A designer friend of mine who loves conundrums, said to me last week: “Sometimes the more cornered you are, the more fun you have.”
That struck a chord with me as a writer. I’ve become increasingly convinced of the creative value of writing to constraints. It sounds counter-intuitive but constraints do liberate.
I’ve recently put this theory to the test in a [...] book called 26 ways of looking at a blackberry. Consider ‘blackberry’ as a metaphor for a standard piece of writing that can be improved – if only we can find a new way of looking at it and writing freshly.
That’s what I did – 26 times. Some of the rewrites were playing with technical things, such as eight-word sentences, a shift of pronouns, or writing without the vowel ‘e’ (hats off to Perec). Others took me into different forms of writing altogether: a fairy story, Shakespearean sonnet, song lyric, speech by Barack Obama, graphic novel. The important point was not to find one form, not to say ‘this is it and this is right’ but to keep an open mind. To approach any piece of writing with the thought ‘there’s always another way’.
As I worked on each rewriting, I analysed what was happening to the words. Ideas and thoughts changed, not simply the words. So the process of writing opened my mind to new directions, and I described the implications with examples in the chapters following each of the 26 ways. I added to the exploration through my 26 fruits website which now has an open invitation to find the 27th way – feel free to join in.
The idea of constraints worked for me in the book. In one sense, it’s simply a brief. I think it leads to a process that will also work for writers of all kinds. Yes, we all need to find our individual writing voice but we also owe it to ourselves to explore our own creativity fully. The joy of writing is that we constantly use it to make discoveries about ourselves. There are surprises if you open yourself up to that possibility and grasp it with enthusiasm.
John Simmons is author of 26 ways of looking at a blackberry
published by A&C Black