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The inspiration machine, or how writers break the block

By Dr Anna Kemp, children's author and senior lecturer in French Literature, Queen Mary University of London.

Where does inspiration come from? Is it only for the 'geniuses' amongst us, or could anyone conjure it up with a few clever tricks? Anna Kemp tells us about her upcoming creative writing workshop for the Being Human festival 'The inspiration machine', which will explore how writers use creative constraints to break the block.

Our culture loves a genius: the young poet who need only roam through the mountains, wind in hair, for inspiration to strike. From the Romantics, to the Surrealists, to Hollywood biopics, the genius is born, not made, and is subject to mysterious forces beyond their control. In short, you either have it, or you don't. And if you don't, then best not give up the day job. It's enough to make most aspiring writers throw down their biros in despair. However, the history of literature also challenges the myth of the creative genius. My research focuses on the work of zany French experimental writing collective the Ouvroir de Litt√©rature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature) - or Oulipo, for short. Oulipians see writing not as a gift so much as a craft and, like any other craft, it may be learned, honed and shared. In particular, the Oulipo is famous for inventing severe writing rules and constraints, such as Georges Perec's notorious novel A void, which was composed entirely without the use of the letter E!

But how can the imagination be freed by the imposition of such strict rules? Put it this way: if I told you to write a story about anything at all, you'd probably feel quite stuck. However, if I said that the story must include a goldfish, a gun and the Queen of England then, odds are, ideas would start to sprout. Or what if I told you to write a poem, only you had to write it on the London tube and produce one line per station stop? As anyone with a looming deadline knows, there is nothing like time-pressure to squeeze those creative juices. This is the creative magic of constraint and, throughout the history of literature, Oulipians and countless other writers have played with rules and regimes to produce the most extraordinary literary works.

Alongside my university research I write children's picture books (Dogs don't do ballet, The worst princess) and young fiction (Fantastic Frankie, The great brain robbery). I will be leading my workshop for the Being Human festival alongside the fabulous children's author Sylvia Bishop (Erica's elephant, The bookshop girl). Neither of us has been bold enough to attempt a novel without the letter E, but like many other children's writers, including Lewis Carroll and Dr Seuss, we use a variety of constraints and games to generate and develop story ideas for children. This playful workshop will introduce you to the story of constrained writing with a particular focus on children's books, and will give you plenty of opportunity to try out some games for yourselves. No genius necessary! This event is part of Queen Mary University of London's Being Human festival 2017 series A sense of belongings and is being run in partnership with the Centre for Childhood Cultures and the V&A Museum of Childhood.