Divorcing ourselves from meaning in writing can feel impossible.
We get lost in our narratives and our characters, in the metaphors we’re creating and the incredible dialogue that we just can’t seem to fit into the story.
But the freedom to play with language through constraints can also be the key to letting go of the pressures of finishing and making meaning out of that scene that doesn’t fit. Here’s one way you can experiment with form and surprise yourself with what you end up with.
1. Choose a section of your work that’s giving you trouble.
Maybe it’s a character’s voice, a plot point that isn’t stacking up, a setting that isn’t quite coming across. You probably don’t want to work with more than about 300 words for this exercise.
2. Open a book.
Any book will do, but the best choice will be one by a writer who likes a long sentence. Not a Ducks, Newburyport, sentence, but one more like that than like, say, Hemingway. Find a sentence with at least four punctuation marks.
Here’s an example I like:
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges. -Vladimir Nabakov
3. Write down only the punctuation marks.
If you’re using my example: (),,,,,(),:,,,,,;,.
4. Find your own way into a sentence that uses these exact punctuation marks in this exact order.
Think about which of your characters or which of your stories might need this kind of room, this kind of pause. Where do we use parentheticals, and for what reason?
5. Your result will, if nothing else, look different than the 300 words you started with!
Will it be perfect? Not necessarily. But it might illuminate the kernel you most needed to focus on, the issue that wasn’t coming through before, or the internal struggle you’re having with your character.
Focusing on playful constraints and strongarming form has been a way to find our way through our projects from time immemorial. Getting away from meaning and deeply into sound can help us spark creativity that we would never be able to access otherwise. Join me in the creation of images that are shocking and silly, hilarious and haunting, in Deep Word Play, a four-session course where we’ll find and rediscover all the incredible joys our language has to offer.
Erica Sklar writes, organizes, and scouts out wildlife around Seattle. You can find her and subscribe to her newsletter on Twitter @_sklarface_