Friday, March 30, 2012

Using Fraudulent Artifacts: Playing with Form and Repurposing Text to Create Fictional Narratives

In their AWP workshop on Using Fraudulent Artifact to Teach Fiction Writing, panelists David Shields, Matthew Vollmer, Arda Collins and Joseph Salvatore discussed teaching and writing "stories that masquerade as other forms of writing," altering the way a text is delivered through a familiar visual form such as: a shopping list, rental agreement, bill, menu, recipe, glossary, interview, newspaper ad, receipt, instruction manual, primer, catalog, comment card, year-end report, data sheet, class notes from Alumni magazine or letters... the list goes on.

Shields and Vollmer are the editors of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, "Found" Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (or: Other Dubious Documents--depending on which website you look at)-- forthcoming September, 2012. They cited inspiration from texts such as Rick Moody's "Primary Sources" and Lydia Davis' "We Will Miss You: A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth Graders," which Jonathan Messinger describes as "a series of letters to a kid named Stephen—in the hospital with an infection—from his friends at school. The narrator takes on a mock psychologist’s tone, analyzing each letter for 'overall coherence' and style."

So what attracts a writer to utilizing these forms, breaking from narrative convention in fiction? By inhabiting the language of found text, writers consider how we manipulate language and voice, the panelists said. The language becomes the material to work with. It forces writers to confront form and structure, to "become awake to ways language is used around them"--even to the point of "exacting giddy, witty revenge on form." Anything, they agreed, can be used "to house a story." By creating and sharing stories "encrypted in documents," writers can "break open the world of form."

Here are a few suggested exercises to try or teach. Each offers "constraints" which create tension while also allowing freedom of expression within them:
  • Each student invents a character. Have two characters write letters to one another--a great way for students to develop characterization and "invent a world together."
  • Write an "About the Author" to create a bio of oneself or a fictional character. Consider satire, as Sandra Cisneros does with: "She remains 'nobody's mother and nobody's wife.'"
  • Invite students to find artifacts to appropriate themselves; let language/diction/voice dominate the discussion.
  • Write a letter poem, starting with the prompt: I have something I need to tell you.
All this talk on how "form puts pressure on a writer to manipulate it toward meaning" immediately started sinking into my subconscious. At the top of my panel notes I brainstormed: "Montage of 10 men's emails: sew together snippets for a story of one failed relationship, from hope to disenchantment." For my last fiction submission I did just that, creating a narrative arc with a character composite, although I admit my piece at this point blurs the boundaries--a real genre-straddler. In this case, I wasn't just borrowing "found" form, but using--and re-purposing--some real content. A future idea: use travel brochures/maps/postcards I brought from Australia as forms to narrate tensions between Aboriginal and tourist ways of "seeing" or traversing landscape.

The writing, these panelists said, doesn't have to be entirely fiction; it can "blur the line between" fictional, essayistic, poetic, reportage and doc/mockumentary forms--as in Chris Marker's film "Sans Soleil," "a fake travel documentary narrated by a false sociologist to indeterminate countries."

Or consider the current trend in appropriating both content and form: re-mixing multimedia narratives as in this recreated (and humorously 'heartfelt') trailer for the horror film, "The Shining."

1 comment:

Kate Brady said...

I love the way this piece throws out suggestions that would inspire any writer to tackle the appropriation of other forms for fiction.

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