Thursday, March 27, 2008

Work in Progress: Collage

I wanted to write just a bit about the collage class I conducted a couple weeks ago at the Writers at the Beach conference in Rehoboth, Delaware. I was intrigued with the idea of collage—melding together disparate elements to create a whole—but unsure as to what the outcome might be.

Here’s the process I used for the class:

The class—and I—started out by writing about foil-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs that I passed out: first, we wrote lists of descriptive phrases. We shared some of those out loud. Then we came up with various associations, also written in a list format, again sharing our favorite selections. (The reading out loud of various associations and lines created its own type of aural collage; it was amazing how people’s minds moved so differently along the same opening parameters of “foil-wrapped chocolate Easter egg.”) Then we took our most intriguing association, and wrote sentences about that, each sentence on a separate line—again, trying to continue with the sense of a list format. I think things were most successful when one viewed the sentences not necessarily as a continuation of the previous sentence but as a response, whether oppositional or complementary or adding additional information. Again, we read out loud.

We continued in this vein with two other structured responses, involving people we knew well and objects from home, and some random, evocative words that I provided. In the end, we had each produced about 15 or so sheets of paper with various lists and sentences (I recommend starting each list on a brand new sheet of paper; copy paper worked well, with no lines and a sense of abundance: we had 500 sheets at our disposal!).

Once we’d accumulated all this raw material, the fun began: we composed a collage of five or so sentences and/or phrases, organized with an eye to pattern, silence, and, again, response. We tried to do a minimal amount of editing on the sentences we had come up with. Of course, the main thing in working with this type of exercise is to feel relaxed and to go with your instincts, not forcing your collage into something, but letting it arise organically (well…as much as possible in the fifteen minutes we had allotted; I do think an interesting experiment would be to see what might be different—or not—if you were to create the collage the next day, approaching the material from a more distant vantage point.).

We read our collages out loud, and honestly, it made my spine tingle to see what people had come up with. There were themes that people had found through all three parts of the exercise, even though the topics were quite different. One woman reported that she had remembered things she hadn’t known she remembered about her grandmother. A man read a collage that was about grief and loss that almost made us cry. Everyone’s work felt like a magical, secret scrapbook of something intimate.

I was happy that I had actively participated instead of merely facilitating as I typically do during a writing exercise class. And though it’s easier to have the combined elements of surprise and structure as offered by someone else (after all, I knew we’d be writing about chocolate eggs in advance, and they didn’t), I still think this exercise could be done at home, alone. And people who may not think of themselves as natural writers* could benefit as well—this is a non-threatening approach to composition.

I suggest writing up a list of evocative words and writing one each on an index card (oh, again and again, the beauty of index cards!). When you sit down to try to compose a collage, select one card at random—start with a descriptive list, the list of associations, and finally, the sentences. Then try 2-3 more words, and then develop your collage. We took about 2 hours or so total, but we also spent some of that time reading out loud.

I found the exercise freed my mind and yet also pushed me into seeing new connections, both in my life and in the written word. Because the process was so different than the way I approach a story (“what happens next?”), I think I relearned that there is equal power in associations and in the silences between linked sentences. I can imagine approaching a troublesome scene differently after going through this exercise…in fact, it might be interesting to try this collage technique with a fictional character in mind (we were working from our own lives and experiences). I’m sure I haven’t quite figured out everything that I learned, just that this class was unexpectedly transformative for me. And that, more than anything, is what I enjoy about teaching: the countless times when I get as much from the experience as the class does.

*Note: Special thanks to husband Steve, the guinea pig as I tried out the chocolate Easter egg portion of the exercise at home…it’s nice to be able to bribe someone with a few pieces of candy! And he wrote up with some great stuff, too.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.