes together. And that’s fine. We all start with that, and there’s a lot of space within those confines for you to fill. But eventually you will start brushing up against the walls, and if you don’t break free, your passion will either die or be forever stunted.

You can’t keep building dioramas forever.

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