The Case for Friction

The inspiration for today’s article comes from a recent Clive Thompson blog post called “Why Switching to a Different Word Processor Can Kickstart Your Writing.” In his post, he talks about the influence that something called “the novelty effect” can have on your productivity:

This is what’s so interesting about the novelty effect: It almost doesn’t matter what type of change you make to your work environment — just so long as you make change. So long as it renders your work slightly askew, you get a novelty effect.

This “slightly askew” effect is what we’re interested in. And while for Thompson it’s more about environmental changes—changing your word processor (or even just the font of a document) to give you distance from your own work when revising, for instance—I think that the novelty effect shows up in something poets have been dealing with ages: intentional friction.

Convoluted rhyme schemes and formal pretenses (looking at you, sestina) can do a lot for a poem—they’re pleasing to the ear, they aid memorization, if you’re into that kind of thing—but they also make the writing harder. There’s just no getting around it. Free verse may be great, but adhering to a rigid formal scheme and sounding fresh at the same time is just plain hard. (You try it.) But, as many have pointed out before, restriction forces creativity: the formal poet, just to finish the next damn line, has to think around corners in ways that, for instance, prose novelists don’t have to.

But prose writers can take advantage of self-imposed friction, too. Think of Georges Perec’s Oulipo novel La disparition, which avoids the letter “e.” Eric Roth, screenwriter of little things like Benjamin Button, Forrest Gump, or the upcoming 2021 Dune, still writes on a DOS program called Movie Maker that “runs out of memory” after 40 pages. If that isn’t intentional friction, I don’t know what is.

Indeed, different media have ways of imposing their own friction on a story. In Dune, Frank Herbert lets us into the mind of just about every mainstage character with direct, italicized thoughts. How would you achieve the same effect in a stageplay? Endless soliloquies? Or do you cut them out entirely? Or do you go the David Lynch route and present us with near-insufferable voiceovers? (And this is coming from a 1984-Dune stan.)

My point to all of this is that friction isn’t a bad thing. Friction, the grain of life we rub up against while we try to do this bizarre thing called “art,” often makes the art better, or makes it possible to begin with.

Just like Jack White prefers a POS guitar because he has to fight with it to make the sound he wants, poets impose artificial (sometimes ancient) restraints to create work that feels utterly new, to force the mind into different modes of thinking. So, the next time you’re stuck in a writing rut, try writing the next draft in lines of iambic hexameter. Eliminate the word “the” from your vocabulary. Forgo all “to be” verbs. And see what happens. Even if you only take fifteen minutes to experiment, intentional friction can be a great way to ignite a spark.

2 responses to “The Case for Friction”

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