Monday, February 20, 2012

The Exquisite Corpse in Writing & Art

Someone told me recently that she was not sure how one might go about making up a character. I know my characters are composites: hair from an old friend, shoes from a neighbor, the walk of someone I've seen on the street. I've had to explain that writing isn't about pulling ideas out of one's imagination kicking and screaming, it's more like an exquisite corpse or a menu: one from column A, one from column B, and so on.

Here is an interesting exercise to try. Divide a piece of paper into columns. Write down things like "hair" or "shoes" or "hats" and go out into the world and collect information: all the kinds of hair you see in one day; the types of shoes and who wears them; the kinds of hats different ages of people have; older people; college students; children, etc.. Keep the lists for character references.

Exquisite Corpse or Cadavre exquis began as a Surrealist game in the 1920s. Before I knew anything about the Surrealists I was taught to make "folded stories" in elementary school. Everyone in the game has a piece of paper and writes a sentence or two, leaving a couple of words on the line below. Fold the paper so just the couple words are showing. Pass it to the next person, who continues the story where you left off. The first person might write about a mountain and leave "then it became covered with" on the exposed line. The second person might finish with the word "chocolate" and write about something completely different. Continue the process until the page is filled. Unfold the paper and read the absurd story aloud. The first piece from the Surrealists' game was "The exquisite / corpse/ will drink / the new / wine," which is how it got its name. They eventually expanded this process to include drawings and collages. In 1992, The Silver Buckle Press at the University of Wisconsin at Madison organized A Printer's Exquisite Corpse. You can see all the parts at the link: heads, upper torsos, lower torsos and feet. Interactive slide show here. It was so successful that they launched Exquisite Horse, A Printer's Corpse in 1997. Each letterpress artist got a card indicating where the parts should join together when assembled so she could plan her section.

How do you get ideas for the parts? Bob Glück recently suggested "plein air" writing. The term is usually used for paintings that are created outside "in the open air" and when the artist is looking directly at the subject rather than painting from photographs (or from online images) or from the imagination. Bob used it to describe a writing exercise. He suggested I sit in a café and choose a person, note how old he is, how he moves, the gestures, how he arranges things, what he does when he speaks, etc.. Write it all down, and then layer it onto the page. "This will freshen up your characters," he said. We've probably all heard the old writing saw about "show don't tell;" now we can really understand what it means.

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