Try Oulipo and Never Have Writer’s Block Again
“Oulipians are rats who build the labyrinth from which they will try to escape.”
---- Raymond Queneau, Oulipo cofounder
"The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit... the arbitrariness of the constraint only serves to obtain precision of execution."
---- Igor Stravinsky
Writer's Block? You're in Good Company
If you suffer from Writer’s Block you are in good company. Some of the most well – known writers have suffered from this frustrating malady including Truman Capote, Harper Lee, J.K. Rowling, Ralph Ellison, Steven King, Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Roald Dahl, and William Faulkner among many others. Many of them came up with different techniques to overcome the problem but often they said that their remedies only worked for one or two episodes. After that when the problem reoccurred they would need to start from scratch trying to identify something that would help them that time. Some even said the remedies they credited with curing at least one episode of Writer’s Block may have simply been coincidence. Writer’s world-wide have searched for reliable methods of banishing Writer’s Block from their lives. This is one of the most frequently covered topics on writing and a quick Google search using the phrase, “curing writers block” provides over 2,630,000 results.
What strategy do you use most often when you have writer's block?See results without voting
What is Oulipo?
Perhaps you’ve had the experience of having a undefined idea for a piece of writing in your mind and as you continue trying to write it, things get more and more unclear until you hardly remember what you intended to say in the first place. Every phrase that you write leads you in a different direction and you become overwhelmed with other ideas and directions that take you increasingly further away from your initial intention. Maybe you decide to just follow wherever these associations lead you. This would be what the surrealists called “automatic writing”. If you think stringing the resulting phrases and ideas together and calling it prose would just be bad writing as the form had not been set before writing and the result was arbitrary and not well thought out enough, you’d be more in line with Oulipo.
There was in fact a relationship between Surrealism and Oulipo as Raymond Queneau, one of Oulipo’s founders, had belonged to the Surrealism camp but in the 1930’s had left after a disagreement with its founder Andre Breton, over how literature should be created, developed and consumed. Essentially, Queneau felt that the Surrealists refusal to use any constraints or rules in writing, for example poetry without meter, rhyme, rhythm or any other defining characteristic. He termed “shriek” literature, which he believed was an effort to be entirely free of convention and an attempt to create artistic forms but only by taking the easy way out. The lack of rigor, Queneau believed, resulted in works that were destined to fail at being established as long recognized and admired literature.
Queneau got together with mathematician Francois Le Lionnais in Paris and in 1960 they founded a writing movement that opposed surrealism by championing the concept that writing must be purposeful and intentional to have value. This developed into the motto for the effort which became, ““the only literature is voluntary writing.” This style of writing would later be named the “Ouvrior de Littérature Potentielle,” shortened to the acronym OuLiPo, which translates to Workshop of Potential Literature. They were reacting to what they viewed to be the weaknesses of much experimental writing. The two founders of Oulipo went on to draw other French writers to their efforts and when criticized for taking the freedom out of writing with rules, they replied that the only way to be free in your writing is by imposing constraints. They held that when rules were put in place the possibilities of the creative process were endless. They create a series of exercises that placed certain restrictions on the writing such as writing an entire piece without a certain letter, or choosing words in an original to replace with other words based on a specific formula. The members of OuliPo use these restraints to produce a work that causes readers to re-evaluate the way in which they view fiction and to extend the limits of creativity until they are boundless through the very use of limitations.
One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems
Queneau found support for this theory when he attempted to cure an episode of writers block by writing One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. This extraordinary project is made up of 14 groups of 10 lines of poetry each. Each line within any single sonnet can replace the same line in any other sonnet. . The 14 lines selected, read in order, will result in a sonnet. Since there are 10 options for each of 14 choices, this means that 10*14 different sonnets can be created using this method. It has been estimated that that it would take 190,258,751 years for a person to use all of the potential combinations. The truly amazing thing was that the completed set of sonnet lines where written in a way that ensured none of the possible combinations would ever break the rhyme scheme and that the final sonnet produced would always be correct grammatically. This work became the establishing text for this new experimental literary form which focused on how literature could always be in the process of becoming as opposed to finished.
If you would like to try creating different sonnets with Queneau’s masterpiece use this online version which prevents the need to cut a huge book into strips or decimating an entire forest.
A F Harrold reads OULIPO Pulp friction
Oulipo Techniques You Can Use to End Writer’s Block
The techniques used in Oulipo writing are actually the rules which provide the constraints. If you are completely blocked use one of the techniques which are applied to an existing piece of writing to stimulate the imagination. If you just need a boost, use one of the techniques that provide a rule to follow when generating new writing.
This technique involves taking a poem or piece of writing that already exists, either your own or someone else’s, and substituting each noun with the one that occurs seven nouns away in the dictionary. Based on the dictionary used, this technique can have very different outcomes. Don’t have a dictionary? No problem – just use the N + 7 generator on the internet. If you don’t like the result with the N + 7 technique you can alter it by changing the number you add to generate new nouns. The same generator will give you results for N + 1 to N + 15 simultaneously so you can compare the results. For example, consider the poem The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams, which follows.
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
Enter it into the N + 7 generator and the result is:
The Red Whelp
so much depends
a red whelk
glazed with raisin
beside the white
While the constraints are applied to the writing, the result can also be used to stimulate the imagination by utilizing perhaps a phrase or single line that sparks an idea or by obtaining a broader idea for new writing based on a perception generated by the entire new poem. You can also enter your own writing which can provide new ideas for directions or just take your mind on a different path regarding your story or poem. If you nothing comes from the result with N + 7, take a look at some of the other configurations, N + 4 or N + 12 perhaps, and see if anything new comes of one of those. With 15 different configurations generated, there is bound to be at least one new idea for you to use with either your own writing or to provide a spark to create something new.
Another popular Oulipo technique that is used to generate new writing is the snowball technique. Using this constraint, the first line of your writing would consist of one word, the next two words and so on. Alternately, it could consists of a poem with each successive word being one letter longer, each word being one syllable longer, each sentence being one word longer, or each paragraph being one sentence longer. These are types of ascending or building snowballs. You can reverse each formula and have a melting snowball. It is also possible to first ascend and then descend in the same poem increasing letters, syllables etc then decreasing them. The following poem by John Newman is an example of a building snowball starting with one letter and adding a letter per line with no constriction based on number of words per line.
do you enjoy
does word play
are you confused?
This is a snowball,
A poetic form which
was created by those
who group themselves
with the name of Oulipo.
Every line contains one
Additional letter. U like?
Compare the previous poem with the following one written by Harry Mathews, also a building snowball, which also adds one letter per line but each line can only consist of a single word.
You can also construct lines of progressively longer words starting with one letter and increasing to however many you choose. An example of the second version of the technique might read
I am far from happy Mother reduced
A no-fly zone using yellow ribbons.
With all these exercises the key word from Oulipo is Potential. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Lipogram which involves excluding a consonant or a vowel from an entire work of writing. Think of the potential for choosing more creative words to express your ideas if you are unable to include the letter “t”. So much for it, the, there, that, then, they not to mention (all of the following three are also out by the way) the actual word “letter.”
Consider, for example, the story Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright. In this novel length work you will never find the letter “e”. The whole story is constructed without the most frequently used vowel in the English language. This technique can be used with both existing and new writing. If some of your writing seems a bit lackluster to you, see if you can rewrite it without a commonly used letter (no cheating by reading through to see what letter is used least). Or see how far you can get with a new piece of writing in which you exclude a particular letter.
A creative variation of the lipogram is the story Ella Minnow Pea written by Mark Dunn. This work is referred to as a "progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable." The story is about a country in which the government starts to bar the use of different letters, and as each one is banned within the story, it is mostly no longer used in the text. While using the basic idea of a lipogram, the author digresses from the technique somewhat by including the outlawed letters every so often with the character using them being banished for the crime. At times the story also requires a search for pangram sentences (sentences which use every letter of the alphabet) which obviously means no letters can be outlawed in those sentences. Towards the end of the text the author starts substituting allowed letters for outlawed letters such as “ph” in place of “f” which many would say is cheating. This story shows not only the aspect of potentiality but also how starting with one of the constraints, you can create your own rules or actually utilize the constraint somehow as part of the actual story line. (Read a sample of Ella Minnow Pea here).
Another variation on the lipogram is the collection of poems created "by a prisoner whose world had been impoverished to a single utterance... who Cipher and Poverty (The Book of Nothing) written by Mike Schertzer. In the prologue, the story of the prisoner is told and he is noted to repeatedly ask the question "Who can find me here in this silence?" The 4 vowels and 11 consonants used to make up the eight word utterance are the only letters used in the poems which follow. To view these poems click here then click contents on the page.
If eliminating one letter is not a big enough challenge try omitting more than one letter. Up for a bigger challenge? Try writing with only a single vowel. Sound impossible? Christian Bok did just that in in which each chapter is written omitting four of the five vowels.
For lovers of Fairy Tales, you can follow the example of Alan Peat, Julie Peat and Christopher Story who rewrote the story of Cinderella – 50 times. This book, 50 Ways To Retell A Story: Cinderella (read introduction here). This book was based on Raymond Queneau's work Exercises in Style.
Finally, when you are feeling particularly clever you may want to give the Prisoner’s Constraint a try. This technique came from the way those in prison write so as to use as little of their limited paper supply as possible. So the omit any letters which rise above or below the line. The letters that are traditionally omitted are b,d,f,g,h,j,k,l,p,q,t, and y. One example of such a poem is Cons Coercion
our nerves in
crease means measure
mine our cancer
us moves concerns
owe us answers
an acre in
Hear Excepts of Queneau's Exercises in Style
Prompt Sites to Generated Ideas for Oulipo Practice
I am including just a few sites with prompts here since there are so many and what is useful for one person may not be for another. I am attempting to include a cross sample of sites so that hopefully one will appeal to everyone who takes the challenge of trying to create pieces of writing using Oulipo constraints. If you would like additional sites please write a comment and I will include some others in reply there. Without further ado - the prompt websites
- Writer Igniter - plot generator including prompts for character, situation, prop and setting
- Writer’s Digest Creative Writing – over 500 detailed prompts to get you going
Writing Fix This site may seem more for teens than adults but anyone can use most prompts, it’s all about the level you choose at which to write it. This site is the only one I’ve seen that separates prompts into right brain and left brain prompts and then within each group there is information about the different types of prompts and different categories of prompts that target the specific side of the brain.
1001 Story Ideas- Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Story Starters You Can Really Use -
Finally, for those of you who are visually oriented try this Visual Writing Prompts site. I created it for others who are more visually oriented having an easier time to generate new material and story ideas from visual images than a quick description of something. It currently has over 150 prompts and I add more regularly. If there are specific types of visual prompts you would like please let me know in the comments section and I will be sure to add a prompt specific to your request.
When you start with the Oulipoexercises presented in this article, don't be too serious. Just have fun with them. Not only can they help you break out of Writer's Block but they can help you generate a truly original piece of writing by providing a number of unique writing rules that will bring out the best in your writing.
Summary and Applications
Oulipo, a new literary form born in France out of the rejection of Surrealism due to its lack of structure, purpose and intention which characterized surrealist writing. Those who founded the movement believed that the only way to be free while writing is by imposing constraints or rules that sets limits leading to boundless creativity and the necessity of thinking outside of the box to be able to comply with the instructions. The original Oulipians created a number of different techniques to banish writer’s block by giving writers a place to start and setting a structure which dictated what they could produce while challenging them to begin to think differently about how to conceptualize the writing process and the source of ideas.
If you are interested in trying out some of these techniques, first find a writing prompt that excites your imagination. Then try writing your response to the prompt using one of the Oulipo techniques. If that seems too hard, first just write your response as you normally would do so. Then revise it using one of the Oulipo techniques. I have included a few links to prompt sites in the next capsule but if none of these work for you there are countless others available if you just do a simple search. Happy Writing.
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