Constraints Breed Creativity: OuLiPo

Many people understand creativity as spontaneity or even magic—it isn’t. Creativity appears to be this mysterious air that floats about unnoticed until someone points it out. People seem to believe that creativity transcends the borders of convention and is a solution that can only be reached through ultimate creative freedom.

On the other hand, most people view constraints as limitations. In fact, most people see creativity (spontaneity) and constraints (control) as polar opposites, but I’d argue that the two can be one in the same. Constraints breed creativity, they’re a catalyst for the merging of deliberate and unconscious spontaneity.

OuLiPo, the abbreviation of Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; roughly translated to “workshop of potential literature,” is an unsuspecting group of experimental French writers and mathematicians. In 1960, this unusual literary group was founded by  Raymond Queneau (pictured above) and François Le Lionnais with the intentions of “seeking new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.”1 OuLiPo represents a raw and intentional embrace of constraints to breed creativity.


I first discovered the group whilst reading Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life, in which Oulipian, Georges Perec is continually quoted and praised for his peculiar interest and questioning of the mundane and ordinary. Perec’s questioning of the everyday seemingly results in (or at least suggests) breaking everything down in a constructivist way, into materials and spatial presence. Through Perec’s work, it appears as though this methodology was applied to language to the extent in which “literature is neither expression nor ideology but a construction of words.”2

I found myself drawn in and fascinated by the work of Perec and the rest of OuLiPo when I first heard of Perec’s La Disparition (A Void), a three hundred page novel that doesn’t use a single word that contains the letter “e.”

Georges Perec - La Disparition (A Void)

This constraint of omitting a particular letter, also known as a lipogram, may at first seem absurd or unbelievable, but is actually quite brilliant. By strictly limiting yourself to words without a common letter such as E compared to uncommon letters such as Q, X, or Z, you’re forced to avoid some of the most common words.

Most people wouldn’t even consider giving this a shot because at first glance it seems impossible or silly, but by embracing such a deliberate constraint you’re inherently placing yourself in uncharted territories—forcing yourself to be more creative.

Georges Perec - Le Grand Palindrom

Let’s consider the text above, even if you can’t read it because it’s written in French or because it’s a dense blur of pixels. Regardless, what’s pictured above is a 1200+ word paragraph and without further investigation is nothing more than just that. It’s much more than just a paragraph though, it’s Perec’s Le Grand Palindrome.

A common example of a palindrome is the word “racecar,” which spelt backwards is still “racecar.” Another example is, “Was it a car or a cat I saw?” Perec’s Le Grand Palindrome is arguably one of the most remarkable palindromes due to its length and the fact that it was written in 1969, far before the convenient aid of computers. Since then, other impressive palindromes have been created such as 2002: a Palindrome Story, which stretches to 2002 words.

Aside from solely Georges Perec’s work, most of OuLiPo’s explorations make use of constraints in such a way to further breed creative output. The group sought to demystify the art of literature, and by bringing together the brilliant minds of writers and mathematicians they were able produce frameworks/formulas that, if used in a playful fashion, could yield endless outcomes.3

Raymond Queneau - Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes

Photo: Carlos Azevedo

Above is a photo of, one of the OuLiPo founders, Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, translated to A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The book is exactly that, 100,000,000,000,000 sonnets. Queneau wrote 10 different sonnets that feature the same rhyme scheme and rhyme sounds so that any line can be pair with any other remaining lines from the other 9 sonnets. “It would take some 200,000,000 years to read them all, even reading twenty-four hours a day.”4

“OuLiPo . . . pushes a structuralist conception of language to a level of mathematical precision; technique becomes technical when language itself becomes a field of investigation, a complex system made up of a finite number of components. The informing idea behind this work is that constraints engender creativity: textual constraints challenge and thereby free the imagination of the writer, and force a linguistic system and/or literary genre out of its habitual mode of functioning.”5

For the past week, I’ve been diving into research around this group because I’ve found their extended use of constraints through formulas all so fascinating. I’ve always agreed with the notion that constraints breed creativity, and OuLiPo seems to epitomize that both in theory and in practice. You’re most inventive when you’re back is against the wall, or as John Lehrer states, “We break out of the box by stepping into shackles.”6

1 OuLiPo, on Wikipedia
2 OuLiPo, Architecture, and the Practice of Creative Constraint by A. Gray Read
3 A Brief Guide to OULIPO
4 Hundred Thousand Billion Poems
5 The OuLiPo (Definition)
6 Need To Create? Get A Constraint! by John Lehrer