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.