In the third part of our blog series of Creative Writing exercises, Creative Writing BA (Hons) Course Leader Dr Jack McGowan talks to us about the ‘beautiful in-law’ exercise and how rules and constraints in writing can lead us to surprising and inventive new places.
This session introduces the ‘beautiful in-law,’ a writing exercise that explores the idea of using writing constraints as a kickstart for your creativity. The ‘Beau Présent’ or the ‘beautiful in-law’ is a writing exercise created by the French writing group known as Oulipo which was established in the 1960s.
One of the key principles of Oulipo, which stands for ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’ or ‘workshop of potential literature,’ is summarised by the Oulippean writer George Perec:
“I set myself rules in order to be totally free”
Oulippeans like Perec, used rules or constraints in their writing practice in order to help them generate new material. For example, one of Perec’s most famous novels ‘La Disparation’ (or the English title ‘A Void’) was written in French, entirely without the letter ‘e.’
It might seem odd to think about writing as something constrained. It's much easier to imagine writing as being a space where you're allowed to be free. However, when we think about it, all writing is written ‘under constraints,’ be they the form of a poem, the genre of a novel or even more fundamentally the language that the author is writing in. By harnessing and directing these constraints we can use them to experiment with our creativity. By posing a problem for us to solve, constraints can help us to access our imagination in new and interesting ways, ultimately, they can help us move past that paralysis that we sometimes encounter when presented with a blank page.
Perec and Oulippeans were masters of writing under constraint, and there's no problem if you want to start out with a constraint that's less tricky. But it's worth bearing in mind that increasing the difficulty of the constraint will often force us to find increasingly creative solutions. Consequently, if we allow ourselves to be guided by the constraint, we often produce writing that we wouldn't have been able to write without the constraint in place.
Writing Exercise – The ‘Beautiful In-Law’
The ‘beautiful in-law’ is a piece of writing or short story or a poem that only uses the letters in a particular name.
Note: It's best to start with something small rather than a whole novel - this is about generating ideas as much as generating finished work.
The key is finding a name that works and allows you some flexibility. For example, using my name JACK MCGOWAN:
I'd only have these vowels - A O
I’d have the consonants - JCKMGWN
This could prove quite tricky!
For your Exercise:
- The name you choose could be the name of the person that the short story or poem is about (or addressed to) but it doesn’t have to be – In the past, writers would sometimes gift a 'beautiful in-law' poem or short story to someone which uses their name as a constraint.
- You can try breaking your own name down (like I did) and if you think it might prove challenging, remember that you can use the letters as many times as you want to.
- You can find creative ways to avoid using a certain letter, such as punctuation to avoid the ‘o’ in cannot (the abbreviation can't)
- The name doesn't have to relate to the content of the writing if you don't want it to.
Here are some examples of the ‘beautiful in-law’ using the names of Marvel Avengers. The poems aren't really about the characters in question, it's just a chance to experiment with the constraint and see what it can produce.
Aim a camera at ripe America:
I ain’t met a cat a rat can’t crime.
I time a trip, tap in time, I maintain
I ain’t a part- I’m a mime.
The Incredible Hulk
Little red bull, thin under the belt
Hidden their ink in the bible.
Dried-in relic, tried the nice drink,
blinked the dirt, bled the Nile
Kick back kid: old, bald, a billow
A black cowl, odd wick, all claw
wood-clad, a willow.
If you try this exercise, be ready for it to end up sounding like nonsense and that's OK. Even if the whole thing doesn't make much sense or doesn't make a very good poem/short story there may be one or two lines or images that you think are actually pretty good. You would never have otherwise imagined or written down these lines if it wasn't for the constraint!
When studying Creative Writing at the University of Worcester we'll find that often the writing process is just as important as the end result and these kinds of generative exercises might give you the inspirational idea or the great first line for a new piece of writing that works and that you're happy with.
This is the third part in our Creative Writing Exercises blog series to help you improve your writing and to act as inspiration. Want to try the previous exercise? Learn how to use 'Ekphrasis' as a technique to navigate writer's block.
Our Creative Writing BA (Hons) course offers chances to explore these ideas and many more in greater depth under the guidance of published authors.
All views expressed in this blog are the Academic’s own and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of the University of Worcester or any of its partners.