Writing with Constraints

It was, in many ways, an ordinary autumn night: cool winds blowing softly, calls of night birds providing a minimalist soundtrack, light from a moon that was full just two nights back illuminating flora and fauna, city and town.  And in a totally unassuming smallish brownish building, frustration was consuming a particular man.

This man, thirty or so, was at a rolltop in his study, drumming his hands against it, and said without warning, “Dammit!”

Woman, coming in from living room through an oak door joining study and living room: “What is it?  You OK?”

Man: “I could do this.  In my youth I could, I know it.  But now…nothing.”

Woman: “Do what?”

Man: “Writing!  Composition!  I could do it any day, any hour.  A short story this day, a LONG story that month, mayhap a ballad or cinquain if I was particularly lyrical (or just whimsical) that day.  But I lost it all.  I own stacks of journals, blank books, and foolscap.  I bought a fancy quill and ink.  My laptop has MS Word.  And I sit in this study tonight, last night, all nights, to no avail.”

Woman: “I might know why.”

Man: “Oh?”

Woman: “All your options … that world of possibility … wanting to do ‘optimal’ writing, ‘Optimal’ writing is an absurd goal. You don’t want to do bad writing, not with so many good options, so you don’t start.”

Man, nodding vigorously: “Hm. Insightful.  But what I want isn’t a diagnosis, it’s a solution.”

Woman: “A solution is almost obvious, I think.  I can show you.”

Man:  . . .

Woman: “Say a word, any word.”

Man: “Umm… a word?  Hmm…”

Woman: “Say a word that starts with K.”

Man, instantly: “Kangaroo!”

Woman: “You follow my drift?  Limiting your options can simplify your situation.”

Man, “But if all that you say turns out right, what should I DO?  I can’t intuit a solution from your illustration.”

Woman: “Your conscious mind obviously thirsts for distraction. Allow it to focus on form by imposing constraints (arbitrary contstraints), and in that way unchain your subconscious.”

Man: “Hmm… constraints… focus on form… So I should try haiku?  Or writing in iambic whatchamacallits?”

Woman: “No, no, that’s so prosaic!  I’m urging unusual constraints.”

Man: “Prosaic? Isn’t that an odd word for this situation?”

Woman: “Shush.  But I’m not talking about haiku, no.  Concoct an original constraint.”

Man: “Such as?”

Woman: “I don’t know … only opt for polysyllabic words.  Or avoid duplicating any word in a paragraph.”

Man: “Wait, that sounds hard.”

Woman: “Probably. But it works. Why don’t you try avoiding a symbol?  That constraint is classic and good”

Man: “Don’t mark my commas?”

Woman: “I had in mind avoiding a symbol,\ such as “S” or “N”.  A common symbol which you will not allow in any of your writing.”

Man: “Thats probably crazy.”

Woman: “I don’t know if it is or it isn’t, and that’s God’s own truth.  But don’t you want to know what you can do?  If you don’t hold back at all?”

Man, picking up his quill with a grin and making a go of it, “Can’t hurt to try!”

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