A Surrealist Cadavre Exquis

By, Sharmon Gazaway, Jon Black, A. A. Rubin, Polly Alice McCann, and Renee Cronley

Intro: The following piece was composed by the authors as a surrealist cadavre exquis. The cadavre exquis is an exercise practiced by surrealist artists where an artist began by drawing something at the top of a folded piece of paper, and then refolded the paper so that only the bottom lines of their drawing were visible. They would then mail the paper to the next artists, and the process would repeat again, over and over, until the piece was complete. We have attempted to adapt the exercise for writers. The first writer composed a paragraph and then sent their final line to the next writer, who continued the piece using that line as their first line. The process continued until each writer had composed their paragraph. Each writer wrote with no knowledge of the content or style of the previous paragraph, save for the last line.

For more information about the Cadavre Exquis exercise, click here:

Stop. I beg you. Don’t do this. It’s not what you think it will be. Yes, you’ve made this great discovery, and all you’ve wanted your whole small, dull life was to make a great discovery, or a great anything. You know this is your chance. Probably your only chance. Naturally, you can’t let it pass. And how will you know if the discovery is truly great if you never try it out? You can risk only yourself. That’s good. That’s admirable. But don’t. Don’t do it. It’s unlike anything you are imagining. It won’t bring you any kind of happiness. Maybe recognition, but even that can’t be guaranteed. That tingle you’re feeling—it’s not the mere excitement of nerves and thrill of the unknown. Trust me. It’s the electric charge of curiosity mingled with the twist in the gut that accompanies foreboding. It’s inside you telling you what I’m pleading from here. Listen to it. Even if you’ve never heeded another’s advice in your life, heed me now. We all send our direst warnings. Everything you’ve known will be lost, everything you’ve hoped for will be…different. Remember Eve. Remember Pandora. Recall the handwriting on the wall, and the curious cat. It did not end well. No, not death. That’s not the fear here. At least, not now. This is different, worse. Yes, worse. At the risk of repetition, it’s beyond all you have imagined, or can. I would tell you if I was able. I’m not. None of us are. But don’t. Just don’t do it, it’s not what you think it will be. 

***

Just don’t do it, it’s not what you think it will be. Would it be worth it? Could it be worth it? Guillaume barely heard his thoughts over the hissing steam, boiling water, and crackling fire. Regrettably, he had no problem hearing the church bells outside, their peels like the cadence presaging a firing squad. Drinking deeply from the bottle, his face wrinkled. He pulled his under-linens and shirt from the porcelain bleaching pot filled with onion juice. In the days of his grandfather’s grandfather, launderers had used their own urine. People today didn’t want that. But, truthfully, urine worked better. Most days, a small army toiled in the laundry to meet the village’s needs. Today, it was operated by, and for, one man. The bleached clothes went into the copper boiler where the rest of his outfit already soaked alongside a chunk of lye. Snatching up the baton, he turned his clothes within the water. Guillaume considered the two images on the wall above the boiler. The icon of Joan d’Arc still shone brightly with the colors of passion and pain. The woodcut of Louis XV, so-called “the beloved,” had wrinkled, faded, and stained with generations of steam and smoke. A relic from a world which no longer was. Grimacing, he again swigged from the bottle. The vintage, from Chantal’s father’s vineyard, should have aged at least two years before uncorking. Guillaume didn’t have that kind of time. Better early than never. When at last the bottle was empty, and the clothes in the boiler as heavily churned as the virgin wine in his belly, he removed the garments. He placed them in the soaking basin and then laid them beneath the box mangle. Working its iron crank, the heavy wooden block rolled across the fabric, forcing out the water. Finally, he placed the garments on a table, covered them with thin linen, and took up a heavy iron from the fire. Today’s outfit would be immaculate. Guillaume wondered, had anyone ever so lovingly laundered the very clothes in which they would be buried that day? Outside, the bell tolled once more.

***

Outside, the bell tolled once more. She tried to focus on the sound, like a Zen monk practicing meditation, and let the monotony drive away her problems. But she had never been much good at meditation: Instead of driving away her troubles, each gong seemed to magnify them. Gong, the mortgage; Gong, the kids; Gong, the pandemic; Gong, another workout skipped; Gong, the number on the scale, ever growing. A loud gong, but in a low register, insufficient to break the glass ceiling against which she kept bumping at work. With each chime, her world grew smaller. With each toll, the walls closed in a bit more. A wave of claustrophobia washed over her. Soon, she would be trapped in a small, glass box, like a mime, unable to speak. It was more than she could take, She got up from her desk and rushed through the house, cringing at each toll of the incessant bell. (Were the intervals getting shorter? They definitely felt shorter.) She fumbled through the neglected Tibetan prayer bowl for her keys, and burst out into the open air of the suburban streets hoping to escape the sound. But the bell continued to toll. Outside, it was even louder. It seemed to follow her, somehow amplifying whichever direction she ran. She doubled back to the house, got in the car, and turned up the radio as loud as it would go. She drove for miles, far past the limits of where the sound could possibly carry, but the bell tolled, nonetheless, if not in the outside world, distinctly in her mind. It echoed through her head, and reverberated off the walls of her skull. There was no escape. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, she thought, it tolls for me

***

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, she thought, it tolls for me. The words jangled in her head like a bronze clapper. The reverberations seemed to go from the base of her neck down to her toes. She covered her ears and squeezed her eyes closed. When the sounds stopped. She opened her eyes and she didn’t know where she was. A warm chamber with a shell-like ceiling enveloped her with white light. Where was she? She looked at her hands, they seemed different somehow. Why didn’t she feel panicked? Waiting seemed easy, almost weightless until a small port window she hadn’t noticed grew dim and someone entered. That someone swam in, with a long lush green tail, her hair swinging like so many live anemones, her eyes yellow and cool. That’s when it became clear, she was underwater but breathing without any problem. 

***

That’s when it became clear, she was underwater but breathing without any problem. For a moment, it was overwhelming.

She was used to shallow living, so the depths were frightening and she was worried she might drown in her emotions.

Liquid calm spread throughout her body as a myriad of memories surfaced in her mind.

All those nights of her running out of the beach house, her tear-stained cheeks stinging with an angry hand imprint.

It was walking along the beach that soothed her. The ocean had a voice, and the sound of her name seemed to roll off whitecaps like a soothing lullaby. 

She would write save me in the sand with a stick.

Throughout her life, she felt like a piece of property—a ship that one man had commandeered after the other. She was nothing but a vessel to steer on their own course. She had no control over her life. 

But they could never conquer the sea and so she admired it. Some days, it was like she was stuck in a prison staring out into the azure through a window of blurred tears, wishing she could dive in and swim away. 

But this was better.

The warm water cradled her like the amniotic fluid that once protected her long ago while she was in utero.

She was born of the sea.

And she was free.

The knots that lived inside her unraveled. She embraced her repressed untamed nature that always existed below the surface. 

She made skirts of bright red kelp and decorated her hair with hibiscus flowers. A flounder took her under his wing, and told her legends and showed her lost treasures. 

Sometimes ships full of men would linger near them, casting their nets so they could blindly catch whatever they could reel in and watch gasp for air on the deck. 

She taught her friends to sabotage nets and hulls using the knowledge she gained on land. They would use the weather to their advantage. Once the men were overboard, flailing their arms for someone to save them, she would pull them under and fill their lungs with the sea. 

The more men gone, the better for her survival. 

She knew the life that awaited her on shore.

And she would never allow herself to be caught again. 

FIN

The paragraphs were composed in the order indicated in the byline.


Sharmon Gazaway writes from the Deep South where she lives beside a historic cemetery haunted by the wild cries of pileated woodpeckers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Enchanted Conversation, New Myths, Metaphorosis, Breath and Shadow, Ghost Orchid Press, and elsewhere. You can find her work in the anthologies, Love Letters to Poe Volume 1, Dark Waters, Orpheus + Eurydice Rewoven, and Wayward and Upward. You can contact her on Instagram at sharmongazaway. 

Jon Black is an award-winning writer of historical fiction with pulp, supernatural, or Mythos twists. He is best known for his Bel Nemeton series, combining 6th century Arthurian historical fantasy with brainy 21st century pulp as well as the Jazz Age supernatural mystery Gabriel’s Trumpet. Jon is obsessed with the Parisian avant-garde, on full display in his short story “The Green Muse,” a mythos tale revolving around the Montmartre Cubist scene and featured in the anthology The Chromatic Court. He dabbles in creating Dadaist and Surrealist visual and performance art. In 2016, Jon hosted the Austin, Texas celebrations honoring Dada’s 100th anniversary. Find out more about him at https://jonblackwrites.com/

A. A. Rubin surfs the cosmos on winds of dark energy. He writes in many style, ranging from literary fiction to comics, formal poetry to science fiction and fantasy, and (almost) everything in between. His work has appeared recently in Love Letters to Poe, Ahoy! Comics, and The Deronda Review. He can be reached on social media as @TheSurrealAri, or right here on the website which you are now reading.

Polly Alice McCann, poet, artist, says that poetry saved her life. She began writing  after a night sleeping under desert stars with only a book for a pillow. Her work explores faith, loss, and the search for the true heartland: “I will not forget,” she writes. “I am woman, all things began in me.” Her first books, “Kinlight,” and “Puss ’N Boötes” published in 2019, 2020. She has been published internationally in Naugatuck River Review, Arc 24 and elsewhere. She credits her narrative free verse style from studying under poets Julia Kasdorf and Ron Koertge, and her degree from Hamline University MFAC. Her art has been published in several publications including Rattle Magazine. She is the founder of Ketchupedia Poetry Radio and the managing editor of Flying Ketchup Press.

Renee Cronley is a poet, writer, and nurse from Brandon, Manitoba.  She studied Psychology and English at Brandon University, and Nursing at Assiniboine Community College.  Her work has appeared in NewMyths.com,  Love Letters to Poe, Black Hare Press, SmashBear Publishing, Canadian Stories, Panoply, and Discretionary Love and is forthcoming with Dark Dispatch, Dark Rose Press, and Off Topic. Social Media Links: https://www.instagram.com/reneecronley/, https://twitter.com/ReneeCronley, https://www.facebook.com/renees.writing.page

The Surrealist Cadavre Exquis: A Call for Writers

On a recent trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I viewed the Surrealism Beyond Borders exhibit. It was a wonderful show, and I learned a lot about the range of the artistic movement, its philosophical beliefs, and its creative practices. One practice to which I was particularly attracted was the Cadavre Exquis, or Exquisite Cadaver.

In a Cadavre Exquis, one artist would begin by folding a paper a number of times, and composing a drawing on the top part of the paper. They would then refold the paper so that the section they had drawn on was not visible, save for the very ends of their lines, and mail it to another artist, who would continue the drawing with only the ends of the lines to guide them. They would then repeat the process of folding and passing on until the paper was completely filled.

The exhibit included examples ranging from pieces created by two artists to 30+ artists.

According to the gallery card, the exercise embodied Surrealist ideas of collaboration and accessing the subconscious, and also would “often reveal the hidden fears and desires of its makers.”

The gallery card also mentioned that the game could be played with words, although I did not see any such examples on display.

I loved the idea immediately, and promised myself I would incorporate it into my own practice. As such, I am looking for other writers to join me.

How it would work

One writer would start a story or a free write. They would write a paragraph (75-200 words). They would then email the next writer in the team only the final sentence of their piece, who would continue the story from there. The second writer would repeat the process, writing a paragraph and then sending their last sentence to the next writer, and so on.

When the piece was done, I would collate them and post them (with all the writers’ permission, of course) on this blog.

I would offer the opportunity, though by no-means require, the other writers to write brief reflection on their experience as well.

The timeframe is a bit nebulous and would depend on how many participants/teams we would end up with, but the game would likely be played some time in February.

How you can get involved

If you are interested in joining me in this endeavor, please email me by the end of January at aarubin@aarubin.com. Briefly introduce yourself, tell me what kind of writing you do, include a brief bio, and anything else you feel is relevant. While I cannot guarantee that I’ll work with everyone, I am interested in compiling multiple teams so that I can try the game from different positions in the order.

A surrealist Cadaver Exquisite

The fine print

—I cannot offer any monetary payment for participating.

—I will not publish anything hateful or bigoted.

—While I would like to give you free rein to access your subconscious, there is a limit to what I will post here in terms of graphic sex and violence.

—I will credit all of the participants appropriately, post the writers’ bios, and link to participants social media or websites.

I look forward to hearing from you soon. Again, if you’re interested in participating, please email me at aarubin@aarubin.com.

The longest example on display at The Met.

Ray Bradbury’s Noun Exercise: A Gift for Writers on his Centennial Birthday

Today, marks Ray Bradbury’s 100th birthday, and in his honor, I am going to share one his favorite writing exercises. This exercise, which I learned in the Ray Bradbury and Creative Storytelling class I recently completed with Bradbury biographer Sam Weller, addresses two area with which many authors struggle, writers block and writing titles. I have begun to incorporate it into my own writing practice and it has become one of my favorites as well.

On a blank sheet of paper, list nouns that pop into your head. These should be free-associated nouns that come to you from your subconscious, without thinking too hard. The only restrictions are that, A. the nouns should not be about the same subject (don’t list boat, sail, water, ocean, fish); and B, you must write “the” before each of the nouns (The Sky, The Candle; The Painting; The Chair; The Tree; The Scotch Whisky, The Vampire; etc.). Now, go through the list, choose one, and use it for both the subject—and title—of your story. That’s it. It seems simple, but it works. Here is a picture of one of my lists:

If you look at Bradbury’s catalog of stories, you will find many stories with titles that follow this format, including some of his most famous: The Lake, The Foghorn, The Crowd, The Fire Balloons, etc. It is likely that he used this technique to help him start writing his stories. Even Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451 began as a story called “The Fireman.” The proof is in the pudding.

I love this technique because it’s so simple, so low pressure, and so effective. On each list I make, there may only be two or three ideas that I will eventually pursue, but by listing so many, there is less pressure to create any individual idea, which it makes it so much easier to start writing. If the idea doesn’t work, there are 20 more on the list from which I can choose. And, as an added bonus, when I do finish a story, the title is already written. I don’t have to think of a title, which is one of my least favorite parts of the writing process.

Ray Bradbury left us so many gifts in the forms of his books and stories, and this “noun exercise” is one more gift for us writers. During this, his centennial celebration, I urge you to try it. Let me know how it works for you.

Be sure to connect on facebooktwitter, and instagram, and check out the links page to read some of my published work.

Everything I Needed To Know About Writing Character, I Learned From Sesame Street

Everything I needed to know about characterization, I learned from Sesame Street. I just didn’t know it at the time. Ok, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but watching the show as an adult—and as a writer—I am consistently amazed by how well the muppets are characterized.

Sesame Street celebrated its 50th birthday last week, and with that milestone, this seems as good of a time as any for me to write about what authors can learn from the show. While there are, of course, many aspects of writing in which the show excels, the one stands out most is the characterization of the beloved muppets, which is orders of magnitude better than any other children’s program on tv today.

Most other kids’ shows (and as a stay at home dad on childcare leave, I watch a lot of children’s’ television) feature flat,  one-dimensional characters who are known for a single character trait: the smart one, the leader, the clumsy one, the shy one, etc., and a catch phrase. The simplicity of the characterization and the repetition of the catch phrase drives home the characterization for young viewers, and informs the way the character interacts with the both the plot and the message of each episode. The shy one has to speak up in order to save the day; the leader has to learn to accept help from his team; the clumsy one learns gymnastics or karate, etc. The young viewer recognizes these traits in themselves and understands the lesson each episode teaches. That characterization is driven home by the catch phrase, which repeats throughout the episode and provides a shorthand for children to identify – and identify with—the character. Ultimately, though, these characters are flat, and adult viewers and older children find these over-simplified characters –and especially their loud, repetitive catch phrases annoying (just ask any parent forced to sit through multiple episodes of Paw Patrol).

Sesame Street, on the other hand, provides much rounder, more realistic characterization. While it is true that many of the characters, especially in recent years, are associated with specific traits (Grover and Abby are prone to mistakes, Bert is fastidious, Telly is a worrier), and while there are characters with catch phrases (Oscar the Grouch, “Scram” and The Count, “They call me the count because I love to count things, ah, ah, ah.”), the characterization does not end there. Generally, the muppets have fully-formed personalities that fit E. M. Forsters’ definition of round characters, they seem like they could walk out of the screen and exist in our world.

There are many factors that contribute to this complex characterization, and, of course, a large portion of the credit goes to the muppeteers, from Jim Henson and Carol Spinney on down to the contemporary artists whose performance gives the characters life, but there are also techniques inherent in writing that contribute to each character’s unique personality. I would like to focus on just one for this post: the way language gives each character his or her own unique voice.

Let’s examine Cookie Monster, who is one of the most beloved recognizable of the muppets. While Cookie Monster does have a strong primary trait (he loves to eat cookies, duh!) and some catch phrases (Cowabunga! And Cooookies om nom nom), he feels more round than characters on other kids programs. He has a sense of humor; he is impulsive; he is emotional; and he has an active imagination. He also has a very unique way of talking.

If you have not seen the show in a while, watch this brilliant spoof of Jurassic Park to remind yourself about the way Cookie Monster Talks:

In the first minute or so of the video, all of Cookie Monster’s major speech quirks manifest:

–He consistently uses the objective pronoun, “me” in place of the subjective case “I” ex: 0:22—“me take little piece of cookie found in zillion year old rock”

–He uses “no” or “not” in the place of contracted negatives, like “don’t or “won’t” ex: 0:48—“Me not know; me no see it yet.”

— He often, though not always drops (doesn’t use) “to be” verbs (is, are, etc.) ex: 053 “Ok, that one big cookie.

–He drops the article (a, the) from his sentences most of the time, except when clarity would be sacrificed, ex: 1:01 “Is giant prehistoric cookie chasing us?”

Cookie monster repeats these speech quirks many times throughout the video. Notice how these speech patterns appear consistently throughout the five minute sketch. Notice as well, that the famous Cookie Monster catch phrases don’t appear until the final minute. The scene runs 4:50 before the first “cowabunga”, yet, throughout, it feels and sounds exactly like Cookie Monster should.

Here is another, older, sketch which features Cookie Monster. Watch it to see how remarkably consistent these speech quirks have been over the program’s 50 year run.

Cookie Monster is not the only character on Sesame Street who features syntactical quirks as a major part of his or her characterization. Elmo never uses personal pronouns to describe himself. Grover never uses contractions. Less obviously, Big Bird, at least when he was played by Spinney, punctuated his speech with “Oh” (Oh boy, Oh dear). The common, maybe even the official explanation of these speech patterns, is that these characters mimic children’s speech patterns at various ages and in various stages of development, but these syntactical signatures also mimic the way real people speak. 

In Neil Gaiman’s Master Class, he suggests that an author’s voice is what happens when they don’t do things perfectly. These quirks of style, he says, make the writing unique and identifiable. They comprise a key element of the author’s voice. Narrative voice, however, is only one kind of voice. Individual characters also should have their own voices, distinct from that of the narrator. Unfortunately, many authors struggle with this aspect of writing. Giving your characters unique syntactical quirks in a great way to address this issue. Going back to E. M. Forster’s definition of round characters—one that can come off the page and exist in real life—real people have their own specific syntactical quirks. No one speaks perfectly all of the time (and if they did, that, in and of itself, is a differentiating quirk), and, as Gaiman said about author voices, these mistakes make us who we are.

The writers of Sesame Street are not the only ones who use this technique. No less of a writer than William Shakespeare used it brilliantly in his most famous play, Hamlet. In that play, Polonius’ speech is marked by the literary technique, Hendiadys, the expression of a single idea using two words, connected by “and”. Hamlet, himself is prone to apostrophe (address to an inanimate object or concept as if it is a real person), and comparisons using Greek mythology in which he comes up short next to the person or god with whom he compares himself.

The modern paradigm for this technique is Yoda, from the Star Wars universe, who, famously, inverts his sentences (though there is way more to his syntax than most people realize—Look out for a future blog post analyzing his speech patterns).

There are many examples from which to choose. If you want to practice this technique choose a character from a book, movie, or show who has a distinctive manner of speaking and try to write a speech for that character. Read the speech out loud, and analyze the extent to which your speech sounds like the person whom you are trying to emulate. Repeat the exercise with a different character whose speech pattern is more subtle, or with someone whom you know in real life.

Another way that you can work on this in your own writing is to add a character’s syntactical signatures and speech quirks into your character profiles. Instead of just describing the character’s physical appearance and background information, sketch out their speech patterns as well. You learn a lot more about a person by listening to them speak than by knowing how tall they are or what color eyes they have.

Using syntactical quirks as a method of characterization is a technique that I’ve encountered throughout my reading, writing, and teaching life. It is, like many things, however, something that I first learned from Sesame Street.

Happy 50th Birthday, Sesame Street!

Be sure to check out the links page to read some of my published writing, and to follow me on twitter and facebook.