“35 Variations” | Bending Genres Issue 17 | 6 October 2020

Many thanks to Bending Genres EIC Robert Vaughan and CNF editor Corey Holzman for accepting this Oulipo- and Bowie-based list, “35 Variations.”

The challenge of the 35 Variations exercise was first invented by the Oulipo group and perfected by Georges Perec and Harry Mathews. I love playing with words and language. It’s hard to beat Oulipo (and the surrealists who preceded them) for inventiveness.

I have a completed variation on a quote from King Claudius in Hamlet which I had been fiddling with for a while, but then my writing group went to Bowie for inspiration, and this clicked. I remembered my obsession years ago with his soundtrack to a film, Christiane F. Bowie is one of the protagonist’s many obsessions in the movie, and even appears in concert. “Heroes/Helden” is also the only song, I remember reading, Bowie recorded in German.

In my variations, I use a song refrain and put the exploratory screws to it. The variations include curtailing, using only the vowels, using only the consonants, negations, changing meter and point-of-view, and to avoid quoting the lyric directly I went ahead and swapped out one variation and replaced it with an ideograph. I love that the ideograph for the word heroes looks like a caped figure, flying!

I like this form, because anyone who reads it, as I did with Perec’s and Mathews’s variations, finds themselves trying to decode what game is afoot in each. These take a lot of time to write, because you have to kind of hold an idea in your mind, and come up with a variation that somehow still connects to the source text.

I love it.

If you like word games, I can’t recommend to you enough The Penguin Book of Oulipo, edited by Philip Terry.

I also can’t recommend enough that you explore the Bending Genres site. They have a writing community, offering weekend and week-long online classes, and sponsor writing retreats as well as publish a wonderful online journal. I am so happy to have been published with them. The last publication I had with them was a 300-word book review of Lee Krecklow’s novel. <3