“All pieces of writing come with implied or stated limitations that the writer must both fulfill and overcome due to the dual need to satisfy and subvert reader expectations.”
Watching my nieces grow into smart, openhearted, creative, beautiful young women has been amazing. When I first started baby-sitting them, I had this idea that I would be their mythical Mary Poppins figure, exposing them to child friendly art, music, and meadows. I would never stifle their ideas, or take their agency away from them. I quickly learned that if you give a child too many choices at too young an age, they begin to melt into a ball of confusion and tears, right there, in front of everyone in the Barnes and Noble Café. I learned that if you make the important choices ahead of time, and limit decisions, it takes the pressure off the child and they get to enjoy themselves; they are free to keep absorbing and interacting with the world around them in beautiful ways (most of the time).
“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
- Ernest Hemingway
- Ernest Hemingway
This phenomenon applies to adults as well. When working in a chiropractor’s office, I was trained to schedule appointments by giving the patient two options at a time (morning or afternoon? 2:30 or 3:30?) even if the whole day was available. I know, this seems nasty, but if I did make the mistake of saying something like, “Whenever you’d like,” I would be stuck on the phone hearing all of their plans for that day, and their whole life story, about how they have to take their dog to the vet, about how their boyfriend, Ted, has a bladder infection. In a busy office, there wasn’t any time for this. What I’m getting at here is this: limitations can be effective.
Before taking Professor Papatya Bucak’s Forms of Prose class, I was part of the camp of writers who believe content dictates form. I still believe this is true for particular types of writing, like research papers (there are X points I want to make about this topic so I will write X number of body paragraphs), but I feel so silly for believing it (so whole heartedly) in terms of writing fiction. What I took away from this class is the important idea that limitations in form can take some of the pressure off of my prose, and me as I’m writing it. If my words are my children, I need to decide on their limitations ahead of time so that they are free to grow and blossom in unexpected ways on the page.
“The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort that dissolves considerations of content into those of form.”
― Susan Sontag
This might sound like writerly nonsense, or just plain common sense, and you’re right; it’s both. Have you ever read a book where you think, “Wow, this person just enjoyed writing this?” The pacing is relaxed, the language manicured. I guarantee you this person had her limitations in form in full effect, which allowed her to really enjoy production.
I guess my second analogy makes it sound like my words are patients in need of an adjustment (okay, sometimes they are) but the important part of the analogy is that if I don’t limit myself, my words can quickly get carried away with themselves, and start giving my reader TMI like some of my previous chiropractic patients.
I see this happen in rough drafts of fiction (my own included) all the time: flashbacks and character backstories that have nothing to do with the real tension of the story itself, whole scenes and expositions of beautiful prose that ends up being taken out in chunks. This is part of writing, I know, and these chunks we take out can still be useful to us, inform how we write our characters later on. But it can also mean a crap ton of revision and confusion on the writer’s part.
“Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.”
- Henry David Thoreau
- Henry David Thoreau
Yes, there is always some level of confusion and revision, especially when writing novels (and if you were never confused or never revised I’d rather not ever speak to you). But now, I know: you can use limitations in form to limit the confusion, the tears, the tantrums, the bladder infections, and enjoy the process of watching your words grow in contained, yet unexpected ways.
Kim Grabenhorst is an MFA candidate in fiction here at Florida Atlantic University. She’s interested in fiction that explores the individual's relationship with her or his body, and that body's relationship to the world. She lives and writes in West Palm Beach, FL.