Anybody remember paper toile? Corking? Soap carving? Well, I do–my childhood was enriched by a number of these bizarre late-seventies crafts. In fact, I won a blue ribbon for my soap-carved eagle in Grade 5 (how I wish I had a picture!).
One of my favorites of these crafty pastimes was decoupage. I loved painting the surface of an ordinary object with watery glue and arranging my favorite magazine clippings or greeting-card cutouts all over it. The final layer of glue would go on milky and unappealing, but the whole thing would dry to a satisfying vinyl-like finish. Once I covered my suitcase with pictures of Prince (how I wish I had a picture!).
The decoupage metaphor as applied to writing is nothing new. Postmodern literature, in particular, is celebrated for its use of bricolage and pastiche as techniques for citing, juxtaposing, and commenting on ideas and tropes from the past. Irony, of course, plays a much bigger role in postmodern decoupage than in the glue-and-paper kind.
But I think decoupage is actually a basic activity of all creative writing. You select bits of real-life and imaginative stuff that have caught your fancy: a compelling character trait, a resonant phrase, a standout landscape. You arrange them in ways that look good to you. You fix them to the page with word-glue. You add more bits to fill gaps, peel off what doesn’t fit. Then you layer more word-glue overtop. Often when you’re done, the whole thing appears gooey and opaque to your eyes. But come back later–after you’ve opened a window, taken a walk, cleared your head of the fumes–you realize what a shiny and gorgeous thing you’ve really made.