The essential O, by Alice Lyons

The constraint of writing my novel Oona without featuring the letter ‘o’ made me work harder to look beyond obvious ways of expressing things

Imagine you were told you could not use the word room. What would you use instead? Or if somebody said you cannot use book – a language without books? Imagine not being able to utter love, to write the word mother – to go without these essentials of your story? A fool's errand or a bizarre personal challenge, yet it was one I fell into when I wrote my first novel, Oona, which, save the two in the title and a brief, O-saturated episode, does not feature the letter O.

There was no grand plan – the O eschewal evolved from the writing, which is more like stumbling than executing a plan. In fact, I trust stumbling rather than strategy. Just as I prefer people who admit royally screwing up rather than presenting only their shiny surfaces. That’s why Instagram is hell.

I’m a writer and artist because it’s a license to stumble, endlessly. I hit dead-ends frequently, see myself take the stupidest of routes, but eventually I learn, and something new happens. The memorable stuff results from the trying, both at the writing desk and elsewhere. When hiking past a cactus in the American south-west, I gingerly touched one of its spines and yelped when it drew blood. “What did you think would happen? It’s a cactus!” laughed my companion, incredulous. But I had to feel for myself. Creativity gives one license to touch all the prickly pears you want in the spirit of, possibly, making something new.

A few years ago, fortune smiled upon me, and I was given a year to do nothing else but write. For that precious spell, I could hang up the usual juggle of mothering, teaching and arts-related jobs and focus. I was installed in an office at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and told to follow my creative desires, wherever they led.


Timing was perfect

The timing was perfect. Writing ideas had been bubbling up in me but I’d not been able to catch them in the fragments of available time and energy. There were certain taboos in the community of first-generation European immigrants to the US I’d grown up in that I wanted to dig into. Why didn’t anyone speak about the history of the land we lived on? Why was the reality of death denied? With a room of my own and Harvard’s vast array of libraries, talks, screenings and museums laid before me, I dove in.

“Remembrance . . . must . . . assay its spade in ever-new places and in the old ones delve to ever-deeper layers,” so Walter Benjamin says. I started reading the Native American history of the place near New York city where I grew up. It turned out the fellow in the next office was a historian of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people, and she had lots to tell me. I didn’t think too much but just read, dug in archives, wrote.

After a year’s work, I set the writing aside for a month, something I learned from painting: you have to walk away for a few days from an in-progress painting. Let it sit for a bit. Then return. In that first minute of looking, you see it clearly and – maybe– know what your next move is. When I read my writing after a month, it wasn’t right. Yet. It was an “inventory of discoveries”, as Benjamin has it, but hadn’t enough of “the dark joy of the place of finding itself”. So I kept trying things out, which is what drawing teaches us. Just keep rubbing out and looking at the subject, trying another line, another angle until it feels truer.

Took away the Os

I began writing from the point of view of Oona. I’ve always liked the name – the way it sounds and looks on the page. Then I thought: what if I took away the Os, and rendered Oona and the book’s language without something essential? The writing had come to be about loss, dissociation and its silences both inside and outside the main character. What would a lack of O do to the quality of the language?

First I re-wrote what I'd already written using words without O. This was the hardest part. It was if as I was forcing my text through an unhappy re-education camp, and the language bitterly resisted. I felt like a tyrant. I wasn't sure this new tack was going to work. But when I started composing afresh within the no O constraint, things got interesting. The writing process shifted into a very particular frame of mind, Oona Mind. It was like writing in a foreign language.

The first challenge was the preposition hurdle. Prepositions link words together. They signal spatial and temporal positions. To my chagrin, I discovered that prepositions in the English language have a lot of Os, so they were off limits for me.

It seemed like building with Meccano minus the nuts and bolts to secure all the pieces. But as the writing progressed, new thoroughfares opened up where I’d expected impediments. A simple descriptive sentence such as “Sunlight shone through the windows” became “Sunlight blazed in the single-glazing”. The constraint made me work harder to look beyond obvious ways of expressing things. I had to slow down and consider my medium. I had to weigh each word.

Writing with no O started out as a method of subtraction and distillation, but it grew into a form of play. The dictionary was indispensable. Much of my writing time was spent looking up words, their etymologies, and, of course, scanning for O-less synonyms. It brought me back to the days of amazement as I observed my daughter learning language when every word was a kind of revelation. I remember one summer day cycling with her on the back of my bicycle chattering away to herself while I pedalled toward the local farm. At one point she sing-songed, "Li-am in the fil-lum mu-se-um. Mummy, that rhymes!" She was completely tickled with what her tongue had stumbled upon. What a singular state that time of life is, when language is a plaything, a novelty, when it's not yet second nature.

Anti-purist fit

In an anti-purist fit, I wrote one chapter of the book using O. It looks radically different on the page. There’s so much more blank space among the letters and it makes the rest of the book’s text look cluttered and compressed, which felt right as my protagonist is a person imploding in the wake of a heavy loss.

Oona is a lipogram (literally “without a letter” from Ancient Greek), a literary practice that goes back at least to the 6th century BCE Greece when the lyric poet Lasus wrote several poems without the letter sigma, supposedly because he disliked its hissing sound. Today, the most well-known vocalic (leaving out a vowel) lipogram is French author Georges Perec’s La Disparition (A Void in the English translation) written without E. Perec was part of the mid-20th century group of mostly French writers and mathematicians, the Oulipo, who worked with many sorts of writing constraints. I didn’t identify much with the Oulipo as I wrote Oona – like many women I have complicated identifications with artistic and literary movements like these, which are male-dominated and clubby. What resonates more in Perec, whose parents perished in the second World War, is his use of the lipogram for writing about grave loss.

Much more on my mind was Riddley Walker by the American-born Londoner Russell Hoban, which I read when I was 20. That book must have lodged somewhere deep inside me, I think of it so often. Hoban performs an amazing feat, creating an entirely new language for his story about Riddley, an “emerging writer” in Kent following a nuclear apocalypse.

Part rural Kentish talk, part American hokum, part childish wordplay, the language of Riddley Walker is itself a miraculous invention and a dazzling metaphor for survival and imagination. If the entire world were pruned back hard, Hoban wonders, what would regenerate? Unsurprisingly, the craven grasping for political power and a drive for technologies that will blow us all to smithereens spring back like primroses in February. But so too does our desire for art and sense-making, embodied in the aptly named figure of Riddley, a bewildered young writer searching for meaning in a desolate landscape and a stone age culture brought on by the explosion of the “1 Big 1”. As Riddley puts it, he’s “thinking on what the idear of us myt be. Thinking on that thing whats in us lorn and loan and oansome.”

I began to dread coming to the end of writing Oona. How could I ever enjoy writing again without such a constraint? The freedom to use all the letters was frightening. But as you might imagine, it’s not so bad, just different.

In the end, I found the words hardest to replace were room, book, love and mother. Seems just about right, don't you think?