In Dark Places: How Constraints Make Us More Creative

'There is a reason', Wyl Menmuir tells us, 'that more stories aren't set in caves.' In his atmospheric new short story, 'In Dark Places', Wyl Menmuir has chosen the unusual setting of a cave. The limitations implied by that setting have, explains Wyl,  shaped all the elements of the writing process and functioned as a framing device, in terms of both form, language and character.

There is a long tradition of imposing constraints on the process of writing. In essence, imposing limits can be freeing. This might seem paradoxical. But limitations in literature can be surprisingly liberating for writers. The strange textures of Wyl's story, and its claustrophobic feel, stem from the limitations he set himself.

The French literary group OuLiPo set out to explore the limits of experimental writing. Their efforts largely consisted of imposing severe restrictions on their writing. Oulipian Raymond Queneau's book 'Exercices de style' tells the same slight story of a man getting onto a bus and watching an argument in 99 different styles. Georges Perec, another Oulipian, wrote a novel called La Disparition that avoids any use of the letter E.

Gilbert Adair's English translation of the book follows the same rule, and contains this variation on Poe's famous poem ‘ The Raven’.

And my Black bird, still not quitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On that pallid bust -- still flitting through my dolorous domain;
But it cannot stop from gazing for it truly finds amazing
That, by artful paraphrasing, I such rhyming can sustain--
Notwithstanding my lost symbol I such rhyming still sustain--
Though I shan't try it again!

Less onerous constraints you could try as a writer include choosing to only write in a certain place, or a certain time, or within a certain word count. You could set aside a journal that you only write in when it rains. Or, like William Carlos William’s doctor’s notebook, you could try condensing your thoughts into a tiny notepad. With each new experiment, you might just find that your poetry or prose becomes more distinctive or more refined.  

Introducing artificial constraints like this can be a way to get round writer’s block. The author is free to focus on the ‘rule’ and not on the writing. And approaching writing in this way can unlock strange and exciting work that writers couldn’t get in other ways. If you want to make something different, why not try something different?

‘In Dark Places’ by Wyl Menmuir will be published in September 2017. This publication is the result of a collaborative venture between National Trust Publishing and Falmouth University’s staff, students and writer in residence, Wyl Menmuir.

byJanina Zender and Benjamin G. Wilson