Aleatory Writing Experiment

This is an account of an experiment, replicating one of Bernadette Mayer’s writing experiments, “Systematically eliminate the use of certain kinds of words or phrases from a piece of writing.”

First, I had to decide which kinds of words or phrases to remove. Since it’s already a somewhat ordinary exercise, removing adjectives or adverbs, I chose something a bit more distracting to the ordinary meaning of a text. (Besides, I’ve already tried that in the form of a short story that contains only one adjective.) I chose to remove every thing, that is, the nouns, and noun-phrases.

It’s interesting that I chose this first, because my next questions were: which text can I remove nouns from, and what might be the result? I could have arrived upon a text at random, but instead I thought to choose a text that might yield some sort of result, when stripped of its nouns.

What’s a text I might like to systematically derange? Oh, how about the opening paragraphs of Chapter Five of Ayn Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto? The manifesto posits an ostensible object, or purpose of literature, and in many ways I object to that thesis, so I chose to rip out each object. What’s left?

To find the remainder in this equation, I devised the following, computer-assisted procedure:

  1. Copy Rand’s paragraphs into a text file, source.txt.
  2. To make the text easier to manipulate, format the sounce text as a list of its words, using a find/replace function to replace all the spaces with line breaks.
  3. Create another text file, nouns.txt containing a list of most nouns.
  4. Compare the two files, and remove most nouns from the source text.
  5. On the computer command line, step 4 is expressed thusly: tr -s '[:blank:]' '\n' < source.txt | fgrep -vwf nouns.txt > new.txt
  6. The result is a new text file, new.txt composed of the original paragraphs’ words, minus the noun words.
  7. In the new text, I returned all the line breaks to spaces, and then I sat down to do some finish work with this new block of text.

While reading over the results, I noticed proper nouns, such as “Aristotle” still remained after the previous steps. They had to go, too. Those are the rules of engagement here, after all. No nouns. But what to do about the arrangement of the other words? Is the resulting text to be a list, a long paragraph, or something else? What about the punctuation? I didn’t make any rules to answer those questions. Instead, I let my poetic instincts take the wheel now. I read through the text a second time, and made some decisions about where I thought line breaks would go. Yes, I even deleted a few non-nouns, because I thought the lines sounded better without those words, or because I thought they were “in the way” somehow.

I swear, though, that couplet in the middle happened “naturally.” I didn’t “write” it. It showed up on its own, after I removed the nouns.

The process felt to me a bit like making a collage. I pre-selected the pieces, made some decisions about how to cut them out and how to arrange them, but then I naturally began to play with those arrangements, to find, if not also to make, meaning among them.

I’ve been thinking about the sound of the texts that result from a subtractive process. Authors read the pieces as they are now, smoothing over the missing words with their tone of voice. I might rather read differently. First I would try recording the original words as naturally as they want to be read. Then I would edit the recording by removing the nouns from the it to get the result. I think the resulting sound would have more in common with a broken radio than it would with the sound we expect of a literary reading.

Here’s the text that happened:

BASIC OF 


The most important of the of was formulated
who said that is of greater philosophical 
than because represents as they are, 
represents them as they be and ought to be. 

This applies to all of and particularly to a 
that did not come into until twenty-three later: 
the A is a fictional about and the of their. 

The four essential of are:
These are, not separable. 

They be isolated conceptually 
for purposes of but must always remember 
that they are interrelated and that a is their. 
(If is a is an indivisible.) 

These four pertain to all of i.e., of with. 

They pertain to , , , , . The exception is . 
A does not have to a 
its basic are and A is the literary to its, 
its inexhaustible , its almost unlimited 

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