Monday, January 16, 2017

Art of Constrained Art

I’ve always been a fan of constrained writing — where an author has self-imposed a rule (or a “constraint”) and vows to adhere to that rule throughout the creation of the work.

Lots of types of rules are available to choose from. Some are more-or-less already well-defined, such as the 5-7-5 syllabic nature of a Haiku:
When fire sets its course
It does not need a compass
For it travels light. [source]
Or the reversible nature of a palindrome:
Satan! Oscillate my metallic sonatas! [source]
The whimsical rhythm of a limerick:
A bather whose clothing was strewed
By winds that left her quite nude
Saw a man come along
And unless we are wrong
You expected this line to be lewd. [source]
Ever hear of Pilish? That’s a form of writing where the number of letters in each successive word conforms to the digits of pi:
How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics! [source]
Taken to an extreme, constrained writing can be interesting, but a bit boorish. Consider Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 novel “Gadsby”, which contains 50,000 words, but nary the letter “E” among them. A noble endeavor, for sure. But the necessarily stilted language makes reading it somewhat a challenge.

A more satisfying example of constrained writing came from “Deb in Brooklyn”, who wrote a Six Word Memoir for a contest on WNYC’s “The Leonard Lopate Show”:
“Living in existential vacuum; it sucks.” [source]
Let’s go beyond constrained writing and consider constrained “art”. A musical composition in a major key tends to constrain itself to only seven of the available twelve chromatic notes. An artist painting a water color tends to constrain himself to water-based pigments. A sculptor tends to constrain himself to one material, be it marble or clay or something between.

A television situation comedy generally must fit neatly into a 30-minute time slot. A TV crime drama must wrap things up in exactly one hour.

And I’ve heard writers of Sunday School literature complain to their editors about the “divinely-inspired word count”.

Constraint has also found its way into business cultures. Consider the concept of PechaKucha, where speakers are constrained to a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, which auto-advances every 20 seconds. The art form has a devout following and its own web site.

Constraint is good for the soul. Not only does it keep us driving the speed limit while staying in the right lane, it forces us to realize that the presentation is as important as the content. As creators of expressive literature, it makes us sit inside the minds of our audience and experience our creation as others experience it.

And empathy is the best gift we can give our audience.

1 comment:

Markdeshon said...

My favorite example of constrained writing is "Green Eggs and Ham" in which Dr. Seuss was challenged to write a complete story using a vocabulary of 50 words or fewer.