Magazines are full of bizarre statements and attention-grabbing headlines. Taken out of context, they make incredible writing prompts to go with the magazine pictures I talked about last week.
Susan Wooldridge was one of the first writers to get me started on making "word pools" when I read and loved her book Poemcrazy. Susan suggested writing down words on the backs of paper tickets, the kind you can buy at any stationery store. I tried that for awhile, but then found I preferred cutting words out of magazines because I enjoyed the colors, various typefaces, and just the overall look of the re-arranged words.
I have two methods for making my word pools: the first is to simply scour magazines for strange or mystifying statements; the headings in bold or italics work the best. Then I just cut them out. Pretty simple! Advertisements in particular are a real goldmine: “Monkey optional.” “The Passion of Performance.” “Spanish Lessons.” The second method I use is a lot more finicky, but can be well worth the trouble. First, I clip out entire columns from the publications. These are always just a couple of inches wide and I often cut them in half to work with a piece no more than four or five inches long. Using an X-acto knife, I cut away excess words that don’t suit my purpose, and then work my way down the column until I have something that resembles haiku or free verse. I like to see how far down the column I can go without cutting off the paper too soon (or cutting myself…those blades are sharp!). The longer the "story" or train of thought I can get out of a column, the more fun it becomes. Whichever method I use, listed below are some of my favorite ways to play with random words.
1. Titles for poems, screenplays, short stories, and novels. I’ve found some of my best titles from random cut-outs. The title of my short screenplay, “Julian’s Dinner of Small Flaws” came from cutting my way inch by inch through a restaurant review.
2. Timed writing prompt. Timed writing works best when you don’t think, just write. Having a pool of prompts ready to go makes a huge difference between starting and procrastinating. I always carry a zip bag of words with me wherever I go.
3. Inspiration for non-writing related projects. For several years I took a one-on-one class with a ceramics instructor. At one point my teacher decided I needed to work with porcelain. Faced with twenty pounds of the whitest, most featureless clay I had ever seen, I used my word prompts to design and decorate the finished pieces. The results were surprising: “The Rattlesnake Ritual,” “Glance,” and "Earth Circle" are pieces I could never part with.
4. The smaller cut-outs can form an entire haiku or short poem on their own. For instance, this is a piece I put together with a visual collage of Buddhist and Asian inspired images: How do you discover/other worlds/secluded doorways/the secret/glimpses of the past?
5. Fragments such as those above can form a much lengthier work, with each section comprising a new verse. Here is the beginning of a piece made entirely from cut-outs that went for two pages in a large-sized sketchbook: I remember the robust tanginess of/chilling/buttermilk/cooking barefoot/when I was young/in search of/miraculous/baskets, bowls, and/a paper heart.
6. When I paste the words on the pages, they look like a somewhat less sinister equivalent of those “anonymous letters” in an Agatha Christie novel. Sometimes just the combination of colors and fonts is enough to make the creative wheels turn. When combined with pictures, they can make a startling collage, and a well-placed phrase or series of words can be just the thing to make the entire piece pop.
7. Create a word prompt journal. I like to buy a blank journal and paste a word or phrase on each page before I start to use it. This also makes a great gift for my writer friends, too.
8. Party time. At your next writer’s group, ask everyone to bring their own selection of cut-out words. Pool them together in a basket or jar and then agree to write for an hour or two. Every ten minutes, draw a new prompt from the jar.
9. Design your novel: plan ahead how many chapters your next book will have. Then use a word or phrase with a picture to be a prompt for that entire chapter.
10. Choose a theme. I've always believed creativity thrives on restriction and limits. By choosing to work with only one kind of magazine, e.g., fashion, politics, or gardening, you can start to harmonize the types of cut-outs you save. For instance, right now I am working on a novella-length found poem based entirely on what I've harvested from food magazines. It’s fun to specialize.
Tip of the day: Organize your word clippings into categories: single words; phrases; large headlines; “the small print.” I use self-sealing plastic envelopes to store my collections. Once you have a good variety, start playing. Try pasting your words on large sheets of art paper or tiny little scraps of cardstock. Add some pictures and don't be surprised when your friends start asking, "Do you want to sell that?"