Doing things that don’t come naturally.
A plea for constrained writing

No rules, no limits, no conventions, no formats, no patronizing, no templates, no concessions: in one word, no constraints … In our culture, nothing seems to be tolerated that limits the writer’s essential freedom, her spontaneity, his eagerness to make associations while writing. In literature, however, and probably in some other fields too, freedom conceived in terms of “no this and no that” is just a myth, and a harmful one.

Why a myth? Because all rule breaking entails not just the existence, but also the use and therefore the persisting respect of the rule (once the rule is broken the game cannot go on, after the vanishing of the rule there can only be repetition or silence). As Jean Ricardou, the now forgotten theoretician of the New Novel, used to put it, ironically playing with the May 68 slogan “il est interdit d’interdire” (it is forbidden to forbid): “If everything is allowed, nothing is possible.” In a more contemporary vocabulary: if anything goes, it’s over and out.

So, why harmful? Because unchecked freedom produces dull literature. And, unchallenging literature is the only “don’t” that even the greatest freedom fighters among the authors will always honour. Freedom as spontaneity, self-expression, and improvisation does unfortunately not result in what it aims to be: original and innovative writing. For the more one wants to be oneself, to explore or to discover oneself, the more one realizes (or ought to realize, if one is minimally intelligent) that all one discovers, explores, and therefore is, are just stereotypes, formulaic writing, and unreconstructed repetitions. Trying to be oneself, and to write things down as they come naturally, is the fastest way to the new academism of wilful unconventionality. So please: no more cries! No more screams! No more howls! And: more rules, more limits, more conventions, in one word: more constraints!

Constraints work, and they are doing a fine job.

They work, for instance, in helping us overcome writer’s block or to finish a project once the initial inspiration wanes. For Raymond Queneau, they facilitated the invention of new forms, largely compensating that age old lack of inspiration. Stéphane Mallarmé made a multiple use of constraints in order to free himself from the obsession of the blank page. And, more recently, untrained or beginning writers inhibited by the prestige of the literary institution find their way to literature thanks to the impulses provided by the use of constraints in creative writing seminars, such as the ones animated by François Bon ( in high schools, in prisons, or in community centers and reemployment programs.

Constraints are doing a fine job, since the results are often surprising, for writers as well as readers. And, the more unnatural a constraint, the better. Constraints force us to invent, provided we play by the rules and make the rules hard. A constraint must be ‘total’, otherwise its efficiency vanishes: it must be applied throughout the text, not just locally, to spice up a small portion of the text; and exceptions to the rule should be meaningful, not due to a lack of effort or a lack of attention.

Finally (and of course I should have started with this, since this is the alpha and the omega of each constrained writing program): constraints should be free, i.e. freely chosen (a constraint rapidly becomes a burden if it is imposed in an authoritarian way), and freely given (no one ‘owns’ a constraint, everybody should have the right to reuse them in new ways). Constraints are proofs of sovereignty as well as generosity, which cannot always be said of anti-constrained writing, in which authors are slaves to themselves (‘I cannot but write the way I do’) and masters of the game (‘I am myself and all those who write like me are just vulgar imitators’).