On text as collage
I decided to make a book. What would go in it? I wanted the subject to be a fictional product I invented. I realized the best way to talk about that product would be to create similarly fictional product reviews. At first, the task I set up for myself (writing these fake reviews) was daunting because I wanted the feeling of multiple different voices along with a bit of the humor that comes along in any mundane Amazon review, and I didn’t know how to conjure that all within myself. To work around my own limitations, I realized I needed to start with fact if I wanted the feeling I desired. I decided each of my fictional reviews would be a mixture between an existing review on Amazon and an entry from my travel diary. Creating the reviews became much more of a fun game I played with myself. It was like adjusting the levels on two incoming frequencies.
I find writing extremely painful. I would love to write, but I just find it so painful. I collect more. I collect language or phrases that I like, or words, even if I’m not really sure why.
There’s a really beautiful anecdote I like to think about from this John Ashbery interview in The Paris Review, and somebody asks him, “What gets you started when writing a poem?” Then he tells this story of being in a public place and overhearing a phrase by someone nearby, out of context. He likes the phrase and uses it as the finishing line for his poem—it was exactly what he was looking for. I like that he didn’t even know what their conversation was about, and that they will never know their phrase was used for a famous poem.
I will keep a running journal, for example, a little notebook of language that I encounter throughout the day—things I hear people say or little turns in phrase that are interesting. Then at the end of the day, I’ll sit down and type those out. I see that like a palette of paint. I have a palette, or color scheme in mind. You know, as a painter, you might set out colors and think, “I’m going to work with this today.” I’ll do that with my journal: “This is what I have encountered today. Let’s see what happens when I put them on the page. What are those connections and how can I work with them?
If you were to take a kind of God’s eye view of my life, it would be filled with thousands and thousands of little scraps of paper. They would just look like clutter to anybody else and sometimes look like clutter to me, filled with notes I’ve taken which probably have piqued my interest or seemed viable for a poem or an essay. They’re scattered all over the house; in the pockets of all of my clothes; they’re slipped into books; they’re on napkins; they’re on receipts. They’re on burger wrappers.
I made some software for that once when I did a CD-ROM, years ago, for people with writer’s block. The terror for many writers is the blank page. What if you started with a full page and you had to carve away, like a sculptor. You gradually substitute your friend’s names or their … Different cities and then, the situations. Very soon, you have a novel and no one will see the template was Crime and Punishment. It will be the structure. How you introduce it. What’s the first scene?
Laurel Schwulst was the inaugural Creative Director of this very website, The Creative Independent. Currently, she teaches interactive design at Yale University and maintains Beautiful Company, a design practice. Previously, she worked at the New York-based design studio Linked by Air. Her book Perfume Area (Ambient Works, 2015), coauthored with Sydney Shen, contemplates thirty-six designer fragrances.