I listened to an intriguing programme on Radio Four yesterday while driving south down the M6 in horizontal rain. Presented by the miscellaneous Ben Schott, it documented the Oulipo movement, one of whose members, Georges Perec, famously wrote a novel from which the letter ‘e’ was entirely absent – a so-called lipogram.
Founded in France in the 1960s, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle held as its central philosophical plank the notion that constraints encourage enjoyment and creativity. So Perec’s experiment was true to its aims, as were those of the members who wrote sonnets with interchangeable lines, palindromic poems and, the one I liked best, texts in which each noun was substituted with the one that came seven entries after it in the dictionary – with particularly hilarious results when applied to the opening sentence of the Book of Genesis.
The creative value of constraint is a theme that my friend and fellow writer John Simmons has regularly explored, most recently in 26 ways of looking at a Blackberry (A&C Black, £9.99), in which he challenges himself to rewrite a piece of bland corporate text in 26 different ways ranging from a fairy tale to a presidential speech, a text message to a song lyric. The point is not so much to improve on the original but to show how the strictures of different forms can make you think harder about what you’re saying and bring life to dull expression or tired ideas.
At work we may not choose to experiment like the Oulipo writers but we do face constraints all the time in the form of deadlines, word counts, specific audiences to be addressed, themes to be followed or arguments to be made. And they can help us to be more creative simply by forcing us to focus and direct our energy; while the alternative, the blank page, can be paralysing in its very lack of boundaries.