Constraints

“I was thinking that several years went by between the moment when I realized that I would die and the moment when I realized that I would first grow old” –Herve Le Tellier

Today, I attended a lecture given by Herve Le Tellier, a French writer and linguist, and a member of the international literary group Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, which translates roughly as “workshop of potential literature”).

Born in Paris, Le Tellier started his career as a scientific journalist, and joined Oulipo in 1992. As an author, he came to general attention in 1998 with the publication in France of his book Les amnésiques n’ont rien vécu d’inoubliable, a collection of one thousand very short sentences all beginning with “Je pense que” (I think that), published in English as A Thousand Pearls (for a Thousand Pennies) and from which I took the above quote.  His other books, Enough about love (Other Press) and The Sextine Chapel (Dalkey Archive) have also been translated into English.

Today’s lecture focused on writing with constraints.  For example, writing an entire book containing only words that do not have the letter “e” in them, or writing a book using a mathematical algorithm which dictates exactly how many characters are to be in a chapter, what color must be mentioned and whether or not a chair is in the room, or writing a book the begins with the point-of-view of a man, continues with only the point-of-view of the woman he meets, and then continues only with the point-of-view of the canary in the flower shop they both visit.

We did an exercise together as a group called LSD, Literature Semi-Definitional.  (He explained that it was first introduced in the ‘60’s. Really?) LSD goes something like this, one person writes a simple sentence containing 3 common nouns and then passes this sentence to another person who comes up with crossword puzzle-like definitions of the 3 nouns. Then that person rewrites the sentence using these “semi-definitions” in such a way that it still makes grammatical sense.  It is then passed to a third person who is asked to identify 3 common nouns in the now more complicated sentence, and to again define and rewrite.  A fourth person now looks at the even more complicated sentence and tries to decipher it down to a simple sentence again.  The result is extremely close to the original simple sentence!  Look up Herve’s work on Amazon.com and get yourself a copy of one of his books, you will not be disappointed.

I picked the particular quote above, because today is my birthday.  It is funny to me how a day that commemorates one’s birth seems to reinforce the thought of one’s death the more birthdays one celebrates.

Herve told us today that members of Oulipo are members for life.  He said that there are three rules for membership to the group: 1. You can’t ask to be a member 2. Your membership must be a unanimous decision (Because no one wants to be in a club where you have to spend the rest of your life looking at someone you hate!) 3. You cannot leave the group, even in death (Marcel Duchamp is still listed as a member!) However, you can leave the group if you commit suicide and say in your note that you committed suicide because you wanted to leave the group.  (I personally love the idea that you have to write a suicide note to leave a writer’s group!  I wonder how many members wrote such a note and then thought “Wow, I am a good writer after all, I think I will stay alive!)

The idea of constraints is an interesting one in the context of creative endeavors, or any endeavor for that matter.  I myself often suffer from “decision paralysis” when faced with too many choices and options.

As I begin the next book in my life, (I am not calling it a chapter as I feel like I finished the final chapter of the previous book already.  I am sort of a multi-volume kind of person anyway!) I am faced with many choices and options. This is most likely the start of the second half of my life, and though I do feel wiser perhaps, and definitely more conscious, I also feel the gravity of my future decisions. I am finally beginning to understand what 1 Corinthians 13:11 means when it says, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.”

As I prepare to make an artwork here in Amsterdam, I am starting to look at what constraints I might use to focus the project. I do not want to limit it too much, but instead find constraints that will provide a structure for access, as well as a way to open up the discussion.  After all, handcuffs are fun, but only if they are not too tight, no?

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