Writing under constraint: and why it rocks.

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

I’ve mentioned this in a few comments already, but I thought a broader discussion of the topic of constraint was worth having, and dovetails nicely with the Writers’ Jam Fest.

(If you want to skip to the fun stuff, move on to parts three and four of this essay, Examples and Assignments.)

1. What is a ‘constraint’?

Simply speaking, a constraint is a formal rule that you set for yourself at the outset of writing.  Constraints can be broad (All my protagonists will have names beginning with ‘A’) or unproductively narrow (I’ll only use punctuation to tell my story), but they help set parameters for your work.

Now maybe you’re looking at that and thinking, “Meh, that’s too artificial.  I prefer to write from inspiration.”

But there are other ways to look at it, too.  Imagine I gave you the following assignment: “I want you to write a poem about whatever topic you want, but you have to limit it to exactly 14 lines.  Oh, and every line has to be in iambic pentameter.  Also, I want you to alternate rhymes for the first three sets of four lines, and you have to treat the remaining two lines like a rhyming couplet.”

Sounds stupidly artificial?, but that’s your recipe for a Shakespearean sonnet.  

It may seem counterproductive, but the paradox of constraints is that they actually foster creativity rather than limit it.  By having to meet a predetermined set of rules, you’ll find that you explore paths you normally wouldn’t.

Let’s take an example.  Suppose I asked you to write a fairy tale; you might start off with something like

Once upon a time there was a king and a queen, and they were unable to have any children.  One day the queen went out into the woods to seek out the advice of the witch who lived there.  But the witch was in bed with a toothache and refused to see her.

That’s fine and dandy, but what if I constrain myself to writing without the letter ‘e’?

Far away in an unknown land, a lord and his lady sat in mourning, longing for kids to add to this royal family.  Our aristocratic protagonists simply could not spawn.  Finally this lady thought to visit a mighty witch, who usually brought good luck with magic potions and chants.  But a mighty witch can still fall ill, and a painful tooth is nothing to laugh about!

Yeah, it’s a little inelegant, but some turns of phrases in there are delightful, and never would have occurred to me without the artificial constraint that forced me to make new decisions.  And there’s nothing saying I can’t go back and fold the interesting phrases back into the original, to create a completely different story that adopts the best of both worlds.  

Constraint prompts imagination.

Who thought of this nonsense, anyway?

2. History and Theory

The history of constrained art goes back as far as the history of art, because as its theoreticians would argue, All art is constrained.  The sonnet above is a good example, but even free verse has constraints (it’s usually structured around repetitions, intonational patterns, etc.)  Even supposedly subconscious Surrealist art is constrained.

Especially subconscious Surrealist art, and that’s precisely what started this whole line of study.  An ex-surrealist by the name of Raymond Queneau – novelist, poet, and mathematician – recognized that something was wrong with the whole Surrealist movement, that their artists were actually more conventional than they realized.  Language is structure, but so is music, painting, sculpture, etc.  To deny those structures is to fall prey to them.

Consider the fine art of jazz improvisation.  The people who do it best are those who know music inside-and-out; an amateur’s attempts sound repetitive and uninteresting precisely because that amateur doesn’t have the command of structure around which to weave his melodies.  

Picasso began his career by copying the Masters.

Queneau’s final break with the Surrealists, and his teaming-up with Francois Le Lionnaise, led to the creation of a group of artists committed to the constraint: the oulipo.  Unlike most literary groups, which rise quickly and flame out just as quickly, the oulipo has been around and thriving for over a half-century.  They see their job as twofold:

1. Rediscover forgotten constraints in literature of the past.

2. Create new constraints for writers in the future.

For example, you may be surprised that the lipogram – writing without a particular letter, as illustrated above – goes all the way back to ancient times.  Or that Queneau invented the choose-your-own-adventure style narrative with a short work called “A Story of Your Own” (aka “The Three Little Peas”).  

Or that the greatest masterpiece of late 20th century fiction, Georges Perec’s titanic Life a User’s Manual, was written according to a 10×10 Graeco-Latin square with constraints plotted along both the vertical and horizontal axes, and a narrative plotted out by solving the square with a Knight’s Tour.  Phew!

In other words, this is not just frivolous stuff.

3. Types of Constraints

There are an immeasurable number of possible constraints (in fact the ‘po’ part of ‘oulipo’ stands for ‘potential’), but a few of them are relatively well known:

acrostic – both Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe practiced this, the art of encoding a person’s name (or other word) in the first letter of each line of a poem: example

cento – creating new poems by pastiche of lines from other poets.  This can also be applied to prose.  A more difficult and sneaky form of this is the chimera, in which all the nouns are taken from one text, all the verbs from another, all the adjectives from etc.

definitional translation – replacing each word in the text (excepting particles, prepositions, etc.) with its dictionary definition.  Clever poets can then reshape what results into something that looks like an original poem, despite being derived elsewhere.

lipogram – writing without a particular letter or letters (see above)

Mathews’ algorithm – a way of generating material by graphing out your variables and ‘shifting’ them.  For a simple example, let’s take three characters (Ishmael, Queequeg, Ahab), and give them three actions and three direct objects:

Ishmael – writes of – his journey

Queequeg – loves – his roommate

Ahab – hates – the white whale

Think of this as three columns, in which we hold the first steady, shift the second one place, and the third two places:

Ishmael – loves – the white whale

Queequeg – hates – his journey

Ahab – writes of – his roommate

That would give us quite an interesting rewrite of Moby Dick, if not cast some insight on the existing one.  Mathews’ algorithm can be applied to plot elements as we’ve done here, but also to individual letters, syllables, words, sentences, etc.  It’s just a device for generating new possibilities.

N + 7 – a favorite of the oulipo writers, this involves replacing each noun in a text with the noun that comes seven places later in the dictionary.   There are infinite variations on this, and you can probably guess what N – 7, V + 10, or NVA + 7 might mean.

palindrome – something that reads the same both backwards and forwards.  The longest on record is Perec’s 500 word palindrome, but instead of individual letters one could also apply the palindrome to syllables, words, sentences, etc.  

snowball – a progressive poem (although it can be done in prose) in which the first word has one letter, the second two, the third three, etc.  The reverse of this is a melting snowball.

And I’ve only just scratched the surface.  In addition to the thousands of constraints that already exist in literature (sonnets, limericks, sestinas, etc.) the oulipo has identified hundreds more, from Boolean poetry (ha!) to translexical translation  As one critic perceptively noted, the oulipo is not a subset of literature: all existing literature is a subset of oulipo.

4. Your homework

Grab the nearest book.  It doesn’t have to be a good one, just something from which you can extract a short, four or five line paragraph.

Pick a constraint, or invent one of your own.  Pick more than one if you feel so inclined.

Rewrite that paragraph under the constraint(s) you’ve chosen, and post your results here.  You don’t have to tell us what you’ve done – constraint is a method of writing, not of reading.  It’s an architecture, not a building.

I’d love to see what you come up with, and if you find the experience worthwhile.



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    • pico on August 15, 2009 at 3:02 am

    Old Pinocchio; he was still half colored and hadn’t yet said that his morning had shot discreetly.  That’s why, when he got up to his grammaw’s mass, he replied with his rosary to shoot the beads.  Instead he got up suddenly and then he thought gainfully about the bracelet.

    The syntax is awkward, but I bet I could make an interesting short story with that kind of beginning – Pinocchio is old and, apparently, somewhat religious (or at least pretending to be).  That opening sentence might be a little risqué, heh.  Fascinating stuff!

    If you’re interested in reading more about the oulipo, check out my earlier diary on the group.

  1. Added to the Mothership.

    Great essay, will try to re-read and respond maybe later/tomorrow.  

  2. and it’s a fun exercise. But it’s also usually done the for amusement or entertainment of self and others.

    When I first met my husband, we started passing silly (and occasionally rather ribald) limericks back and forth on napkins in the Fordham “Ramskeller”. This started simply because the music and noise in the place made conversation impossible, but once we both realized we had a gift for coming up with amusing doggerel on the fly, we kept doing it.

    And of course, yes, we were flirting.

    We have been threatened by a mutual friend who was there that we will eventually be presented with the collection of “naughty” napkins, which he kept, on our 25th wedding anniversary. ;-7

    Later on when we met again after a long separation, “pun contest” email started flying back and forth. Basically the idea was to embed the maximum number of themed puns into the message, while still making it relevant – and puns were not allowed to be re-used. The exchange involving various types of botanical life forms went on for approximately 275 messages and lasted 3 months.

  3. ..I’m conflicted by it.  On one hand, it seems like a way to get past one’s own habits of thought, melody, canalized internal clichés…and when I read your example, the jazzing around of someone who is a very good writer, I am of course impressed as all get out.  The idea I suppose is — at best — to crack open one’s work and let some of the patterning and chaos of the universe into it.  I guess I should read Queneau and find out…

    The downside for me is that…being squicked at the computer-scienceish part aside…I’m just not that good.  When I manage to write something worth reading, it usually is the result of hammering and tweaking and sanding off the burrs and splintering edges, and I am under no illusions that it is beautiful — I am happy if it is just a chair one can sit in without great discomfort.

    • Robyn on August 16, 2009 at 4:39 am

    It has to be done by publishing time of 6pm eastern on Friday.

  4. and definitley worth a second read.


  5. Well no, I’d ne’er complete the feet.

    So four, as cats prefer.

    Or three, I think, or those combined.

    Five lies beyond my reach.  

  6. I need this draft of a novel to be finished by late September.  Or else.  It is really kicking my butt.  Lots of problems in it of all kinds.  It has turned my visits here into drive bys.  

    Also, I wish I had air conditioning.

  7. thank you for your contribution to the Jam Fest!

    and, as promised… a pony for you!


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