Today’s Post Brought to You by Every Letter Except “E”
The English alphabet contains twenty-six letters. They all have their uses. Some more than others. The letter “E” gets the most use: how could we live without it?
Not easily. But it can be done.
The French Oulipo group advocates experiments that purposely limit the tools in a writer’s toolkit. Most famous of these experiments is the “lipogram,” which excludes particular letters of the alphabet. Of all lipogram experiments, the excision of the letter “E” has caught the most attention. Georges Parec’s 1969 novel La Disparition contains no letter “E” outside of its author’s name. Perhaps more astonishing is that the English translation of the novel, A Void by Gilbert Adair, also contains no occurrence of the letter “E.” Another example, predating the Oulipo group by twenty years, is Ernest Vincent Wright’s novel Gadsby (1939).
So it can be done. But why do it? Shouldn’t writers make use of every piece of available in their arsenal to tell a story, make a point, or convey information?
I believe so. That’s one reason I have defended the semicolon from detractors who want it exiled from fiction. It’s also why I think “e-prime,” writing without the verb “to be,” should not be pushed as a replacement for writing with the verb.
However . . . I love writing exercises. I write every day, and since I’m not always in the middle of a novel or a short story, exercises fill in the gaps. They keep the writing muscles of the brain tones, inspire new ideas, and show writers different paths to expressing themselves.
This weekend, I tackled writing sans the letter “E” for the first time, thinking I would never get far with it. However, I managed to write a 1700-word story — one with a comprehensible plot — in the space of two hours. I present the complete text of “A Ghost’s Claim” below.
I’ll admit that I don’t think this is a “good” story (the concluding ideas are a bit wonky) or an example of my prose at its best. The lack of “E” controlled many of my choices, and caused shifts in the rhythms that I prefer in my writing. But those are two good reasons for trying this experiment in the first place: diction becomes paramount, synonymous are life-savers, and a story decision can rest on something as simple as the being unable to use any number between six and thirty.
There are more skilled examples of this kind of writing than what you’ll read below, such as the novels mentioned previously. However, for a first try, I think it will intrigue some folks and encourage them to try it. I like what it taught me.
A Ghost’s Claim
Today is May First. It was only last Christmas, not so long past, that I saw Malcolm Radisson. Malcolm sat in my drawing room for a short two hours that holiday night. My old war companion has a soft spot for spicy candy, so I had laid out on a gold tray at his chair an array of tasty bits of spun sugar to add to his joy.
“Malcolm,” I said, “I’m glad to host you, any day and on pat midnight. But, I’m curious. Why tonight? It’s Christmas, and right now my kids knock around toys upstairs, and Sarah is busy cooking flank cuts with turnips and onions for us. It’s a joyous night, not for worrying. So what is it that must land in your hands right now that can’t wait until tomorrow? I’m saying this as your old pal, and not a rich cad who wants to kick you out.”
It was a gag, and I thought Malcolm would laugh. I am a rich cad, and Malcolm always thought it humorous that I got to such a lofty post in this Cornish town from so low a start. But on that night I saw Malcolm had alarming thoughts burrowing through his brain.
What a look did wash across him! Malcolm was afraid. How could I think of such a fantastic condition in this man, a pal from childhood and through bloody horrors of war and into our adulthoods? Malcolm Radisson, acting as a coward about anything wasn’t a truth I could grasp. No man who took up arms in that ghastly conflict our nation fought did it with as much gusto and machismo as Captain Malcolm Raddison. Without that valor of his, I would now lay in a crypt with my Sarah a widow in dour black.
But — in his twitchy sight I saw horror. I did not doubt that Malcolm was panicky.
“Karl, you know I trust you. On your honor, on Sarah’s honor, on your young girl’s chastity, vow that what I say now will stay in this room.”
I did vow to him, although I thought all this a silly prank of sorts, and would soon know his trick.
Malcolm sat back in his cushions. “A ghost has laid claim on my soul.”
I saw a sick pallor drop across his body. It hurt my sight. Malcolm was ill: I could now admit it, having only caught a hint of it in days past.
“A ghost? What, out of a child’s spook book? Malcolm, I know you as a calm man, not a brandy-swilling sot who can’t stop his hallucinations. Talk normal, man!”
“I am talking normal!”
What a shout that was! Our roof shook, and Sarah sought us out. I told my lady that this ruckus was not a bomb or a madman, only silly Malcolm. Sarah put on a bit of a grin and got back to cooking. Again it was only Malcolm and I sitting in my lush drawing room.
“Go on, old pal,” I said.
His hands had a twitch, but Malcolm did at last gasp out: “I think this ghost is from my cousin’s past. Do you know much about his dad’s family?”
“A Durstan, right?”
“Right. An old family. I am last of my clan with Durstan blood, for my cousin’s passing with no child cut off that branch. This ghost said at night, at my window, that I must summon Durstan Drummond soul, worst of all that crumbling family, from its tomb.”
“Why should a ghost want that?”
“To put Durstan Drummond’s soul in my body!” Again, this almost was a shout. “An usurpation of my skin and my mind. Oh, Karl, can I count on your aid in this?”
I saw that Malcolm thought this was all truthful. I still thought it insanity. But, a pal is a pal, through good or bad. “What can I do for you?”
“In your library sits a copy of Agrippa’s Book of Black Arts, right?”
“Did I say that to you?”
“No. And I can’t say how I know it. It would — hurt — a woman you and I both worship. No, it isn’t Sarah.”
So it was Tara. In our two paths, only this lady had struck us both with amour. Tara! Lost to us long past in a fall from Cornwall’s cliff. I had almost put this girl from my thoughts. Now, this man’s story had brought Tara back, and it stung. I almost stood up to ask Malcolm to go, but I could not pry my jaws apart to say it or will my body to stand.
Malcolm said, “Agrippa’s Book of Black Arts is a way to stop this ghost and its awful magic. Put Agrippa in my hands, and that is all you must do. It’s a small thing, Karl.”
“All right,” I spat. I was angry at him for hurting our family’s Christmas. But, I would bring him Agrippa’s Book of Black Arts, a book of foul magic that no man should try to skim through, or try to. . . .
No. I had said my vow. I would do it.
Two hours into that Christmas night, Malcolm had Agrippa’s Book of Black Arts in his shaking palms, and I had my solitary mansion and dark ruminations.
* * *
Today is May First, and I know that Malcolm will not walk to my manor’s stoop again. My companion of war lost not to a gun, but to a ghost. What did occur, I think I shall not know. But still, I wait. It might play out that Malcolm won, and in victory took a dash from Cornwall to find vitality in a world apart. That is my will’s foolish but fond wish.Now on my mansion’s rock path walks a woman. How long ago did this lady show up? Who is it?
But — I know who it is. What it is. I know, although it still walks toward my porch and I cannot know by sight until it is in my vicinity.
“You!” I cry out. “This is my manor ground. You cannot walk through it. Halt as you stand!”
Grass and my courtyard wall show through its body. It walks as if no ground contacts its rough boots.
I look at this wraith’s mask: a young girl. Tara, as I did spy from far away. But is that an apparition of guilt, wrath, or sorrow on this girl’s mask? I cannot know from how it walks toward my front porch.
Now it stops and waits. It allows Karl, that man who in days long past did hurl his soul on any ground on which that living lady did trod, to talk first.
“So, you took Malcolm’s soul. You said you would put Drummond’s in his body, but that was a fabrication. How did you trick him? Did you claim that it was not Tara, but a spirit of an unknown who stood at his window at midnight and sought this favor?”
Only now did a sound waft from it: “Why should I trick him? For sumptuous Tara, Malcolm Radisson would do anything. So would you, Karl Chapman.”
I would, and I told it so with no guilt. “But that story of Durstan Drummond,” I said, “that was a fiction all along, right?”
“If I had a trick against Malcolm, that story was it,” this ghost of Tara said. “A fool, but a kind fool. If I told him that only losing his soul would bring my body back, why should Malcolm do anything? That man wants my body, living and not a spirit. So I spun a story that Malcolm would still walk, and inhabit a solitary body with Drustan Drummond in with him. And still, Malcolm would own darling Tara — as a human woman, and not an apparition.”
“But a ghost of Tara stands in front of my porch, right now.”
“And that is my trick. Poor Malcolm, a sorrowful and foolish man. During all our months as a trio that you two fought for my lust and my body, only to stop with a girl’s fall from a cliff into a briny bay, did you or Malcolm ask who it was for whom I had passion? No, you thought it was your will to pick, and not that of a young girl without a mind to know good from bad.
“But . . . I had my own will, and my own mind, and I did pick you, Karl Chapman. I still do. Now Malcolm stands apart; that man cannot stop our passion now.”
And Tara’s ghost hurls out a laugh and holds out ghostly arms to grasp a man on a mansion porch. A man who now has no will of his own, and soon will own no soul — for how can a man spurn a ghost that did kill his boon companion from through crypt walls, all for a lust that living did not allow this woman to avow?
* * *
To walk as a ghost in my own manor is no harsh thing. My son Adam will soon not know his dad, and tiny Cynthia has lost a dim vision of a man who would only play a day or two in that colossal room built in his mansion’s attic for childish joys. It is worst to watch Sarah in widow’s black. But as a ghost in misty gray, solid black has a gray wash to it as I look at it. And Tara, a woman of shadow for whom I would throw away all and did throw away all, blocks my sorrow as it crawl upon my thoughts. A ghost cannot cry, and so to walk as a ghost is no pain at all, no thing of horror or gloom.
Definitely check out Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. He slowly gets rid of one letter at a time as the story progresses. Very interesting writer’s exercise.
My husband and I are a fan of the book Eunoia, by Christian Bök. Its more of a prose than story/novel, but each chapter uses ONLY ONE vowel.
My favorite of the Oulipo writers is Italo Calvino. His Invisible Cities is basically a collection of tiny, intense exercises in worldbuilding, and a lot of fantasy authors name it as a major influence. Certainly, it’s one of mine. Though I see Andrew Plotkin’s point, too, when he describes the chapters as “perfect machines for doing nothing,” since there’s barely any plot of character in the book. There’s a frame narrative Marco Polo describing his travels to Kublai Khan, and the Khan wondering which, if any, of these cities really exist, but the glory of the book is all in its settings.
It’s our constraints–freely chosen constraints–that force us to write well. I could dig up that Robert Frost quote about how free verse is like playing tennis with the net down, but instead I’ll go to Wikipedia to track down…ah, here it is…Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint series. When this guy chooses to make a work of art within restraints, sometimes he’s completely literal about it.