Wednesday, September 4, 2013


I love variations and alternate versions of the familiar.
I take delight in the remixed and the mashed-up.

I took piano lessons for 12 years.  Unlike many students,  I loved scales, etudes, and best of all, Bach's  fugues and  inventions.  The inherent order of these forms--and the subsequent and orderly ways they were developed and teased into different iterations and presentations--delighted me.

These basic forms  were designed to increase technique and solve specific musical problems.  They turned a melody sideways, flipped it over, ran it backwards, stood it on its head, turned it around ... and finally brought it home. Yet with all the turns and flips, we never lost sight of the original melody, the musical idea used as a starting point.

Naturally, I love variations and alternative versions, remixes and mash-ups in literature just as much as I do in music.

I am always excited to see a familiar favorite transformed.

I am ecstatic to discover traditional stories reworked, re-presented, re-imagined--in new genres, modified time frames and structures, and more.

Just how many ways can we tell a story, make this point, or share an idea?

You can imagine my pleasure and surprise when I discovered an entire movement devoted to this idea of manipulating and transforming texts. And my further surprise when I realized that several of my favorite writers were members --and their best known works considered masterpieces within this movement. 

Raymond Queneau was one of the founders of Oulipo, a group of writers and mathematicians who believed that creating variations on a theme, idea, or original work, while working within the context of specific restraints--contrary to what we would expect--leads to greater creativity.

I smiled when I realized that Queneau, like me, was influenced by Bach:

... Queneau explains that the idea for the Exercises came to him in the 1930's, after he and his friend Michel Leiris had attended a concert at the Salle Pleyel,  where Bach's The Art of Fugue had been played. What particularly struck Queneau about this piece was that although based on a rather slight theme, its variations "proliferated almost to infinity." It would be interesting, he thought, to create a similar work of literature.

Raymond Queneau accomplished what he set out do--creating a Bach style work of variations in literature--in his now classic and seminal work, Exercises in StyleThis is a fascinating collection of 99 different retellings of the same simple tale.  The original French version was published in 1947 and was translated into English in 1958 by Barbara Wright.

Inspired by Queneau and his Exercises in Style, Matt Madden explored this same concept of variations and retellings with comics--recounting and recounting the same events, in 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style.  In his work he asks a question similar to Queneau's initial wondering:

Can a story, however simple or mundane, be separated from the manner in which it is told?  Is there an essential nugget from which all stylistic and physical characteristics can be stripped?  What would that core look like?  ....In reading these comics you have the opportunity to question the effects that ways of telling have on what is being told, and just as important, to enjoy the rich variety of approaches available to the artist, in comics and in other media.

Oulipo is a French portanteau of Ouvroir de Litterture Potentielle, which translates 'Workshop for Potential Literature.'

Potential is the key word.

When applying specific constraints, limitations, or rules, writers must necessarily develop new and creative ways of saying what they want to say.  For example, one common Oulipian form is the Lipogram--writing in which one or more letters are excluded from the entire work.   Imagine the potential for more creative word choices if each word chosen cannot include, let's say 's'.  There went is, saw, said,  and a host of other common words--they can not be used.  In Cinderella, that means we couldn't use the word stepsister. What words would we employ instead?

We more routinely see this power of constraints demonstrated as we work within common poetic forms such as the haiku, sonnet, or ghazal.

One master at utilizing the power of constraints for fostering infinite potentiality is Georges Perec.  I was surprised to realize that I had owned and had read his novel, Life: A User's Manual, considered an Oulipian masterpiece..

In this novel, which simply narrates the comings and goings of characters in a Parisian apartment building, the Oulipian formulas for this novel are mathematical.  Each item in the story is placed in a square on a grid which determines its chapter and position in the novel, and then the L-shaped pattern of a Knight's movement on a chess board is utilized on this same grid to further determine the order of the chapters .

When I originally read the novel-- I enjoyed it, yet felt that the story was "tightly -written within a narrow context" --my subconscious grasping of the technique and attempt to describe the feel of the story, although at the time I had not heard of Oulipa.

Italo Calvino, another of my favorite writers, was also a member of this movement, which explains my fascination with his work.   In If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, quintessential Calvino, ten stories entwine, chase each other,and somehow create a whole in Calvino's well-known experiment in narration. Another Calvino favorite is Invisible Cities Invisible Cities, in which a young Marco Polo describes cities he has visited for an aging Kublai Khan.  Is there a pattern to the short, poetic scenes?  This is Khan's question.

Recently, because of my love for Cinderella,  I ordered 50 Ways To Retell A Story: Cinderella by Alan  Peat, Julie Peat, and Christopher Storey.  In doing so, I discovered a new Oulipian treasure.   This book will delight young and old alike in the infinite transformations it presents of our familiar and beloved tale.
See related post, And They Lived Happily Ever After.

By imitating the multitude of possible constraints and formulas in 50 Ways to Retell a Story, a writer could have endless fun telling her own stories in  potentially new and  infinitely imaginative ways.

Oulipo Compendium edited by Harry Mathews and Alistair Brotchie presents a complete history, as well as a comprehensive, encyclopedic outline of formal Oulipo constraints and restrictions.  Italso included clear examples.

For additional Oulipian exercises, see Daniel Nestor's Teaching Blog post: A Collection of Oulipo Exercises.

Explore the potential of variations and alternate versions.
Enjoy and experiment with remixes and mash-ups--Oulipian style.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Think about your favorite story or poem.
How many other ways can you tell this story or recreate this poem?

See Daniel Nestor's  Collection of Oulipo Exercises  for suggestions of potential ways to  retell, re-image, and re-invent your story.

Try writing the same story in at least 3 or 4 ways.

What are the advantages or hindrances of each?

Can you invent your own variations to try?

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