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Rhetoric, Process, and Materials – Part 3

We had two sessions on Rhetoric and Process, and then two more full sessions on Materials. I’ve blended the content of both sessions, to maximize logical progression

Our speakers were Betsy Warland, founder of The Writer’s Studio program, and Renée Sarojini Saklikar, a TWS alumna who will be taking over teaching the RPM’s course from Betsy next year.

I expected a discussion of Materials to be about pens, paper, printers, notebooks, computers, software, that kind of thing. And, because I know nothing, that’s exactly what it was not about, except in the most abstract way.

The first thing Betsy did was to start colouring outside the lines, metaphorically speaking.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalImages.comWhen do children concentrate most? When they are at play. And that’s also when they learn best, and make quantum leaps forward in understanding.

With that understood, she asked, what is materials? The answer: materials is everything. (As in, everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time. Including your physical presence and body.) And then we did some exercises with and about materials.

The Page Exercise

We discussed What Is The Page? Paper or electronic, lined or plain, small or large, the Page is different for every author, but there are some similarities.

Between the page and the writer is a magnetism more compelling than any other relationship.
– Betsy Warland

My piece about what the page is, to me:

The page is a complex landscape that cannot be viewed head on or from a distance. The writer must approach, see it from all angles, oblique and obtuse, to see the contours that appear as ink is laid upon it, settling on the plateaus and leaving valleys empty. As with music, the meaning is often found in the spaces between the notes, in the bas-relief of the two-tone landscape.

The Blank Piece of Paper Exercise

Here’s a fun thing to try. Take a blank piece of plain white printer paper (not scrap, not lined, not coloured), and make something that relates to something you are working on, or something you have written. The only rules are that you cannot write or draw on the paper, cannot crumple it into a ball, and cannot make an airplane out of it. You can fold, bend, crinkle, tear, pierce, etc. You cannot add anything to the paper, but you can take away. You don’t have to use the whole piece of paper, if you don’t need it all. Spend five minutes doing that.

Several people started manipulating their paper straight away. “Wait,” said Betsy. “If you’re not sure what to do, don’t start yet. Let the idea come to you.”

When finished, we stood by turns and showed our piece, without saying anything. Some of the end products were extraordinary, like pieces of sculpture. Mine had a simple geometric pattern folded into it. “Make art without words” are instructions to strike fear into my heart – I’ve been crafty, but never artistic. Few things make me feel inadequate faster than making art, surrounded by people who are much better at it than I, and my finished piece had nothing to do with anything I’ve written and everything to do with what I thought I could do, with my limited artistic ability. But even though I didn’t embrace the exercise at the time, I learned a great deal from those who did, and would push past my performance anxiety another time. (I am not the only one who quailed at this; two people in the class made those grade-school fortune teller/cootie catcher thingies. My first impulse was to do the same, but I went in a different, equally lame, direction.)

There are two things that get in the way of writing:

  • insensitivity to the materials
  • making too many assumptions, e.g., about how to write, what to write, subject, form, length, genre

I think it’s safe to say that both these things got in the way of my fully embracing the “make art without words” exercise!

Harvesting Exercise

Our next task was to “harvest a gesture, a sound, or an expression” from someone we encountered on the ten-minute break built into the day. Anyone, anywhere, anything, as long as it was something that caught our attention and made us react in some way. After the break, we spent a few minutes writing about what we had harvested, and again, some people read theirs aloud. My favourite was Kelly Ryan’s musings on the sound of peeing from neighbouring stalls in the ladies’ washroom. The Symphony of Urine! It was a hilarious bit of auditory observation.

The Five Materials Exercise

This was my favourite of everything we did. Betsy had four grab bags of materials, and everyone drew an item from each bag.

  1. A found piece of paper
  2. A writing instrument
  3. A genre
  4. A state of consciousness OR a circumstance
  5. Oneself

The found pieces of paper were widely varied, from a full sheet of flip chart paper to real estate agent notepad pages, to forms, to till receipts and beyond.

Writing instruments were mostly pens, many with organization names stamped on them, in varying colours of ink. There were also markers, highlighters, pencils, one artist’s pencil, etc.

Genre was either fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.

My materials:

  • An employment application form from a construction company
  • A pen with “Delta Hotels” stamped on it
  • Genre: fiction
  • State of consciousness: indifference

Once finished, various people shared their stuff aloud. I didn’t, because I didn’t know how to make a cohesive auditory narrative out of it, but I share it here in case you’re interested.

5 Materials 1 5 Materials 2

Betsy asked us to write briefly about the Five Materials:

  • What was your initial reaction to the five materials?
  • How did they differ/how were they the same as your usual materials?
  • How did they alter your experience of the writing process, and what your wrote?

My paper was a form, which made me laugh, because forms have been a significant part of my working past, in which I developed and completed forms literally every day, and my domestic present, when I have been filling out forms for various financial purposes. It felt like my hand went unerringly to the kind of ‘found paper’ I could immediately identify with. And it was an employment application, which amused me given my current sabbatical. I don’t usually write with a pen (even when filling out forms), and I’m very particular about pens. This one was nice to hold and wrote smoothly. I don’t often write by hand because it’s so slow and messy to edit. My genre was fiction, which is what I write, so that was a bit of a relief. And I had already started writing the story in my head before I got my fourth material – indifference – which immediately took me in a different direction from where I’d started. “Indifference” made me look for a place on the form where indifference could be communicated, and I didn’t fill the form in sequentially, which then drove the story in my head.

I think everyone agreed that the Five Materials exercise was valuable. Even if it was challenging, even if it was hard to write on their paper or with their implement, or to embrace their genre or situational indicator, everyone learned something from it. Two of my favourite pieces came from people who said they really struggled with it.

  • Samira had the lid from a box of note cards, a marker, non-fiction, and “lost keys” as her materials, and came up with a great note from one neighbour to another.
  • Jeremy had a postcard of a 1970’s art photograph of a woman in the bath, a pencil, and poetry as his materials (I forget the fourth one), and really struggled with it until he realized that his pencil also had an eraser, and then he filled the card with writing, erasure, writing, erasure, etc., in layers. Hard to read aloud, but an interesting exercise in materials.

At Betsy’s suggestion, those of us interested are going to submit our pieces to be part of a curated show (curated by our classmates). Which will be published work. OMG.

Have you ever experimented with materials? What did you do, and how did that affect your experience of the writing process?

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