by Holly Hagman
This post is part of a HippoCamp 2021 recap series, with guest blog posts written by HippoCamp attendees. Learn more about our conference for creative nonfiction writers.
I have taught high school English over the last three years at four different schools, my schedule a mishmash of the traditional track as well as elective courses. Whenever I have had my students write – the ones taking American literature, mythology and media, and, perhaps especially creative writing – I’ve provide detailed prompts for their assignments. I’ve created templates, used mentor texts, developed projects based on books we’re reading, and always added a specific list of constraints.
When my students finished Catcher in the Rye, they could write a traditional essay or continue the story, matching Holden’s dialogue style and Salinger’s diction in their work. When we read The Hobbit, students were tasked with writing riddles that matched the format of Gollum’s and Bilbo’s back-and-forth, rhymes and all. When we studied Hemingway, students packed entire sagas into six simple words. Year after year, these projects yield some of the most poignant, evocative writing I have ever read.
So why, as a writer myself, knowing that constraints breed creativity, so I sit down with my notebook, pen at the ready, and stare at the blank page or blinking cursor in Microsoft Word and feel stuck? I was lucky to attend Jeannine Oullette’s seminar “Unleashing Your Hardest Truths and Most Striking Images Through Constraints, Juxtaposition, and Play” for the wake-up call I needed to start playing on the page again. Oullette started her seminar with an anecdote about a teacher that promoted constrained writing, discussing that “silly” and “soulful” are two sides of the same coin. She focused on the idea that play can be a portal to defamiliarizing the language on the page, resulting in fresh new descriptions and unusual imagery.
One of the reasons that constraints work so well to produce reconstructed writing is that they require the use of your “second-sight.” Essentially, focusing on specific requirements allows you to go “brain-blind,” by turning off the reactive portion of your brain. This process allows for the writer to pull from the depths of the mind and craft prose that surprises.
Experimenting with constraints can also revamp the writing process to renew a writer’s appreciation with their craft. Oullette herself used similar writing experiments to build her memoir The Part that Burns which covers childhood trauma and motherhood in fragmented essays. Playing on the page can help refresh the writing process and make it fun once again. After all, it’s supposed to be fun – creating art with words. Playing with specific requirements makes it easier to reclaim the joy of writing, even (and especially) when it’s hard.