Experimentation in writing can take many forms. The best overall definition I have come across (although it refers to experimental fiction specifically) can be found in the introduction to Groundworks, an anthology of Canadian experimental fiction: [Experimental fiction] "is fiction that sets up it's own rules for itself [...] while subverting the conventions according to which readers have understood what constitutes a proper work of literature."
The standard or 'straight' formulas for creating written works tend to render the structure invisible so that the reader can be more fully absorbed in the plot. In experimental writing, the structure also becomes the subject matter and may prohibit the suspension of disbelief (that non-critical television-like flow state). Why go against the flow? Why "subvert the conventions"?
The author in search of a Voice:
It is probably not coincidental that the abovementioned "Groundworks" anthology contains, in large part, the early writings of authors who later went on to write more conventional novels. First attempts at serious writing are often impeded by the weight of language itself.
Linguistics pioneer Benjamin Whorf explained that "[we] all unknowingly project the linguistic patterns of a particular type of language upon the universe and SEE them there, rendered visible on the very face of nature". Language patterns structure experience and also create a feedback loop where there is a tendency to describe (and therefore experience) things in the same way over and over again.
George Orwell wrote about how this phenomenon occurs in common parlance; about the frequent repeated appearance of seemingly benign stock phrases that "leap to mind". This "leaping to mind", as Orwell describes it, is explained through neuroscience: habitual patterns of behavior are strengthened at the neuronal level through repetition. Repeated exposure to the same phrase will create a strong underlying neuronal predisposition to use the phrase in speech or writing (given the same semantic context). To establish an independent voice, the writer needs to prevent these programmed structures from limiting the range of creative expression. One way of preventing preprogrammed phrases and habitual patterns of expression from finding their way onto the page is to remove conscious intention from the process of composition.
Randomness in experimental writing
Most examples of experimental writing employ some form of randomness or "chance operations". John Cage would typically begin a writing experiment by setting out a predefined system of constraints. Cage's "Diary: How To Improve The World" (from his book X) is a set of daily entries, each comprised of a specific number or words determined by random coin tosses. William S. Burroughs' writing makes heavy use of the cut-up technique: words are snipped from ordinary text and then rearranged either randomly, or according to some intentional pattern. The reordered text, although often semantically incorrect and describing scenarios that do not seem physically possible in this or any other imagined universe, is often charged with an intensity not easily achieved with "straight" writing alone.
Randomness and creativity
Creative thinkers are expected to introduce NEW ideas. The degree to which an idea is considered new or unique is directly related to how unexpected it is in a given context. But how is it possible to break new ground in our own mental landscape with the constant cacaphony of old ideas clammoring for attention? The challenge is to break habitual thinking patterns to arrive at a place where nobody has been before. One approach may be some form of Eastern meditation - to silence the mind in hopes that inspiration will then emerge in the mental void which has been created. Western intellectual traditions favour a different approach, wherein the best-known and well loved techniques for breaking through to new ideas involve the use of randomness.
Randomness has long been used to jumpstart creativity in many areas beyond writing. In his creative thinking seminars, Edward De Bono instructed business executives to randomly select a word from the dictionary and try to establish some meaningful link between it and the problem or topic at issue. This strategy is meant to promote "Lateral Thinking", where the "train of thought" is derailed from it's linear, well-traveled route to make new connections between concepts or things that were previously unrelated.
Sotware Tools for Cut-up and Text Randomization
Explore programmatic tools for text experimentation: The Cut'n'Mix Postmodern word processor includes a cut-up laboratory, the ROBOPOEM automatic poetry generator, plus a many other unique functions including:
Read more about The Cut'n'Mix application HERE
- "Fridge Magnet Poetry"
- Automatic Ransom Notes
- Word Shredding
- Word Morphing
- Multitrack Text Blender