#160 - Feature: Constrained Writing

6 minute read

'Tis in a Motto: Ottoman I Sit

Writing with constraints is a fun and difficult task. It will push you to go to spots to which you would not normally go. Crafting thoughts around a constraint is hard - I just said that. But as a smart man has said - if a thing isn't hard to do, is it worth doing? Having us both said our own things - it's also worth stating that not all difficult things warrant doing. You don't do your cooking with no lights on, do you? Baking in pitch black is not good for anything. It's difficult, but has no obvious point, no justification. Why do it? For art? Up until this point, this column has had a constraint. It's an illustration of a lipogram. That will now End. From Wikipedia: "Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern.[1]" I usually don't consider something to be "poetry" unless it conforms to some sort of constraint; be that rhyme, meter, or something else. If you can work some sort of constraint into your writing without sounding at all unnatural, it's a beautiful thing. It's art.

Writing with constraints is a mental exercise. Like other exercises, it makes you stronger. It also lets you really appreciate the creations others have made. Demetri Martin once wrote a 224 word palindrome. Randall Munroe published a comic explaining the parts of the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 words people use most often (he said 10 hundred words, because "thousand" isn't one of the 1000 most often used words). Demetri Martin also wrote a poem by rearranging the all the words on a bottle of Rolling Rock beer. That "Buffalo buffalo buffalo" thing is the most constrained writing I've ever seen. - Palindromes - I've written a few palindromes in my day. The motto is a palindrome. This paragraph contains none, so don't waste your time looking for them. I generally don't enjoy writing palindromes, because you usually have to settle for something that's awkward to read or something that makes little sense. It's hard to sneak a palindrome in to regular conversation. Fun fact: The word "palindrome" is ridiculously hard to build a palindrome around. People on the internet couldn't do it. Nor Aaron. - Alliterations - Starting every word with the same letter sucks. It's hard to do and even harder to read. Again, you can't usually sneak an alliteration into everyday-type speaking. Alliterations are always annoying. Aaron's alliterations are arguably amicable... also aggravating, agitating, and alarmingly addictive. - Rhymes - Rhyme (usually combined with meter) is your standard poetic constraint. Nearly everyone has written a "roses are red, violets are blue" monstrosity at some point. I don't prefer simple rhymes. I like rhymes that happen across multiple syllables across multiple words, perhaps even across the sentence. Rhyming is a cinch. Stopping is unnecessary. Timing in a pinch. Dropping unless you carry. Didn't make sense, but it rhymed across syllables, across words, and across the sentences. Good enough. - Meter - Meter refers to the number of syllables in a given line. This is a more effective way of measuring the "length" of a sentence, when compared to counting the number of words. Syllables are more basic than words. You can count on them.

A famous illustration of meter: Haikus 

Haikus are poems that are only built with a specific meter, 5-7-5. Haikus can be fun, but they don't always make sense. Refrigerator. - Anagrams - Dan Brown featured anagrams heavily in "the Da Vinci Code". A long, vivid sentence can be hard, and I'm a wiry, deaf author. 

I like doing anagrams, but usually only if they are a couple words long. If you get too many letters it's hard to keep track of things. That's a detriment to the writer and the reader, in my experience. "Aaron Gillespie" says "Original, please". - Pilish - Now I have a crazy challenge. Pi digits guide the words' duration. Difficult keeping direction. But if you organize your vision, it should come out.

Pilish is a good constraint for me in particular because I have Pi memorized out to 27 digits because high school wasn't sufficiently challenging.

3.141592653589793238462643383279502884 - Acrostics - Acrostics Are Really Obscurely Named. It's Simple, Conceptually - Only Opening Letters. 

Acrostics are when first letter of each word/sentence/paragraph forms a word or sentence. I did this a few columns back. I wrote an initialism using the word "initialism".

- End -

The picture to go out on - a shamelessly nerdy excerpt from my Moleskine:

Top 5: Constrained Writing Projects I've Done
5. This Column has contained several. Collectively they warrant inclusion on this list. 4. A nonsensical poem written using English words which makes sense when you move around the spaces. Simple, bad example: "Willy O, U, Significant?" becomes "Will you sign if I can't?" 3. A short story written only using song titles. Simple example: "Hello. Hello, I love you. Hello goodbye." 2. I broke my right arm in 2001 & had to wear a cast for a couple months. During that time, every time I wrote anything it was done in a highly constrained manner. Technically accurate is the best kind of accurate.1. The short story I wrote using homophones, homonyms, & antonyms. If you're interested in reading it, just keep swimming.

Don't be an Oxymoron: 

“I drove to a park the other day. There I met a new old man and had this conversation. It started when I told him life seemed deathly hard - it's simply too difficult.

He said 'You should think a little bigger. You aren't failing to succeed, you are working to success through failure. It's alright to be all wrong; because once you're failures pass, you'll find what's left is what's right.'

What he was saying sounded awfully good.

'Let me tell you a true story - originally, I copied others. I had been a minority for the majority of my life. Next, I became stuck in the same quest to be different. It was pretty ugly. My attempts were really fake; and it seemed like everyone hated me. I was even at odds with myself'

He paused to watch some kids play - he only stopped to continue.

'Now then, the past is a present. The new days, they're here. You're forgetting to remember your victories. You need to remember to forget your defeats. They are old news - stop going there. Consider yourself fortunately unfortunate. You've had to push yourself to pull through. Don't accept a decline in your life. Keep changing! You can't fill a tall glass in short order. With effort, things will come a bit easier. Once you get afoot, you will get ahead. Your failures will increasingly decrease; and as things will come to pass, you'll have found you never really lost."

As he started to finish, I thought about us. We sat there together, alone with our conversation. I looked dumbly at the wise old man.

What he said seemed quite possibly impossible. I mean, he was nice; but I was certainly uncertain about what he was saying.

I clearly misunderstood.

Good grief."

- I wrote that -