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Tie a Hand Around Your Back

From the Open Page | Selection by Michael Kardos

One thing I’ve learned after many years of writing is that if I’m feeling stuck, the problem might be that I have too many choices. After all, a story can take any form, take on any subject matter, be any length, and this can all become overwhelming for someone like me. It’s why diners stress me out. Give me a menu with three entrees and I’m happy. But a menu that unfolds to reveal 50 breakfasts (served all day!) plus pages of dinner options plus an entire Italian submenu fold-out section…and I’m cooked, so to speak.

Which is why I love sonnets. Fourteen lines, rhyming iambic pentameter, a rhetorical turn at the end, all those fantastic limitations. But do these restrictions really limit the poet? Not really. Not when you consider all the poets who’ve written sonnets over hundreds of years. Clearly, the limitations aren’t limitations. They’re more like channel markers helping the poet to stay clear of the sandbars.

When I find myself getting stuck, I try to remember to impose some kind of significant limitation. And if I’m really stuck, I start making the limitations more severe. It might sound counterintuitive—like tying a hand and maybe a foot around your back in order to free yourself: but it works. It makes you think differently, come up with new ways of doing a thing you’re used to doing a certain way. And I’d argue that tricking our brains into doing things differently is key to unlocking our creativity.

Phong Nguyen wrote an entire novel without the letter “E.” Talk about imposing a limitation! But even if you aren’t going to that extreme, there are plenty of ways to restrain yourself in order to free yourself. You can place limitations on the content, such as:

  • Keeping your story confined to a single setting or scene

  • Writing a story with no flashbacks (or, conversely, a frame story that’s nearly all flashback)

  • Writing a story where the main character is riding a bike the whole time

Or you can limit yourself stylistically/linguistically, such as:

  • Only using sentences of a particular length

  • Writing a story that’s entirely dialogue (or one that has no dialogue)

  • Writing in an unusual POV, like first-person plural (“we” perspective)

Getting back to my own use of this exercise: I decided to write a story that “disappeared”—in other words, one in which each sentence contained one fewer word than the previous sentence. I ended up writing about a magician who makes her husband “vanish”…and the story vanishes right along with him, starting with 64 words and ending with one.

Abracadabra: Form meets content.

Let's Get Started:

Write a story while imposing on yourself a specific, significant limitation.

1. Brainstorm seven different limitations.

Some dealing with content, and some dealing with style.

2. Decide which three of these are the hardest; among those, decide which one would be the most fun.

3. Once you’ve decided on the limitation, it’s time to think about what kind of story would be a good marriage to this particular limitation.

Keep honing your logic until your limitation feels like the only way to tell your story. As an example, Kevin Brockmeier wrote an entire 50-page section of his novel The Illumination using only 10-word sentences. The reason? The narrator is a child on the spectrum who is drawn to the number 10 in all things.

You can find this writing exercise, along with many others, in Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing's anthology:


About the book: This 300-page book collects creative writing exercises and award-winning stories, essays, and poetry from some of our most beloved instructors from the past 10 years, and captures the magic of our program in its pages. Both a craft-book as well as an anthology of award-winning fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction, this book is the perfect way to bring the magic of MVICW with you into the coming year!

About the writer: Michael Kardos is the author of the novels Bluff, Before He Finds Her, and The Three-Day Affair, the story collection One Last Good Time, and the craft book The Art and Craft of Fiction: A Writer’s Guide. His short fiction has appeared in One Story, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, and Pleiades, among others, and has won a Pushcart Prize. He grew up on the Jersey Shore and now teaches at Mississippi State University, where he co-directs the creative writing program.


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