creative writing

Creativity and Constraints – Part Two

Over the last few months I’ve experimented with a couple of techniques that have resulted in three flash fiction pieces being published in the online magazine ‘Sein und Werden’ (Being and Becoming). Not a title you would associate with science fiction and fantasy writing, but the magazine does accept speculative fiction.

Experiment One – Lipograms (writing without one or more letters of the alphabet)

Try writing a short piece without one of the letters of the alphabet. It’s trickier that you would imagine. If you are feeling particularly adventurous pick a vowel. Don’t do what I did and choose the letter ‘e’ for your first attempt!

‘Writing is always constrained by something. Rather than ignoring, or attempting to free themselves from these constraints, the Oulipians embrace them.’

Check out the ‘Sein und Werden’ website for more on the Oulipians and their approach to writing. The OuLiPo edition is full of great pieces written with a variety of constraints. I have two pieces in the magazine: ‘This Is It’ written under my name, and a joint piece ‘Walk in the Rain’ (part of the London Clockhouse Writers submission).

 

Experiment Two – Writing to a randomly generated title

The title I ended up with was: ‘I was simple in the haze of a smelly thunderbolt, but heaven knows I’m prehistoric now…’,

I had to smile, wondering what on earth I could do with that. Writing under pressure—given ten minutes to produce a rough piece as part of a group writing exercise—I wasn’t expecting to meet the teenage son of Thor in a deserted Tesco car park!

You can read the piece here, in the Surrealism edition of ‘Sein und Werden’.

Remember: Constraints are your friends; they will push you through boundaries and into a world that you never imagined. Go on, try it. It’s great fun, and who knows, you may end up with a piece that’s worth publishing.

Creativity and Contraints

Have you ever noticed that the more constraints you face in your writing, the more creative you become? For example, writing a collage piece with a group of writers. This involves the giving and receiving of short phrases from everyone in the group, so that you end up with perhaps six unrelated phrases to work with. If working alone, choose at random words/phrases from the book you are currently reading. The challenge then is to write a piece that incorporates all the phrases within ten minutes. As an additional constraint pick one of the phrases to start and finish the piece with.

The key to this exercise is NOT TO THINK. Put pen to paper and let the words flow. DO NOT STOP WRITING during the ten minutes. Grammar and spelling are not important. You could write a load of nonsense, at this point it really doesn’t  matter. What you are doing is flexing the creative muscle. Have a go at it. You will be surprised at what the pen creates.

Here’s an example (rough and ready as it appeared on the page):

Bring me one child. Not two walking in single file down the long road to nowhere. Not any number divided by itself. Just one. Only one. The one that won the Derby, not the one that got away. Let  him or her be clear skinned and clear eyed. One long gaze at the world, seeing only beauty, not the dross that skirts our lives. Let the child taste of delicious pineapple, the sweetest in Guadalope. Lips licked, eyes hooded, badger-like. Only one will pass these gates, marked by posters decrying war and scratched messages that plead for kindness in the world. One does not gas badgers or foxes or small children.

This place stands as a bastion in their defence. Windows stare blankly, one across and two down, a mismatched face that watches the road. Waiting for the only one that can save us. Fringed hair plastered flat by the rain, walking slow but determined, slight fingers wrapped in yours. Trusting. Such a taste, such a sight, a vision awaited with bated breath. To wait so long, gazing at the world.

Any number of feet tramping the dust, walking single file. But not one of them will do. He or she won the day, chosen by their village, their city, their state to journey here and save both badgers and children. This is not a selfless task, we who wait have promises to keep and promises to claim. So slice the pineapple, lick the juices and tell me that it is not delicious. Eyes that have seen the world can rest here, knowing that this community will not gas the badgers. That makes us feel safe. This is the right place.

Trace a finger along the window pane, moving lines, up and down, tracing patterns, a pineapple matrix. Whisper under your breath, give me a number, any number divided by itself and I will show  you a prime child, just waiting to blossom. Sun and water, light and love–all will blossom here, nurtured within crumbling walls behind dusty windows. So, I ask you one more time. No, I demand it. Bring me one  child.

Phrases that I had to work with:

  • walking in single file
  • any number divided by itself
  • one long gaze at the world
  • bring me one child
  • one won the Derby
  • one tasted such delicious pineapple in Guadalope
  • one across and two down
  • one does not gas badgers

Royal Academy of Art: Australia Exhibition

Image

Exhibition: ‘Edward Burtynsky: Australian Minescapes’ at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

The following pieces were inspired by several painting in the exhibition. When I looked more closely I realised that they belonged together:

When we got there it wasn’t what either of us expected. Not that we’d talked about it, you understand. We stood, hands resting on the bonnet of the car, the sun a hammer blow barely warded by sun-hats and shades.

‘So,’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ she said.

The so-called cottage looked more like a shack, corrugated tin roof sloping to a squint over windows blinded by mud and dust. I turned on one heel, hoping we’d pulled up outside an out-building by mistake: scattered gaunt trees in various russet shades stood watch, a few scratty bushes hunched in untidy gangs, and in the distance I caught the lumpy shimmer of the outcrop that marked the quarry.

Nope, this had to be it.

‘Might as well take a look?’

She shrugged but followed, one hand waving a zigzag defence against the insect whine, her shoulders tight, lips pressed together. I had to shove my weight against the door, but I got us inside. Stepping into shade, an instant of relief before years of accumulated heat snatched our breath, dust-dry air coating throats, making it hard to swallow.

‘Shit,’ said together, in the same I-don’t-believe-it tone.

The edges of the room were crammed with guessed at boxy furniture crouched beneath yellowing sheets, improbable stick-like appendages tenting at odd angles. The dust-smoothed concrete floor held a history of delicate movement. At the centre, warmed by an invading shaft of sunlight, curled the largest snake that I had ever seen. Its flat wedge of a head turned to stare, tongue tasting the air.

The distant sound of hammer striking stone echoes around the quarry walls, repeating until the original sound is lost with its copies. A shout, indignation tapered by distance, is muffled by the scrape of booted feet: my feet, impatient to be away, while hand and eye continue to work, capturing detail, blurring lines. Is that thunder? Rocks tumble and slide, promising death to those who labour beneath the overhang. I snatch a breath, mouth stretched to cry a warning. The screech of a hawk on the hunt fills the air; trimming feathers to an arrowhead it dives.

This is the place to walk: where shadow encompasses the meadow and the only sounds are the buzz of insects and the inconstant digestion of sheep. Walk slowly, experience the brush of wide skirts against brittle stems, the soft scrunch of leaves underfoot. And there, on the edge of hearing, the cry of a hawk. The wildness, the raw edge of it, wakes a longing for vistas beyond the farmstead.

A door slams in the distance, a familiar voice shouts. It’s time for chores and supper, and perhaps, a story under the stars.

Pushing through the meadow and back up into the farmyard, moving from sound to sound, encased in noise. An unexpected silence points out the clamour. Sigh—one less burden to carry. One more step and the cacophony that is life snatches us back.

We shared a glance. It was all we needed. A shaky step back, then another, pursued by a rattled warning. Diamond patterns picked out by fingers of sunlight, flexing, arching, making new patterns in the dust.

No, this is definitely not the place.

Climbing back into the car, arms and legs sticking to sweaty leather, doors and windows sealed against the reality of this place, waiting for the aircon to kick in. Our retreat marked by dust trails of our own. Curling fingers of hot air, spun out by hard acceleration, grab at the bumper.

Writing in the Hayward Gallery

I spent a fun and creative writing afternoon writing in the Hayward Gallery. The writing was guided by exercises provided by Shaun Levin, and inspired by the works of Dayanita Singh and Ana Mendita.

Dayanita Singh: Go Away Closer

Danyanita Singh is an artist and book-maker who works with photography. Photography is just a language: in her work images become texts.

Twilight shifts the world through shades of blue; haphazard lego-brick shapes with snaking pipes and orange maws fill the frame. Each light is a focus for conversation, for contact, as fingers and thumbs dance over glowing screens. Faces bend close; eyes narrow and then widen with delight; lips press together before stretching into a smile. Fingers flick, stroke and scroll. A sudden laugh, head thrown back, a momentary disconnect. The world rushes in: rumpled sheets and the smell of sweat and sex, the bite of hard chairs on the backs of legs, the familiar ache in hunched shoulders. And just for an instant, a glimpse of jumbled rooftops through the window, stretching to the shadow of hills and an empty sky.

Ana Mendita: Traces

During her brief career Ana Mendieta generated an inventive visual language. Using her own body, together with materials such as blood, fire, earth and water, she created visceral performances, which she captured on film.

Traitors’ Rock: a place for the clan to gather to witness the cleansing fire. A place for Marti and me to sneak back to at night, or in the drab grey of dawn, to sift through the charred debris, hoping for coins or trinkets that survived the flames. Sometimes we got lucky; mostly all we got were black-streaked knees and dirty fingernails.

That never stopped us; there was something compulsive about the place. It shouted secrets.

Marti cried sometimes, rubbing tears and snot across her face when I dragged her close to the Rock. I would have to shake her, and hiss that if she didn’t shut up the spirits of the stone would snatched her into the dark. And then I’d give her a piece of jerky to chew while she searched the outer rim of the burn. I had to remind her to give thanks when her grubbing fingers turned up a shiny, as she called it. Facing the Rock, we would touch soot-stained fingers to our foreheads and trace the sacred symbol, silently mouthing the words that bound us to this place.

Stillborn, I watch you. Hollowed out; smiling on the outside. Feel my skin. Don’t I feel solid? You smile and turn away, leave me rough and grieving: a scorched outline. Trace me—smooth fingers along rough surfaces, unwelcome bumps and lumps, caught on the cusp of becoming. No, don’t turn away. I exist only in your gaze. I stand in a frozen attitude of attention. Perceive me; consider me. Give me legs to stretch and walk away… from you.

Tree of lifeIf I stand here long enough, maybe you will see me. Or maybe you won’t. I hold my breath, torn between the two possibilities; not knowing, now, which one I want to come true. Don’t be stupid, I tell myself. Isn’t this why you have come? To be seen, noticed. To move in the same space, breathe the same air, taste life in the same way as you.

I hear the steady hum of voices, breaking into a staccato of shouts and laughter as you draw near. I take a breath, ready to step out, to enter your world. But limbs refuse to move, muscles lock in place. I’m a statue, slicked and pasted and moulded into the background. You saunter past. The moment is lost. Again.

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