I see you, rules. Let’s play.

Photo of the cover of a novel called Gadsby: A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E" by Ernest Vincent Wright. The novel cover shows the title, subtitle, and author of the book in black serif typography over a picture of a stack of old yellowing hardcover books.

While noodling on an existing special interest I may have acquired a new one: constrained writing.

Constrained writing, as conventionally defined, uses somewhat arbitrary chosen rules to restrict how language is used, usually in service of art and playful craftsmanship.

It’s a fun challenge, a game, to tell yourself, for instance, that all words in a written or spoken piece conveying real meaning must conform to the length of consecutive digits of Pi.

It can be a way to force some ideas to come to the foreground by boxing off others, like squeezing toothpaste from a tube or putting on a corset. I’ve done similar things with visual art (restricted palette, limited materials, boxed area on a canvas) but rarely with words.

And yet words are my medium of choice most of the time.

All language is constrained.

In a broad sense, almost all language is constrained: by social conventions, by personal preference, by what and how one wants to communicate. And yet we exist in this world of rules largely without examining those constraints.

For most people, the rules of communication are kind of intuitive. Again, broadly speaking, neurotypical folks are only forced to look at communication constraints when they use language in a sphere that is unfamiliar to them, like in an unfamiliar culture or outside their social cohort or when entering a very specialized domain of meaning. In their ordinary daily lives, most people (at least most of the people I’ve encountered) don’t need to know why they choose the words and phrases they do. It all just works.

And yet the cultural spasm we’re currently experiencing in the English-speaking world – a struggle over the ideas and “rules” of political correctness, inclusive terminology, and what the right calls “cancel culture” – could be eased (perhaps) with a more explicit acknowledgement that communication restraints already exist. We pronoun people (I’m she/they) and people of color and the rest of the bleeding left (of which I am a proud member) are not asking the world to constrain a heretofore unlimited world of expression. We’re asking everyone to consider adjusting the rules they already adhere to, to reduce the harm that unexamined language does.

Autistic language in a neurotypical world is doubly constrained.

Though I’m only recently coming to understand that I’m autistic, my lifelong relationship with words has been heavily colored by autism.

Most of my life in connection with other humans has been me grappling with mastering the rules of engagement, chafing against conventions that didn’t feel natural, wondering at advice I didn’t understand. It’s a lot.

Most of the words I write or say are in service of corporate communication. Lots of “rules” there. (Lots of masking.) Lots of “don’t be weird” and “don’t alienate” and “use this vocabulary” and “talk like they talk”.

I’m quite successful at it for someone like me. Yet I struggle every moment I’m doing it.

If all writing is constrained writing, then all my writing as an autistic human is doubly constrained:

  • layer 1: ordinary rules of engagement for communication and social interaction in my communities, which are often not intuitive for me
  • layer 2: my flawed interpretations of well-meaning but confounding feedback I have received when others believe I’ve failed to communicate properly… which I have typically internalized as rules, whether or not I’ve understood them

This is true whether or not I also choose to make all the words in a paragraph start with consecutive letters of the English alphabet.

(Before you waste all your time trying to figure out if this blog post is an acrostic or a lipogram or an elaborate series of interwoven haiku, I’m not that smart. And I have a headache. But do know that I DID consider it.)

I have carried the weight of constrained communication all my life, and I only recently am coming to understand how much of my cognitive effort is spent on a minute to minute shifting and management of that weight.

(I believe that my periodic struggles with situational mutism originate here: words themselves are easy, but communication is hard.)

Part of grappling with my autism is figuring out how to lessen that weight, or distribute it better, or however that metaphor plays out. I want to lessen the constant effort I put into communicating “correctly” and move into a more masterful space where I acknowledge and take control of the rules I choose to engage with.

I see you, rules. Let’s play.

In pursuit of mastery of the constraints.

An ordinary person’s response to constrained writing? “Cute game, but why?”

As an outsider to conventional rules of talk, I know that all our communication is constrained. It’s just that mostly people don’t know that because it’s all intuitive. Most people don’t question the rules, or even acknowledge their existence, and why would they?

This isn’t a dunk on neurotypical people; we don’t acknowledge the oxygen we breathe unless we have trouble getting enough.

Exploring the arch party trick of constrained writing as an autistic helps me explore the ways that sometimes-arbitrary but often necessary rules limit my own use of language, in service of being understood.

Mastery gives me more power.

Instead of being haplessly at the mercy of rules imposed on me without my consent by people who don’t understand me yet have considerable power over my success, I can decide which rules matter for my purposes.

That matters for my confidence and effectiveness, even if the shape of my communication doesn’t change much.

It’s about gaining control. Mastery. Flex.

I can choose when to foreground your comfort, and when to assert my own. What to emphasize. What to give you as a takeaway. What to weave in as gifts to myself (thank you, Hannah Gadsby, for that idea).

I can’t imagine what unconstrained communication would even sound like, but I can imagine how my own communication could bloom as I improve my facility with manipulating the constraints that surround me.

If you choose it, then it’s more likely that you can choose to walk away from it.
~ bell hooks in conversation with Jill Soloway

Shout out to one of my oldest friends @BeerSonnetteer, whose lifelong hobby of fucking with poetry forms like sonnets and double dactyls is a spectrum-y triumph of constrained writing. Big love.

And shoutout to the special interest that led me to find the concept of constrained writing: Hannah Gadsby (who is not just the object of my interest but also a genuine live human.)

The way she approaches storytelling structurally, with extraordinary mastery, is inspiring. One excerpt from her structure-perfect and process-transparent special Douglas is embedded below (but watch the whole thing on Netflix to see what I mean by “structure-perfect and process-transparent”).*

*Wow, that’s a lot of end-of-sentence punctuation. Let’s add an asterisk.

Originally tweeted by Agitated Spiders for Human Rights 🇺🇸🩸🦷 (@HorriblyJane) on October 13, 2022.

3 responses to “I see you, rules. Let’s play.

  1. I reached some comparable understandings and conclusions today, in areas that are word-adjacent. Reading this this feels like .. being on the right track.

    (I am choosing something different, and if that doesn’t fit just right? Well, then, I can then try another something-different still …)

    Liked by 1 person

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