for writers and readers….
Far better to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all – Katherine Mansfield
EVERY SATURDAY for the month of January I’m sharing exercises from my popular writing guide Back To Creative Writing School – I want it to be a creative kickstart for the new year and a celebration that 2020 is finally over…hope you enjoy it.
This is an extract from an exercise on writing lipograms. You might want to mention that casually on facebook or during a telephone conversation: what did I do yesterday? Knocked off a few lipograms, just for practice, just to keep my hand in….
The word comes from the Ancient Greek and means leaving out a letter. There is an 1819 example in the rare books section of my local library. It’s a collection of sermons by a preacher in Rome who couldn’t pronounce Rs so everything he said and wrote avoided that awkward letter. History doesn’t record how he coped when asked his address.
By now, you’re probably asking why.
Writers often test themselves by applying self-imposed rules. Poets thrive adhering to traditional forms of poetry. A sonnet, for example, has 14 lines and the first eight will usually pose a question, the turning point comes at line nine and then the next seven lines answers the question…and all in rhyme. Prose writers have it easier, other than following the conventions of punctuation and grammar (apart from the times we choose to ignore them for artistic reasons) length is usually the only restriction. Well, for some that is just too easy.
You may now be thinking all well and good, but I am not the kind of writer that enjoys literary masochism. And frankly neither am I. While I can see the point in striving to create a work of art like a sonnet, extraordinary limitations on prose are probably not going to produce a more compelling story, a more evocative memoir, a more vivid passage of description.
You knew there would be a but, didn’t you? This exercise is another way of extracting yourself from a rut. The very fact you can’t use THE will mean you will have to re-think every sentence.
And we do need rules. One of the worst things you can say to a writer is you can write about anything you like and it doesn’t matter how long it is. And, by the way, there’s no deadline. If no one else will impose rules and deadlines, we have to make them up for ourselves.
Your task is to write a descriptive passage of prose about a walk in the countryside…without using words that contain the letter E (which happens to be the most common letter in the English language).
It might be the walk you went on this morning or it might be a memory from years ago, or it could be complete fantasy.
You can’t have trees I’m afraid, but you can have oak and larch, although not alder, cedar or elm. No lakes sit in the dips between hills, but you can have a pond; no lanes but roads and paths are just fine.
There’s no wandering past a cottage covered in roses – and flowers in general are out – but there is room for grass and huts surrounded by hyacinths are a possibility…be inventive, be skilful.
You might think that there can’t be anything worse than managing without THE but past tense – the default tense for story telling – becomes tricky. You can have was and said, of course, but you can’t have any word ending in ed. (So maybe this exercise is the time to play around with the present tense.)
BTW I’ve used this exercise many, many times in class – or a variation of it – and I know the devious ways students devise in order to avoid the hard stuff. The aim is to write a passage of prose so elegant that no one would guess it was a lipogram. So, you can’t produce a poem or a chant or a list or some kind of New Age post-modernist impressionist text that laughs in the face of grammar. Plain prose is what’s needed here.
This is the kind of exercise you can do again and again: when you’ve finished the crossword, when there’s nothing good on television, on a train journey (remember those?) or you are sitting in a dentist’s waiting room. Choose a different subject and off you go.
Trust me. It’s fun. Really.
If you enjoyed that exercise, there’s a pretty good chance you will like the rest of the book. It’s recommended by creative writing lecturers and been praised by bestselling novelists AND absolute beginners. It also has over 150 five star reviews on Amazon UK and now has nearly 200 ratings.