Spring Writing Workshop: Collage Makes An Awesome Writing Prompt

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When Barthelme said “collage is… one of the central principles of literature [in this century]”, he was talking about collaging sentences and/or found writing. But I figured, why not make visual collage work for writers?

In this season’s writing workshop, the number one thing my students want is freedom from their demons. They want to steer away from the monsters whispering from the dark, damp corners of the mind telling them they’ll never live up to the craft masters. Or maybe that’s just me sometimes.

So my task was to get their hands moving and their attention on their creativity so they could bump their production.

To get them rolling, I turned to a technique I learned from Elizabeth Merrick when I took her writing workshop back in 2008: COLLAGE. I wanted to find a way to let the potential within them loose, but stay focused so they had a clear writing target when they were done with their visual creations. These students of mine are serious: they want to write books and study craft. So I focused them on a few projects, and you, dear reader, can use these prompts at home all on your own.

First, we took about 20 minutes and created covers for the book projects of our dreams. We free wrote for about five minutes describing the project, then used magazines, markers, paint, string, and whatever else was sitting around the writing studio to create the covers for those projects. Here are a couple, including my own.

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“Lost Summer Wonders.” actually has tape on the back of the words, so the author can change the title as the project grows. I loved this idea. Mine, on the other hand, is ready for print as soon as I finish writing the text. Look for it around 2020.

To dig into the craft I knew my students were hungry for, we went deeper. As we explored building character, I gave them a new collage assignment. Limiting the project to one color which felt best suited to the character in mind, fictional or not, we created portraits with the same tools we used for the book covers. Here are a few of the results.

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We used these portraits to kick off a few writing prompts about the characters in the collages as well as their counterpoints, as articulated by Charles Baxter in Burning Down the House.

In tomorrow’s class, we’ll be workshopping some completed, brand new essays these students have written up in just four classes. I can’t wait to get into the nitty gritty with them.

Join us next time! I’m co-teaching an online writing workshop focused exclusively on craft with Carolyn Silveira in the coming months. Stay tuned!

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