Friday, July 16, 2010

Oulipean Games Revealed! The surreal vs. the constrained

Once again, I am so sorry for my internet absence this week, in particular my failure to blog on Wednesday. I have had computer issues. The kind of issues that result in routinely getting pop-up messages that say "The data has failed to save and is lost." No data appears to have ACTUALLY been lost, but my ability to send emails and post comments/blog posts has been seriously restricted. Emergency back-up computers are now in use.

So! Oulipean games. Oulipo is an originally French movement, founded in 1960, the name of which derives from the full title: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated, "workshop of potential literature." More specifically, the Oulipo is a loose gathering of writers seeking to create works using constrained writing techniques: "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy."

So, what EXACTLY does that all mean? Ultimately, it is a kind of rebellion against surrealism. While the surrealists saw rules as a damaging constraint, and dreams and irreality as the key to human potential, the Oulipo (many of whom were also mathematicians) went the opposite direction, believing that it was under constraints that potential can be most clearly realized.

Classic techniques of the Oulipo included:
  • LIPOGRAMS: writing with the absence of certain letters or sounds. Most famously, Georges Perec authored A Void (La Disparition), a 300-page novel that entirely excludes the letter E. (And then it was translated into a number of different languages, and all the TRANSLATORS managed to refrain from using the letter E... or, in the case of the Spanish translation, the letter A. I think that might even be more impressive, actually...)

  • UNIVOCALISM: text written with a single vowel (also can be described as a lipogram in all other vowels). Christian Bök wrote a novel that includes Chapters A, E, I, O, & U, in which each chapter has a coherent narrative using only one vowel.

  • TAUTOGRAMS: writing such that the first letter of each word (or at least every primary word in the text) starts with the same letter.

  • SNOWBALLS: in which the first word of the text has only one letter, the second two, and so on. (Also, "melting snowballs" in which the pattern is reversed and the text decreases down to a single letter.) Here's the one I did as an exercise in class today, using word lengths from one to eleven:


  • N + 7: a technique in which every non-proper noun is replaced with the seventh noun following it in a dictionary. Obviously, this requires both an original text and a dictionary to be chosen, and the depth and breadth of the dictionary will determine the results.

  • WORD LADDERS: a game in which a word is transformed into another by changing one of its letters at a time. Although the word ladders themselves may not have yet resulted in any works, the Oulipo speculated on the method as having inspirational potential, perhaps for the creation of a narrative using all the concepts in a given word ladder.

  • I did this in high school, actually. We would challenge each other with word combinations, and you had to get from on to the other in as few moves as possible. In rare instances, the addition or subtraction of a single letter was allowed. The trick was always moving the vowels to the right place... anyone care to write a short story based on one of my winning high school word ladders, moving from the word JUST to the word WHAT in the fewest possible steps?

    Although these are clearly extreme and occasionally ridiculous exercises, there are examples of actual narrative fiction for each of these. They say that necessity is the mother of invention: that you are more likely to use your creativity to design that which you desire in the absence of plenty. Shows like Top Chef thrive on constraints, challenging contestants to create magical dishes with limited menu items, specific inspirational guidelines, and rules about how (or for how long) one may cook any given dish. Why not writing?

    Indeed, as instructor Tim Horvath said, perhaps EVERY piece of writing is under some constraint (lack of time, need to meet a publishable word count, even the attempt to produce a narrative arc or a likeable character is a kind of constraint)...

    As someone who has only been published three times, each of which was under very specific language restraints (two pieces were Twitter-length fiction, required to be 140 characters or fewer, one was a "drabble" which must be precisely 100 words long), I may well be an Oulipian.


    Christian Bök reads from "Chapter I" of Eunoia,
    a univocalist novel in vowel-specific chapters

    Click HERE if you're not seeing the embedded video.


    1. Fie on your computer being a brat. Have you tried hitting it?

      Eh give me rules, I like toeing the line every so often, gives me a thrill. Leave it to mathematicians to make creativity look easy, Eunoia sounds awesome.

    2. Battles with computer gremlins are never fun. We missed you.

      The whole concept of Oulipo is new to me. When I was younger and felt I had infinite time ahead of me, I enjoyed this sort of game. I wrote sonnets and other rigid writing forms. Now that I have more to say and less time to do so, I don't enjoy the constricting formats so much. But I think they're probably good head-clearing devices. Like meditating, for type A personalities.

    3. I'm so conflicted! While I adore telling the writing rules to go [expletive] themselves, I also adore the kinds of challenges you presented above. Perhaps this is why I have written a parody novel in which we make up adverbs willy-nilly, yet also include a sonnet (God, I love writing sonnets) and a section of Haiku (it's a fight scene and it's awesome). So I am both, like some sort two-headed unicorn of craptasticness.

    4. seriously, I have to re-read this cuz my brain went into overload. Creativity look easy? LOL I can't even get past the initial rules! I like having the rules and then, breaking them in a way that draws people in.

      Magic, fantasy, science fiction all are made to break the known rules of reality... LOL

      Maybe when my head stops spinning, I will go through it again :D

      Great post though...

    5. My head is pounding with the awesomeness of these games. I love uber-constrained rules like this, just to see what can be done with them. Like writing a villanelle (which is freaking hard!).

      I really like your snowball poem, btw.

    6. I'm working at making the logical part of my brain less dominant when I write. Out of balance, it controls too much and it takes away my spark.

      What do you think of the possibility that a constraint is like a stick you throw for your logical mind so it can play fetch and leave the rest of your mind alone to create? I'm thinking of Dan Ariely's experiment with the 10-digit-number and the chocolate cake.

      Or is this question proof that my logic problem is insurmountable?