Mavis's Shoe

Author of two novels and a creative memoir.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Spiral writing

One of the funnest ways to get new ideas going is OuLiPo. I think I've written about OuLiPo here before. It stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle or Workshop of Potential Literature. The main idea is that by restricting how you write, you release more possibilities. It's a hybrid of literature and mathematics, or at least arithmatic. Many OuLiPo exercises are quite simple and therefore very satisfying, for instance 'the snowball'. For more information on OuLiPo techniques follow this link

However my favourite OuLiPo exercise is the 'Spiral', see above, which I believe is based on a theory by mathematician Pierre de Fermat, though I haven't been able to prove that.

Choose six words at random and assign them a number in order of how they were chosen. Then write a story using the six words in the orders indicated in this diagram. The six words are spiralled to produce a new order each time. The next six begins with the last word of the previous six and spiral as indicated. This obviously means every so often one of the words is repeated in close proximity, but also, all the words appear seven times in total, creating a consistency of sound and a tightness of meaning.

This exercise poses a fun challenge and doing one loosens up the muse. The mathematical beauty of arriving back at the correct order is also very pleasing. The real trick is to make the words blend so well the reader doesn't realise what is going on. This isn't always easy and depends on the words which appear and the skill of the writer.

It may be that no great literature is created in this way, but possibilities are definitely opened.

I offer you here a spiral I wrote prior to a recent writing workshop in Timespan Museum and Arts Centre in Helmsdale. For some reason the existence of Paddy McGinty's Goat by Val Doonican came to mind that morning.

See if you can find my six words. They came, at random, from this book: 'Exploring Scotland’s Heritage – The Highlands'.


Our home was more of a fort than a cosy family dwelling. An ex-church built of heavy stone with tiny windows, its pulpit, which sat at one end of the dining room, was its most un-endearing feature. It lectern was McGinty’s favourite spot in the house, McGinty being our goat.

One day, McGinty ran off and after hours of wandering the roads in search of her, we walked home shouting her names:


‘Paddy!’ That was her other name. We made up new names for her too:

‘Slit-eyed bandit!’

‘Daughter of a whore!’


At last, weary and frustrated, we returned to the fort, aka home. The roads seemed to have jumbled themselves up, so it took us a while. How we regretted chasing McGinty from her pulpit and out of the house. How we simultaneously hated and loved each tiny feature on that hairy face. But in particular the feature of her left eye which was damaged and always stared straight ahead.

She knew all our names too, so on the way back home we called those instead of hers because darkness had fallen and we were afraid.

The fort loomed in the gloom. We raced to the pulpit full of hope only to discover beneath it a pile of lettuce leaves, a carrot and two turnips she much have stashed there. How we wept, imagining our neglect and her toiling alone on the roads.

So after a hearty dinner of goat’s cheese dumplings and turnip soup, we donned sheepskin jackets, took torches from the cupboards and set off for the higher roads up the mountain.

We shone our torches in our faces and laughed as each feature swam across the others. We stood on rocks and brayed like McGinty on her pulpit, reciting our names in goat for her understanding. We passed other forts like ours, house after house, light spilling from within onto the roads. No fort was as dismal as ours.

As we grew tired again and the birds fell silent in the trees, I realised the best feature of our home was McGinty herself and the way she knew the names of all the vegetables she wasn’t meant to eat.

‘Don’t eat my broccoli,’ I’d say and she’d go straight out to the garden to eat it, then race back to the pulpit to preach from that same pulpit to this idiot who stood below berating her and demanding she descend. If goats could laugh …

So, as we passed the last house we called her new kinder names.




Then there were no more roads. We sat despondent against a tree and listened to the silence. Then suddenly we saw one eye in the darkness, that one feature I so hated but now loved with abundance, and then another beside it which blinked. She fixed me with these as I yelped for joy, as did we all. She stood motionless and waited for us to come. We fixed the rope around her neck to bring her home to the fort without mishap.

But she would not budge.

‘The fort, my sweet …’ we said, ‘and your pulpit that you love so much. Come home, please, pretty please.’

We cajoled, we argued. But she turned away from us and yanked us behind a rock, a feature we hadn’t seen in the dark.

Six little eyes with tiny slits gazed up at us, three little mouths brayed.

We tucked them under our arms and lead McGinty, lamb-like, back to the house by the twisting winding roads and as we walked we chose names for her three little kids.




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