I recently read a quotation by Janet Finch, who reminds writers, “You’re a writer and you have to invent it from scratch, all by yourself.” In fairness to Finch, she was responding to the overuse of clichés in writing – a worthy pursuit benefiting our students – but setting up writing as something that emerges “from scratch” and clearly in isolation sets students up for a massive case of the hibbie jibbies, where creativity ought to surge out their minds like tokens from a slot machine, unattached and unrelated to anything they’ve read.
To combat the onslaught of clichés in my creative writing classes, I take a different approach, urging students to use the fertile terrain of words, phrases and images they encounter in the things they read. Don’t forget it was literary luminaries T.S. Elliot and Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, respectively, that “[I]mmature poets imitate; mature poets steal” and “[A]ll my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.” By no means was either man advocating plagiarism; instead, they reiterate that creativity might best be seen as the drips below the river of aestheticism already attained by writers and artists before us. I think Jean-Luc Godard says it best: It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.
One of the most vexing problems for a nonfiction (and fiction) writer is how to portray actual (or imagined) people without stereotyping, pigeonholing, or bludgeoning them to death with clichés. There can only be so many individuals with “high cheekbones,” “ruby-red lips,” or “aquiline noses.” Rather, the exercise below is designed to help students characterize in the most effective, artistic, and unexpected way. I call it “refurbishing,” or the process of reworking and reimagining words and phrase already written by others. It’s an exercise away from clichés, but one that emerges directly and unequivocally from other written texts. I use poetry and fashion/beauty magazines for this exercise, but others work just as well, such as cooking and travel magazines. I’ve adapted this from a presentation I gave recently at the 2017 Creative Nonfiction Magazine conference in Pittsburgh, and it can be further adapted in a number of ways.
I start with a few slides of the popular Food Network and HGTV shows Chopped and Flea Market Flip. In Chopped, four chefs are given a literal “basket” of four ingredients ranging from the sublime (Kobe beef or French truffles) to the wtf (candy corn or Doritos), and asked to transform them into appealing and creative appetizers, entrees, and desserts in a mere 30 minutes. Flea Market Flip involves two teams scouring a flea market for cheap buys and then transforming them (notice that word again: transform) into unexpected and/or aesthetically-enhanced items to be resold for profit at the subsequent market. An old water bottle becomes a lamp. Gate posts turn into a table. I show students before-and-after photos of the food and refurbished flea market items to highlight the transformative potential of both the artist and the material, and possibly ease potential objections from the skeptical purists of the room.
Next I pass out two different magazines (Poetry and Oprah’s Magazine O), and ask students to do two things. First, they should look over a couple of poems and highlight/write down any words or phrases they are attracted to in some way (It may be an odd word choice, unlikely comparison, mellifluous language, etc.). Then I ask them to look in O Magazine for any advertisement for beauty products, clothes, or food, and highlight something that interests them. I use poetry for its ability to help us see things in different ways and a quasi-beauty magazine like Oprah’s because of the advertisements and beauty tips that offer us specific and practical words and phrases we can use in our own writing (I’ve also used Esquire magazine for our male characters). Notice how in this first step students have yet to see a model for how this transformation might work. I did it this way based on student feedback; they should be choosing words/phrases they find interesting without thinking of characterization.
The subsequent step is to for you to model what you’d like students to do with their chosen material. I project (and pass out photocopies of) a specific page of the magazine and highlight certain items I find interesting in terms of language or imagery. I use a poem called “Snake” in which words/images like Saturday night mass, Drags, and conga line caught my attention. From O, I was mesmerized by something called “stylish flats,” an item (and turn of phrasing) I’d never heard of before.
The next task is to model how one can take such already-existing words and images and refurbish them into your own work. I turned “Snake” into the following characterization of a woman in my Spin class who occupied a small role in a piece I was working on: “Something about her seemed incongruous: the bull dyke at Saturday night mass or the stomping nun at the head on the conga line.”
Finally, send students off on their own with their highlighted words/phrases/images and see which nonfiction characters they adapt them to, or – in fiction – what cool new characters they develop. Some may be able to do this within the last 20 minutes of class, while others need a couple of days. I like to give both options.
Of course, no activity is perfect. You can experiment with which magazines you select. I also like to end with the following suggestions/caveats for students to keep in mind during this refurbishing exercise. 1. Stay away from famous works 2. Don’t let your desire for character artistry change the facts 3. If you are unsure if you followed too closely the original, cut and paste your new lines into Google and see what comes up. I’ve made this mistake myself once or twice (apparently I’m in love with Anne Dillard’s images), but a quick Google search reminded me that I hadn’t “refurbished” quite enough.
I’ll end with the astute words of William S. Burroughs, who quite simply reminds us, “All writing is in fact cut-ups. A collage of words read heard overheard. What else?” I couldn’t agree more.