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I often wondered when I cursed,
Often feared where I would be—
Wondered where she’d yield her love,
When I yield, so will she.
I would her will be pitied!
Cursed be love! She pitied me …
– Lewis Carroll

Do you notice anything…odd about the piece of writing above? Is it the flowery language? The fevered 19th century approach to coupling? Well, those are also interesting, but I want to focus on another aspect of this piece: The use of artificial writing constraints. In the piece above, Carroll has constructed a poem that not only rhymes and contains 6 words per line, but that can also be read the same vertically and horizontally. Try it out! This piece is called “The Square Poem” – makes sense now, huh? Still, you might be asking yourself: Why would someone do this? And, what does this have to do with teaching and learning?

A Tiny Definition and Some Examples

The Carroll piece above is an example of constrained writing. All sorts of cultures have written using all sorts of constraints for a variety of reasons going back who knows how far. You’ve probably heard of haiku, sonnets, anagrams, and the like, but there’s an entire expansive world of constraints out there. I won’t get into the history and cross-cultural implications, but here are a few fun lesser-known types and examples to spur your thinking:

Pilish: Words contain the number of letters according to the successive decimal places of Pi (3.14159265359…)

Now I have a great safeguard to author weird and kooky scribbles…

Erasure: Erasing words from an existing piece, thus creating a poem.

Lipogram: In the simplest form, avoiding a particular letter of the alphabet.

I will not allow my words to contain a fourth unical!

Why Constrain?

If you’re an educator, an artist, or, really, a human being, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a certain freedom within structure. Now that might sound a bit Zamyatinian, but I’m talking about self-imposed or temporary other-imposed creative structure here, not some kind of fascist fever dream. We’ve all had the experience of being told “Be creative!” to then go forth and flounder impotently amongst a surfeit of choices. This makes some sense since (homonym alert!) there’s a good bit of current research in fields such as psychology, interaction design, and marketing supporting the creative potential of constraint.

What We Did

A few weeks ago, the Instructional Design team engaged in an hour-long univocalic, lippogrammatic, synesthetic exercise using the following prompt from Joe Milazzo at Entropy MagWith your chosen fruit, choose one sensory aspect other than taste, and describe as fully as you can the fruit by concentrating only on that chosen sensory aspect. In addition, designers were limited to using the single vowel O in their writing. Here’s an example of one designer’s process and result. You can see here how Taylor iterates on his approach, limitations, and use of external resources.

Taylor’s Process and Results

Step 1: I picked one of my favorite fruits (raspberry) and then I decided to go with sight as the sense. I thought of some visual descriptors and came up with this list: Cluster – Sphere – Bush – Red – Small

Step 2: Using a thesaurus I started looking for similar words to my previous list but that only had the vowel O. This is the list I came up with: Bloodshot – Lot – Smol – Orbs – Blob – Mob

Step 3: I started to write sentences using the words I had found. At first I did not limit myself to using only words with O for the non descriptive words in my sentences. After I had a sentence I liked I would see which words needed to be replaced and I’d look up alternatives in the thesaurus. The words in the thesaurus that had multiple vowels in them were also useful as they helped spark ideas. I might start off using the thesaurus to find a suitable replacement for a word and then see another word that I couldn’t use but I’d like the meaning, so I’d go search for a word with that meaning and just Os. I took these early lines and moved the words around to see what fit best. Then I tried to write a full sentence using them. Here are some early lines I came up with using this process.

bloodshot orbs
mob of orbs
Not so smooth
form blobs
no knobby
Lots of orbs flock to form mob of knobby bloodshot blobs

Step 4: At this step I started using a rhyming dictionary. Using the words and lines from previous steps I tried to create some loose rhymes. I found a lot of new words this way that I ended up adding to the final lipogram. Some of the words needed to have alternatives found via the thesaurus but since we are working with just one vowel the rhyming dictionary actually helped me find more words with just O than the thesaurus did. Here is my end result. 

Mobs of smol orbs
Not so smooth
Flock to form corps
Soft to tooth
God’s Bloodshot blobs
Pop oh so good for most gobs

I think that this example nicely illustrates the creative potential of constrained writing. How might you incorporate creative constraints in your teaching, writing, or work to gently scaffold student thinking, increase creativity, or eliminate writer’s block?


If you’d like to begin exploring constrained writing, check out the following resouces:

  • Bernadette Mayer’s List of Journal Ideas: Mayer lists a plethora of fascinating constrained thinking, feeling, and writing experiments. Many of these are quick and easy to implement.
  • Some Actual Writing Assignments That I Have Recently Assigned to My Students: Joe Millazo’s wealth of writing exercises are a bit more advanced, but definitely provide inspiration.
  • Oulipo: If you’re super interested in this topic like I am, you’ll probably want to learn about OULIPO, the Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, or Workshop of Potential Literature. Yes, they are French. f you’d like to, you can translate their website by right-clicking anywhere on the page and click Translate to whichever language you like.

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Sarah Hepler is the Manager of Instructional Design at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Georgia State University. In her spare time, she enjoys cobbling her own shoes from discarded hopes and dreams.