MadInkBeard is a blog dedicated to the idea of formal constraints in writing; as the About page says:

I’ve been interested in the (mostly French) group called the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle) ever since I discovered the writings of Italo Calvino and (thanks to him) Raymond Queneau (both being members, the latter one of the founding-presidents). To put it as succinctly as possible the idea of the group is to create new forms of literature for the possible use of other writers. It’s not about creating new literature qua literature, but about creating forms for new literature. Now using the words “form” is pretty damn open, and that is something that I need to work on thinking through. Basically, the Oulipian concept involves “formal constraint”, voluntarily chosen constraints on the process of writing (such as writing a novel without the letter ‘e’ (Perec’s La disparition a.k.a. A Void) or writing a book whose structure is based on the drawing of a sequence of tarot cards (Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destiny (sorry, the Italian escapes me)), in many cases this involves starting with a base text that is then transformed through constraints.

I have created this blog to discuss the idea of formal constraints (mostly in writing, but also in other media) as well as offer explanations and examples of various constraints. My hope is that this will help proselytize a bit for the idea of writing under constraint and also offer some practical places to start.

Long-time readers will know that I am a fan of Oulipo and will remember my exuberant praise of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, an enthusiasm shared by the Beard, so I’m pleased to discover his blog.


  1. Thanks for the mention!

  2. I didn’t know she is missing. Damn.

  3. She’s unmissing again:

    NEW YORK (Reuters) – Helen DeWitt, author of the acclaimed novel “The Last Samurai,” was found in good condition by Niagara Falls, New York, police after being reported missing earlier on Wednesday by New York City’s police department.

    (This was much harder to find than reports of her being missing. Spread words, persons!)

  4. Seems odd to go looking for new arbitrary constraints when we’ve got meter and rhyme to play with. Did I miss something?

  5. That’s like saying it’s odd to go looking for new kinds of food when we’ve got meat and potatoes. Not everyone is inspired by the same constraints.
    And yes, I should have mentioned the lady had turned up, none the worse for wear (but possibly somewhat embarrassed).

  6. Meter and rhyme aren’t ideally suited for prose either.
    Half the fun is coming up with some new constraint, or finding a new way to apply an old one.

  7. Oh, I’ve no objection to it. I just think that invented difficulties tend to be less interesting than found ones. And I, for one, don’t have any trouble finding constraints to work against!

  8. I am having difficulty finding an audience for my work, but I still maintain that “not being very good at writing” is a valid and intriguing formal constraint. (Why won’t the Oulipians return my calls?)

  9. ben wolfson says

    Didn’t Philip K. Dick use the I Ching to determine the action of The Man in the High Castle?

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