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Monday, March 15, 2010

15. The Writing Life (6) Experimental Fiction 2 Constraint V Freedom

On the one hand: Freedom; on the other: Constraint

In my last blog I explored the FREE FALL approach to writing fiction. This article deals with what seems to be its opposite: writing within tight constraints.

5. Free Flow V OuLiPo

is writing without constraint. It is allowing ideas to flow, with critical judgement held in abeyance, anaesthetised, put out to pasture for a very long time. It means being open to whatever rise up out of our unconscious minds. As the commentator writes: it’s a method which may have the pay off that you develop or find a voice.

is at the other end of the spectrum of approaches. OuLiPO is an acronym. The approach was developed in the 1950s by a group of French Writers who called it: OUvroir de LIttérature Potentielle. Translated this means, roughly, Workshop of Potential Literature. Which means that OuLiPo should really be called WoPoLi.

The group of French persons who developed OuLiPo consisted of writers and mathematicians who invented, reinvented and experimented with different types of formal constraints.

Here are some examples of OuLiPo writing, experiment I tried recently: You may be able to spot what’s going on – the nature of the constraint I have imposed on myself.

A. Mary had a little lamb

Mary has a smallish lambkin
Wool as pallid as a cloud
To all compass points trots Mary
All among the schooling crowd

“No lambs. No lambs!’ proclaims a tutor
‘Lambs may not go in this hall.’
But loudly laugh his tiny scholars
Laugh out loud and down do fall.

If you own a smallish lambkin
Allow him not to go for schooling
Bind your lambkin to a post
That is this institution’s ruling

‘Woolly lambs,’ a tutor says
‘Do not follow our instruction.
Bring such animals not within
Our walls, avoid lamb-introduction.

Laughing young do much disrupt
Apt induction to our knowing
Bring a lamb within our walls
And too much laughing is a-growing

Sad looks all should now display
School’s not for such joy or laughing
Stand in rows with sullen looks
No smiling for our photographing

Baa baa black lamb, any wool?
Any wool within that sack
Bring us woolly cardigans
A woolly scarf is what our youngun’s lack.

B Jack & Jill

John with Jill did mount the hill
To fill their bucket with H2O
John fell down upon his crown
Jill too fell down, they told me so

John stood up, his drinking cup
Empty like this mind of mine
He needs some dressing on his scone
Otherwise he’s doing fine

Poor old John is feeling crook
Jill’s is joyous like some dog
Ruff ruff ruffing in its kennel
Chewing some delicious bone

In the A example, a rewrite of Mary had a Little Lamb, I have avoided using the letter E. In the second, I’ve avoided the letter A.

George Perec, one of the leading lights of the OuLiPO school, once wrote a 40000 word novel which contained not a single E.

6. Why impose such constraints? Is the imposition of constraint liberating?

The theory goes something like this. Our heads are full of clichés. Think fear, and we immediately think: shaking like a leaf, the hairs on the back on my head standing up. Our heads are full of clichéd ways of saying things, collected over the years and stored, ready for use, in our cells and synapses. So, when we ‘free flow’ we are simply giving free rein to our accumulated language habits.

But place a constraint – like you can’t use the letter E – and all of our ready-to-mind phrases become useless. We can’t respond ‘automatically’. That’s the trouble with automatic writing: it’s all automatic. Put up a barrier, the OuLiPo-crowd say, and you have to jump, you have to do something different.

With the letter E, so many words are no longer available – so you have to find new words:

Mary had a little lamb becomes Mary has a smallish lambkin
Its fleece as white as snow Wool as pallid as a cloud
And everywhere that Mary went To all compass points trots Mary
The lamb was sure to go All among the schooling crowd

Herein lies the major point of difference – the deeper significance – of the OuLiPo School’s project.

7. What kinds of constraints might a writer impose?


Constraints involving the avoidance of particular letters are a common OuLiPo strategy.
Rewrite Mary had a Little Lamb:
First, without A; then without O; then without E; then without I.

Choose a particular well know piece of literature. For example, the Shakespeare piece:

What a piece of work is man
How noble in reason
How infinite in faculties
In form and moving
How express and admirable
In action how like an angel
In apprehension how like a god
The beauty of the world
The paragon of animals

Use the piece as the basis of a piece of acrostic writing. For example:

Whenever hardy albatrosses take a position in Eden, careless evangelists
often forget what original reasons, key ideas, salacious meanings and noble happenings ossify. Wait! No orphans believe lies. Even in Nottingham. Recent eccentric artists savage our nation.

As far as possible, using words starting with a particular letter in a series of sentences. For example:
What a piece of work is man
Sentence One: W
Sentence Two: H
Sentence Three: A
Sentence Four: T
And so on.

We work, wearily, waiting and worrying. Horrific and hair-raising hopes are hardly heeded. An atom always attenuates an art. Then, tomorrow, terrible times triumph. Aggravated and annoyed, artists attempt to ask, to aspire, to attune art to any attainable aim. People preoccupied and precious, preach popular prophecies, and pontificate in pompous pulpits. I’m injured, intuitively, in my inner intensity.
Every Eden exhibits erogenous egos.


Again, drawing on the same excerpt, the Oulipos might require that 3 words from the ‘What a piece of work is man’ quote appear in succeeding sentences.

For example:

For what possible reason would a man take a piece of literature, a literary work, and interfere with it thus? Is man no more than a filter through which language is passed, and how can it be counted noble to so exploit him? In Reason’s name, how can this infinite play achieve any serious end, in university faculties or in the world? In my own thought patterns – and I speak honestly here – I’ve considered moving a motion of no confidence. But how and I to express this, and do so in an admirable fashion?

My ‘original’ text has been fashioned using words from Shakespeare as the starting point, or as a major component. The ‘constraint’ – the requirement that I use the words from What a piece of work is man in the precise order in which they appeared in the original – sets some limits on what I can write.

As with the [re]versions of Mary , Mary quite contrary, this practice is a particular form of what the postmodernists have called intertextuality: the way in which any ‘new’ text draws upon previously existing texts.
This concept of intertextuality was carried to its logical conclusion by Perec, in an experiment that involved drawing whole sentences from a wide range of novels, and welding them into a new text.Perec composed the novel A Man Asleep using words and sentences he had drawn from other texts. His biographer writes:

[It] is probably the first collage novel that can be read in complete ingnornace of the originals, or even of the fact that there are originals. Moby Dick, Bartleby, The Trial, The Inferno and Ulysses provide many of the sentences of Perec’s book …

He concludes:
Perec is not responsible for (most of) the words of A Man Asleep, only for the way they are put together.

There are numerous ways in which a writer might contrive to create a ‘constrained text’, and in so doing explore the ‘potentialities’ implicit within language. Another involves stipulating, from the beginning, the length of sentences. You could stipulate that every sentence in a piece be 12 or 15 or 17 words in length. You could begin with very short sentences, increase their size, and them, decrease them again.

First light.
Morning has broken.
A new day begins.
I am awake at last.
I try to remember my dreams.
Images of red goldfish swimming in ponds.
Worms writhing to escape the early morning magpies.
It’s the early bird that catches the late worm.
The dew on the grass begins evaporating in morning heat.


In many ways, the OuLiPo movement has its antecedents in poetry and verse. Structures such as the villanelle, the sestina, the ottavo rima, the sonnet – even the limerick – are very much like the principles that govern OuLiPo. Certainly the various metres of poetry – the iambic pentameter and its kith and kin represent powerful constraints that the writer must work within when creating text.

Here is an experiment based on the rhythm of language. In each stanza, I establish a recurrent pattern of sound-structures.:

Here in the dark
Alone in my bed.
My youngest daughter’s sleeping on the couch.

Hush and you’ll hear
The sounds of the night
The even breathing of my sleeping child.

Dogs on their chains
Barking at ghosts
My eyes are burning. How I long for sleep.

Here is a much longer passage, in which I have attempted to sustain particular rhythms. I begin with iambic pentameters. In the fifth paragraph, the rhythm shifts to an anapaest, then a adctyl, and so on.

We stand upon the shore and watch the waves, the way they form and rise and fall again. The way they form, grow larger, and rise up, defying, so it may seem, gravity. But then, their weight too great, they crash and rush in tumbling, broiling foam onto the shore. Each wave the same, yet each so different. And yet their forming is so regular.

The motion of the waves is like a pulse. The heart beats in a pattern of its own, and forces blood to course within our veins.

Behind the music, too, there lies a beat. It may be slow, as in a funeral march, or rapid and insistent – bit it’s there. The melody enmeshes with the beat.

And language, too, has rhythms of its own. They are as regular as day and night, as regular as waves upon the sand, just like the gentle beating of the heart. In writing, we can trace them as we read, much as we do when listening to speech,. And even in the clumsiest of prose, when words hang, limp as lettuce on a plate, or in a very poorly written piece. We nonetheless can hear the ebb and flow, the pulsing of the rhythm of the words.

And if we’re very careful as we listen to the gabbling, the incessant conversation of the people in the street, we can hear behind their voices, as insistent as a hammer, the extraordinary rhythms that indwell within our words. And there’s rhythm in the sayings of the wise and ancient writers who were speaking of a future that they knew they would not share. But the rhythm here is different from the one that came before it, for the first was quite iambic, whereas here – for your enjoyment – and I trust you will enjoy it, I’ve established in my sentences what experts in the field would call a stunning anapaest.

Try, if you can, to imagine a future – a world in which poets were given such praise, that they thought of themselves as a gift to the nation, a strong grateful nation that heard every phrase. Each sentence and lyric, each song and each rhythm, impressed in their ears and impressed on their minds, that they’d stare in amazement at what lay before them and raise up their voices in tribute to God.
You’ve read six paragraphs of prose. Did anything stand out for you? Did anything seem odd to you? How have your ears processed the sound?
And did you notice anything peculiar? Like: were the sentences sweet to your ear?

Of course I have been playing games with you. And if I’m honest, I would have to say:

The game began and still the game goes on.
I’m writing down these lines to show the way the rhythms operate.
Perhaps yours ears pick up the way the rhythms of these words I write are following a ‘beaten path’ - a pattern that I’ve fixed upon. And if you have remained alert, and listened very carefully, the patterns will reverberate. A drum beats softly in your head. A set of waves breaks on the shore, the mental shores of consciousness.

And so I ask you: Ask yourself. Does all of this seem too contrived? Do all these patterns I have formed seem too insistent in your mind. Too regular, too well laid out for you to take too seriously.

Read the whole passage once again. Go right back to the very start, and try - by reading out aloud – to single out (identify) the places where the rhythms change. Then , with your pencil mark the spot. There is music in the language of the speaker and the writer, we can hear them as we listen, we can hear them as we read. And the language of the gutter, and the voices of all people make an ever present music that engulfs us as we read. We are swimming in an ocean, and the ocean is of language. There are waves that are a-forming, growing larger, growing higher, and they’re crashing down upon us as we’re sitting here and listening. But like you, I’m feeling hopeful that we’ll – all of us – survive.

8. So what? What are we to make of the OuLiPo movement?

There has been, and continues to be, a general tendency to classify the members of the Oulipo as tricksters. The implication being that their work does not qualify as serious literature.

By September 2006, the OuLiPo group had conducted over 550 monthly meetings since its inauguration. The movement has certainly encouraged all kinds of experimentation in writing. No every experiment has proved successful. But then, that is the nature of experiments: they don’t always work.

By temperament, I’m drawn to the intensively expressive and personal writing that free writing and free fall writing encourage. As a novice writer, my focus was on writing that enabled me to access the truth of my experience. Much of my ‘serious’ writing explored autobiographical themes; it was, in essence, therapeutic. I needed to understand what made me tick. Writing was thinking about experience, making sense of my life.

However, there is an attraction in the OuLiPO project. As one observer commented:

Even if it fails to always produce vaunted “works” of literature, writing under constraint aspires to amuse and amaze simultaneously. In this respect, constrained writing clarifies and tests our categories of literature, but not without also feeding our sense of humor.

For some writers, the OuLiPo strategies provide a circuit breaker; they enable even the most blocked writer to produce material.
OuLiPo has been around for a considerable time – almost 50 years.
In contrast to the many avant-garde groups it has long outlived, the Oulipo does not purport to change the world through poetry alone, but rather aims to transform the way change itself is perceived. If potential literature is a possible literature — undoubtedly one of the meanings we may ascribe to the group’s use of po — the Oulipo undertakes the task of explicitly determining what is yet possible for literature, and then demonstrates how those possibilities may be realized in writing. In this sense, Oulipians imagine uncharted waters for literature and then proceed to map that imaginary space.

9. Towards a synthesis
I have attempted to present the view that among the more radical experimental strategies available to writers, Free Fall and OuLiPo stand at either end of the continuum.

At one end is Free fall. Free fall is unrestrained, unconstrained outpouring. I keep picturing the writer referred to in the Free Fall section, with his 75 folders of free fall writing, perhaps the raw material for a novel – or of several novels.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, the French existentialist writer Albert Camus. Camus writes of Sisyphus:

‘The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.’

For Camus, the writer is Sisyphus. Each morning, when I sit before my computer, I am struck by the image of Sisyphus. I contemplate my day: Today, as my hands roll over the keyboard, I will be embarking once more of a task of Sisyphian absurdity. Camus goes on to point out that Sisyphus was a wise man. Indeed, he had been scornful of the gods, and had even imprisoned Death. Sisyphus had spent time in the underworld, as all writers must do. And his punishment was the absurdity of a life carrying a heavy rock to the very top of the mountain, only to see it roll down the other side, so that the next day he must repeat the self same task.

If Sisyphus is at one end, of the continuum The Man from OuLiPo is at the other, attempting to write while wearing a strait jacket – a set of constraints that are intended to stop the easy flow of words, to force the writer to constantly make conscious choices of which word, which phrase.

They are Chalk and Cheese, this pair: Sisyphus and the Man from OuLiPo. And yet …

In the end, each strategy results in the production of a wealth of material. Words pour onto the page using either method.

Seventy five folders of free writing. Seventy five folders of OuLiPo-‘inspired’ work.

If writing is rewriting, as many believe, then perhaps there is no necessity ofr a choice to be made. It’s not a case of either/or, but rather this/and. Perhaps we each need to become the Freefalling [wo]man from OuLipo. Perhaps wave and particle are one and the same. Perhaps all roads lead to Rome.

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