Jessica Goodfellow, “Constraints Are Your Friends”
Musician Gus Garvey said, “A blank canvas can be very intimidating, so set yourself
limitations.” Since as writers we have blank pages to contend with, we don’t need the
metaphor of the artist’s blank canvas, but we still can (and should) take Garvey’s
advice. When we find ourselves unable to think of what to write next, setting limitations
can be a generative and even freeing act, as non-intuitive as this may seem. The
daunting set of all possibilities about which we theoretically could write suddenly
becomes manageable when downsized to fit whichever constraints we have chosen.
Getting around the (sometimes arbitrary) rules we impose on ourselves requires
ingenuity we may not have previously been tapping into.
A friend of mine found himself unable to write in the aftermath of his wife`s suicide.
When the writer’s block continued for longer than he himself thought reasonable, he
asked my advice, and I told him what I do when stymied: write a pantoum. I know of no
poetic form as restrictive—it actually becomes more of a puzzle to solve than a poem to
write with its constraint that every line must appear twice, in a prescribed order (a good
description of the form can be found here:
Getting immersed in solving the puzzle-like elements of the pantoum makes me lose sight
of the difficulties of writing while simultaneously requiring me to write—a useful contradiction.
My friend found this method to work for him too. When less frustrated but still needing a set of constraints to spur me forward, I also write villanelles, sestinas, triolets, and sonnets (in
decreasing order of rigidity of limitation). Sometimes I invent a form for myself, often based on
the subject matter I’m grappling with. Any form can work for poets. Allison Joseph, in an interview with Melissa Studdard for Tiferet Talk (which you can listen to here:
revealed how limiting herself to writing in iambic pentameter helped her generate an entire
manuscript of sonnets about her father’s death, a subject she had been unable to approach
before adopting the constraint.
Fiction writers can also use constraints to stimulate creativity. Some artists use chance
operators to set the scope of their projects, notably the Oulipo School founded in
France. One famous Oulipo project was Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic novel Le Void,
written without using the letter e. The puzzle of how to compensate for an artificially
truncated vocabulary can lead to wild metaphors that wouldn’t have been otherwise
triggered. Limiting a novel to take place in a single day can likewise engage the
imagination in new ways. There are endless ways to limit choices, and hence stimulate
creativity. Poet Stanley Kunitz said, “The truly creative mind is always ready for the
operations of chance. It wants to sweep into the constellation of the artwork as much as
it can of the loose, floating matter that it encounters. How much accident can the work
Sometimes constraints exist independent of, yet impinging on, our creative lives—often
lifestyle constraints (such as time, money, obligations, physical condition, or talent) that
keep us from doing our best work. However, instead of seeing these as discouraging
limitations that curtail creativity, we can think of them as instigators into the unknown.
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips said, “It is frustration that makes us inventive, resourceful,
at our best and worst.” In order to use this frustration to be at our best, we can meet our
pre-existing constraints with an attitude that these limitations, which we perhaps can’t
change anyway, can engage our creative resources and bring interesting results. Poet
Lucille Clifton, when asked why her earlier poems were so short, related that she had
written them while raising six small children. She didn`t have a chance during the day
to write anything down, so she had to keep her poems short enough to carry around in
her memory, until evening came and the kids were put to bed, and she could finally
write. She could have simply foregone writing during this period when family
obligations limited her writing time, but instead she creatively adapted her work to meet
the constraints of her lifestyle.
Another inspiring story comes from artist Phil Hansen, an illustrator who developed a
shake in his hand after nerve damage (from overdoing the detailed work of pointillism).
He gave up art for a time until a neurologist encouraged him to “embrace the shake.”
Engaging in projects that either avoided or used his tremor, he created a new life for
himself in experimental art, making huge sculptures of a scale such that a tremor didn’t
interfere with their construction, using his feet to walk on the canvas, etc. You can hear
his story in the following TED Talk:
As writers, as artists, constraints are our friends. Although initially we may bristle
against limitations, if we introduce them into our work when stymied, and when we
embrace the constraints that already exist in our lives, our work can be enriched.
Mud-begotten, rock-ribbed, why continue to live on a floodplain?
Have you not wept to see your neighbor’s hexed piano
floating in full grandeur down Main Street?
Did not your father also weep in nineteen hundred and fifty-four?
Have you not wept to see your neighbor’s vexing piano,
mean reminder of (n+1) nights it kept you wakened?
Did not your father also weep in nineteen hundred and fifty-four
though it was, then, a trombone—and a younger brother?
Mean remainder of (n+1) nights it kept you wakened,
the thundering churn and thrust of the Broken Arrow River
though it was, then, a trombone and a younger brother
who were washed away and never seen again.
The wandering Sturm und Drang of the Spoken Sorrow River
is roaring louder than the startled cries of those
who were wished away and never seen again.
But familiar loss is desired above inconstant chance.
Warning louder are the darkled cries of those
who’ve made this mistake before. You reckon,
“A familiar loss is required in lieu of constant change,”
and so we all dwell in dangerous places.
Who’s made this mistake before? You reckon
no one else. Anxiety sounds like an upright piano
and so we all dwell in dangerous places
like father’s trombone-emptied basement, like the heart.
No one else’s anxiety sounds like an uptight piano.
Mud begets rock-ribs. Continue to live on a floodplain—yes.
We like father’s trombone-empty basement. We like the heart
floating in full grandeur down Main Street.
(A pantoum first published in The Beloit Poetry
Journal, collected in The Insomniac’s Weather Report)
Jessica Goodfellow's books are Mendeleev's Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015) and The Insomniac’s Weather Report (Isobar Press, 2014). Her chapbook, A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland, won the 2006 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Competition. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. Jessica received the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal. Her work is being made into a short film by Motionpoems (May 2015). She lives and works in Japan.