Writing with Constraints & OuLiPo

We've seen constraints in poetry in the traditional forms of haiku, tanka, sonnets and more, and recently we've seen 30-word stories, 100-word stories, and erasure texts made from a page of someone else's work. Each of these forms has a structure; poetry forms are often much stricter than the others because of their combined rules regarding rhyme/meter/and sometimes word counts. Erasure or altered text is frequently made by painting over or crossing out words so that a new text is made with only the words left untouched and in the order they appear. While many contemporary writers might balk at the constraints, the rules force the writer to wake up and stretch, often revealing work s/he might not have otherwise written.

In the 1930s, according to Barbara Wright in the introduction to a book I'll be telling you about in a moment, the French writer Raymond Queneau heard Bach's The Art of Fugue and his interest in the music's nuanced variations made him wonder about various approaches to writing styles. He began by writing a tiny story, then rewriting it several times, each time putting a different constraint upon it. The story tells of an encounter on a bus and how he coincidentally saw the same man again later in the day. There is matter of the man being jostled as well as a missing button. The story is told in 99 different styles, corresponding to the titles. A few examples: Retrograde, Precision, Negativities, Anagrams, and Exclamations. The book, originally published in 1947, with the newest revised translation by Wright in 1981, is called Exercises in Style. While the book is entertaining, it also teaches: it points to the possibilities of writing tone and style and cracks the craft wide open.

Although Queneau died in 1976, his curiosity and exploration of writing based on constraints continues with the group he founded in 1960, known as the OuLiPo, an acronym for the French phrase, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentialle, commonly translated as "workshop of potential literature." American writer Daniel Levin Becker received a Fulbright to go to France and study the OuLiPo, ultimately was asked to join the group (a rare event!) and he wrote a book about the people, history, workshops and forms called Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (2012). In one fascinating chapter, "Get it in Writing," Levin Becker gives us a behind-the scenes look at what a weeklong workshop is like, including the forms that were taught then and the personalities behind the writers. He paints an amusing and vivid picture, which includes "interesting socks" and "a baby Rottweiler named Sarko."

He lists some of the nearly endless exercises:
  • Perverb "splices the beginning of one proverb with the end of another"
  • Tautograms "where each word begins with the same letter"
  • Prisoner's Constraint "where letters with ascenders and descenders are disallowed"
and writes, "The cool thing about these workshops, though, is that one man's piece of cake is another man's ball and chain; we all excel at totally different things…" (97). These are writer's puzzles, challenges, and ways to stretch your imagination. Sometimes you feel the thrill and want to conquer the form, sometimes you find it hard to engage. It may be easier to begin with a challenge in mind.

One constraint, the lipogram (a work that omits words containing one specified letter), was made famous by Georges Perec in his novel La Disparition; it is missing the letter e. It was translated into English as A Void by Gilbert Adair, who had a doubly difficult task. Adair had to make choices between content and elegant writing in order to carry out his e-less orders.

Forms are fun. Sometimes finding the content is the hard part.  But, as Queneau showed, even the most mundane sketch may be made interesting (if not amusing, fascinating, scintillating, or ridiculous) if treated sideways.

A wonderful and detailed catalogue of the forms is found in Oulipo Compendium by Harry Mathews and Alastair Brotchie. If you are looking for bookmaking with constraints to kickstart a project, see the blog post "A Recipe for an Artist's Book." And if you want to understand this whole concept better, try Daniel Levin Becker's book and leap from there.