Saturday, July 3, 2010

The freedom of restrictions

I find the question of how the discipline of a tight structure can be freeing for your writing an interesting one. Nothing I've read lately brings that issue into focus better than Crossing Stones by Helen Frost.

The story of two families navigating change during World War I, Crossing Stones is written in both free verse and what the author describes as cupped-hand sonnets, a carefully structured form with distinct rhyming patterns. The poems are shaped, some as the free-flowing stream and others as the stepping stones across it, and they reflect the characters of the three narrators as well as the overall theme of the book. The book has received lots of major awards and is even an Oprah pick.

What fascinates me is how Frost manages to succeed so well at the basic elements of storytelling -- her plotting and characterization are both very strong -- while working within such a confining framework. Nowhere did I feel the language strain to make the form work, or the movement of the story contort to fit its needs.

While it is far, far beyond me to imagine writing in such a tight structure, I have found that restrictions can sometimes be freeing. They can force creativity by eliminating easy solutions and can enhance your focus by narrowing the range of possibilities.

For my current novel, I began with a concept that each section would fit on a single book page to emphasize the narrator's disjointed and fragmentary perceptions. I abandoned the page limit halfway through the first draft, allowing some scenes to expand beyond that length, but kept the underlying idea. I found it useful for helping me be more disciplined in trimming my writing to only the bare essentials. In the end, I created a novel without chapters but rather short (sometimes very short) vignettes. Almost every one of them has its own arc or pace.

Is it successful? I think so, but I'm just finishing revisions in preparation for sending it out into the world, so I don't know yet what others will think.

In a Montessori preschool, children often are given meaningful restrictions like this. At the art easel, for instance, they may have a huge pad of paper but only two colors of paint. Limiting them to two colors allows them to explore how those two colors mix and contrast or complement each other. The results are often truly beautiful studies of color. They're very different from the brownish gray that usually comes from children with a lot of paint colors to mix.

Anyone else experiment with self-imposed limitations as a way to push creativity?