There’s long been a saying among creative types that you have to know the rules before you can break them. As it was always being said to me by whiny writers trying to defend their poorly written, trope-filled fan fiction over someone else’s well-written, fresh fan fiction, I tended to hear “can” as “are allowed to” and rolled my eyes. Now that I’m away from fan fiction, I’ve decided that “can” really means “know how to”. That small change suggests a way to start experimenting with the rules.
Experimenting with the rules doesn’t necessarily mean breaking the rules, although it can. Experimenting means to look at something and say, “I know this is how it’s supposed to work, but does it have to?” It means to take something assumed and play with it, test it, and push against it until it pushes back or gives way to something else. We often think about this in terms of the Scientific Method, where we assume what will happen when we do something, do that something, and then reflect on what really happened, but that’s just one of many ways to experiment.
There are many situations where we use trial and error to solve a problem or to create things. Artists and programmers alike create prototypes, which they then tweak as they find bugs in their plans until they arrive at their finished projects. They may go through several iterations, learning from each step as they look toward the next with their mind on, “Okay, but what if I tried this?”
Experimenting invites us to explore the space within the rules and to break the boundaries in ways that allow us to create something more than we ever dreamed possible. It inspires us to use “Why?” and “What if?” as tools to innovate and produce truly original thoughts.