Writing On Hard Mode, Part 1
I’ve always loved giving myself ridiculous writing restrictions. I have a song called “Prime Obsession” wherein the words occurring in prime sequence in the first verse (i.e. the second, third, fifth, seventh, eleventh, and so on) comprise a stanza independent of the main body. Later in the song, I have one stanza that is an acrostic of the title followed by four lines that are acrostic’s for the name I release music under—Klopfenpop. I also did a verse for an unreleased Torrentz song called “Mathematics” that incorporates the first 34 digits of pi in the lyrics, in order.
I’ve long been a fan of (what I now know is called) Constrained Writing, but creating a smooth, flowing, and meaningful work under such constraints has always been the most enticing part of the challenge. For me, a goal has always been that any work I create like this, should stand on its own aside from the novelty—if a reader/listener/observer were to not know the there was anything particular about how it was written, it would still stand on it’s own as a quality piece of writing.
Suffice it to say, that I love writing and I love puzzles. And I find great enjoyment in the challenge of creating a puzzle I have to solve by writing. So when I read the article “Ten Works of Literature That Were Really Hard to Write” over on Mental Floss, it sent me down sort of a rabbit hole of exploration into others who have done this type of exercise to a far greater extent than I ever have.
The first thing that caught my eye was the lipogram. A lipogram is any writing that omits, typically, a single letter of the alphabet. Webster’s points out that as early as the 2nd-4th century, both Nestor of Laranda and Tryphidorus wrote large works which omitted the Greek letter “alpha” from the first book, “beta” from the second, and so on.
Probably the most common of late is the letter E. Since it’s the most common letter in the English language, that challenge seems that much more insurmountably enticing. The most notable work from modern times that omits the letter E is Gadsby by Ernest Vincient Wright which is more than 50,000 words long.
The author referred to this love story as “a story of ‘strong liking’ and ‘throbbing palpitation.’” In the wedding scene, he avoids the word “wedding” calling it “a grand church ritual”. Wright even went so far as to not use abbreviations like “Mr.” since reading it aloud would imply an E; he didn’t even allow himself nicknames like “Bob” instead of “Robert”! That’s badass.
Most people are familiar with anagrams—you rearrange the letters in a word or phrase to get a new word or phrase. “Tom Marvolo Riddle” is an anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort”; “Torchwood” is an anagram for “Doctor Who”; and so forth. But some people use this as a writing device. One such writer was David Shulman who, in 1936, wrote a sonnet entitled “Washington Crossing the Delaware” in which each of the 14 lines is an anagram of that title. And they tell a cohesive story. And rhyme.
Right? That’s nuts.
We in the nerdcore community just witnessed a modern feat of this type. While not traditionally considered a form of constrained writing, it most certainly is. It may not constrained in content, writing constrained in time is definitely an obstacle—and one many of us face in differing levels. Adam Warrock is our community’s expert in prolificacy.
He has the reputation for releasing songs unbelievably frequently while maintaining a high caliber of work, but he recently topped himself. In a fund-raising stunt to replace a couple stolen laptops, he held a 24 hour Rap-A-Thon during which he wrote 16 songs. While that may be admirable and worth applauding, to be sure, it’s not unheard of.
Indian writer Sri Chinmoy “wrote least 1,000 books, 20,000 songs, and 115,000 poems” in his lifetime. Not only that, but he wrote in up to six different languages (though most of his poems are in English, his second language, or Bengali, his first). And this wasn’t just Wesley Willis adlibbing random obscenities over a keyboard demo to drown out the voices in his head, Chinmoy’s work is celebrated, has won awards, and is still read at important world events.
But one day, November 1, 1975 to be precise, he wrote 843 poems in 24 hours. That’s a poem every minute and forty-two second if he never stopped to do anything else all day. He titled the collection Transcendence-Perfection. He was a humble guy, as you can tell.
Another great constraint, is length. One thing that I’ve always envied about melodic songwriting, is the density top which it lends itself.—some of the greatest songs ever written are only a couple paragraphs. In hip-hop, we don’t always have such a luxury; flow and syllable structure almost always leads to a multitude of words. In many ways, rap is much more similar to prose than to typical poetry because of how wordy it typically is.
There is a legend about a work of brevity:
While having lunch at New York City’s famous Algonquin Round Table, Ernest Hemingway bragged that he could write a captivating tale—complete with beginning, middle, and end—in only six words. His fellow writers refused to believe it, each betting $10 that he couldn’t do it. Hemingway quickly scribbled six words down on a napkin and passed it around. As each writer read the napkin, they conceded he’d won. Those six words? “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”
Six words, and it’s powerful. Obviously, it wasn’t actually written by Hemingway based on two things: 1) It wasn’t utter shit and, 2) It embodies the precise opposite of Hemingway’s writing style. Of all the people to be demonstrating “the economy of words” and value of not overelocuting, he would likely be the last person I would pick. [steps down from soapbox]
An interesting thread that runs throughout these stories is that the goals of these pieces were never just to accomplish it, like filling out a form at the DMV. The desire that drives this is always to overcome the self-imposed constraints and make a great piece of art. It’s an important reminder for us—yeah, you can use some crazy cipher to write a song, but it is any good? If not, what was the point? That said, there’s definitely something to be said for using constrained writing as an exercise, even if you don’t plan to release the product; much like working out physically. No one’s going to get on the basketball court and start picking up a heavy object over and over, but weight training will greatly improve your power and accuracy in shooting and passing.
What cool exercises have you done like this? What do you do to stretch your writing skills? Do you have any ideas you wish you had the skill to execute, but want to pitch it here to see if someone(s) will try it out?
Source : Mental Floss