When artist Xu Bing was asked by the Chinese government to create two phoenix sculptures for the atrium of the new World Financial Center in Beijing, he accepted, but when he visited the site and saw the dismal working conditions of the migrant laborers who were building the luxury towers, he was so disturbed that he decided to create the phoenixes out of the workers’ battered tools. The elegant, gargantuan birds are constructed of shovels, hard hats, jackhammers, pliers, saws, screwdrivers, plastic accordion tubing and drills. The building’s developers worried about the message the sculptures conveyed and asked if Xu would consider covering them with crystals. No dice. They withdrew the commission, but the artist forged ahead with the project and the birds have been exhibited in the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and elsewhere. While the limited materials made the sculptures more challenging to construct, they also made them infinitely more compelling both aesthetically and symbolically.
In the introduction to his book WIND/PINBALL: TWO NOVELS, Haruki Murakami explains that he discovered his writing style by first composing in English with limited vocabulary and syntax and then “transplanting” those sentences into his native Japanese. In the process, a new style of Japanese emerged that was entirely his own. He describes the experience as a moment of clarity when the scales fell from his eyes. “Now I get it,” he thought. “This is how I should be doing it.”
“The Ten-Minute Spill,” a Rita Dove poetry exercise found in THE PRACTICE OF POETRY by Chase Twichell and Robin Behn uses a limited palette of words and an inverted cliché to point writers toward a similar eureka experience. After doing this exercise with my creative writing students, we tried it a second time using a palette of words they “found” on a “field trip” (see yesterday’s post) and then exchanged with one another. They complained about the confines of the exercise, but promptly produced great stuff.
Material is one way to exploit constraints. Structure is another. Frank Lloyd Wright would not have created his Fallingwater House if he had seen the waterfall as an obstacle to be overcome rather than an asset to be incorporated. Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” came from an exercise in end stops, and Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box” would not exist if she hadn’t been trying to figure out a creative way to use the impossible limitations of Twitter.
In my creative writing class, students first groan over and then feverishly tackle the constraints presented to them. They have written villanelles, sestinas, haiku, 6-word stories, Yelp reviews, fictional book blurbs and recently “Contributors’ Notes” in an emulation of Stacey Harwood’s poem by the same name (BEST AMERICAN POETRY 2005). The ratio of early complaints to eventual satisfaction is gratifying. Great ideas come from pushing against boundaries. The frustration of constrictions can distract the thinking brain enough to allow the deeper work of the creative mind to unfold. Get your students moaning. You won’t be sorry.
Tune in to tomorrow’s post for ways to find fresh entry points into your writing.