Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 32.
So yesterday we played with placing an arbitrary constraint on your writing – limiting you to words of only one syllable – and seeing what happened. I enjoy – enjoy is probably too noncommittal a word – I adore exercises like this, because they break us out of our habits and, paradoxically, set us free. Often, we start to realise we’ve been obeying internalised, unconscious rules all our writing lives, and with that realisation comes an explosion of creativity as we discover we can make new ones.
My interest in this sort of monkey business started when I got tangled up with the French experimental literature group the Oulipo. Me and a couple of friends of mine tried for a while to get accepted by writing some deeply scatological verse until such point as the President of Oulipo recorded a video statement declaring that we were not and never had been affiliated with the group and that they did not endorse our work. We were, of course, delighted and very grateful.
The Oulipo were – and still are – interested in placing restrictions on language to force originality. They emerged in part as a reaction against surrealism, arguing that painting a man with a lobster for an arm doesn’t liberate you from anything, and having no rules just means you fall into old habits you don’t realise you have. The Oulipo once called themselves rats escaping from a maze of their own design.
Two points, in case this all sounds terribly pretentious: one, most of the time, they were joking. Two, restrictions on language are actually really common. The limerick is a form of language with arbitrary restrictions, as is any rhyming poem, or a haiku. Pop songs have internal rules about words having to rhyme with other words and number of syllables in lines, and maybe that you have to have a phrase that repeats over and over. All the Oulipo suggested was that, instead of following rules that already exist, why not make up your own?
One form, that I’d like you to try today – and look, it might well go really badly, in the sense that the piece of writing it produces is not reflective of your best work, but on the other hand, it might switch on parts of your writer’s brain that have never been switched on before, make you notice work in a way you haven’t previously, and sort of stimulate the growth of a whole new eyeball on the side of your head. Uh, or something.
So you’re going to take your by now mythic scene and tell it again. Maybe go back to the original version if that’s easiest, so we’re not getting too far from the source. And today, you’re going to have a stab at writing a lipogram. This is an Oulipian form where you pick a letter, and do not use that letter anywhere in the text. Georges Perec wrote an entire novel this way, La Disparation, which doesn’t contain the letter e. Some critics, when they came to review it, didn’t notice.
I suggest the letter you try to remove is ‘a’. I think, in English, that’s about mid-level difficulty. It still lets you have the pronouns he, she, they, it; you still get to have past tense endings with ed; you can still have present continuous with ing.
But some words that you included in your original version will have to change. If the scene is set at a table in a café, well, you’re going to have be creative about how you might relay what’s there given your new constraint. ‘She sat…’ no, can’t have sat. Um ‘She sits at…’ No, can’t have at. ‘She sits before the dishes of food in the diner.’ Gosh, I don’t know. This isn’t actually my challenge. It’s yours.
Of course you can tweak some of the details if you need to – apples might become kiwis, but on the other hand an apple can become ‘the fruit’ or ‘the peeled Cox’s’ or ‘the golden delicious’ or some apposite metaphor. But as far as you can, match the original – at least the poetic truth of it, even if some elements get swapped out.
Right. I hope you have fun with this. Rewrite your scene without using the letter ‘a’. Let’s see how you get on.
Ready? Three… two… one… go.
And that’s your lot.
How was that? How did you get on? Completely stymied? Or did you manage a few sentences?
Don’t worry if you came utterly unglued. I don’t want to constantly softball you with exercises that don’t run the risk of your careening into a ditch. Embracing the possibility of creative disaster in small controlled doses is, I think at least, very healthy, and alongside these risks comes the possibility of discovery, of happy accidents, of, yes, good stuff happening.
I hope the process of looking again at a sentence and considering if there isn’t another way of writing it, and not just the first one that came to mind, is useful. Some of your alternatives over the past couple of days may have turned out surprisingly well in places. But even if they haven’t, our purpose here is to really shake loose your attachment to the cluster of habits you might have come to think of as openbunnyquotes ‘Your Voice’ closebunnyquotes.
I hope as a writer you will come to discover you have many voices at your disposal, none less authentic for sounding different. You contain multitudes, but some of those multitudes are shyer than others and all of them deserve a little love and encouragement if we’re going to coax them out to play.
Ok. Are we good? Do you still trust me? Please, at least, trust yourself. You’re doing great. And I’ll see you tomorrow.