Information Sheet #46

October 25, 1990


What makes writing good is not what you put in but what you take out.. . . The old tennis pro who never moves. Line drawings by Picasso as an old man. If everything there is strong, the reader will put in what's not there. Silence is what's most powerful in music; space in art.

A collage in the original sense, as used by artists, is a picture produced not by painting or drawing but by pasting objects on the canvas--objects such as theater tickets, bits of cardboard or tin or colored paper. A written collage consists of separate, disconnected bits of writing, rather than of one continuous piece, that have been "pasted together." Usually there are spaces or asterisks at the 'joints' between the pieces of writing. A good example of a collage was the piece by Donald Murray that was reproduced in the previous Information Sheet.

For many of us, as teachers, our initial response to a collage of words is perhaps a bit hesitant because the collage lacks many of the organizational principles which we look for when evaluating student writing. But it is that very freedom from some traditional restraints which can make collages particularly appealing--perhaps even fun--to students. I frequently hear students at Coe gritching that the writing assignments in the different classes all follow the same format, requiring similar organizational formats. The collage is one way of providing students a way to disregard the hassles of the traditional formal paper structure while asking them to "play" with ideas in a course.

Given below is a description of a collage assignment I recently gave students in the Reading/Writing Workshop, followed by a few comments about the assignment and some possible variations on the basic model.

In the Reading/Writing Workshop, students had been assigned the book Crossing Open Ground by Barry Lopez, and I was looking for an assignment that would invite them to compare Lopez' vision of nature with some of their own experiences. The initial writing assignment was to compose 15 separate paragraphs, everything first draft composing, asking them not to worry about sentence structure, grammar, etc. The directions suggested they write as quickly and easily as possible, aiming for 10-15 line paragraphs. The paragraphs could be approached as miniature essays, each on a different topic. I also gave them two broad content areas upon which focus: (1) at least 8 paragraphs in response to something they had observed or experienced in the natural world; (2) at least 5 paragraphs responding to passages from the Lopez book, whatever might occur to them. I also recommended trying several paragraphs where they try to move from Lopez' ideas to their own observations, or vice versa. In later class periods, I handed out copies of how I had completed the assignment, providing one model of both the original 15-paragraph exercise and the collage which emerged from that first draft.

Another factor in the assignment was my suggestion that they try writing each paragraph by initially focusing on description (in the case of their nature writing) or accurate summary (in the case of responding to Lopez); after they had written several lines of description/summary, they could begin introducing implications, evaluative comments, and ideas stimulated by their original descriptions/summaries. The basic movement for a paragraph would aim for moving from facts to inferences, from data to the ideas that give importance to that data.

Prior to preparing their collage, the students visited the Writing Center, asking a staff member to read through the 15 paragraphs and discuss which seven paragraphs might be selected and organized into a collage. The conference session could also consider how individual paragraphs might be re-visioned and/or edited. When the students turned in their assignment, they provided three documents: their original 15 paragraphs, a one-paragraph summary of their conference with the Writing Center staff member, and the seven-paragraph collage.

Although this is only the third time I have used a collage assignment, it has immediately revealed several very attractive qualities:

*Because a collage invites open-ended writing on a topic, students are free to explore a subject without committing themselves to any specific conclusions. At the same time, the students are able to transcend the most agonizing and disheartening element in the writing process: struggling to find a structure for some thoughts that are not ready to be straightjacketed in the five or ten paragraph theme. Students need not agonize over the order of the paragraphs in the collage, but instead can trust their intuition. The freedom in design also allows more attention to images, intimations of patterns, tensions in their findings, contradictions, ambiguities, incongruities, --all done without insisting that everything must be organized under one over-riding thesis.

*While the collage is 'quick and dirty' for the students, I have found their papers to be remarkably effective and satisfying. Students appear to enjoy doing them (perhaps because, so far, I've never had a student who had ever done one before); they also make interesting reading (perhaps because as a reader I can ignore worrying about many of the requirements of the traditional essay).

Variations on the Collage Assignment

(1) Create a collage of the classroom's writing on a subject by collecting excerpts from different students' response to an assignment. For example, in a Ways of Knowing class, suppose all the students were asked to write about Socrates and his attitude toward the trial that resulted in his death. After having read the students' papers, simply reproduce a collection of the best or most interesting passages, providing students with insight into the range of responses to the assignment. Later this fall, an Information Sheet will discuss the Directed Summer Reading course and reproduce part of a collage which anthologized the students' responses to the first writing assignment this past summer.

(2) If you have had a class with several writing assignments, toward the end of the term ask the students to read through their previous papers and construct a collage excerpting what they perceive as their strongest or most insightful writing. The assignment might also include directions for students writing a final reevaluation of their writings for the course and how they now perceive their complete oeuvre.

(3) A long-term collage-type assignment could be based on students completing a commonplace book, an anthology of the best quotations and passages that they come across in the readings for a class. At the beginning of the term ask students to copy any passage from the text that appeals to them in some way, perhaps suggesting a ballpark figure of how many passages they should collect by the end of the course. During the final weeks of the class, ask them to select the best of the best and to write a one-page commentary on the passages they selected and how they rub together.

A Collage about Collages

The following collage is excerpted from A Community of Writers by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff.

I sit here with seven short pieces of writing scattered around me on the sofa and the floor. Some are in pen, some in pencil. A couple of the 'pieces' consist of two smaller pieces taped together. The shortest is only two sentences long; the longest is three paragraphs. The miracle is that I like it all. I want to show all these blips to readers. But how am I going to put them all together?

* * * * *

How could I like all this writing when I didn't feel I was doing anything particularly good this week--just churning stuff out, writing fast, producing assorted blips and pieces? And I didn't make any changes in what I wrote--or hardly any. (I changed six words, two phrases, and I more or less rewrote one short paragraph.)

The secret weapon was simply to choose bits I liked and cross out and throw away everything I didn't like--and not feel bad that I wrote lots that I didn't like. On the one hand I didn't change a word. On the other hand my pile of writing feels completely different because of all that I left out.

* * * * *

The collage is cheating but it works. That's why so many professionals write collages. I see them everywhere now that I've got my eye cocked for them. It stresses what is easy and finesses what is hard.

What makes good writing good? Details. Lively, human, clear language--words that sound like someone talking. Surprises. The sense that the writer cared and was involved. Not hitting the reader over the head. If I write fast and with confidence or in a good mood I get plenty of details and lively language--so long as I pick out the good pieces and throw the rest away. Thus I get good writing. (or at least writing that's better than most of my labored writing.)

What makes good writing difficult? Sitting down and planning and then producing a complete piece of writing; trying to know where I'm going and trying to get it right as I go; getting the connections or transitions right; figuring out the right organization; working out my train of thought fully and avoiding contradictions. If I just pick out the good pieces and make a collage I get to skip all those difficulties--and still get good writing.

* * * * *

Surprise. I am surprised by what I find in the words I've already written. Here's that experience again: finding something rolling off my pen and I hadn't planned on writing or couldn't have planned on writing. This is perhaps the most important writing experience for me. I'll bet not many people write by choice unless they have tasted this pleasure of surprise and are hungry for more of it.

* * * * *

A TV documentary on cancer. It's really a collage. It opens with shots of a funeral--people standing around the side of a grave: close-up of a widow and then down to the coffin being lowered. Cut to a sequence of cells under a high-powered microscope--time-lapse so that we see the cells multiplying and going crazy; a voice is telling us about how cancer cells behave. Then a sequence of a man in the doctor's office--getting the verdict. Then Ronald Reagan making a joke about his cancer. Then a young medical student talking about wanting to go into cancer research--why she finds it exciting and all the progress that's being made. We cut from her, bursting with enthusiasm and health, back to the victim, balding and emaciated from the therapy, but walking in the woods--obviously drinking in the scene as though he can't get enough. Then a sequence of someone earnestly giving us statistics. How many cases of this and that, how much more than in the past, but also how there are more successful treatments and cures. Back now to Reagan going about his work. Then the victim trying to explain things to his child. Finally a sequence of advice about how to avoid cancer.

It's all a hodgepodge--completely "disorganized"--no connectives. But it works.

* * * * *


*Write on only one side of the paper--so you can cut your pieces out with scissors.

*You can even write a collage without knowing what it's going to be about. Just do a lot of pieces of writing about what comes up. Use all kinds of prompts for writing: hunches, instinct, snippets of overheard conversation, street signs--anything at all. Then look through it for what seems to be the main thing on your mind and make a collage.

*Try to make the writing experimental and alive, not expository or conceptual. Try for little stories, moments, snapshots, portraits, dialogues--perhaps even a bit of ranting. Try to make the writing convey experience, not explain it.

*After a while, look for the good passages. Don't just trust your own silent reading here; read lots of raw writing to listeners you trust and see how it sounds and what they respond to.

*Save those pieces. Don't revise or change--just cross out and carve away what isn't so good.

*Put all the pieces you come up with on the floor and live with them a bit, contemplate them, and see what they are about. (If it seems obvious, wait and see whether perhaps they're not really about something else.) If there's time, go away and try to forget about them for a while. Then intuitively put them in an order that pleases you: no transitions or connections. In the final copy, just mark transitions with spaces or asterisks.

*Cleaning up: try if possible to make no changes at all except for fixing mistakes in spelling and grammar and figuring out punctuation marks for the words you have. Perhaps you'll see a few words or phrases you need to change, even a few phrases or sentences to add. Perhaps you need to write one new piece now to put near the end, the beginning, or somewhere else--to make things hang together more. Perhaps you'll want to add a title. But try to work entirely by cutting and as little as possible by adding or changing, so you don't lose the life that comes from writing without a "grand plan." That is, keep it from being "careful," "self-conscious" prose.

* * * * *

I've been working for a long time on a difficult essay. I'm writing to readers who will disagree with me, and I've spent hours and hours trying to strengthen and refine these ideas. I care about them. My early rough writing was exciting to me. I know I'm going in a direction that's important to me, yet it's rough, incomplete, and at times downright wrong. Thus I'm trying to revise and revise.

As I've revised, I've added and then cut and then added and then cut--all this going on over a long period. I'm very invested in this piece; it's very important. I finally feel I'm getting it right, but I must put it aside for a few days while I do other things. I finally come back to it with excitement--it's the fruit of so much work and caring. But when I read it through I discover it is terrible: muddy, tangled, badly disorganized, frustrating to read, unconvincing. How can it be that my best efforts lead to terrible writing? My first raw writing was better--and yet it was no good either.

It's at times like this that I need to remember collages--and how I can produce clear and lively language and interesting ideas without ever having to agonize. It's not that I don't have good language in me or can't think; it's just that in my efforts to work on these thoughts (which are hard) and for this audience (which is hard), everything turned to sludge. But I can fix it. My collages and freewriting are there to prove that I can find lively, clear language and good ideas--naturally.

* * * * *

The principle of negativity: absence. What makes writing good is not what you put in but what you take out. The mark of old timers and seasoned professionals. The old tennis pro who never moves. Line drawings by Picasso as an old man. If everything there is strong, the reader will put in what's not there. Silence is what's most powerful in music; space in art.

* * * * *

I read my collage out loud to a friend. He ended up thinking I had the opposite opinion from the opinion I really have. Is it because I wrote so badly? No, it's not badly written. It's because, as a collage, it doesn't try to say anything; it just presents material. Yes. And I like that about collages. They can settle for throwing lots of material at readers and asking them to experience it and make up their own mind.

But his "misreading" leads to a subversive thought. Perhaps he's right. Perhaps, now that I look at my collage again, I don't think what I thought I thought. Perhaps my collage allowed me to find words for what I didn't know. My collage--and my reading it out loud to my friend--are making me start to disagree with my old self.

The collage is cheating but it works. That's why so many professionals write collages. . . . It stresses what is easy and finesses what is hard.


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