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 ReviewElectric LiteratureEpiphanyGhost ProposalLambda LiteraryPrelude, 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.)


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.

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!

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.

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.)

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.

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

Prompts Against Anxiety is sponsored by Milwaukee Public Library, an anchor institution that helps patrons read, learn, and connect—to our resources and our community. Now more than ever, stay connected, stay home, and stay safe. 

More from this series

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Real FoodPrompt #38—Joan Kane

You Don't Need Proust to Smell GoodPrompt #37—Elizabeth Hoover

Find Your Own FormPrompt #36—Sawako Nakayasu


Preparation for the PromptPrompt #32—Lisa Fishman

Collage Your Own Writing PromptPrompt #31—Helen Hofling

Prepared StatementPrompt #30—Mike Hauser

Repeat Repeat WritePrompt #29— Lewis Freedman

Poetic CorrespondencePrompt #28—Eric Baus

EKPHRASIS YOURSELFPrompt #27—Jennifer Nelson

POETRY IS FOR THE PEOPLEPrompt #26—Angela Trudell Vasquez

MAIL ARTPrompt #25—Siwar Masannat

VISUAL POSTCARDSPrompt #24—Portia Cobb

A [LONGER-TERM] DEEP LISTENING PROMPTPrompt #23—Jibade-Khalil Huffman

Humor as Medicine for the SoulPrompt #22—Mauricio Kilwein Guevara

Personification: A Social Justice PromptPrompt #21—Derrick Harriell

Ponge ExercisePrompt #20—Tyrone Williams

Occult DocupoesisPrompt #19—Kimberly Alidio

Junk Drawer SongPrompt #18—Hoa Nguyen

TALK TO THE POETSPrompt #17—Stacy Szymaszek

Make-Do Origin Stories & Concrete FuturesPrompt #16—Ching-In Chen

The Family PhotographPrompt #15—Rosa Alcalá

Note(s) to SelfPrompt #13—Stacy Blint

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

Utopian CompromisePrompt #7—Paul Druecke

A Series of RoomsPrompt #5—Laura Solomon

Two Variations on N+7Prompt #4—Jenny Gropp

T H E A P A R T / TOGETHERPOEMPrompt #3—Margaret Rozga

An Exercise in WindowsPrompt #2—Marla Sanvick

Erasuring AnxietyPrompt #1—Peter Burzynski

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