For a while now, I’ve been interested in bringing a mathematical method to storytelling: charting stories as graphs, using patterns, symmetry, proportion, and number sequences to build and analyze structure, etc. I want to make writing fun for me again: I want to think of writing as building or shaping–something you do with your hands, something concrete.
Brian Kitely’s THE 3 A.M. EPIPHANY, a book of fiction exercises, has been helping me along this week. Kitely’s approach to teaching (here is the complete introduction to his book) is to make the creative writing workshop a workshop in the sense of an artist or carpenter: “a light, airy room full of tools and raw materials where most of the work is hands-on.”
The standard American workshop is a lazy construction. The teacher asks students to bring in stories or poems to class, sometimes copied and handed out ahead of time, sometimes not. The class and its final arbiter (usually the teacher) judge the merits of the story or poem. Few ask the question, “Where does a story come from?” The standard American workshop presumes that you cannot teach creativity or instincts or beginnings. It takes what it can once the process has already been started. Most writing teachers say, “Okay, bring in a story and we’ll take it apart and put it back together again.” I say, “Let’s see what we can do to find some stories.” The average workshop is often a profoundly conservative force in fiction writers’ lives, encouraging the simplifying and routinizing of stories….I use exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, to find new possibilities, to foster strangeness and irregularity, as much as to encourage revision and cleaning up after yourself, and I don’t worry much about success or failure.
Many of the exercises are constrained in the sense that you have to fit your writing into a pre-determined form or structure, and many of these come from OuLiPo: a group of mathematicians and storytellers founded in 1960 (Italo Calvino was a member) who seek to create fiction with constrained techniques (writing without the letter “e” for instance, or only using anagrams). Here’s the site for The OuLiPo Compendium, and here’s a blog dedicated to constrained writing and OuLiPo. I became a fan of using constrained methods after taking a playwriting class focused intensely on structure, where we used many OuLiPo-like methods.
Structure is everything!