Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Key West Collage Exercise--Nonlinear Book Structuring Fun

Island life is great. I'm at the Coffee Plantation in Key West, Florida, relaxing in 80-degree island breezes, enjoying a day off after my three-day workshop at The Studios at Key West. Our workshop group was wonderful--energetic, intelligent, insightful about their very varied book projects. We had writers of all skill levels, professional to beginner, and a variety of books--novels, memoirs, art books, how-to books, and true crime.

Our writing exercises and discussion revolved around book structuring, trying to figure out the outer and inner stories, and surviving through the long committment of bringing a book into the world.

After we covered the basics of book-structuring, I asked them to try a pair of activities to engage both the right and left creative brain: toggle between creating a book storyboard and creating a book collage.

They dove in. Many began with the collage, a relaxing and free-form, right-brain activity. Some went for the more linear storyboard first. After an hour, we all switched to the other task.

I loved walking around the beautiful studio space, visiting the writers as they worked at their tables. By Saturday afternoon, storyboards were forming but the collages were really coming together. Each was as colorful and unique as its creator. I'd cut out hundreds of magazine photos before the workshop, spread them on a large counter, and encouraged the writers to browse the images, letting their intution guide them. I was watching to see how they arranged their images on the large posterboards--what order they would choose.

Before we ended the session that afternoon, we studied the group's collages. I taught them the squint test: hold the collage away from you, squint, see if any images create obvious pathways. Having taught this exercise for years in workshops, I knew that often a clear path emerges on a very randomly created collage. Pathways can start at the bottom right or left, lead to the opposite corner. Sometimes the path is circular. Often there's a strong angle or series of connecting colors. Sheila Asato (http://www.monkeybridgearts.com/) told me how she uses collage pathways for dreamwork. The collage often reveals good information about the unconscious part of our art. And when quizzed by the workshop group, many writers agreed that the pathways made sense. The beginning and ending images indeed reflected a beginning and ending moment of their books.

Do you know how to make a collage? This week's exercise is to try one. Collages are powerful tools to get at clues about where your book should start and end. Even if you know this "secret" about how your right-brain creates pathways in this exercise, play with a collage for your book-in-progress or your writing in general.

You'll need a posterboard, a few magazines, scissors, and a glue stick. Spend 30 minutes leafing through the magazines, cutting out any photos that grab you. Don't analyze why--no need. Just collect. Then spread them out and begin pasting on your posterboard. This takes 30-45 minutes, usually.

Let yourself be nonlinear. Swim like the island sea turtles through clear blue-green water and let random images approach you, like the bright yellow fish in the photo above. Let your intuition create the collage.
When your collage feels complete, take a break. Then come back to it, try the squint test, and see if you notice any pathways. What do the images at the start and end tell you about your book's opening, your book's conclusion?