Strangely Like Oulipo

So, I’m taking a break from a paper that’s almost done. Something distressing happened the other day, and while it’s sort of looking resolved, I’m still having trouble focusing. It’s interesting, though: I’m sort of performing a narrative analysis of a couple of independent creative projects that my students did in some classes I taught back in 2008-2009. The narratives of their creative works can be read not just as a generalized social critique of TEFL and its impact on Korean society, but also as an encoded, implcit critique of particular gaps in mainstream classroom TEFL practice, as well as of the particular kind of model of TEFL learners’ experience of language performance that seems implicit in such practice. And, very neatly, the narratives seem to suggest that creative projects like those I’m reading also performatively outline solutions for those very problems.

I am not doing anything remotely like oulipo in that paper, though one might (understandably) accuse me of playing literary-criticism games with my students’ assignments and “reading too much into it.” I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t ridicule the challenge.

But not like oulipo. I haven’t ever been too crazy about that approach to writing — it might work for some people — even friends of mine — but not for me. I did read a novel once, called Childhood, I think, yes, that’s it, Childhood by Canadian author André Alexis, who claimed in an author lecture that he’d used all kinds of little oulipo tricks throughout the text, such as using the final words of each line of some sonnet by Shakespeare as the final words to his fourteen chapters. He said he’d done it to keep the writing process interesting, which someone in one of my Creative Writing classes suggested later perhaps was a bad sign in terms of subject matter. (If you’re bored writing it, won’t we be bored reading it?) This may be fair, or may not. But at least in his book, the oulipo stuff wasn’t too apparent, nor was it distracting. Christian Bök’s poetry, I have no time for. (I can see why some people might like it, but I was a bit put out when a friend suggested I, all experimental and so on as I apparently am, might enjoy it. I was like, THAT?) Nor am I particularly interested in reading — or writing — a short story or novel without even a single instance of some randomly chosen vowel in it.

(The only oulipo-like tricklet I’ve found interesting so far — though I had to abandon the form to eventually make my attempted story work — was Bruce Holland Rogers’ Symmetrina form, though I may try a prose sestina (see here)  sometime, as I’m interested in how repetition works.)

No, the thing that’s strangely like oulipo, I’m taking a break tonight, and have been working on a story. A rewrite of a story that was sent back to me ages ago, because the pacing was just off in the editor’s opinion. When I get that kind of feedback from an editor I respect, I set the story aside and read it later on. Rereading it today, I decided that, yes, the pacing was too slow. So to challenge myself, I decided to take this very slow, meditative story about evolution, memory, and the notion of the extended phenotype might all combine to look like in a virtual world populated by uploaded human minds — by minds of people who were once embodied and walking around city streets, working jobs, struggling through relationships, failing to achieve their dreams, and staying alive.

But I decided to make it faster-paced, to make it clattery and fold some of the stuff into the narrative. As little lecture as possible. Fewer flashbacks, and more implication. And as I began to work, I grabbed a tune on Youtube which had reminded me of the mood I wanted to set at the beginning, so I could shatter it.

Yup, that’s the song. And the title ended up folded into the story. So do bits of other songs by the Smiths. Which makes this strangely like oulipo, as I’m now finding some enjoyment in weaving in other references to music from the time, and with which I (admittedly, loosely) associate the Smiths.

Almost 1500 words today. Not bad for a little creative break. Two more like that and I should have the makings of a story. But tomorrow, it’s back to my papers. (Hoping to get the first mostly done, and start in on the one about The Host.)

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