Perec, “Constraints” in Writing and a Sample Flash Fiction Story

Daughter Rachael is getting a Master’s degree in English Literature from Loyola Marymount University here in Los Angeles. She periodically shares with me information that she is learning along the way. One such bit of sharing is about a French author, Georges Perec, who was known for his “constrained” writing. He wrote novels, screenplays, documentaries and essays. Constrained writing is when you put constraints on the process. For example, he wrote an entire 300 page novel without using the letter “e,” and he also wrote a novella in which the letter “e” is the only vowel that is used. He also sometimes wrote stories which included very specific constraints, such as including arbitrary elements like a recipe, a quotation from a book, a color, detailed description of the room where the story takes place, etc. This all falls under the general category of Word Play and adds interesting elements and texture to the text.

I am intrigued by Perec mainly because he has a name for something that I’ve been doing for years with my creative writing students. I often say, “Pick three random pieces from this room, which must be included in your story.” Or I’ll open a book and have them point to a word. That word must be in your story, plus add a color and a bird.” Just anything to stir the creative juices a bit. Just to make sure they don’t feel alone, I’ve always written a story as well so we can share what we’ve come up with based on the “constraints” that have been assigned when writing the story. Of course, my story and their story are miles apart in content simply because our minds are quite different and we naturally create our fictional worlds in part from our experiences. So, hearing there is an official name and approach (and famous author) attached to this process is more than satisfying to hear.

Most of my flash fiction stories have been written using this method. What I’ve learned now is that I can add as many constraints as I like. Rachael was given an assignment by her college professor to write a fictional story that included no fewer than 47 constraints. I would never in my wildest dreams consider assigning one of my students that many constraints, but I read Rachael’s story and it was fascinating and excellent. Who knew?

Here is an example of a story I wrote a long time again using three constraints. It came out of nowhere (or from my subconscious) once I knew these elements had to appear in the story. I find this fascinating so I thought I’d share the story I wrote just as an example of the process. This is flash fiction so it’ll be no longer than 1000 words. Another constraint I often use in my writing. As it turns out, this story is only 315 words.

The three constraints (or what must be included in the story): Cigarette, Foot and Call

Cold Turkey

The day was cold. Camille pulled on her jacket and trudged outside for a cigarette. Damn these new laws that made standing by the dumpster behind the building the only acceptable place to smoke. And what a social pariah she had become. Almost everyone in the call center glared at her when she left, and turned their backs when she returned. Hypocrites! Most of them had done just what she was doing not that long ago.

Camille shivered as she lit up and took that first delicious draw. Ah, what a pleasure a good cigarette could be. So satisfying; so calming. Relief. The sky was so dark that the lights in the parking lot had come on automatically. A fierce wind blew from the north. Camille moved to the other side of the huge trash bin just to block it.

That’s when she saw it. A human foot covered in caked, brown blood.

Camille stood in silence, staring. Was this some sort of joke? Was that a Halloween prop? She edged closer. The foot was small, a woman’s, and the toenails were painted a bright red. There was a sheen of frost on the flesh, giving it the look of freezer-burned meat; the bone shone white against the severed tissues and muscles. Camille’s cigarette dropped from her lips when she screamed.

The police came, the foot was removed, Camille read a few days later that various parts of the young college student’s body had been found in the fields surrounding the town.

Never again did Camille venture out to the dumpster. Her need for a cigarette – forever associated with that horrid discovery – vanished in an instant. And she joined the ranks of her fellow reformed smokers who scowled when someone hurried out the door for a quick cigarette.

Her relief now came from staying safely indoors.

Georges Perec

2 Comments Add yours

  1. I loved your constrained story involving cigarette, foot, and call! I facilitate a small fiction group (meeting via zoom these days) and have recently used this technique in our short timed writing sessions. I have asked each person to add to our list. If we have 5 people I will ask one for a color, one for a character, etc. The writing pieces that come out of this are quite creative and Yes, very different.

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