Monday, January 16, 2012

My writing isn't constrained, it's tortuous.

This might wind up being a long 'un. To give you a taste of what you're in for, and let you judge whether you should bail now, here's some of the bullet points: blogging ethics, constrained writing, Christian Bök, installation art, the TV show Community, cliched sayings, consumer good vs. creative work, academia, and student projects. (Good God, am I writing a blog post or a dissertation chapter?)

Still here? Good. I had a conversation with two friends today about constrained writing, writing wherein the author deliberately puts some sort of restriction on the writing. And by "had a conversation" I mean, I walked in on them discussing the issue, and quickly picked a side. Our discussion went on for a bit, but it wasn't until I went for a run a little while later that what I should have said came to mind.

You may have noticed that I don't summarize conversations I had with friends very often here--or if I do, it's a deliberately one-sided account that minimizes everyone else's participation. That one-sidedness is only mostly because of my tremendous ego. The other part is that I feel that I don't have any right to speak for others, even in summary--at least, not in a public, semi-permanent forum like this blog. That puts me in a bit of a conundrum when I get into a discussion I want to blog about. If I was being really fair, I'd probably take these ideas back to the friends in question, we'd hash out some concept over a long discussion, agree to write the blog post together, and slowly let it collapse due to the difficulty in coordinating for such a length of time for such a minor result. Instead, I opted for expediency. I'm stretching my non-involvement of others rule to its limits here, and I acknowledge that, and apologize in advance for misrepresenting anyone. (It's also ironic, for reasons that will become apparent later, that I'm testing limits with this post. But more on that later.)

Constrained writing--and here's my first paraphrasing, since it was the term one of the friends came up with--is simply when an author places some sort of constraint on themselves in their writing. It could be that short story Carol Shields does where she doesn't use the letter "e." It could be something as simple as a poem where every other line rhymes. The best example, I think, is another one purloined from the original conversation: Christian Bök's Eunoia, a book of poetry wherein each of the five chapters is composed of poems whose words contain only one of the five vowels. So the "e" chapter has a lot of words like "eke" and "seen" and so forth. And Bök places other rules on himself("borrowed," this time, from Wikipedia):
Each of the chapters must refer to the art of writing.
Each of the chapters have "to describe a culinary banquet, a prurient debauch, a pastoral tableau and a nautical voyage."
All the sentences have to have an "accent internal rhyme through the use of syntactical parallelism."
The text has to include as many possible words in it as it can.
The text must avoid repeating words as much as possible.
The letter "Y" is to be avoided.

Bok's book is perfect, because it encapsulates both sides of the argument: the obvious challenge of the endeavor, and seeming pointlessness of it. And that, paraphrasing villainously, was my other friend's argument against constrained writing, one that I agreed with: at the end of the day, it seems to fail the question of "why bother?". You place all these rules and restrictions--albeit very interesting rules and restrictions--on the writing process, and the result is a subpar poem that doesn't make a lot of sense.

When I got thinking more and more about it, I realized that my issue with the constrained poetry was similar to my issue with nonrepresentational art, mostly in terms of installation art, but also abstract as well (and if the reference to abstract makes you think I'm basing this on the chapter from the W. J. T. Mitchell book I read a little while ago, you wouldn't be far off.). Namely, that even if the end result is interesting, and I'll fully acknowledge that installation art can come up with some pretty damn interesting end results, the original idea is more interesting to me than than those results. With Eunoia, for example, the poems are mildly amusing, but ultimately rather banal. It's the original idea and constraints that are worth talking about. Why bother, then, with the final product, if it's just a mediocre, pale instantiation? Why not leave an interesting thought experiment as an interesting thought experiment?

Well, you can't put a thought experiment in a gallery, for one thing--or show it on TV. I think that's one of the albatrosses that were weighing on the neck of the show formerly known as Community. It had clever ideas. It had more clever ideas than it knew what to do with (or, more importantly, than the audience knew what to do with). Create a flashback episode filled with flashbacks that never happened? Clever idea. Do an episode where there's a conspiracy theory about the class on conspiracy theory? Clever idea. Construct an episode around an elaborate mash-up of Pulp Fiction and My Dinner with Andre that uses Cougar Town as the basis of a discussion of what it means to be a genuine human? That's so clever you're going to need an extra bucket to mop up the cleverness that's slopping over the side. And that's the problem. The show is so busy with its high concepts sometimes that it forgets to put similar effort into the execution. (Compare it to Modern Family, which has the opposite problem--the high quality writing and cast performances have to do everything they can to distract the audience from the fact that the actual plots are derivative, utterly cliche, and tired.) And as much as I love this show--and I do love it, every Cougar Town bit of it--I have to admit that, sometimes, its big idea is the main attraction, and the episode itself should have stayed at home.

So the direction I appear to be flailing toward, then, is keep the idea and lose the product. But that equation is missing an important step, maybe the most step. To return to the original discussion, the pro-constraint friend argued that by placing such constraints on language, you push it to its limits, and it's at the limits that things get interesting. I agree with this wholeheartedly. When I've written under constraints, whether it's creative writing (thanks NaNoWriMo) or poetry or whatever, the process is infinitely rewarding. And I imagine it's the same for the constrained writers, the poets, the installation artists, all the way down to Community's noble cast and crew. The process is the most important part of a constrained work, or perhaps any work. Creation under such restrictive conditions becomes a process of personal revelation and amazement--at least, for the artist.

For the audience, the response can range from a similar fascination (especially if you're familiar with the artist, the idea, and the method), to a sort of confused boredom, to, at worst, a feeling that you're being excluded. There's nothing quite so unfunny as a joke you think might be on you. And that's a problem, one that goes all the way from modernist art to the Neilsen demographics: sometimes, the work of art seems like nothing but a joke that you're not in on. How good is a poem from Eunoia if you don't have the list of constraints he's operating from? To me, the most interesting part of these constrained, experimental practices isn't the final product, but the process and emotional responses that lead to it. I'd much rather watch a documentary on Jackson Pollock than go to one of his galleries.

For what it's worth, I think one of the best solutions, in the classroom, at least, to the process/product problem is the one routinely exercised by a professor I took a course from in the first year of my doctorate. He has his students do their final project, and encourages them to be creative and innovative--that is, baffling, as the end result often winds up being. But he also has them write an essay explaining both the project and the process of creating the project, and how both sprang from and contributed to an overarching idea. If po-mo artists had to stand next to their work and cite sources, I'd be a lot happier. (This method particularly fails when it comes to Community, I'll admit, unless you happen to be a viewer with Joel McHale on speed dial.)

But there's one more side of this process-product-constrained writing thing I want to consider. I'm sure everyone here's familiar with the saying "It's not the destination, it's the journey." The thing is, for most people, after a day's work, they don't give a brass monkey about the journey(ie. process); they want the destination (product), thanks. There's a whole heap of problems with this view, as you can sweep a lot of inhuman practices under the rug by ignoring how a product gets to the hands of the consumer. But in a mass production society, it's the product that matters. Two and Half Men is a terrible, terrible show, but it is what is says on the tin: it's a comedy. Make 22 episodes a year, run it until it becomes completely unprofitable, then milk it in syndication for another five years. Put it to pasture for a few more, and you can bring it back out--as retro nostalgia. A well marketed mass-produced television product never dies, it just temporarily depreciates.

And here, if anywhere, is the place to champion constrained writing and all its ilk and brethren. Because if there's anything constrained writing needs to be, it's unique. Once it's reached the point of convention, it ceases to be constraint at all and becomes another genre. Constrained writing's uniqueness, however, is not in the final product, as a perusal of my personal scapegoat Bok will tell you. It comes from the big idea, and it comes from the process of making that idea from something abstract to something tangible. The process is the best part, and it's where installation art meets folk art, where Community meets stand-up.

And that's not to say that my divisions are absolute either--there's usually at least a glimmer of interesting nuggets even in the most soulless of corporate products, and constrained writing fits into mass economy just like everything else. Sometimes I want a box of Kraft Dinner, and sometimes I want a meal I made from scratch (okay, with me personally, the weight's on the former's side, but the metaphor stands.) To grossly paraphrase my friend's early point, the interesting stuff is found when you push something to its limits, but the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

And as for constraints--I bet you didn't realize this, but I wrote a WHOLE POST WITHOUT USING FRENCH! It's true! Sacre bleu!

....Awwwwww nuts.

Later Days.

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