And Now For Something Completely Different: Oulipo!

posted in: Word Nerd 17
Don't you just want to live inside a great Paris bakery? Like, inside an actual pastry? Me, I call the almond croissant. Image: Wikipedia.
Don’t you just want to live inside a great Paris bakery? Like, inside an actual pastry? Me, I call the almond croissant. Image: Wikipedia.


I’ve been learning about this fascinating (and, to be honest, frequently exasperating) group of writers who formed in France in the 1960s: the Oulipo. The word “Oulipo” is a shorthand mashup of letters from “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle,” which is roughly translated: “workshop of potential literature.”

There’s a lot to say about the group and what “potential literature” is, but for now, just know that the Oulipians were/are writers who like to play with writing. Specifically, the Oulipians play with constraints in their writing, many of which are born from math. The Fibonacci Sequence might be the guiding principle in a story, for example (Italo Calvino did this.) Or a writer might “translate” a text following an algorithm, like one called N + 7, where you take every noun in the piece of writing and find the noun that comes seven nouns later in the dictionary and replace the original noun with that word. Weird, right? Yeah, and silly, but also sometimes wonderful — or at least wonderful enough to inspire something you would never have considered if you didn’t try it.

Mostly, the Oulipo is something most folks who don’t dive real deep into literary movements and stuff will ever know about and honestly won’t ever need to know about. But there’s one work so far that has come out of the Oulipo that broke into the mainstream consciousness enough that some folks have heard about it. It’s a 300-page-ish novel by George Perec that does not use the letter ‘e.’ At all. Not once. No ‘e’ for 300 pages. It was written in French but was translated. The title: A Void. (<– See what he did there?)

When you write a piece of text that eliminates one vowel, it’s called a Lipogram. And you know what? They’re really fun. Well, if you’re me. I mean, some people think rollercoasters are fun. I think rollercoasters are horrifying, terrible, not-funny-at-all, why-would-you-do-that, why-would-you-stand-in-line-for that, nightmares. But some people love them! That’s fine. Enjoy. Me, I like barring myself from using an ‘e’ in a piece of text.

And now, my Lipogram! A piece written without the letter ‘e’. (I couldn’t choose to eliminate ‘i,’ for reasons you are about to discover.)

Oh, and this is NOT an official assignment or contest, but: I urge you, if you choose to comment, try to write your comment without using a certain vowel! I’ll let you pick your vowel. Example: “My name is Emma. This entry is interesting and PaperGirl is the best website writing experiment ever! I like Mary.” See? No ‘o’! So Emma couldn’t say “your” or “blog” or “post” or “love.” Cheap thrills, people. Cheap.)


Not Without An I (a Lipogram)
(c) by Mary Fons 2017

I can’t do this without an “I.”

Without an “I,” nothing I want to craft can or will stand. To my mind, without an “I,” nothing can bloom — nothing worth looking at, anyhow, nothing worth announcing or proclaiming. I’m a nonfiction author. Proclaiming is what I do.

It is a bit tiring, though, on a bad day, if I’m straight with you. My constant “I” has it’s drawbacks. It blocks a man or woman from my soul, occasionally. A constant I, I, I, is blind, off and on, to plights not its own. This is troubling, particularly if an autumn wind blows and it’s dark by four o’clock. At such an hour as that, my “I” is painfully solo.

But still it stands: I shall hold this “I.” No paragraph I put down can do without it. I am so fond of it, in fact, thinking of its bar or ban, oh! I could cry.

You may claim all words in our world with no limits. As for this girl; as long as I clutch my I, I shall want for no sign or symbol.

17 Responses

  1. pinkdeenster
    | Reply

    Lovely bit of prose you’ve chosen to write tonight! I need both “i”s and “e”s, How else do you write letters? Or swim in a river? Or ski on a slope? Love your column. Love your blog!

    • pinkdeenster
      | Reply

      Nooooo – I need to remove the “a”s – don’t post this!!! crap. I need all my damn vowels!

      • Mary
        | Reply

        Ha! Nope, you’re stuck! I like both comments. 🙂

        • Olivia Jane
          | Reply

          Ha! I thought this was silly, ridiculous! and not at all for a girl who has short hours as it is! Why limit my thoughts and strain my brain doing a ridiculously difficult task? All must find a path that suits as traipsing through our days, My path, though you may think it circumlotory – finds its way straight to My goal – to finish a quilt with nary a straight stitch. So to my own task – I go.

  2. Lauren
    | Reply

    Roller coasters are a puzzle; why pay to have the bejeebers scared out of you? Just take a person under 10 on the subway.
    We don’t appear to share your need of “I”.
    (Actually, that’s untrue. I am just militant about weeding them out of my writing for the reasons you noted. Also, a constrained vocabulary is the plight of an expat. I’m quite adept at it – albeit in other tongues – now.)

  3. Shrry Boram
    | Reply

    Lipogram,,,so that’s what this is…so much fun! I’m crazy about quirky words that roll off my lips.
    Last Friday I found out that a small bump on my pinky is a fatty tumor, a lipoma. Ugh!
    LIPOMA and LIPOGRAM, grammatical cousins or word party? Now this insomnia-causing addiction and it’s 4:15 a.m. Thanks Mary!! (Not to worry.)

  4. Ann Bailey
    | Reply

    Oh. I concur. I didn’t, but now I do.

  5. Pattie
    | Reply

    You must always use the letter i. Without it, “nothng ” would make no sense.

  6. Laura Greig
    | Reply

    As always, your writing is fun and fantastic! As I try to avoid using a particular thing, I find that it is in all words I try ! This was tougher than I thought!

  7. Laura Greig
    | Reply

    OOPS, found an “E”

  8. Kelly Ashton
    | Reply

    How might I manage in a world void of the little, bent-line letter representing another? Alas, a task so challenging that I can barely fathom a life worth living, if five vowels were to become one less! Oh, no!! Five missing one, especially THAT one, seems so trite, so small, so insignificant, so hard to manage that I will NOT give in nor permanently remove letter 21, that darling, little, bent-line letter representing another, from my letter repertoire!!

  9. I’m just so tempted to comment in emojis and claim the prize for NO VOWELS USED WHATSOEVER…

  10. Linda
    | Reply

    We get only five, if we don’t count Y. So why would I decided to do without one vowel? This silly exercise boggles my mind! Now it is time to write goodbye!

  11. Anne
    | Reply

    Mary! You were so focused on leaving out the E that you left an apostrophe in “its”! 🙂

    Love you and your blog!

  12. Becki Morrison
    | Reply

    I think that i shall never look upon
    a lipogram as stunning as a sapling

    Is it haiku or just a snafoo?

    Fun stuff Mary

  13. Annabelle
    | Reply

    Leave out a vowel? What a challenge. Your blog sure can be lots of fun. As much fun as sudoku. 🙂
    Ever see a program on PBS about a young female and her monkey? Clue: words are her forte. Mary Fons as a youngster..maybe?
    There’s never a dull moment here.

  14. […] I gave a honkin’ presentation in my Oulipo class on a famous Oulipian named Harry Mathews. Today, I gave an even bigger presentation for Anne […]

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