Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from ben Randall. Please read more about Ben in the footer.
It’s no secret writers have their own techniques for getting the job done. Inventing rules, playing games, asking someone to hide their Mad Men box set until the chapter is done.
Some, however, take this discipline to illogical extremes, forcing constraints upon themselves that hinder, frustrate and, just occasionally, create a work of genius.
A Void (Georges Perec)
In Perec’s 1969 cult classic, Anton Vowl is missing, leaving his friends to unravel the mystery behind his disappearance. There’s only one hitch, they (and the author) must do it without using the letter ‘e’.
An example of a lipogrammatic novel, A Void is more than just a gimmick: the missing letter leaves a hole in the heart of the novel that affects characters, author and reader alike.
Written in French, the banishment of such words as ‘je’ (‘I’) and ‘écrire’ (‘writing’), gives the work a hard, bitter edge that chimes with its noir-ish elements. In Perec’s restricted world, even self-identity is missing, replaced only by a hollow void.
The Train from Nowhere (Michel Dansel)
Having decided the verb was “like a weed in a field of flowers”; Dansel sat down and wrote this 233 page behemoth without using a single one. Though touted at the time as the beginning of a whole new literature, the idea ultimately failed to catch on. Perhaps due, in part, to sentences like: “What luck! A vacant seat, almost, in that train. A provisional stop, why not?”
The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Italo Calvino)
Beginning with the idea of lining up tarot cards in a row to see if a story would emerge (it did), experimental writer Italo Calvino hatched a plan to transcribe every possible story hidden in the average tarot pack. As each pack could conceivably contain an infinite amount of tales, including everything already written and yet to be written, this ultimately proved impossible.
As published, the book reproduces all combinations he managed to transcribe in a year of madness, before abandoning the project altogether.
Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau)
Published in 1947, Exercises tells the story of the same brief encounter, over and over, in 99 different styles. Ranging from anagrams to metaphor to dog Latin to rhyming slang, no stylistic stone is left unturned. Queneau would later found the Oulipo group, a French collective of authors writing to constraints, whose membership included both Perec and Calvino.
The work of Jack Kerouac
Kerouac famously wrote his novels in bursts of frenzied activity, often on drugs and without editing. While it may seem the epitome of laziness, the theory behind it came from a rigid set of ideals.
The improvisational nature of jazz; a deep-seated Catholic desire to paint the absolute unvarnished truth; and a wish to emulate the rolling stories of ‘old timers in bars’ all contributed to his creation of ‘spontaneous prose’. In its purest form it allowed no editing, no second thoughts and no second drafts. If that sounds easy we invite you to try it right now and see if any publisher will take it. Go ahead, we’ll wait.
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Although Snopes has been unable to verify it, the tale behind the ‘baby shoes’ story is a good one. Hemingway bet a friend he could write a story in six words or less. The friend accepted, Hemingway wrote the above on a napkin and won the bet.
While it may be apocryphal, the legend has inspired many authors to try their hand at six-word stories, with varying results. Our favourite: Alan Moore’s “machine! I’d just invented a Time”.
Not a Wake (Michael Keith)
Keith’s book is a collection of short stories and poetry written entirely in pilish. For the uninitiated, pilish involves using the mathematical constant Pi to determine the number of letters in each word. The first line: “Now I fall, a tired suburbian in liquid under the trees” contains words with 3,1,4,1,5,9,2,6,5,3 and 5 letters, respectively. Or: the first 11 digits of Pi.
Odd way to combine math with literature.
What creative, constrained ways have you used your writing? Do you know of other works of literature that uses constraints?