The Collage Essay

If you've taken WRT150, or even if you took it somewhere else, you have probably written a narrative essay—an essay that takes the form of a personal story arising from some sort of personal conflict. The resolution (or lack thereof) in a narrative essay often leads to the main idea behind the essay. An essay about the death of a loved one is often a tribute to that person, or it's about loss, mortality, or something else depending on the particular essay and author in question.

While the narrative essay functions as does a piece of prose fiction, the lyric essay works off many of the principles that drive a poem. The lyric essay favors juxtaposition and imagery over a logically linear sequence. Sometimes a lyric essay will state its purpose outright. Sometimes a lyric essay will ask questions in order to get the reader thinking about what's at stake, the message being the unanswerability of a question rather than a statement of fact or truth. And when it's working most like a poem, a lyric essay will present the reader with its material and leave that material to speak for itself. John D'Agata, lyric essay editor for the Seneca Review, has helped to define this weird hybrid form of essay by describing it:

The lyric essay takes the subjectivity of the personal essay and the objectivity of the public essay, and conflates them both intoo a literary form athat relies on both art and fact—on imagination and observation, rumination and argumentation, human faith and human perception... The result of this ironic parentage is that lyric essays seek answers, yet they seldom seem to find them. (qtd. in Miller)

In this sense, the lyric essay doesn't necessarily give up its answers easily. Often, it doesn't have the answers that a more traditional essay has. This doesn't mean that the writer doesn't know what it's about—on the contrary, the writer will have made a series of conscious decisions so that the piece will work efficiently to do what it is that the writer wants it to do.

The collage essay is a form of lyric essay that depends on fragmentation, imagery, juxtaposition, and metaphor to get its work done. It creates multiple sections, each of which is a little piece by itself. These sections are disjunct in terms of their content—I might have a section about the diffifculties between me and my girlfriend, a section about kitty litter, a section about old toys, and a section about Star Wars. The sections don't necessarily hold together content-wise, but they might hold together thematically. We'll talk about this in a bit.

Space Break : Fragmentation and Disjunction

A traditional academic essay is typically split into paragraphs, but not much more than that. A lyric essay is split into sections, each of which is separated by a space break created by a double return stroke. This space break signals the end of one section and sets the reader up to accept the next few words as the beginning of an autonomous section that may or may not carry on from the previous section. If it helps, you can think of how a novel is broken up into chapters. Or how a chapter might follow one character for a bit before stopping to follow another for a bit—the change of POV might be signified by a space break. The space break is emptiness, vacancy, a cleansing of the palate between courses so that we may begin anew with whatever is coming up next.

Regardless of how you think about it, the disjunction between the diffrent sections can be jarring and disorienting for the reader. It's like having a conversation and listening to someone change the subject before they seem to finish what they are saying. But as we'll see, it's this disorientation that makes the collage work—the attentive reader will see the essay begin to snowball and blossom into a larger piece whose meaning is created through juxtaposition of the sections. By taking disparate objects and insisting that they are part of the same whole, we find meaning.

Confused? Hold that thought and keep reading.

Juxtaposition and Threading

In order to figure out how all of this works, it would be helpful to have a model. The table below is the outline of an essay that I might write as a collage essay. Each section would be separated from the others with a space break—note that this is different from saying that each section is one paragraph. Imagine what this might look like if I were to write it out:

Section One My girlfriend Cyndi argue a lot. We used to get along fine, but now that we live together, our relationship seems to have changed. For example, she has a cat that I have never really liked, and she has recently decided that it should be my job to empty the catbox in our bathroom. That awful catbox smell that lingers throughout the apartment long after she has gone to work. Then she complains about the smell and doesn't do anything to take care of it. We argue about a lot of other stuff too—unwashed dishes, the toilet seat, socks on the living room floor—it seems like the magic is gone now that we are in a serious relationship.
Section Two My stepfather turned my old sandbox into a Jacuzzi after I moved away to college.  Somewhere under the sand are some Star Wars action figures that I buried in there one summer when I was nine. Han Solo, Yoda, maybe a Stormtrooper or two. I forgot about them until now, and now that I remember them, I am sorry I forgot them. Crap. I miss those old toys and wish I had them back.
Section Three The different materials in cat litter: dirt, clay, ashes, sand—some litters have chemical compounds and synthetic materials that allow for more efficient absorption so they don't have to be taken out as much. Some cat owners are afraid that their cats will be poisoned because cats sometimes eat pieces of kitty litter. Cats are dumb.
Section Four My dad takes his dog for a walk in the mornings.  My mother changes the paper in her parakeet cage once a day.  My little brother is potty trained, and I haven't wet the bed since I was nine.  Life is better when you can control stuff like that.
Section Five In The Empire Strikes Back, as Han Solo is going into Carbonite, Leia sees him and says "I love you." His reply is "I know"—then his face is wracked in pain as he is frozen. The funny thing is that He does know—that's why he can be such a jerk and she can be such a princess. Although they love one another, we never get to see what happens after the Death Star explodes in Return of the Jedi. We are led to believe that they are madly in love, and that Solo's mercenary ways are tempered by Leia's righteousness. She saves him from Jabba's palace and brings out the good in him. She makes him a better person.
Section Six Some random cat litter commercials I remember from television—ever notice how they all claim to eliminate that awful smell? Ever notice how easy it looks to empty the catbox? It's not fun, regardless of how the thing works. But without the catbox, the cat would pee on the carpet, on the linoleum, and there would be so much more to clean up. The smell is something you have to put up with unless you want to clean cat pee out of the carpet all the time.

These pieces could be more disjunct than they are, but my point is that there is no linear progression here from section to section as there would be in a more traditional essay. The idea is that each section stands alone and is markedly different from the others, moreso than would be acceptable in a traditional essay.

I’m not sure how well this essay is going to hold together, and I can’t know until I write it out.  I think it might be an essay about separation and the mysteries behind the ways we drift apart from one another. This essay might be about the fragileness of relationships, my relationship with Cyndi in particular, and how the bad part of a relationship is worth putting up with if the relationship is worth it. I won't say it outright. Instead, I'll try and get this to come out through juxtaposing the different fragments together. In their book Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola note that:

One canot simply throw these pieces down haphazardly—they must be carefully selected for how they'll resonate off one another. [...] Collages work through repetition, but not in the monotonous way" you must transform your recurring motifs from beginning to end. You must make transitions, but not int he conventional way. In the collage essay, transistions occur through the strategic juxtaposition of images, stories, and phrases. (151-2)

Meaning is derived by looking at the whole piece and following the threads of images—the cat/sandbox, the loss, the relationship, the smell—I can thread these images together to give a sense of unity to the otherwise disjunct sections outside of the way we normally find meaning linearly. In Writing True, Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe collage as allowing "the writer and reader to explore connections in associative and nonlinear ways" (137). I'll associate the catbox with the sandbox, my relationship with that of Han and Leia, the unpleasantness of kitty litter with the unpleasantness of a relationship. The sections don’t create meaning like a narrative does by continually moving forward.  Instead, meaning is found circuitously, by looking at the ways that the sections themselves intersect in terms of imagery and such—the catbox becoming a metaphor for how my relationship with Cyndi stinks. Literally.

And as I write, I'll pay attention to each section. The details I use to make each section come alive might help me find more images to weave into threads throughout here. The fragmented nature of the collage makes it easy to experiment with. We can create pieces and experiment with them until we come up with a composition we like. We'll compose through trial and error, and we'll likely blunder our way into some serendipitous collagery.

I'm not saying that it's easy to write a successful collage. The danger of the collage is that it might not come together at the end, because the metaphors don't resonate from section to section. Moreover, the ordering of the sections in a collage will make a big difference, or you might try adding or removing a section.  A collage might seem easy at first, but it is so hard to create a good one that works because of the way meaning is created through precision and juxaposition of each section.

Note that I don't really have a girlfriend named Cyndi who makes me change the catbox. Although if I did, I think I might be able to write a pretty decent essay here.

Click here for an explanation of the braid essay.

Some links to collage essays online

"Reservation Drive-In"by Sherman Alexie (Click here)

"My Children Explain the Big Issues" by Will Baker (Click here)

"Basha Leah" by Brenda Miller (Click here)

Works Cited

Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell It Slant. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.