Constraint and Creativity in Written Composition

I posted a few weeks back about working on the theme of constraint-and-creativity in my Composition Theory and Practice course. It's only one of the things we're exploring in the course, so all I've done so far is worked it into each short response paper so that students compose with what I'm calling an "order of constraint."

Last week I passed around variously-sized scraps of adding machine tape, requiring students to present their response on the piece of paper provided. Any writing technology was welcome, and as you can see, some wrote by hand and others typed. If and when I get permission, I'll post a few projects in higher res.

(click to make the image
larger than it appears in the mirror)

In reading the response papers, I found that some writers did more than I would have expected and some did less. I'm attributing the challenges some students had to unfamiliarity with the order of constraint, as each writer was only beginning to work with the so-called limitation as a creative force. Still, amazingly, some students ran with it, doing mind-blowing things. I was most impressed with how cohesion went away in several projects, allowing forms of productive free associations and juxtapositions that I seldom see.

UPDATE: CP clues me into the fact that A.R. Ammons once wrote a long poem (1963) on a single roll of adding machine tape. Very cool project!


  1. Anonymous5:21 PM

    Out of curiosity (and my own ignorance), what were you hoping that the students would get out of this project? -tt

  2. Oh, sorry: thought that was obvious. Answer: an understanding of constraints in composition as something other than limiting. (And this includes constraints that are linguistic, generic, formal, material, involve censorship, etc.)

  3. Anonymous10:17 AM

    Oh, I get it now. I'm a bit slow on the uptake. :-) -tt

  4. Wow what a really neat idea! Any love poems out there?