When I worked on the copy desk of a daily newspaper several years ago, one of my favorite tasks was headline-writing.
Criteria included maximum impact, active voice and strict adherence to length. For instance, a headline may require three decks in a single column with a point size of 24. Or one deck spanning six columns with a point size of 48. Headlines couldn’t run short or long. You couldn’t skimp on the point size, for instance by shaving off two points to squeeze in an extra word. You couldn’t split a compound modifier, with one word being on one deck and the other on the next.
Such strict parameters have brought many a copy editor to their knees, but I loved the challenge. It was like completing a crossword puzzle, only I was both creating and solving it simultaneously.
Likewise, I've written lots of children’s stories in verse and am an amateur songwriter, priding myself on exacting standards. No weak rhymes. No flubbed rhythms. No skewed scansion. (Substitute the word “fellow” for “man” in the familiar Nantucket limerick, and you’ll see what I mean.)
I just love the “no cheating” requirement of such writing. It’s the sublime precision, the muscular economy, of crafting just the right thing.
And you know what? That just right thing always seems to exist. Think hard enough, rearrange your words enough, bolster your vocabulary enough, be willing to start from scratch enough, and you’ll eventually complete such an exacting writing task by feeling not that you’ve created something new, but that you’ve plucked an existing, exquisite star right out of the heavens. I love that feeling.
Of course, fiction-writing is all about no rules, no parameters. I love that process, too, but there’s something very satisfying about marrying imagination and creativity with structure and discipline. In fact, the first children’s story I ever wrote in verse came at the behest of my then-six-year-old son, Greg. We were waiting for our meal at a restaurant when he said, “Let’s write a story. And let’s call it I Can Read Books Upside Down.”
Ahhhh! I was in heaven as I grabbed a pen and a napkin. I’d never started a story with a title before, and certainly not a title as unwieldy and inscrutable as that one. Game on!
A few minutes later, with my son’s considerable help, we’d crafted twenty verses about a little boy’s topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down day. The bus took him to school in reverse. Kids ran the bases backward at recess. His ice cream cone was served bottoms up. And of course, he could read books upside down. I love our story, and it never would’ve been written unless I’d been open to a new set of rules.
Indeed, sometimes strict parameters produce the greatest poetry. I read once that Paul McCartney struggled for hours to complete the lyrics of his classic Hey Jude. He finally “settled” on one line as a throwaway lyric, a placeholder until he thought of something better. But Lennon told him that the throwaway line was the one the song was meant to have. Fittingly, the line is, “The movement you need is on your shoulder.”
Nothing is more transcendent than realizing the movement you need is on your shoulder … and was there all along, just waiting to be discovered.