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✍️ How Constrained Writing Can Help You Creatively
or, Why Total Writing Freedom Isn’t
Have you ever tried writing with one hand behind your back? I’m talking more figuratively here than literally. I mean, it’s easy to hand-write with one hand (though typing would be a little more difficult…).
In any case, let’s back up for a minute so I can show you what I’m talking about. Although you may never have heard of him, Georges Perec was a famous French writer – so famous that a street in Paris was named after him in 1994. He was quite prolific and known for a lot of things, but the one thing I want to focus on today is his experiments with constrained writing.
Constrained writing is the figurative “writing with one hand behind your back”. It means imposing some specific – and perhaps arbitrary – rule on your writing. A very loose example of this would be a writing prompt: write 600 words about a penguin and a fox.
But there are more extreme versions of this game. Like, ultra-marathon extreme.
One of George Perec’s novels is called La disparition or “The Disappearance”. This 300-page book is notable in the fact that he wrote it without using the letter “e”. If the difficulty level in that feat is not readily apparent, consider this. The direct translation into English of the title alone contains the letter “e” three times. This paragraph contains “e” 41 times.
Yeah. And I wasn’t even trying.
Incredibly, the English translation, called A Void, accomplishes the same feat. Other translations kept the spirit if not the same letter: in Spanish it was “a”, in Russian it was “o”, and so on. These are called lipograms – writing that does not contain a particular letter.
Now, you may say that this is an unrealistic restriction on your writing, and reject it vehemently while carefreely employing the greatest number of e’s possible.
However – and here’s the paradox – constrained writing might actually help you face the blank page.
We writers and creatives in general abhor restrictions on our art, especially from outside sources. We usually have the mentality of, “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t write!” Writing freedom, in every sense, is paramount.
Except that often, writing freedom isn’t.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of writing freedom is the blank page. Yet facing the blank page is one of our greatest fears, as we discussed in Is Writin’ Fightin’? a little while back. When we have limitless choice, we often make no choice.
This is where constrained writing can help. Constrained writing can help us look at the blank page as a challenge to overcome, not a barrier that stops us. That’s important because we are more likely to engage the blank page and ultimately be successful in filling it. We can see that idea at work with writing prompts – suddenly, we are faced with fewer choices, which helps us pick one path of few instead of many.
But there is another important way constrained writing can help – and it too involves the challenge. It’s another way we can “trick” our minds into spitting out some words on the page. When we start concentrating on the challenge instead of the words, it frees up the creative part of brain. It distracts it.
I don’t know about you, but often when I’m self-conscious about my writing, it’s because I’m envisioning people reading it – even though I haven’t written it yet. It feels like I’m up on stage, locked in a spotlight. I look out to the crowd or maybe I’m careful not to look out to the crowd or I’ll turn my desk from the crowd or move my desk out of the spotlight so that the crowd doesn’t see me – except the spotlight soon follows. The point is, I’m focused on the crowd, not on the page.
Constrained writing tricks our mind and takes it off the crowd so we can focus on the page instead. We get engaged by the compelling challenge. In a way, we’re not even “writing”; we are simply trying to fulfil the dictates of the challenge itself.
The end result: we become more creative because we become less self-conscious – the crowd simply disappears.
How to Use Constrained Writing
Here are some examples of constrained writing you can use to take the spotlight off you and kickstart your creativity:
Use a lipgram – like George Perec, trying writing something without the letter “e” or “a” or “x” (for an easier one...)
Write an acrostic, where the first letter of each sentence or paragraph in itself writes a separate “hidden” sentence (read more about that here)
Write a Pilish, which consists of choosing only words that contain the number of letters in the number of Pi. For example, the first five decimals of PI are 3.14159, so you could write “I(1) want(4) a(1) sweet(5) nectarine(9)”. You can easily write novel-length works using this method. (Well, not “easily”, but you know what I mean.) (And yes, more math. Sorry ‘bout that.)
Write without using certain common words such as “the”, “a”, and/or “in”
Find a random picture and write about it
Write like someone else. One of the best poems I ever wrote was when I was trying to imitate ee cummings. Choose someone with a distinctive style and/or voice, and write like that for a while.
Don’t use adverbs. Good advice in general anyway...
Find random words. You can decide to find 10, 20, 100 – make a list and write a story or poem using every one of those words. (Note: this doesn’t mean use only random words, though you could if you like!)
Do you have any ideas? Leave them for us in the comment section below!
Key Takeaway: Writing freedom often isn’t. If you’re feeling stuck or you’re having trouble facing the blank page, constrained writing can help you look at it as a challenge rather than an obstacle. It can also help you narrow your creative choices so that instead of many choices, you only have a few. This technique can help you overcome fears and doubts, and spark your creativity.
Over to You – Have You Tried Constrained Writing?
Has constrained writing helped you? Let us know in the comments below! And if you have any other ideas about how to face the blank page, we’re all ears, too.
In the meantime, I leave you with a video about Georges Perec and another one of his books, Life: A User’s Manual.
Until next time, keep writing with wild abandon!
email me if you get lost.