Sometimes it’s Cool to Follow the Rules

Before I talk about the constraints I noticed, here are a few words about constraints in general…

The Wikipedia page for constrained writing defines it like this:

“Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain things or imposes a pattern.”

That definition is full of negativity, in my opinion. “Constrained,” “bound,” “forbids,” and “imposes,” are all words with really negative connotations. I guess people generally don’t like rules, which is essentially what a constraint is, but I would define constrained writing in different terms, maybe something like this:

Constrained writing is a literary technique in which a writer challenges himself to abide by a certain set of rules while making the most of the text that fits within the boundaries that those constraints create.

I’ve read through forum discussions and reviews of Only Revolutions, and it seems like anyone who doesn’t like the book usually doesn’t like it because of all the constraints. Do they make it more challenging to read? Sure. But I read the constraints as being symbolic of one of the larger themes of the text itself. This is a story about two teenagers sort of racing through time and writing their own history. They just want to be together and be free, but no matter what year it is, society places constraints on the characters that they have to face. Their car runs out of gas, they have to get jobs, etc. For me, the constraints in the writing itself is reflective of the constraints and regulations that society places on Sam and Hailey. I don’t think the story would have the same effect if it were just written in prose or if it didn’t abide by all the rules of the constraints.

Here are my observations of 3 restraints, elaborated on to the best of my ability, but I’m sure I’ll be returning to them once I’m finished with the book.

1. Numbers
The first constraint is related to something that a lot of people commented on already and has to do with containing the story to a certain number of words. Each half-page is 90 words, making the total number of words per page (excluding the sidebar) 180, symbolizing half of a revolution. This places a contraint on the writer to contain everything he wants to say within those 90 words at the top of the page, but it also places a larger constraint on the story as a whole. It’s supposed to be read 8 pages at a time on either side, so those 8-page sections are sort of like chapters. Each chapter is contained within those 8 pages, in the 90 words on each page. Every single word written had to be carefully chosen. This does both of the things that the Wikipedia definition says constrained writing does. It creates a pattern of 8-page sections, each with 90-word pages. It also forbids the author from going beyond that word and page limit.

2. Colors
The second constraint has to do with the colors, although unfortunately I’m not sure what to make of it yet. I noticed that the dates at the top left of every page are written in the same purple color that the words “creep” or “The Creep” are written (I have the hardback version, so I’m not sure if it’s the same as everyone else’s.) Since they’re the only things in that color, I’m sure it has some significance that hopefully I can figure out when I finish reading the story.

3. Structure
The third constraint was the parallel structure of the stories of Sam and Hailey. Some of the phrases and dialogue had to be exactly the same and on the same pages of each story in order to remind the reader that we’re essentially hearing two different sides of the same story. Making the pages correspond to each other in a way that does that, yet still maintains two different voices, had to have been very difficult to do. The publisher recommends reading 8 pages at a time, but it could be read countless different ways. You could read 24 pages (3 chapters) at a time, or a few lines at a time. You could read the entire thing from Sam’s point of view, flip it over, and read Hailey’s story. No matter which way you read it, the constraint of having such a parallel structure makes it possible to read it however you want and it will still make sense.

I’m going to cheat in case the last one wasn’t really a constraint and add another observation I had. The book uses cars a lot, which I think symbolizes the two sort of traveling through history. The car they’re in changes very frequently, but I don’t think the same model has been used more than once. I argue that this is a constraint because it forbids the author to repeat models.

-Julie Howell


~ by juliehowell on February 21, 2011.

3 Responses to “Sometimes it’s Cool to Follow the Rules”

  1. This blog post is very well thought out and impressive in my opinion. I agree with all of your constraints and find them all to be very interesting. The purple color that you speak of stood out to me as I was reading this past week. Something that You did not mention, however, was the circle that often appeared in the top right corner. your first constraint, also, was something that I had thought about while reading but I was unable to find the energy to actually count the exact number of words. This is a very interesting constraint because, like you said, would force the author to continuously be thinking about all the different forms and ways things can be worded and what not.

    The structure of this novel was also something that I could not stop thinking about. Every few pages, I would question whether Sam and Hailey’s stories were the same. I was finding myself experiencing de javu and getting lost in the mixture of constraints. I also found myself reading more than 8 pages at a time simply to prove to myself that 8 page intervals were not completely necessary. I would manipulate the number to my liking.

    I really like your constraint on the cars. I had not thought about this until reading what you had to say about them. As I go back and read, this is going to be something that I will focus on.

  2. I dont know if the critique focussed enough on the actual story. I agree that the story was very confusing and, while it is kind of interesting, it seems that it is interesting only for is strangeness. However, the assignment was to write a critique on the post. You also didnt comment on the fact that the Os were colored also, though it seems to have no reasoning. This isnt to say the post is bad, it just gets a bit off topic and doesnt mention some things that were related to the original poster’s findings.

  3. One thing Billy left out in his critique is that the first constraint is not really a new constraint, since it was written about in earlier posts (including mine). Julie does add depth to the critique in pointing out how this forces the author to choose words carefully. I wonder though, how carefully Danielewski did choose his words, due to all of the sentence fragments he used. It would be much more difficult to keep to the constraint of 90 words/page and 8 pages/section if he had to write in complete sentences! In any case, I think Julie fulfilled the assignment since I think the 2nd-4th constraints are well-written and strong, new constraints.

    I think Billy also builds upon another fact that Julie mentioned: that Danielewski’s format of parallel stories allows one to disobey the given book reading instructions and still have the story make sense. Since I did not try this myself, I’m glad Billy gave his reaction to varying the page length before flipping the book.

    The constraint of using purple for THE CREEP and for the historical sideline dates also interested me. I’m also unsure what the color purple means for the story and what the connection is between THE CREEP and history, though perhaps it shows how Sam & Hailey are trying to outrace history and the CREEP as it follows them throughout time. Both are essentially enemies of the pair.

    -Diana Huang

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