The Writhing Society
Founded and led by Wendy Walker and Tom La Farge, THE WRITHING SOCIETY meets weekly to practice and discuss the techniques of constrained writing. We practice the methods invented or codified by the French group Oulipo (see below) and by other writers, artists, musicians, and mathematicians.
THE WRITHING SOCIETY combines a class with a salon. If you know nothing about writing with constraints, if you do not think of yourself as knowing much about writing, come anyway. No prior knowledge required; everything you need to know will be explained. This is nothing like your ordinary writing workshop. We work in a relaxed, supportive, playful atmosphere, and we welcome new members. There is no particular sequence to the procedures we experiment with, and our members will attend one week and not the next, as other commitments dictate.
THE WRITHING SOCIETY meets at Proteus Gowanus on most Wednesdays, 7:00 – 8:30 pm. Cost per session, $5; no other fees. We serve free wine for $2 a glass, and there are usually snacks.
What are constraints? Constraints are rules, specific and arbitrary, that drive you to say what you hadn’t expected to say in ways you never would have chosen to say it. Constrained writing always involves a collaboration of languages: yours and someone else’s. It allows you to take directions from something outside yourself. In a world where forms of expression thought to be “free” in fact come ready-made from the discourses of powerful groups, composing with constraints becomes a disciplined practice for escape, from these or from oneself, and a source of fresh ideas.
About Oulipo: Sooner or later most people in the arts hear about the French group Oulipo, (OUvroir de LIttérature POtentielle = workshop for potential literature) founded in 1960 by a mathematical writer, Raymond Queneau, and a literary mathematician, François Le Lionnais. Its members first constrained their writing with mathematical algorithms. They produced Boolean poems and Fibonacci sonnets; they drew on the set theory of the math group Bourbaki.
More broadly, Oulipo practices composition with constraints. Its members—Italo Calvino, Georges Perec, Harry Mathews, Marcel Bénabou, and Jacques Roubaud are the best known in the US—have invented hundreds of procedures and has acted as a funnel, drawing together all sorts of constraints, many invented centuries earlier by what Oulipians call “anticipatory plagiary,” and disseminating them. Many other writers and artists – William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Tom Phillips, J. G. Ballard, Bernadette Mayer, Harryette Mullen, Jackson Mac Low, John Cage – have invented constraints of their own.
The Proteus Gowanus Oulipo Bookstore and Library is a resource for anyone interested in constrained writing. We carry Oulipo Compendium, a key reference work, but also a number of texts produced by constrained composition.