Writing inside the Box: Constrained Writing in the Modern World

constrained writing
(Photo by Oliver James)

By Oliver James

Whilst our understanding of the power of constraint on creativity might be relatively modern, constrained writing is no new concept. Consider, for example, the popularity of Haikus or Shakespeare’s sonnets. They exhibit a sort of intellectual contortionism—a display of creativity within boundaries with a final value that outweighs seemingly counter-productive regulations.

Constrained creativity is far from limited to literature, with many scientific and business innovations taking shape within restrictive environments. The key difference perhaps comes in the self-imposed nature of constraint; whilst the world might force an architect to design within financial and material constraints, a writer often chooses to build walls around themselves.

Much like chemistry and engineering, creativity drives literature forward, and as more traditional forms of constrained writing begin to lose their grasp on our interest, writers have begun to adopt a more drastic approach.

In his experimental 2004 novel, Le Train de Nulle Part (‘The Train from Nowhere’), Michel Thayer constructs a 233-page work without a single verb, which are, in his words, ‘weed[s] in a field of flowers.’ The result is intriguing, if somewhat disjointed: ‘Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. A segment of the journey with you! Or maybe not! Like the whole itinerary, at least mine!’

Uncovering the rule is straightforward, and as such, what is impressive is therefore the length at which Thayer adheres to it. Beyond this, any deeper impact on the narrative is trivial, potentially explaining Le Nouvel Observateur’s description of the novel as ‘disagreeable.’

Although a little older, George Perec’s work, La Disparition (‘A Void’) might prove that modern constrained literature has not lost its creativity. Written in 1969, Perec’s novel is composed entirely without the letter ‘e’, creating a 300-page lipogram. In this sense, it does little more than Thayer’s work: the text is impressive because of its extended devotion to a self-imposed rule. Deeper consideration of the rule and the author uncovers more, however.

Perec was left an orphan after WWII. Immediately then, his own ‘voids’ influence the text; Warren Motte reflects: ‘The absence of a sign is always a sign of an absence…Perec cannot say the words pere, mere, parents, famille in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec.’ Perec’s constraint is employed to allude to his personal ‘voids’: he uses his rule to highlight the devastating gaps in his upbringing through subtraction, rather than addition.

And perhaps a new answer appears, in the form of Twitter’s character limit. Brian Bilston, the ‘unofficial poet laureate of Twitter’ has found fame through a new form of constrained writing, reaching an audience of thousands with his witty, relatable, often visual poetry. Clearly, it is in our very nature to excel within ‘walls,’ whether they be self-imposed or pre-existing. Now, as ever, we cherish inventive problem solving in all areas, and modern forms only spur this creativity, particularly in writing. Part of this accomplishment appears to be adaptability; people continue to value innovation within evolving, challenging constraints, reminding them that the only true limit is themselves.

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