Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in Clinical psychology. She specializes in Pediatric Psychology and Behavioral Medicine.
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 such writers have often they have often been quoted as saying 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 new that would help them over the new obstacle. Some even said the remedies they credited with curing at least one episode of Writer’s Block may have simply been coincidence.
Writers worldwide have searched for reliable methods of banishing Writer’s Block from their lives. This is one of the most frequently covered topics on writing. Few writing programs don't devote time to the subject. A quick Google search using the phrase, “curing writer's block” provides over 2,630,000 results.
Part of the problem is that writer's block is a very individual experience. In fact, trying to describe writer's block can be hard to put into words (forgive the pun). Yet the Oulipians constructed techniques and exercises which provided relief from this common problem in a counter-intuitive manner. They tightened the reigns on the writing process by imposing limitations. They found by setting rules to which the writer was to strictly adhere to, they could free the creative process both for work projects and as a method for inspiring new ideas.
What is Oulipo?
Most writers know what it feels like to try to express an undefined idea they have for a piece of writing. Perhaps you have had the experience. As you continue trying to develop the idea on paper, things become more and more unclear. The moment comes when you barely remember what you intended to say in the first place.
You redouble your efforts. Yet every phrase that you write leads you in a different direction and you become overwhelmed with other ideas and other ideas 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”. Those who encourage this type of writing may think stringing the resulting phrases and ideas together can be called prose. Others just feel that it is bad writing, believing some type of form or structure should be set before writing. These individuals feel that writing without structure, planning or thought of any type leads to arbitrary and inferior results. Oulipians would fall into this second camp.
Yet Surrealism did serve to inform Oulipo in a way. Raymond Queneau, one of Oulipo’s founders, had belonged to the Surrealism camp. However, in the 1930’s Queneau left the Surrealist school after a disagreement with its founder Andre Breton, over how literature should be created, developed and consumed.
Essentially, Queneau disagreed with the Surrealists refusal to use any constraints or rules in writing, for example producing poetry without meter, rhyme, rhythm or any other defining characteristic. He coined the term “shriek” literature, which he felt was the lazy man's method of producing literature. Shriek literature was an effort to be entirely free of accepted or even invented writing convention when creating artistic written forms. The lack of rigor, Queneau believed, resulted in works that were never destined for becoming timelessly recognized and admired literature.
Queneau joined with mathematician Francois Le Lionnais in Paris. 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 this effort: “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.
Queneau and Liannais's pursuit of this emphasis in writing was a reacting to what they viewed as weaknesses in much experimental writing. The two founders of Oulipo went on to draw other French writers to their efforts. When criticized for imposing rules that took the freedom out of writing, they replied that the only way to be truly 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.
The founders of Oulipo created a series of exercises that placed certain restrictions on writing. For example, they wrote entire pieces without a certain letter, or chose words in a work to replace with other words based on a specific formula. The members of OuliPo used these restraints to produce writing that caused readers to re-evaluate the way in which they viewed fiction. They also inspired writers to extend the limits of creativity, ultimately able to experience a sense of boundlessness through the very use of limitations.
Oulipians consider literature in the conditional mood; not the imperative
— Daniel Levin Becker
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 was made up of 14 groups of 10 lines of poetry each. Each line within any single sonnet could replace the same line in any other sonnet. The 14 lines that were selected when read in order resulted in a sonnet. Since there were 10 options for each of 14 choices, this meant that 10 x 14 different sonnets could 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 about this work is that the completed set of sonnet lines were written in a way that ensured none of the possible combinations would ever break the rhyme scheme and that the 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 completed.
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.
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.
N + 7
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 these constraints are applied to a piece of writing, the result can be used to stimulate the imagination by utilizing a phrase or single line that sparks an idea. You may also obtain a broader idea for a piece of new writing based on a perception generated by the entire poem.
Enter your own writing to gain new ideas for directions. You may also discover this exercise takes your mind on a completely different path regarding your story or poem. If you find nothing useful comes from the result using the N + 7 technique, take a look at some of the other configurations that are possible such as N + 4 or N + 12, and see if they generate something inspiring. With 15 different configurations provided, there is bound to be at least one new idea for you to use with an existing project or to provide a spark to create something new.
Snowball Technique and Variations
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.
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 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 his book titled Eunoia, meaning, "Beautiful Thinking." The word is also the shortest word in the English language which uses all five vowels. In Eunoia each chapter is written omitting four of the five vowels.
For lovers of Fairy Tales, you can follow the example of Alan Peat, Julia Peat and Christopher Story who rewrote the story of Cinderella – 50 times. This book, 50 Ways To Retell A Story: Cinderella. This book was based on Raymond Queneau's work Exercises in Style.
The Prisoner's Constraint
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
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.
© 2016 Natalie Frank
KAT on February 10, 2017:
Fabulous article, fabulous info! I can't wait to try some of these exercises. I am in a terrible firt of writers block right now and just reading this makes me so hopeful I'm going to stay up and see what comes. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on November 29, 2016:
Thanks John. I'm really glad it's useful for you. Hope you will read some of my other articles as well!
John on November 29, 2016:
This is a fabulous article! I have never heard of oulipo (now I just have to learn how to pronounce it) before. I am definitely trying these! Thanks! Great job.