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OuLiPo Writing Techniques: For Rats Escaping the Labyrinth

The OuLiPo were a French literary group founded in 1960 by poet Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais. They aimed to find a new literature through restrictions in the writing process. In the early years, Queneau defined the OuLiPians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”.


Here are three key texts from the movement which show how applying restrictions can generate ideas and lead to new ways of working.



A Void by Georges Perec

A Void by Georges Perec is a satirical detective novel that doesn’t once use the letter e. Quite an undertaking! The book centers on the disappearance of a man called Anton Vowl, and his friends’ search for him.

One lesson that I took from the novel was the power of restriction. If you take away a key component of language, whether it’s a letter, word, or a punctuation mark, you are forced to find other avenues of expression. The result is writing that travels down unexpected avenues.

Why not try this on your next project? For example, try and write a short story without using a comma. You may be surprised at the result.



Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style centers around one mundane scenario. The narrator observes one man accusing another of jostling him on a crowded bus. After that, the first man is observed in another part of town, while being advised by a friend to have a button sewn onto his coat.

The scenario is written ninety-nine times in different styles. The scope is remarkable; the author covers a range of literary forms from sonnet, to a short script, to mathematical formula.

Exercises in Style is a book that one can skim through and use as guidance to shape an idea. It’s also a useful model to help practice writing in various forms. You could even try and mimic Queneau and re-write your own scenario across a multiple range of styles.



An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris by Georges Perec

Georges Perec’s An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris is an example of place writing and centers around Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris. In the introduction to the book, Perec describes his intention to capture “what happens when nothing happens”.

It’s tempting to imagine our surroundings are boring and not worth writing about but reading An Attempt demonstrates that isn’t the case. Focussing on specific aspects on one place is an excellent way to practice description.

If you have a spare couple of hours on the weekend why not head over to your favourite town, or one you’ve never visited, and write down what you see? Quiet places in particular will challenge you to try and sketch something compelling in your prose.

A fascinating aspect of the OuLiPian writers is that they offer multiple ways to enjoy their writing. Firstly, the books are fine works of literature in their own right. They are innovative, playful and show the possibility of placing restriction in order to make something innovative. Secondly, they are a source of ideas for a creative writer. These impositions and rules can focus help to focus the mind. For example, the clichéd “blank page” is often described as intimidating by writers. The ethos of OuLiPo writing can fill in that page, and offers every writer a starting point.


Richy Campbell is the co-editor of Sideways Poetry and author of an upcoming poetry collection published by Live Canon.

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