What Do You Make of It?: A Generative Workshop

From the 2018 Conversations & Connections Conference (October 20, Pittsburgh)

Original workshop description: In “What Do You Make of It?: History & Short Forms,” participants will generate one or more poems, micro-essays, or flash fictions through engaging with/playing with historical artifacts. Using the provided materials, which may include newspaper advertisements, excerpts from journals, fragments of maps, and other ephemera, we’ll work through seeking the tensions visible in the historical document (such as might be found in a notice of a lost or stolen item) and/or seeking opportunities to invent those tensions based on juxtapositions in the text, knowledge of our own historical moment, or personal connections to a place. While the workshop will certainly offer participants a draft of a new piece, the workshop will also provide new ways of thinking about the past and how it might be incorporated into our contemporary writing practice.

Some examples of this practice from my own work:
“(What is here inserted comes from a Credible Hand and attested by some now in Boston)” (Memorious 24 and Winner of the 2014 Memorious/Writers Block Poetry Contest)

“That the true owner may have it again” (Footnote #2: A Journal of Literary History)

“Salt” (published at The Coil and forthcoming in Footnote #2)

Consider the artifact/image/text before you. Consider it for potential sources of narrative/artistic tension, as every piece of writing needs some kind of tension. Explore the following:

  • what’s actually visible/inherent (such as missing or stolen items in advertisements or accounts of conflicts)
  • damage (to the artifact or expressed by the artifact)
  • what’s beyond the frame
  • what’s omitted from the item/frame
  • the originator of the image/artifact
  • inaccuracies/shortcomings/prejudices expressed by the artifact
  • the future of the item/image/location
  • the writer’s physical or emotional experience of the item

Use the tension(s) you find to drive your work forward. Perhaps you might work from a question arising from the artifact—who scratched away the face in the image? what might be this figure’s story? who might be reading the artifact’s text and how might they react?—to also help you generate a character for a work of fiction or for a dramatic monologue. Perhaps you might use the artifact as an opportunity for a reflective work of creative nonfiction or a poem that pulls together the artifact and your own history. Use the details inherent in or suggested by the artifact to provide textural richness and a sense of time and place. Consider playing with that sense of time and place; who says then and now have to be separated? What happens if they bleed together? That might be literal—thus opening opportunities for science fiction, fantasy, or speculative fiction—or figurative. The possibilities are legion.

Some Sources for Possible Material
Open Access:
Library of Congress: Easily searchable digital collections, including daguerreotypes
The British Library‘s Flickr Photo Stream
The British Library’s Digital Collections

Accessible via public and campus libraries:
Early American Newspapers: Database commonly available via local and campus libraries cataloging early American newspapers
HathiTrust Digital Library

Resources to explore in your own community:
Local library archives/special collections
Local historical association archives
Local museums

Bonus source & creative challenge:
Alternating Current Press’s monthly ekphrastic challenge: Daguerreotyped