Writing with Creative Constraints

Dashiel Carrera, author of The Deer, has some great advice for beating writer’s block: Realize that every work of art requires constraints of some kind:

For writers, it may be the case that the magic of creative constraints doesn’t lie in the constraints themselves but in the ways in which they counteract some deleterious impulse. The creative constraint may also be a means of helping writers understand the wants and needs of a particular project. Certainly for the five projects in this collection—spanning the genres of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—creative constraints elucidated the shifting boundaries that circumscribed the writing process, and revealed a path forward.

This reminds me of one of my favorite aphorisms from Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I firmly believe this. In the past couple of months, I’ve broken through writer’s block by writing stories for themed anthologies or contests. In other words, I was out of ideas, so I followed the lead of someone else. Too much freedom can get in your way, blinding you to possibilities.

The result? I’ve signed a contract with one publisher, and have submitted two additional manuscripts to other venues, pieces I believe are some of the best work I’ve ever done. (One, by the way, was sent to another publisher rather than the one who proposed the theme. Just another example of how writers find inspiration where they can!)

Creative constraints are everywhere, not just in themes mandated by publishers. The genre you write in imposes its own unique constraints, requiring you to invent fresh ways to work within or around them. A worthy challenge sharpens your craft, makes you approach your project in unexpected and original ways. And of course the form you choose (poetry, essay, novel, etc.) also provides creative constraints. As Robert Frost once put it, writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Obstacles bring out the best in us.

Quote of the day

History and Literature

“The act of writing this book made it clear to me that history, folklore and fiction are actually more similar than they are different. Each uses storytelling as a means of reckoning with the world, of processing trauma—both individually and collectively—and of finding one’s place. At the same time, these stories, whether fictional or factual, bind us to something greater, some shared understanding of where we have come from, of who we are, and of who we might become. “

Emma Seckel

The Quarter(ly) Myths, Fables, and Folklore

I’m thrilled to announce that Quarter Press has released the second volume of The Quarter(ly) Journal. It offers fantastical poetry, fiction, comics, and art by award-winning authors and artists, and includes my story “An Alignment of Wood and Water.”

Zach Benson is a master carpenter who builds special projects for special clients along the North Carolina coast. He returns to a client’s house to handle a complaint, something he absolutely dreads having to do. The disgruntled client is a newcomer to the area who lives in an isolated bungalow on Pamlico Sound. She’s a novice witch who claims Zach did not make a witching floor according to her specifications.

As Zach inspects the floor’s enchanted shapes of ash, oak, and cedar, a mysterious figure shows up outside. It takes Zach a while to get his nerve up, but he decides to confront the intruder.

It’s a scary/fun story featuring a creepy familiar, a dreamy shoreline, blue-collar stoicism, and a magical showdown. It also includes my thoughts on malignant do-gooderism. Please check it out! Quarter(ly) Journal is now available at Amazon.

The Quarter(ly) Myths, Fables, and Folklore

Reading for life

John Irving
John Irving, Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

It’s a distressing trend: Only a minority of adults reads for pleasure. COVID (while ruining everything else) has only made things worse. Seeking escape, folks drift toward the brain-numbing distractions of booze, video games, and binge-watching TV.

That’s dire news for writers and publishers. What to do?

There’s a great article I want to recommend about the reading crisis in the latest Vox titled How to fall back in love with reading. Step one on the road to reading recovery is to remind yourself WHY you should read instead of blotting out your consciousness with passive entertainment. The Vox piece reminds us that reading is associated with longer, healthier lives. Reading also enhances social skills.

Of course, there’s a deep cultural bias at work, which associates recreational reading with social ineptness and sissiness. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As President Harry S. Truman once put it, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Think of Teddy Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and John Kennedy, all energetic, life-long lovers of the written word.

As for the stereotype of readers as puny, we have the vital examples of Ernest Hemingway and Yukio Mishima, just to name a couple. Author John Irving, pictured above, was a wrestler in college, so pugnacious that in his younger days, he’d take a seat at a bar with a book and a beer and wait for someone to pick on him. A few did, to their dismay.

Quote of the day

image by David Shankbone

“Life, even on a quiet day, happens so densely and quickly around us and most of it is about seeing, feeling and thinking in a not-strictly verbal way. Writing translates all of this into words but paradoxically the most powerful writing uses words in a way that transcends language to become more true to life; it mimics how we live in a world that is constantly changing and moving before our eyes.”

Mary Gaitskill

Social Network

Social Network
Social Network

Flash Fiction Magazine has published my story Social Network. This piece represents nearly three weeks of writing and re-writing. I’m quite pleased with how it turned out, and I have to thank editor Shanna Yetman for her guidance.

Most of my stories arise from an image I can’t get out of my head. The only relief is to transform that image into a story, and that process inevitably taps into deep-seated concerns. When I recently re-read H.P. Lovecraft’s classic Nyarlathotep, one vivid scene stuck in my imagination:

And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare. Never before had the screams of nightmare been such a public problem; now the wise men almost wished they could forbid sleep in the small hours, that the shrieks of cities might less horribly disturb the pale, pitying moon as it glimmered on green waters gliding under bridges, and old steeples crumbling against a sickly sky.

Social Network imagines a malignant presence just as frightening as the one Lovecraft described, though in the form of a technological pandemic no vaccination can stop.

Conan the philosopher

Robert E. Howard

Stoicism has inspired many writers, including Matthew Arnold, Walker Percy, and Ambrose Bierce. I strongly suspect it also influenced Robert E. Howard, whose character Conan of Cimmeria exemplified Stoicism.

In fact, I’d say Conan was the very model of a Stoic. He could shrug off bad luck, pain, and looming disaster like no other fictional character, whatever the genre. Conan fumed at cowardice, punished betrayal, and battled opponents savagely, but he never complained, never felt sorry for himself. He accepted fate with a shrug.

What is Stoicism? Here’s a short, useful definition from WhatIsStoicism.com:

“Stoicism, or Stoic philosophy, is a philosophy of personal ethics and a methodology for seeking practical wisdom in life. A key principle of the ancient Stoics was the belief that we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us. They also advised that we should not worry about things beyond our control as everything in life can be divided into two categories – things that are up to us and things that are not.”

Sounds like Conan to me.

I believe Robert E. Howard’s most famous character reflected his author’s courageous and clear-headed embrace of the human condition, from its brief, tenuous life span to its deep-seated connections to a rich, sprawling past. I like the way David Smith puts it in his magnificent Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography:

“His work is shot through with a relentless awareness of time, hurtfully so. This tragic appreciation is exhibited as powerfully in his writing as his acute awareness of the body — the weight of time, its passage and its cost to us. He grew up, of course, listening to recollections of the immediate past, frontier tales in which “the past is never past,” in Faulkner’s famous phrase.” p. 191.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca observed that an extensive and intimate relationship to the past broadens and deepens a person:

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store. ”

Howard, a life-long and passionate student of history, appreciated the wealth of wisdom and adventure the past holds. That passion –and his unique worldview — supercharged his fiction.

Adventures and mishaps in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery

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