More than writer’s block, what plagues me the most in writing is when I can feel my language getting stale. When my sentences aren’t popping like they should, my syntax is weak, and something just feels off. In creative fields like public relations, when the original and effective arrangement of words is vital to conveying a client’s message or representing their unique business, the need for fresh and alive language is never more paramount. Tired sentences just won’t do. Sometimes the solution is as simple as taking a break. Walking around the block, reading work I admire, or talking to a friend are all things that can disrupt a lull. But on occasion I need a more focused approach. And sometimes the solution is found in writing itself.
One of my most admired mentors and former creative writing professors, Leni Zumas, introduced me to Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, a French term that roughly translates to “workshop of potential literature.” It’s all about writing with constraints in order to create a new sound, a new way of saying something. It’s like cleaning your smudged glasses and viewing the world again. I love writing exercises of most kinds, but I was amazed at the way this exercise not only spurs new sentence structures, but how it even pulls new content to the page. The first time I tried it, I wrote a short story that came out of the obscure dictionary words I had “constrained” myself to use and the omission of commas, semi-colons and colons. The sound was sharp and more abrupt. The character’s dialogue shifted into something different, and voice and tone were altered in interesting ways. The images and situations had blossomed from the integration of new vocabulary, and the story seemed new for me as a writer in all the best ways.
When I finished the story I realized I had been so wrapped up in the game of Oulipo, of keeping with my constraints, that I had spent almost no time being aware of the page count. I wasn’t adhering to my natural rhythms, and the result was refreshing. I endured practically no writer’s block at all in the process. Later, I re-worked things and relaxed with the constraints where needed for clarity and fluidity, but the piece was wholly a result of getting out of my head and creating a game, so to speak.
I applied this technique to fiction writing, but it can be used for any form. When I teach college level composition, I use this exercise with my students. I have them create constraints that will directly challenge their writing struggles, grammatical and otherwise. Maybe you’re too long winded with run ons? Try no commas, semi-colons or colons. Perhaps you’re looking for fresh vocab—try lipograms—when you omit a letter from the work completely, you are forced to use new words to say what you mean, avoiding commonly used words. You could also challenge yourself to omit letters with ascenders or descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y) for some extra fun. I find that students create more open, less self-conscious work when we use constraints, often producing some of their most creative and surprising prose of the term.
There is no wrong way to practice Oulipo. If nothing else, it brings you out of writer’s block and back to the page. And you can always edit things later to fit your objective. I find this especially helpful in copywriting—when the text needing to be written is simple in nature, but the actual writing feels anything but. A little Oulipo is a functional creative solution and a fun way to shake things up.
It’s about potential literature–the magic inside you waiting to be prompted.