Manual of Constraints
13 Writhing Machines
will serve, when complete, as a comprehensive manual of constrained writing practices, some of them invented by the Oulipo, but with many others besides.
These three novels, The Broken House
, and Gathering of Ghosts
, are set in a world more visibly enchanted than this one and examine the various kinds of charm involved. I wanted to explore the impact of the Imaginary on history, politics, the general behavior of human animals.
relates the struggles of two Americans, and of the two chameleons they were given, to adapt to a foreign habitat.
This novel tests the power to recreate oneself through metamorphosis against the power of fate.
Two young bears go on a pleasure trip to a city inhabited by many kinds of animal, but find themselves in danger: Bargeton is threatened by invasion from without, civil war within.
The two young bears are caught up in a night of riot and confusion.
Collection of tales.
Versions and subversions of medieval beast-fables and fabliaux.
Daniel Levin Becker attacks the "eodermdrome" at The Writhing Society.
In April 2009 Wendy Walker and I began the WRITHING SOCIETY, a weekly constrained-writing salon. We meet every Wednesday evening from 7:00 to 9:00 at Proteus Gowanus on Union Street in Brooklyn (directions below). It costs $5 to attend; we serve free wine for $2 a glass (a donation). Anyone can walk in; no reservations needed, nor any prior experience, only a delight in language and a willingness to play. There is no sequence of topics; we do whatever seems most interesting on any given night and do not follow any sort of syllabus. Usually we write, but from time to time we try out constraints in visual or visual-verbal composition. Often the leaders only sketch out an idea for a constraint, and the writhers actually in attendance refine or reinvent it. We usually engage in collaborative composition, passing work around the table for others to extend. And we always read aloud what we've written, not for critique as in a writing workshop, but because in this sort of writing the reader often finds a sense that had totally escaped the writer, who comes away liking the work better for having been shown that meaning.
What is constrained writing? When Georges Perec of OULIPO wrote La Disparition, he did not use the letter E; this was his constraint. Constrained writing involves composing text by imposing rules that are invented and arbitrary. It is a surrender of control, it requires taking directions from something outside your own immediate intention. Writers are compelled to say what they had never thought to say in ways they never would have chosen to say it. It is a method for making sense differently; for escaping stale, ready-made ideas, subjects, and formulations; for creating many and various alternative realities and discovering what is true in them.
We draw inspiration from several sources, most importantly the French group OULIPO — Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, Ian Monk, Michèle Métail — and from others practicing similar methods: Raymond Roussel, Gilbert Sorrentino, Doug Nufer, Tom Phillips, Ronald Johnson, Jen Bervin. We have on hand the Oulipo Library and Bookstore, where some interesting examples are available for purchase or consultation.
Proteus Gowanus, where we gather, is located at 543 Union Street at Nevins in Brooklyn (enter by the Nevins Street gate). To get there by subway, take the F or G train to Carroll Street, walk north (inbound, towards downtown) to Union then right till you cross the canal. The building is on your left; turn the corner onto Nevins and look for the blue Proteus Gowanus sign. Or take the M or R train to Union Street and walk west (downhill) to Nevins. You can transfer to the M or R from the 2, 3, 4, and 5 trains at Atlantic Avenue; Union is one stop from there.
The Writhing Society from time to time has contemplated practicing a "drift" ("dérive") through the Gowanus district. About the last industrial zone in west Brooklyn, with Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Park Slope nibbling at its edges, as well as the big-box stores, the Gowanus is centered on the famously polluted canal, now a Superfund site. Proteus Gowanus, where the Society meets, stands on the edge of the canal and has dedicated part of its space to the Hall of the Gowanus: art, artifacts, and books about the district. We would like to add to that a "psychogeographical map."
The Situationists of Europe and especially France in the 1950s and 60s invented the concept of the drift as a way of exploring the experience (as opposed to the "spectacle") offered by an urban neighborhood. Registering all kinds of information from the sensual to the sociological, "drifters" moved through a district in order to see which directions were inviting and which were aversive, and why. They did so particularly in Paris at a time when massive "urban renewal" was being proposed and enacted (the destruction of Les Halles, e.g.). Since the Gowanus faces similar change — the cleaning up of the canal will be instantly followed by the invasion of the developers, who see the potential to create a charming new-world Venice in Brooklyn, with condos and the rest of it, we have felt we should act soon to document what experiences the district offers now.
The Situationists also invented the "psychogeographical map" as a way of recording their results. We would like to do the same, in several media, including writing, drawing, photography, mapping, pressed flowers from the area, other natural-historical observations, film, dance, music, song….
A large project; we may never get to it, but if you're interested in participating, let me know. My contact info is below.
The website for Proteotypes
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The Writhing Society blog
This blog shares techniques for constrained writing and to reflect on them. We also occasionally publish work produced at the Wednesday meetings of the Writhing Society.