Thursday, October 23, 2008

Work in Progress: Collage, II

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.
~~Albert Einstein

Last week I conducted a workshop at the Writer’s Center based on the principles of word collage. I was a bit apprehensive—it’s an experimental approach to writing; very open and loose; trying to remove barriers between right and wrong, good and bad; and so I think the process requires a certain open-mindedness and trust to have a successful experience. Because I’ve used these collage techniques before, I know that my faith will be rewarded in a surprising, interesting way. But here were 15 strangers who might not have the same faith. What if they’re not interested in writing about candy corn (our first assignment)?

But they were.

I’ve written about the class before right here, including a step-by-step description of how we proceed, so I won’t go into that again. But it’s worth reminding myself that what I enjoy about this class is the reminder that the path to creativity is not always (ever?) smooth and straight. There are times for tight control (revision) and times to let go, as nerve-wracking as that may be. (One of my challenges as I work with the class is to remember that I’m in charge, and not to let myself get carried away if part of the exercise is working especially well for me…or if I strike a deep memory that makes me want to cry!)
It’s hard to trust that this meandering path will arrive somewhere—but it will. It may not be the destination you expected—or wanted—or even recognize as a destination, but it will be somewhere you could not have reached by any other way. And it will be meaningful in some way. I often forget that this wandering is a crucial part of the process: I get too caught up in thinking that sitting at the computer is the best or only way to get work done.

By the end of our evening, people had come up with amazing insights, complicated observations, challenging memories, and lots and lots of beautiful words. I love the end of the class, when everyone compiles their hodge-podge, mass of writing into a magical, deeply personal collage that has the impact and power of the most evocative piece of abstract art. It’s a remarkable feeling to hear such personal writing without knowing exactly what it may mean…I imagine it’s like Hemingway’s iceberg principle, that only one-tenth is visible, with nine-tenths lurking underneath…packing enough power to sink the Titanic.

Glen Finland*, one of the participants, was kind enough to share her lovely piece, and I think that by reading it, you’ll have a better sense of what can be accomplished in this process:

The Secret Life of D.R.

Behind his thick glasses, D.R. was the kind of slow reader who searched for meaning in the silence between words. The measured progress of non-events in his life had turned him into a frustrated and gloomy man who took the time to whiten his teeth, but couldn’t slow the forward march of his own baldness.

Yet here in the darkness of his basement, with the movie projector ticking audibly beside his right ear, he had discovered a way to come alive. Veiled in the blue light that accented the puffiness of his eyes, D.R. sat mesmerized by the old black and white movies that played out the life he was meant to have. Mouthing every line before Cagney or Borgnine could spit them out, D.R. was no longer the forgotten little mouse whose son had taken to calling him by his first name. Here he was the tough guy who ordered goombahs around and said things like, “Listen, Wise Guy” and “Beat it, Sister.”

That was until… she showed up again. The dame, the sweater girl on the drugstore stool, twirling her way back into his head.


And here is my own piece:

Whatever There Was

We weren’t the type of kids who lost mittens—in fact, we didn’t lose much of anything. Once we had something, we held onto it.

The loaf of bread wrapped in paper wrapped in Saran wrap placed in a plastic bread bag.

I bet she never even ate peanut butter.

What else am I trying to fill that won’t be filled?

That snow fort was so perfect.


I hope to offer this class again at some point in the future. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

*About: Glen Finland writes fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of a novel, The Sweetgrass Code, and a collection of short stories, The Inside of An Egg. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, American Magazine, Revolution, A Cup of Comfort, and the East Coast Women’s Anthology. She is the recipient of the Southeastern Writers Association Best Fiction award and the Leroy Spruill Fiction award. She is listed as a Noted Writer from the 2005 and 2006 Boston Fiction Festivals. Glen teaches college writing at American University in Washington, DC, and has been a Fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Casa Libre en la Solana in Arizona


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