Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Freedom in the Prison

Issues in constraint writing
Share |

By Melissa Major

On avoiding e

As much as I thought I could do it with hardly any difficulty, I soon got a grasp on how tricky it is to avoid using a common symbol in print or oral communication. Without a doubt, it is a painstaking task, but to accomplish such a thing truly is a triumph for an author.

It was only last winter that I heard about Georges Perec’s novel, La Disparition, which is completely devoid of the letter e. At the time, I was collaboratively writing Floozy: The Musical, an absurdist musical about a woman who travels the world on tap shoes and sexual prowess, discovering along the way that she is not aging. It was my talented collaborator, Reza Jacobs, who told me about this dubious feat, to which I promptly replied that he must be either lying or mistaken.

Of course it wasn’t a lie or a mistake and I suddenly felt challenged. So much, in fact, that I felt compelled to introduce constraint in the work we were creating at the time. Soon enough we found ourselves writing A Song Without Verbs (for a girl without direction) in which the entire set of lyrics excluded the use of verbs. It seemed appropriate that there were no verbs, since she (our heroine) had reached a point where she had nowhere left to go and she didn’t know what to do next. Despite how exceptionally well I thought we had conquered the challenge of writing an entire song without verbs, I later came to learn that, in 2004, a French author named Michel Thaler had written a novel titled Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere) without verbs.

Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern. I would argue that there are already pre-existing constraints prescribed to language. In English, we have grammar and syntax, punctuation and spelling. With that view, constrained writing is at the extreme end of a spectrum of constraints that extends further rules to the writing.

Take magnetic poetry, for example. You’re given a bunch of words and you have to create a poem using only the words provided. There’s a constraint present in such an exercise in that you can’t use any other words than the ones available. In fact, that is how Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham was born, when the writer, Theodor Geisel, made a fifty-dollar bet with Bennet Cerf (publisher and co-founder of Random House) that he couldn’t write a book with only fifty different words. In doing so, he not only won fifty dollars, but also managed to make a household name of his new book.

In 1960, Raymond Queneau founded a group named Oulipo (pronounced oo-lee-PO), which stands for "Ouvroir de littérature potentielle" and translates roughly as "workshop of potential literature." The group is an association of mainly French writers, mathematicians, university professors and engineers who have since popularized the idea of adding mathematical-type constraints to literature. Not all of their endeavours are published and, according to member Christopher Beha, sometimes they pursue the constrained writing just to “have a blast” (The Believer, September 2006). One of the most common examples of work by the group is La Disparition by Perec, the e-less 300-page novel Jacobs told me about while we were writing Floozy: The Musical.

Directly inspired by the work of Oulipo, Canadian author Christian Bök undertook the severely constrained task of writing the internationally acclaimed Eunoia; a text which restricts each chapter to the use of a single vowel, while suppressing the letter y. The first chapter uses only a, the next, only e and so forth. He set further constraints in the undertaking, including that each chapter must allude to the art of writing as well as contain a description of a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage, all whilst remaining lyrical. The word “eunoia” is the shortest word in the English language to use all vowels and means “beautiful thinking.” With each chapter appearing as a text block on the page, the narrative drive of Bök’s prose poem is very much present, which is arguably the real accomplishment when using constraint.

There are many different types of constraints and many have been around for centuries. The following is my short list of existing constraints.

Major’s Shortlist of Constraints

Acrostic – Usually used in poetry, though the strategy could be applied to longer texts, where the first letter of each word/sentence/paragraph forms a word or sentence.

Alliterative – In which every word must start with the same letter or subset of letters (i.e. Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish where the first chapter only uses words that begin with the letter a, while the second chapter incorporates the letter b, and then c and so forth. Once the alphabet is finished, Abish takes letters away, one at a time, until the last chapter, once again leaving only words that begin with the letter a).

Anagram – The result of rearranging the letters of a word or phrase to produce a new word or phrase, using all the original letters exactly once (i.e., Eleven plus two = Twelve plus one; A decimal point = I'm a dot in place).

The Beautiful Outlaw – An Oulipian constraint where all the letters in a sentence are used except one letter. The letters left out of each of the sentences spell out a word.

The Beautiful Inlaw – The opposite of the Oulipian constraint The Beautiful Outlaw, where only the letters in a name can be used to create the text. Letters can be used as many times as desired.

Bilingual homophonous writing – Usually in poetry, where the poem makes sense in two different languages at the same time, thus it constitutes two simultaneous homophonous poems.

Lipogram – Where a particular letter is absent from the entire text (i.e. Ernest Vincent Wright’s 50,000-word novel Gadsby: Champion of Youth [1939]; Georges Perec’s aforementioned novel, La Disparition, translated in 1994 by Gilbert Adair as A Void [using the same lipogrammatic constraint as Perec did]; Christian Bök’s Eunoia, which is a lipogram that uses only one vowel in each of its five chapters).

N+7 – An Oulipian pattern-based constraint where all the nouns in a selected text (often pre-existing and well known) are replaced by the noun that appears seven words later in a dictionary of choice.

Palindrome – Words that read the same forwards and backwards (i.e. the word “radar”).

Particular poem forms – Types of poems where a structure is imposed (i.e. sonnet, ghazal, sestina, villanelle, haiku, etc).

Slenderizing – The removal of a certain letter from a text (i.e. removing the letter y from “For many years I yawned” = “For man ears I awned”).

Reverse-lipogram – In which each word must contain a particular letter.

Univocalic writing – writing that uses only one vowel: a, e, i, o, or u (i.e. Georges Perec’s subsequent novel Les Revenentes [1972] which only used the letter e). Note: This could also be considered a lipogram, excluding the other four vowels.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and since constraint only implies that there is a pattern or that certain things are forbidden, the door to what constitutes constrained writing is wide open. For example, Peter Carey has written a book called True History of the Kelly Gang, in which he has omitted all commas. Writers have often created their own constraints. Doug Nufer wrote Never Again, a novel in which no word is used more than once.

Constraints offer a way of thinking outside of the box and in doing so they open up the opportunity to play with language without the pressure of needing to create something perfect or publishable. But sometimes it is publishable. For example, to distract herself while writing her lengthy novel Swann, Carols Shields began writing unconventional short stories as an escape to the traditional narrative rule that a story had to follow the structure of beginning with rising action, followed by a sudden peak and ending with a steep plunge of dénouement and resolution. In the stories that Shields wrote, there was sometimes no conflict or strong central character even and her use of reality and fantasy was mixed together inextricably. With her story "Scenes" the storyline is random and disorganized. The story "Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls" is composed of anecdotes that stemmed from a discussion she had with some female friends and it captures the jumble of memory and thereby a looseness in structure. In another story, "Others," Shields uses a double narrator. This collection of stories ended up being of such interesting and original quality that, in fact, it was published under the title Various Miracles (1985).

Constraints are a tool to defamiliarize a writer’s use of language and the way they write. Doing this exposes for the writer the habits they have developed; the word choices made and the way sentences are structured. Sometimes it is only valuable in practice, but sometimes the output has extraordinary literary merit. It is especially valuable if the form and content are merged (i.e. Carol Shields’ short story "Absence" about a missing keyboard key, written without the letter i). Often the constraint is actually responsible for such an original outcome because it has forced an author to think and write in an atypical way.

While poetry lacks some of the regular syntactic rules prose has to follow, it has a recognizable history of constraint application. Ancient forms of poetry, such as the sestina and the ghazal, have long been a respected method of constraint writing, without being considered questionable by some (as some of the Oulipo techniques might be).

Constraint is even exercised in the use of theme. The poem cycle I am currently working on uses the behaviour and descriptions of different mushroom species as an anthropomorphic metaphor for eccentric romantic relationships between people. It begins with a female speaker professing her admiration for a man who is a wild mushroom collector, someone who over the course of the poem cycle proves to be entirely obsessed with the lives of mushrooms. The constraint applied here is that all poems must include mushroom content. But let’s be honest here, before I began working on the cycle of poems I didn’t think to myself, “What will the constraint be?” Rather, I came up with a theme.

Using the Oulipian constraint of N+7 as a basis, I created my own mushroom version of this constraint, which I’ve titled N=Mushroom (which I believe now belongs on the shortlist!). Here’s how it works: Using my handy and truly inspirational Encyclopedia of Mushrooms, I took a pre-existing work, which in this case was a love soliloquy delivered by Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and replaced all the nouns with the first mushroom name in the index that began with that letter of the original noun. If there was no name under that letter or no name that had not already been used, then I selected the first mushroom name of the next letter and so forth. To title the poem, I used the stage direction setting up the scene and applied N=Mushroom. The outcome was the following:

Caesar’s Mushroom’s Orange Birch Bolete


But, soft! What lawyer’s wig through yonder white matsutake
It is the fairy ring and Jew’s ear is the saffron milk-cap!
Arise, fair shaggy ink cap, and kill the envious morel,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her orange peel fungus art far more fair than she;
Be not her orange peel fungus, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fungus do wear it; cast it off.
It is my magpie fungus; O! it is my love:
O! that she knew she were.

You can see from this how a new meaning surfaces, changing and replacing the old meaning. It began as the classic love proclamation of Romeo, but thanks to N=Mushroom and the particular choice of monologue, this poem now fits into my original constraint of mushroom-themed poems about the relationships of eccentrics. The speaker in "Caesar’s Mushroom’s Orange Birch Bolete" is someone who has cultivated an entire world with the lives of mushrooms (like the mushroom collector in the rest of my poem cycle) and is so enamoured by them that the only way he can think to praise his love is to call her by the names of the finest mushrooms he knows. He continues faithfully with the mushroom flattery, swearing his love for his dear magpie fungus, until the end when, almost as an afterthought, he returns to what was to be his original sentiment: his love for a lady and the uncertainty of her knowledge of this love.

Part of what seems to make constrained writing interesting and edgy is its originality. But the point isn’t really to go where no writer has gone before, is it? Regardless of who has used them before, constraints are great as exercises and have the potential to create a truly original piece of writing.

Melissa Major

Melissa Major is a poet, playwright, director and performer. Her writing has been published in CanPlay, Sydney Law Society Journal and International Psychogeriatrics. She is the Artistic Director of The Cheshire Unicorn Theatre Company and has worked on almost forty stage productions. Her own scripts have been produced in Canada, the U.S.A. and Asia. She has won six awards for her work and has been nominated for several more. Her university degree collection began with B.A.s in Theatre, Psychology and Fine Arts Education from York University, and she is currently completing a M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. More info at

Major’s Recommended Reading List of
Constraint Writing by Canadians

“Absence” by Carol Shields
Apostrophe by Bill Kennedy and Darren-Wershler-Henry
Childhood by André Alexis
Eunoia by Christian Bök
If Language by Greg Betts
Letter Drop by Victor Coleman
The Dodecahedron: or A Frame for Frames by Paul Glennon

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives