[C]onstrained writing designates a form of literary production in which the writer submits his or her text to specific formal (and to a lesser extent also thematic) constraints. On the one hand, such constraints function as boundaries that explicitly limit the possible realizations of a text in some respects. On the other hand, those constraints are not primarily intended as strict limitations but rather as creative stimuli for the artistic process; they reduce the endless possibilities—the common, rather naive association of literature with boundless freedom and complete originality—and thus contribute to a stronger focus on the mechanisms on which genuine literature should be based: formal control and a maximal artistic concentration within an appropriate frame of constraints.
Constrained Writing, Creative Writing,
© De Geest and Goric,
PoetryToday 31:1 (Spring 2010)
© De Geest and Goric,
PoetryToday 31:1 (Spring 2010)
Although we may not consciously be aware of it, everyone who writes as a vocation or an avocation does so subject to constraints. Most fundamental are the constraints imposed by language, accepted style, and grammar. We all learn certain rules and are taught to adhere to them. We are expected to know when to use “which” and when to use “that.” If we vary the rules in a given instance, it is supposed to be only with foreknowledge of the rule and with a good reason for varying it, such as to avoid contextual awkwardness. (Remember Winston Churchill’s famous observation that “ending a sentence in a preposition is something up with which I shall not put?”)
The types of constrained writing referenced in the above quote, however, go further. Beyond the universal constraints, which apply to us all, authors also may find themselves subject to genre, or thematic constraints. As the article referenced above notes, such is the case with romance novels, which tend to follow a fairly established formula. So, too, the “fair play” mystery, which is expected to rigorously adhere to the rule that all clues must be fairly presented to the reader in advance of the solution. And, as discussed in previous columns, anyone writing pastiches – stories in which another author’s character is used – practices even a higher degree of constrained writing, attempting to capture the characters, the style, and the approach of the original author.
Other literary constraints are used often by mystery writers (myself included), as devices to hide clues. These include anagrams, in which the letters of a word are phrase can be re-arranged into a different word or phrase, and the acrostic, a favorite of Lewis Carroll, in which the first letter of successive lines of text, usually a poem, can be read vertically to reveal a hidden message. Another device is to restrict a portion of the text to only certain letters – an Ellery Queen mystery (nameless here; no spoilers!) does this in a message that is drafted in its entirety without utilizing one rather popular letter. As a general rule, particularly when the device is used to hide a clue, the goal is to apply the constraint in a manner in which it is undetected, at least initially, by the reader. The constrained prose or poem should read as though it was freely drafted, in other words, as though it was written without the constraint.
The self-imposed constraints discussed above are fun for the mystery writer. They allow the writer to stretch his or her wings, and can provide means to hide the obvious; they challenge the writer’s skill to pull off the ruse. But as I said, constrained writing is a spectrum. Let’s take a deep breath and then explore what lies several turns down the trail.
When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job.There goes “when,” “the,” “I,” “had,” “to,” “get,” and “a” all before breaking free of the second line of the novel.
The story that unfolds recounts the exploits of a gambler who, like the constrained author, has vowed to never do, or say, anything that he has said or done before. The book is clearly a tour de force. But, unlike the more manageable constraints discussed above, this is hardly one that the author can pull off without the ruse becoming self-evident. And suffice it to say that this also is a book that requires focused attention by the reader and should not be undertaken by a mind already mellowed by a few drinks!
now in the public domain, is a lipogram: it is told without using any word containing a banned letter, here, the most prevalent letter in the English language – “e”. Wright’s mechanical technique in writing the novel is explained in the introduction as follows:
The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in, accidentally; and many did try to do so!The burden of the technique, while broodingly present in the construction of any single sentence, presented overarching narrative problems as well. Again, the words of the author from his introduction:
In writing such a story, -- purposely avoiding all words containing the vowel E, there are a great many difficulties. The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with “—ed.” Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few. This will cause, at times, a somewhat monotonous use of such words as “said;” for neither “replied,” “answered” nor “asked” can be used. Another difficulty comes with the elimination of the common couplet “of course,” and its very common connective, “consequently;” which will’ unavoidably cause “bumpy spots.” The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty? And this restriction on numbers, of course taboos all mention of dates.
Many abbreviations also must be avoided; the most common of all, “Mr.” and “Mrs.” being particularly troublesome; for those words, if read aloud, plainly indicate the E in their orthography.
As the vowel E is used more than five times oftener than any other letter, this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that “it can’t be done; for you cannot say anything at all without using E, and make smooth continuity, with perfectly grammatical construction—” so ‘twas said.
As Wright noted, with severe literary constraints writing style invariably suffers. That is not to say, however, that pathos cannot be found in all of this. Think of the sad plight of that which has been left behind in constrained writing – the letters, or words, or phrases that are shunned, exiled from the story through no intrinsic fault of their own. Think of the poor little “e’s.” Mr. Wright, in his constrained zeal, did not ignore their sad plight.