collage essay (composition)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

collage essay
In a collage essay, says Peter Elbow, "you try to give your reader an experience of what you are saying rather than an explanation of it" (Writing With Power, 1998). (John Lund/Getty Images)

Definition

In composition studies, a collage is a discontinuous essay form made up of discrete bits of discoursedescription, dialogue, narrative, explanation, and the like. 

A collage essay (also known as a patchwork essay, a discontinuous essay, and segmented writing) generally forgoes conventional transitions, leaving it up to the reader to locate or impose connections between the fragmented observations.

In his book Reality Hunger (2010), David Shields defines collage as "the art of reassembling fragments of preexisting images in such a way as to form a new image." Collage, he notes, "was the most important innovation in the art of the twentieth century."  

"To use collage as a writer," says Shara McCallum, "is to map onto your essay . . . the semblance of continuities and discontinuities associated with the art form" (in Now Write! ed. by Sherry Ellis).

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples of Collage Essays


Examples and Observations

  • What Is a Collage?
    "Collage is a term derived from art and refers to a picture made up of pieces of found objects: scraps of newspaper, bits of old cane backing, a gum wrapper, lengths of string, tin cans. A collage can can be made entirely of found objects, or it can be a combination of the objects and the artists's own drawing. [Writers] perform a similar act. But instead of gathering scraps of newspaper and string, they arrange scattered pieces of language: clichés, phrases they have heard, or quotations."
    (David Bergman and Daniel Mark Epstein, The Heath Guide to Literature. D.C. Heath, 1984)

     
  • The Collage in Prose
    "Many feature stories in daily and especially Sunday newspapers drift into the collage form—or example, a neighborhood in Brooklyn written up in a series of bits that present rather than explain: portraits of people and of terrain, street corner scenes, mini-narratives, dialogues, and reminiscent monologues. . . .

    "You might make a collage essay on the causes of the French Revolution that consists entirely of stories, portraits, and scenes. You would have to choose and arrange your fragments in such a way that they tell why the French Revolution happened as it did. Or you might have one that consists entirely of dialogues: between nobles, peasants, middle-class city dwellers, and thinkers of the period; between people who came before and those who came afterwards. Of course you may have to revise and polish some of these fragments to make them as good as possible—perhaps even write some more bits to give at least a minimal coherence."
    (Peter Elbow, Writing With Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1998)

     
  • Collage: E.B. White's Essay "Hot Weather"
    Morning is so closely associated with brisk affairs, music with evening and day's end, that when I hear a three-year-old dance tune crooned upon the early air while shadows still point west and the day is erect in the saddle, I feel faintly decadent, at loose ends, as though I were in the South Seas—a beachcomber waiting for a piece of fruit to fall, or for a brown girl to appear naked from a pool.

    * * *

    Asterisks? So soon?

    * * *

    It is a hot-weather sign, the asterisk. The cicada of the typewriter, telling the long steaming noons. Don Marquis was one of the great exponents of the asterisk. The heavy pauses between his paragraphs, could they find a translator, would make a book for the ages.

    * * *

    Don knew how lonely everybody is. "Always the struggle of the human soul is to break through the barriers of silence and distance into companionship. Friendship, lust, love, art, religion--we rush into them pleading, fighting, clamoring for the touch of spirit laid against our spirit." Why else would you be reading this fragmentary page—you with the book in your lap? You're not out to learn anything, certainly. You just want the healing action of some chance corroboration, the soporific of spirit laid against spirit. Even if you had read only to crab about everything I say, your letter of complaint is a dead give-away: you are unutterably lonely or you wouldn't have taken the trouble to write it. . . .
    (E.B. White, "Hot Weather." One Man's Meat. Harper & Row, 1944)

     
  • Collage in Joan Didion's Essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem"
    "At three-thirty that afternoon Max, Tom, and Sharon placed tabs under their tongues and sat down together in the living room to wait for the flash. Barbara stayed in the bedroom, smoking hash. During the next four hours a window banged once in Barbara's room and about five-thirty some children had a fight on the street. A curtain billowed in the afternoon wind. A cat scratched a beagle in Sharon's lap. Except for the sitar music on the stero there was no other sound or movement until seven-thirty, when Max said, 'Wow.'"
    (Joan Didion, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968)

     
  • Discontinuous or Paratactic Essays
    "[T]he serial arrangement of pieces in a discontinuous essay results in a composition the whole of which can only be taken in gradually and therefore can only be held entirely in mind by a special act of will. Indeed, the fragmented mode of presentation tacitly invites one to consider each segment in and of itself, in relation to every other segment and in relation to the entire set of pieces, resulting in a complex network of understandings gradually arrived at rather than a whole work immediately perceived. . . .

    "'Discontinuous'—it works so well to denote the visible and substantive breaks in a segmented piece that it seems to be the most accurate descriptive term. But it might have negative connotations—like many words beginning with 'dis'--so I've been pondering a more neutral term, such as 'paratactic,' from the Greek 'parataxis,' which refers to the placement of clauses or phrases side by side without any type of conjunction. . . . Though it's hardly so chic and culturally relevant a term as 'collage,' parataxis is certainly more akin to what happens in essays such as [George] Orwell's 'Marrakech,' [E.B.] White's 'Spring,' [Annie] Dillard's 'Living Like Weasels,' and [Joyce Carol] Oates's 'My Father, My Fiction,' all of which contain discrete sentences, paragraphs, or longer units of discourse placed side by side without any connective or transitional material between them."
    (Carl H. Klaus, The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay. Univ. of Iowa Press, 2010)

     
  • Winston Weathers on Collage Methods of Composing
    "In extreme form, collage/montage can mean something as radical as William Burroughs's famous cut-up method, whereby texts written in traditional grammar are arbitrarily cut up, horizontally and vertically, and converted into near-unintelligible scraps of text. The scraps are then shuffled (or folded in) and joined randomly. . . .

    "Less radical, and more useable, are methods of collage that use larger and more intelligible units of composition, each unit—like the crot—communicative within itself simply being joined in the collage to other communication units, perhaps from different time periods, perhaps dealing with different subject matter, perhaps even containing different sentence/dictional style, texture, tone. Collage at its best actually countermands much of the discontinuity and fragmentation of the alternate style by revealing, by the time a composition ends, a synthesis and wholeness that might not have been suspected at any station along the way."
    (Winston Weathers, "Grammars of Style: New Options in Composition," 1976. Rpt. in Style in Rhetoric and Composition: A Critical Sourcebook, ed. by Paul Butler. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2010)

     
  • David Shields on Collage
    314
    Collage is a demonstration of the many becoming the one, with the one never fully resolved because of the many that continue to impinge upon it. . . .

    328
    I'm not interested in collage as the refuge of the compositionally disabled. I'm interested in collage as (to be honest) an evolution beyond narrative. . . .

    330
    Everything I write, I believe instinctively, is to some extent collage. Meaning, ultimately, is a matter of adjacent data. . . .

    339
    Collage is pieces of other things. Their edges don't meet. . . .

    349
    The very nature of collage demands fragmented materials, or at least materials yanked out of context. Collage is, in a way, only an accentuated act of editing: picking through options and presenting a new arrangement . . .. The act of editing may be the key postmodern artistic instrument. . . .

    354
    In collage, writing is stripped of the pretense of originality and appears as a practice of mediation, of selection and contextualization, a practice, almost, of reading.
    (David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. Knopf, 2010)