Dear writing sisters,

“It felt almost wrong, really, that writing about incest could be fun. Yet, in order to follow my own rules, I had to be playful. I had to explore new angles on a story I knew by heart, but that was actually far more complex and nuanced than I had understood.”

Jeannine Ouelette

Are you trying to write a stuck story, a hard truth that eludes you on the page even though you know that story by heart? Maybe you’ve processed it in therapy or through another form of  healing, but when it comes to writing, the truer truth still feels blocked on the page.

This inspiring craft article by Jeannine Ouellette titled “From Play to Peril and Beyond: How Writing Constraints Unleash Truer Truths” will help you not only enter your stuck story sideways but may also spark joy in writing it. I know, sounds sacrilegious, doesn’t it? To enjoy writing a traumatic story that we’ve been conditioned to approach with the most serious of tones. After two decades of writing around what Ouelette calls “an essential truth of my own life,” she approached her traumatic story through play. Yes, play, that thing we relegate to children and deny ourselves as adults.

One form of play, when it comes to writing, involves the use of a writing constraint, which Ouelette defines as “a literary technique that involves requiring or forbidding certain elements, or juxtaposing various incongruities, or imposing one or more patterns.”

Rita Dove’s “Your Mother’s Kitchen,” collected in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, is an excellent example of a writing prompt that makes use of writing constraints:

“Write a poem about your mother’s kitchen. (It helps if you actually draw the kitchen first, with crayons!) Put the oven in it, and also something green, and something dead. You are not in this poem, but some female relation—aunt, sister, close friend—must walk into the kitchen during the course of the poem.”

The first time I did Rita Dove’s exercise, I saw the wine bottles two of my mother’s friends kept in the cupboard next to the stove, a detail that unleashed a vital discovery in my memoir but had eluded me until one of my mother’s friends—who I had not thought about in decades—walked onto the page.

If Dove’s exercise—which I did as narrative, not as a poem—had not required that a female relation walk into the kitchen, those wine bottles and the truer truth they carry might be hidden from me still. In this way, imposing a writing constraint on a traumatic story can give you a fresh take on it and, by extension, help you to see it through new eyes.

“Ultimately,” Ouelette says, “the pressure and limitations of writing constraints opens doors”— or kitchen cupboards!—“to truths I can’t see otherwise, especially the hardest truths that hide behind the ones I believe about myself.”

From what fresh angle might you approach your stuck story now that you’ve read Ouelette’s article? What writing constraints have helped you to approach your story sideways?

Feel free to share your comments below or join the conversation at the Writing Out Loud Sisterhood, Writing Women’s Lives free Facebook group.

Much writing love,


P.S. After I read Jeannine’s article, I reached out to her on Facebook. And guess what? She’s leading a weeklong writing retreat in two weeks that focuses on using writing constraints to crack your writing open. Turns out she has one spot left. (Oh, to have that spot!) The retreat is in Wisconsin, and it’s coming up quick, but just in case your stars are aligned, you can check it out here.

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