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What can writers learn from the art of collecting?
In January, we all become collectors, at least according to the marketing industry. The adverts start shortly before New Year’s Day, selling us the idea of buying a series of magazines and accoutrements which will, week by week, build up a collection of comic books, ships in bottles, flower fairies or seminal DVDs.
The timing is bizarre to my mind. Do marketeers really believe that New Year, and the associated resolution-making, will engender in us a sudden determination to become the proud owner of a ready-sourced compilation of items-on-demand? I can’t help thinking that the best collections are those which have organic roots in our lives. A collection can start at any point in time, with a small act, a coincidence, or be sparked by a genuine foible, perhaps because you’ve inherited or discovered an unusual item that ignites your curiosity. It is tempting to perceive these less manufactured collections as more fascinating and worthwhile than the one that has been dreamt up, and supplied, for us.
A collection represents a journey, with moments of discovery and triumph and disappointment…
Part of me wants to react against the way that these advertised collections are mapped out on our behalf, but perhaps I am being unfair. So what if the collectible arrives through the post or at our local newsagent at predictable and paid up intervals? I can identify with experiencing a certain pleasure in receiving and opening a package. Those of us familiar with the collector’s album will recall how exciting it was to go the newsagent and part with pocket money in exchange for stickers. Yet, I would argue that an integral part of the pleasure was the very mystery of the sticker pack, the never knowing precisely what (or whom) you would get, or if you would need to perform “swoppsies” to gain something important to your collection. A collection represents a journey, with moments of discovery and triumph and disappointment. Do publishers such as de Agostini and their partwork series rob us of part of the joy of discovery and research involved in collecting? Do their manufactured collections advertised at this time of year rob us of this very personal odyssey?
Perhaps the odyssey-courtesy-de-Agostini is simply of a different nature. Many of these collectible week-by-week sets are about assembling, not just amassing. The personal investment of time and energy involved is more about staying power and careful construction than it is about provenance or sourcing. And of course, unlike many collections, which can grow monstrous or fizzle out, these week by week collections build to a climax – a finished piece or complete range.
Perhaps even more stimulating for us as writers, is the story of each collector…
I’ve been thinking about collections because of these very seasonal ads and because I recently discovered a website called Obsessionistas. A variety of eccentric, esoteric collections is featured on the site, from antique typewriters to air hostess uniforms. The photography is stunning and the objects shared there are fun, thought-provoking and evocative of inner worlds and far-flung places. Perhaps even more stimulating for us as writers, is the way the site foregrounds the story of each collector.
A collection and its collector offer fantastic material for fiction. Firstly, a collection provides the possibility of presenting a great deal about a character, through show not tell. Descriptions of objects of desire allow readers to infer details about the character and his or her attitudes and values, without the writer having to directly impart this information. The objects act as analogies or metaphors.Consider Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess, where the narrator Duke’s possessive and stultifying attitude to his wife is revealed, as he takes us on a first person tour of his art collection and in doing so, tells us about a portrait of his dead bride. His collection is an unwitting demonstration of his impotence, his lack of ability to create anything. Browning conveys this without ever telling us directly.
Another boon, and challenge, for writers is that the process of collecting is a variation on a traditional quest narrative: the odyssey structures the plot, creating suspense, mystery and a slow reveal, as each item is hunted down or added to the collection. The challenge lies in avoiding an overly formulaic approach.
J.K Rowling turns collecting on its head as we join Harry Potter in collecting and then destroying horcruxes in The Deathly Hallows. Here, Harry deliberately destroys the items he seeks.
Many writers however, create delicious dramatic irony through the main character’s lack of awareness of the destructive tendencies behind his or her collecting activity. We have already heard about Browning’s Duke. John Fowles’s The Collector is another classic example of this. Frederick, the protagonist, is a lonely butterfly collector, who eventually and with frightening rationality, decides to add the girl he admires to his collection.
Perhaps we can use the hotbed of a collection then, to germinate some writing. Why not try an exercise such as starting with a description of an object or a room full of objects? Then consider who the person behind this collection is.
Alternatively, tap into the idea of a collection to get to know, and to portray, your existing character better… What would s/he have put aside in a shoebox of treasures? Is the collection a conscious act, or has it developed by accident? Has your character been consumed in some way?
Allow the process of the collection to prompt you to think about the structure of your writing, and its key moments in a new way. Plot out the episodes of triumph and of disappointment for your characters. Consider the sequencing (or interplay) of seek and find in the story. Have you allowed tension to build sufficiently?
On the subject of tension, don’t keep us here at Writersphere in suspense. If writers are the ultimate collectors – magpies for impressions and memories; words, accents and dialects; people and places – then don’t let your collection gather dust inside your head! Writersphere is your display cabinet. Put some of your writing on show now.