One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Eunoia—The Landscape of Oulipo

Eunoia (“beautiful thinking”) is the shortest word in English to contain all five vowels. (It’s also a wonderful collection of poems by poet Christian Bök) 
I’ve been a fan of writing games/word games for quite a while. I find them quite useful for not only filling a page when I don’t know what to write yet feel like I should be writing, but also useful for generating new ideas and for playing around with voice and form. ‘Play’ is the key word here and we all know that play and creativity go hand in hand. 
Some years ago, writer/teacher extraordinaire, Tim Wynne-Jones, gave me a list of “Games to Play While You Wait For an Idea” which I’ve turned to from time to time both as a writer and a teacher. Basically, they’re writing constraints—rules to follow that limit choices and in doing so, create a unique form.

Sort of like Bonsai. 

I just learned (from another writer/teacher extraordinaire, Barbara Henning) that there is a whole movement with a name that goes along with these constraints.


It’s French, pronounced ‘ulipo’ and is short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; or "workshop of potential literature" and is defined by the group as "the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy." Founded in 1960 (seems like yesterday!) by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, it’s a loose gathering of mostly French-speaking writers and mathematicians who use writing constraints to trigger ideas and inspiration and to create new work.

While there are many, one interesting and notable example of Oulipian writing is Raymond Queneau’s Exercices de Style, the retelling 99 times (!!!) of the same episode where a man witnesses a disagreement on a bus trip, with each account unique in tone and style.

Here are some other examples of Oulipian constraints:

S+7, (sometimes called N+7): Replace every noun in a text with the seventh noun after it in a dictionary.

Snowball: a poem in which each line is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer.

Lipogram: Writing that excludes one or more letters. The previous sentence is a lipogram in B, F, H, J, K, Q, V, Y, and Z (it does not contain any of those letters).

Palindromes: Sonnets and other poems constructed using palindromic techniques. (In case you’re wondering, a palindrome is a word, line, verse, number, sentence, etc., reading the same backward as forward, as Madam, I'm Adam or Poor Dan is in a droop.

Univocalism: a poem using only one vowel, although the vowel may be used in any of its aural forms. For example, "born" and "cot" could both be used in a univocalism, but "sue" and "beau" could not.

Using Oulipian ideas, writers and poets without a current idea can explore these and other constraints like perverbs, antonymic translations, homophonic translations, spoonerisms, centos, heterograms, pangrams, and a myriad of other forms instead of staring at a blank page.

There’s also something that happens when you focus your conscious mind on form: your unconscious mind—the place where all the best inspiration and creativity comes from—is free to do its thing. While you struggle to make sentences out of words that only contain the vowel “a”, your muse tiptoes in and goes to work. If you don’t believe me, give it a try! 

Approaching the writing process in a different way, searching for fresh forms can only enrich the landscape of our writing. And even lead us into the land of Eunoia. Once you’re there, you might never want to come back.

Take Good Care,

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