A short excerpt provided, to the right, from A VOID. Students will receive a longer version.
“Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp – fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? – a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord,…”
Exercise: Constraint Writing
Title: “There’s No There, There”
Materials Needed: Photocopies, pen, paper, timer
Background to this lesson: Students have just finished reading a handout which included three excerpts from two novels–Gadsby, by Ernest Vincent Wright, and A Void, by George Perec. The Instructor continues, as scripted, below.
FOR THE INSTRUCTOR: PROMPTS AND DISCUSSION
Instructor asks: “What did you notice that was unusual – if anything – about the readings you were just given?”
Students answer. We discuss.
Before the discussion gets underway in earnest, don’t forget to check for spoilers. Quickly ask the class: “Has anyone here read the novels from which these readings were excerpted?”
If the answer is “yes,” ask those persons not to give away the answers to the class. Say: “We don’t want any spoilers. Thanks, in advance, for helping.”
After a few minutes, add: “Okay, I will give you a hint: there is one thing that all these excerpts have in common.”
After five minutes or more, you will want to discuss what the students have found. This is at your discretion. FYI, most of the time students will comment on:
the unusual vocabulary, on the punctuation, on the length of the sentences, on the unusual grammar, and on a general “weirdness” to the text. These discussions, alone, can be fruitful as they bring up important issues.
Let the discussion unfurl only so as long as there is intense interest.
When the moment seems right: Drop the “bomb.”
“Okay, I will tell you. The thing that all of these excerpts have in common is that they were all written without the letter “e.”
Ask students to go back, re-read, and confirm this fact.
For a sense of context, briefly give students some background info the novels. For instance, Gadsby is 50,000 words long; A Void – was originally written in French without the letter “e” and then translated into English without the letter “e,” that the writer literally taped down the letter “e” on his typewriter so that he would not be tempted to hit it, and so on.
Common student reactions:
Oh my god.
Why would someone do that?
That’s not possible!!
Why didn’t I notice that before?”
Time elapsed: app. 10 to 25 minutes for Phase I
FOR THE INSTRUCTOR: Learning Paths/Protocols
There are a number of paths the Instructor can take in the discussion at this point – now that the students have experienced an initial shock. Choose wisely. Your students are ripe to receive. Here are some suggestions:
- How often do we not see things that are in plain view? Our perception is biased. By what? Why? [Environment, Society, Bias]
- How often do you think you may have gone through life reading something, and not getting what it really means? [Hermeneutics, Comprehension]
- Sometimes the answers to our biggest problems in life are staring us right in the face – and we don’t see. [Problem Solving, Lifelong Learning]
- “Reading” takes many forms. It is a deeply rewarding activity – something we need to learn how to do, beyond just parroting back words on a page. [English Comprehension, “How to Read a Book”]
- Humans are incredibly adaptable. People with disabilities – who can not walk, who can not hear or see – learn to live productive lives. What sorts of “work arounds” can you imagine doing in your own life? [Disability Rights, Neural Pathways]
Time elapsed: app. 10 minutes for Phase II
FOR THE INSTRUCTOR: Writing Assignment
Now ask the students to take out their notebooks and pens and prepare themselves to write, in class, for 7 minutes.
Announce Prompt: “Your topic is: ‘How I got to school this morning.’”
Give them a second or two to process this. Then add, “You must write this without using the word ‘the’.”
The students will groan, express surprise, exasperation.
At this point, should you choose, you can:
- Explain that the word “the” is the definite article.
- Explain the indefinite article. (Name, and otherwise explain, these parts of speech.)
And once again, phrase the assignment for them:
“Tell me about how you got to school this morning – without using the definite article.”
They get to work. After 7 minutes ask if they would like a minute or two more. They usually say yes.
Time elapsed: app. 12 minutes for Phase III
FOR THE INSTRUCTOR: Ask students to read what they wrote, aloud.
Options for reading:
Take a short break and circle the chairs.
Read aloud from their seats.
If students make “mistakes” and use the word “the,” don’t scold, but instead, use this as a re-writing opportunity. Use discretion so as not to shame or discourage. However, you can open up a general discussion:
- Ask students, “How might we help [Student Name] to work around this?
- If the student simply drops the word “the” and it sounds awkward, ask students, “What are some possible fixes – what other ways can we rephrase this so that it flows more smoothly?
The above can be quite nurturing if done in the right tone. Try to offer insights, tips, tricks, if you feel they are warranted.
Follow Up Discussion Questions (very important!)
Did you think, when you began this exercise, that it was going to be impossible? What did you find, instead? How do you feel now vs. how you felt a few minutes ago?
- Do you think your writing actually improved, from having this constraint placed upon it?
- Did your use of vocabulary improve?
- What other benefits did you find? And, what overall sense did you get about your abilities as a writer?
Allow the students a little time to process the meta lessons of this activity.
Time Elapsed: app. 35 minutes, Phase IV
Suggested Homework Assignment, based on this lesson:
“Tell me about your family – without using the definite article.”
or, “Night or Day: Which is Best?” Make your argument without using the letter “o.”
Time Needed: variable
Future Homework Assignment, Scaffolded on Homework Assignment One: Once the students have gotten comfortable with constraint writing, this — or any other constraint-writing exercise on a topic — can be expanded upon.
Goals in assessing this future scaffolded “constraint” assignment: to make the lack of the definite article (or any other constraint chosen) as unobtrusive as possible in the writing; to have a sense of transparency within constraint (Ask: “Do you miss the word “the” at all? If you didn’t know it was forbidden, could you even tell?”); to be unafraid to use new phrasings; to exploit the vocabulary we already have to its greater potential; to gain a greater appreciation for grammar and structure; to lay the groundwork for discussion in future classes of grammar and punctuation and their importance in conveying power in our writing. To talk about how we must surprise ourselves in order to tap our own potential. To think about our own supposed shortcomings in new ways.
+++Full copy of Excerpts, below:+++
Please read through the following excerpts, taken from two novels. Do you notice anything unusual about them? If so, what?
If youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.
Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.
But a human brain is not in that class. Constantly throbbing and pulsating, it rapidly forms opinions; attaining an ability of its own; a fact which is startlingly shown by an occasional child “prodigy” in music or school work. And as, with our dumb animals, a child’s inability convincingly to impart its thoughts to us, should not class it as ignorant. Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl.
It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary “fill-ins” as “romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.” Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any “warm glow of lamplight” from a cabin window. No.
It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that “a child don’t know anything.
Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pun it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp – fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? – a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign – but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.
Such a jolt to a young child’s mind, craving instruction, is apt so to dull its avidity, as to hold it back in its school work. Try to look upon a child as a small, soft young body and a rapidly growing, constantly inquiring brain. It must grow to maturity slowly. Forcing a child through school by constant night study during hours in which it should run and play, can bring on insomnia; handicapping both brain and body.
Now this small town in our story had grown in just that way:—slowly; in fact, much too slowly to stand on a par with many a thousand of its kind in this big, vigorous nation of ours. It was simply…
Excerpts #1 and 3 were taken from the novel Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright, 1939
Excerpt #2 was taken from the novel A Void by Georges Perec, 1969