When I came to Rachel’s literary collage workshop at the 2017 David R. Collins conference, I hadn’t written literary collage since graduate school, but I had a story circling in my head that wanted to be told. It was the story of how I met my husband, but I wanted to tell it slant, non-narratively, with gaps and leaps that mimic the ways we shape our stories in the telling.
When Rachel gave us a series of prompts to write our own collage, with the first line to use language as abstract (or pompous) as possible, I had my way in: ambitious, silly, and big, getting at the way that our One True Love feels stellar, feels galactic, feels like a universal experience tailored just for us. Everything I wanted to say just fell onto the page, but Rachel’s prompts also made me reach for the metaphors that I’d been missing, and where the essay ended was a complete surprise to me, but it also felt right. I shared the essay with two of my writing groups, and they liked the result, but loved the idea. In consequence I offered to conduct a workshop on the literary collage at my local library, and I plan to steal Rachel’s approach and several of her prompts to inspire attendees to write a collage of their own. I’d forgotten the exuberance and the risk that collage allows you, and how wonderful it feels to pull old narratives apart, hold them up next to something else unfamiliar, and see what fills up that imaginative space.
The good folks over at Pleiades have forty-one fantastic revision prompts to kick-start your fall writing. We’re listing a few of our favorites below. Check out the entire list over at their website.
Make a list of all the decisions your protagonist makes, every single one. Now change the order of the decisions your protagonist makes so that they follow a causal change. Rearrange your story to reflect this new list of decisions. Cut at least one decision and, if this applies, the corresponding scene. Now restructure the story again. Many stories are not ultimately in complete chronological order. The *plot* should still be the same causal chain, but the story might utilize flashbacks, memories, flash forwards, imagined scenes, etc.
Identify the “symbolic action” in each scene–what does the protagonist do that represents her/his change from where/who s/he was at the beginning of the scene (even if this change is slight), and which changes the situation (even if this change is slight). Add symbolic action where you are missing it. Try to get the most significant symbolic action for your protagonist close to the end of the scene.
Write past your ending. Write one or two or more scenes after the end of your story. Even if these scenes don’t make it into the final version, they will help inform the final version. What happens after the end of your story? And don’t stop there: now write about what the consequences are of what happens after the end of your story.
Restructure your story so that it starts at the most recent event and moves backward in time. Think about the causation here. Also think about the character’s possible paths and how those paths narrow by the choices they make.
I met this sweet exercise in a summer workshop Rachel Yoder taught at the Midwest Writing Center. It reminded me of an exercise I did in my MFA program, using Milan Kundera’s structure from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I appreciated the freedom of leaping from one topic to the next, of not having to worry about how it all tied together or made sense. These leaps in logic opened up new possibilities that my orderly mind would never make.
Although it wasn’t timed, I felt the pressure of hitting all the prompts in the time we were given in the workshop, so I couldn’t dwell or think too much—I just had to move. As a result, the first draft felt like a thrilling trail run: first I was in the forest, then I was on a ledge overlooking Lake Superior, then I was on a rocky climb, and each part was unique to itself, yet all part of the same trail. I gained momentum as I began to see how each piece was connected on a visceral level, sprinting with glee. Continue reading
This summer, while preparing to teach a class on the collage essay at the Collins’ Writers Conference in Davenport, I emailed author and teacher Amy Butcher to see if she had any great exercises she enjoyed when teaching about fragmentation, association, and imagination. If you know Amy, you know that of course she did, and what she sent was this amazing little exercise which she had adapted from poet Jim Simmerman’s “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” exercise, which first appeared in The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach (HarperCollins, 1992). Continue reading
I’ve never been much of a girly girl. I rarely wear makeup or get my nails done. Most days I forget to brush my hair. Waxing any body part seems like a torture designed for others braver than I am.
Even so, I appreciate girly things, like clothes. I love clothes. When I was a young, single entertainment lawyer, I didn’t spend money on expensive vacations or cars. I spent it on clothes, and shoes. God, the shoes. Back then, I used to budget for the Barney’s Warehouse Sale, held for a week in an airport hangar. Everyone in the entertainment industry–lawyers like me, agents, development execs, assistants, production people–lined up to flip through racks of designer suits, tuxedos, evening dresses, coats and purses and jewelry and belts. I once found an Isaac Mizrahi evening gown marked down from $3,000 to $300. It was backless, sleeveless, classic. That same shopping trip, I also bought deliciously sensible Oxford shoes and a raw silk chocolate-brown Calvin Klein pants suit. The suit was boxy and mannish and gorgeous. I loved it even more than the dress. I wore it more. It made me rejoice in the more “masculine” side of myself that felt comfortable showing up to weekend brunches scrub-faced and wearing clogs with ripped jeans. The side that loved to sweat, that would weight train for two hours at dawn and take a spinning class at noon. Continue reading
A student of mine had taken a class from Kate Braverman who, according to her recollection and my flawed memory, brought in a bouquet of autumn leaves, handed them out to students, and had them write about what the color evoked. Continue reading
In the Misconceived History story in “A Public Denial” by Allan Gurganus (published in the anthology Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories) the narrator attempts to restore his deceased grandfather’s dignity by challenging rumors that his grandfather’s death was the result of his own foolhardiness.
The story opens with this line:
Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, my grandfather did not die driving a Toyota across his pond.
The story resembles a persuasive essay; the narrator uses transition words such as “despite,” “while,” “admittedly,” and “evidently” to compose his argument. What I love about the story is how Gurganus uses no emotion to tell it, just the facts, yet it still carries an emotional impact. For a story that spans only two pages, I find this remarkable. Continue reading
Psychological tests are very weird and typically rely on verbal interpretation, two attributes that comprise a good writing exercise.
Rarely do products of writing exercises become anything substantial. Perhaps a line, an idea that can be expanded, but on the whole they are what they are: exercises. Practice. Necessary when you’re not performing, creating, inspiring yourself. At their best, these psychological tests as writing exercises get your brain going crazy, which allows you to do something new, which is what you want, isn’t it? Continue reading
Kyle Minor has the writing prompt to end all writing prompts over at HTMLGiant, a list of criteria and questions called The Story Generatorwhich is activated with the roll of some dice.
This is a fantastic thing that I’m stealing and using in my classes and maybe even for myself for that thing called “fun with writing.” It would even be fun to have students make their own story generators, changing some of the parameters themselves.
One technique I’ve found useful in revising is coming up with one word that my story is about in an effort to find a center. For instance, say I finally realize that the story I’ve been trying to wrangle for months is about “hope.” Great. Then I ask myself, Does the main character lose hope or gain hope? (Normally, they will abandon all hope in my stories.) Then, I have some sort of idea that the story begins with a scene that demonstrates hope, then contains more scenes with emblems or messages of “anti-hope,” and finally ends with a loss of hope. Thinking in really simple terms like this helps me see where I’m going more clearly. “How does this scene communicate ‘anti-hope’?” I can ask myself. “Is the half-eaten donut an emblem of anti-hope?” You get the idea. Continue reading