In general I’m not a fan of restriction. Purposefully limiting yourself, like refusing to eat carbs, or drink any wine at all in January, only narrows your life in a meaningless way. What does it prove? That you can willingly conquer your own body, or your own desires? What things to want victory over.
In writing, however, restriction becomes something else. It becomes a very powerful tool.
Remember magnetic poetry kits? 440 words in a little box to put on your fridge, for you and everyone you live with to rearrange into ‘poems’. If a word you’d thought of wasn’t there – tough. Find another. You could spend a good half hour lazily moving words around the fridge door until you came up with something that pleased you, that surprised you. Something you would never have come up with left with the blank page and the entire English language.
The French (of course) made a movement out of writing with restrictions, Oulipo, whose members invented games and puzzles to see what their minds could be forced to produce.
One of their most famous members, Georges Perec, wrote a novel entirely without the letter ‘e’, a task replicated faithfully by his English translator, Gilbert Adair. Perec also wrote one of my favourite novels of All Time, Life A User’s Manual, which is partly structured by the way the knight moves on a chessboard.
By limiting ourselves, paradoxically we break down our own conventions, and become more, not less, creative.
You can never get away from yourself, and the way you naturally write, but you can rediscover things you hadn’t realised were lost.
At the Folio Fiction Festival, George Saunders talked of giving his students at Syracuse a particular exercise and found that it changed their writing – the serious ones became funny, the funny ones got dark. Left to free write all the time, we all fall into habits and ruts that don’t necessarily represent the full spectrum of what we are capable of. Knowing and accessing those other sides of us enriches and informs all our writing.
Here’s that exercise from Mr Saunders:
Write a story of exactly 200 words, that uses only 50 individual words.
If you’re interested in more creative exercises with restrictions I recommend two books by Brian Kitely: