Saturday, November 17, 2012

One in the Other: A Surrealist Game for Writers

One in the Other is a game invented by the Surrealist group in Paris in 1953. The game (called l’un dans l’autre in French) started when the poet and group leader André Breton struck a match and decided to describe it in terms of a lion. He said something like, “I’m a lion with a mane of fire, I’m a lion that lives in a little box with a herd of other lions, etc.” The game evolved from that spark.

Paul Hammond describes the rules of the game in his book Constellations of Miró, Breton:

“The rules of ‘l’un dans l’autre’ are straightforward. Let’s assume there are four players gathered in a room. Player 1 leaves the room and mentally chooses an object (object A). Players 2, 3, and 4 debate amongst themselves and come up with another object (object B). Player 1 reenters and is given the name of object B. Player 1 then has to improvise a description of object A—without naming that object—but solely in terms of object B. The game ends when one of the other players divines what object A is.”

The game is based in part on an idea of the ancient alchemists. According to alchemy, each thing contains the seed of every other thing. Lead can contain gold, to cite the most famous example of alchemy. But this applies to all things—a beach blanket can be seen as a cluster bomb, a cube of cheddar cheese can be thought of as a baseball glove, etc.

How can writers use this game for inspiration? The game can be played by a group, such as a workshop, as a warm-up for a writing session. But an individual writer can also assign himself or herself a game of One in the Other, plucking two contrasting objects out of the subconscious, and then knitting them together through metaphor. The result can sometimes be worth saving or expanding on.

The 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud prophetically titled one of his prose poems, “Alchemy of the Verb.” In that poem, Rimbaud says, “For a long time I’ve bragged of possessing every possible landscape…” In the imagination, all landscapes are ours. With One in the Other, each thing is connected to every other thing.

When the Surrealists played the game, they used the first person to become the object that was also the other object: “I’m an hourglass, a part of which, contained in a larger hourglass, is gradually disengaging itself and cutting all ties. I’m opaque, reddish, and elastic. The red sand I contain is turned upside-down every second. I function for an average of several decades.”

The two objects in the example I just mentioned are a baby being born and an hourglass. I find the game also works if the person who is “it” just says, “I’m thinking of an hourglass…” etc.

Here’s an example of One in the Other that I came up with, choosing the random objects “lips” and “a manhole cover.”

I’m thinking of lips you find in the street
I’m thinking of lips that form a perfect circle
I’m thinking of lips with a name molded into them
I’m thinking of lips poured from molten steel
I’m thinking of lips so heavy it takes a strong person to open them
I’m thinking of lips that reveal a world beneath our world

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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