Collage Your Own Writing Prompt
Prompts Against Anxiety #31 | from Helen Hofling, a Baltimore-based writer, editor, and collage-maker. Her work can be found in Berkeley Poetry Review, the Columbia Review, Electric Literature, Epiphany, Ghost Proposal, Lambda Literary, Prelude, and elsewhere.
Hofling, Indefinite Calyces
Hofling, Indefinite Calyces
(All collages presented here were composed during the pandemic and are next on Hofling's list to use as writing prompts.)
STEP ONE: GATHER MATERIALS
Survey your space for possible collage materials: pieces of paper that you are allowed to cut up. This might include junk mail, magazines, newspapers, catalogues, old postcards, construction paper, card stock, and anything in your paper recycling bin, if you have one of those. I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that you cut up photographs that have sentimental value, or books printed with beautiful full-color illustrations, but reader, I’ve done it.
You will need scissors, a large flat surface for working on, and glue. Any glue stick or school-supply glue should work, though I’d stay away from super glue. My favorite glue says “PH Neutral PVA” on the side, and I got it in the book-binding section of my local art supply store.
It’s nice to collect a variety of sources. You never know what will speak to you once you sit down and begin STEP TWO.
STEP TWO: EXPERIMENT WITH MATERIALS
This step is by far my favorite.
You should start by setting the mood. Put something on that you’d like to listen to. You’ll want the lighting to be bright, but not oppressively so. I’m wary of lighting candles around so many scraps of paper . . . maybe if it’s high up on a mantle, or better yet, a stick of incense burning in a nearby room.
Begin to flip through your materials and look at them side by side. Discover resonances. Eventually you will want to pick several larger pieces of paper, or “backgrounds,” and then cut out many smaller pieces of paper, or “scraps,” to paste on top of the “backgrounds.
This is the best part. Zone out, listen to whatever you are listening to, and play. If you are like me, you are collaging your own writing prompt because the world is very distracting, and you can’t seem to get yourself to sit down, focus, and invent new writing. When you’re collaging, the burdens of focus and invention are lifted, allowing the collagist to tune into a different kind of visual awareness and creativity, one that will later feed the writing process.
The selection process could be motivated by color, shadow, shade, shape, or any of the hilarious visual jokes you find yourself making. Perhaps your scraps are figurative; perhaps they are more abstract. Maybe you develop a taste for torn edges, and you don’t even need the scissors. At this stage anything is possible! You have yet to begin the brutal process of pasting things down, watching the vast horizon of possibility narrow, aghast, even as you are the agent of that narrowing.
Hofling, Night Announcement
I suppose I should note that although my experience is mainly limited to 2D collage, it could be exciting to experiment with the third dimension. Think: Cornell Boxes, shoe-box dioramas, little altars, etc. (The variations are limitless in this exercise, which I hesitate to mention here, as the value in prompts tends to be foremost in the focused constraint they provide.)
Important: Cats LOVE to disrupt collages-in-progress. You may be familiar with their affinity for sprawling their bodies across incomplete jigsaw puzzles, active board games, even keyboards as one is typing out writing prompts, and luxuriating in the disruption they cause. It’s the same thing with collage; if you have cats, WATCH OUT!
STEP THREE: ASSEMBLE COLLAGE
Lay out several of your “backgrounds,” and move the “scraps” around over them.
Decide which “scraps” go on which “backgrounds” and where, by pushing them around until you feel an aesthetic “click.” Don’t second guess yourself or be too precious about it. If you just go for it, you might come out of this exercise with multiple collages. And it’s okay if you don’t like all of them. Remember, your collage materials are by definition “pieces of paper that you are allowed to cut up.”
Glue down the scraps. Start with less glue than you think you’ll need.
STEP FOUR: WAIT
Leave your collage(s) somewhere safe to dry (read: far away from candles and cats).
Return to look at your collage.
Do something else. In the middle of that activity, remember your collage. (Repeat.)
STEP FIVE: WRITE
When you are ready, or at least willing, begin to write. Your collage is the prompt. I’m not going to tell you what to write about, but we’re going to call it a poem. I will suggest two approaches.
1) In the first approach, you sit down to write. Take a look at your collage. Write a line. Then look again, and write some more. Repeat until you have a fair amount of writing. Move the writing around and make changes to it until you feel an aesthetic “click.” Call it a poem.
2) The second approach is to go for a walk. In this approach you just think about the collage and allow words/phrases/sentences/ stanzas to come into your mind, pausing as needed to transcribe these missives into your phone’s notetaking app, or a real notebook, which is probably the more dignified choice, though not the one most often available to me. Walk, think, receive, transcribe, repeat. Then, when you go home, make a new collage using the words from your notes. Call it a poem.
STEP SIX: VARIES
You might decide that your collage and your poem go together very nicely, or you might decide to frame your collage and scrap the poem, or you might decide to keep editing the poem to eventually include in your soon-to-be-award-winning manuscript, or you might decide to start again. This is not an exhaustive list.
Hofling, Lineate Pooling
More from this series
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Write in NaturePrompt #39—Oogie Push
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You Don't Need Proust to Smell GoodPrompt #37—Elizabeth Hoover
Find Your Own FormPrompt #36—Sawako Nakayasu
Tarot Recall: A Visionary Exercise for the PresentPrompt #35—Laurence Ross
Queers in Love at the End of the WorldPrompt #34—CJ Scruton
WORKBOOK FOR CHANGE: TWO PROMPTSPrompt #33—Kate Schapira
Preparation for the PromptPrompt #32—Lisa Fishman
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Prepared StatementPrompt #30—Mike Hauser
Repeat Repeat WritePrompt #29— Lewis Freedman
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EKPHRASIS YOURSELFPrompt #27—Jennifer Nelson
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TALK TO THE POETSPrompt #17—Stacy Szymaszek
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The Family PhotographPrompt #15—Rosa Alcalá
Writing Advice for Your Younger SelfPrompt #14—E.J. Koh
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Embracing ConfusionPrompt #12—Bryon Cherry
Writing/Playing the ArchivePrompt #11—Jay Besemer
CAPTURED & FREEDPrompt #10—Dasha Kelly Hamilton
Poetic Exit StrategiesPrompt #9—Ana Božičević
Proyecto ConbífPrompt #8—Erick "CK" Ledesma
TRILOGYPrompt #6—CA Conrad
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Two Variations on N+7Prompt #4—Jenny Gropp
T H E A P A R T / TOGETHERPOEMPrompt #3—Margaret Rozga
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