My fiction writing class has just completed their “obstructions” project, which is always a hoot (for me anyway). The project is based on the creative methodology demonstrated in the Lars Von Trier film The Five Obstructions. In the film, Von Trier challenges his mentor–veteran film director Jørgen Leth–to remake his 1967 short film entitled “The Perfect Human” five times. Each time, though, he has to remake the film with an obstruction (a set of rules) that forces him into uncomfortable, new creative territory.

I have appropriated this method for my class. I ask a student to write a microstory (between 250 and 500 words) inspired by a work of visual art on campus and then remake the story three times, each time with a custom obstruction that I give based on my knowledge of the individual student and his or her inclinations as a writer.

It’s about radical, risky, gut-wrenching revision…

Here’s how I introduce my version of this project to the students: “Unlike your first two story portfolios, it may seem that you have less latitude regarding the story you will write for this project. The possibilities are still infinite, but because there are more requirements for you to meet in this project, you will have to apply your creative mind to come up with a creative solution that is both compelling and within the predefined parameters of the project. This project is an exercise with three intermingled challenges: 1) writing complete, yet compressed, fiction, 2) transforming the visual to verbal, and 3) engaging in radical, risky, and gut-wrenching revision.”

This project is great fun for me and most the students. Honestly, some end up hating the project, hating the work they generate as a result of the obstructions, and ultimately hating me, I’m afraid. But this is par for the course. It happens when writers fight the obstructions rather than embrace them as opportunities to try something new. The project is designed to push writers into uncomfortable territory, to change what they would normally, easily, and predictably do. If a writer doesn’t want to risk change, this becomes a very painful process. But enough of the negative. All in all, students take this project as great fun. I position the whole thing like a game–much like the movie (which is an assigned text for the course, by the way). We go through this obstructions process three times (what time will allow), and then to bring the project to an exciting close we organize a reading on campus called Art Walks Art Talks. This is a traveling reading, where we and our audience take a walking tour of the art and campus, stopping by each piece to hear a writer read one of their revised/obstructed microstories inspired by the art. Students often invite family and friends to hear them read. All in all, it’s a cool project with a lot of potential.