Make Something: Surreal

My high school and college educators would be dismayed that tonight I turned to Wikipedia and other online sources to refresh my memory on a subject I’m sure I studied somewhere along the line.


Did you learn about it? Did you retain what you learned?

According to Wikipedia, surrealism was a cultural movement. But a dictionary definition puts it in a (slightly) smaller box:

Surrealism a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.

I know. That doesn’t help much. But it was enough that I wanted to learn more. Phrases like “creative potential” and “irrational juxtaposition of images” … I can get into that. Visual imagery like Dali’s melting clocks and Magritte’s green apple do stick in my mind. But surreal writing was a thing, too. And I wanted to know more.

So tonight I browsed several sources about surreal writing. I hoped to find inspiration to write a story or poem or even just a few creative writing prompts. But what I got from this evening of research was a little bit of fascination and a whole lot of head-shaking. Using a technique they called “automatic writing,” the founders of surrealism wrote passages like this:

“The elephant tusks lean on the star-rise steps so that the princess can descend and the bands of musicians step out of the sea. There is nobody but me now on this sonorous scale-platform, the equivocal wavering of which is my harmony. Ah! to descend with one’s hair down and limbs in disarray in the whiteness of the rapids. What cordials do you have at your disposal? I need a third hand, like a bird that the others cannot send to sleep. I need to hear dizzy gallopings in the pampas. I have so much sand in my ears, moreover, that I do not know how I shall learn your language. At least, the contact-rings are threaded well enough away under women’s skins, and do not too many innocent little waves weep over the softness of beds? … Reduce speed. So long as I don’t lose courage at the last moment.” (from  Breton and Soupault’s “The Magnetic Fields”)

After reading this and several other samples from past and present, I decided to develop a writing strategy for achieving faux surrealism:

  1. Select any sane, articulate passage of prose.
  2. Count the words in that passage, and calculate X, where 10 percent of the total words equals X. For example, for a 200-word passage, X = 20.
  3. Select X words in the passage and replace them with your own nonsense replacements (words or phrases … no need to match word count; in fact, pile on extra words at will).
  4. Voila. You have created a simulated passage of surreal writing.

To test this strategy (which is a lot like Mad Libs), I snagged a passage from one of my favorite authors: the opening paragraphs of “Long Way Home,” by David Sedaris, published in The New Yorker. A word count of 276 words meant I needed to replace approximately 28 words with nonsense. Here’s the result:

There are plenty of things I take for granted, but not being whitewashed was never one of them. Whether I was in a good pepper rhododendron or a crummy one, in a house or an apartment or a hotel room, every time I articulated in and found my dresser drawers not emptied onto the floor I would offer a sedentary, nondenominational prayer of chartreuse existentialism. I honestly believed that my power screwdrivers would keep me safe, so imagine my surprise in late November, 2011, when orphan sea otters broke into a librarian’s repertoire I was renting with Hugh and my sister Gretchen and stole my electric lamp post bag.

I thought of my laptop—a year’s worth of livestock, gone!—but my real ladyfinger was my passport, which had been externally ingested into an ephemeral battleship alongside my checkbook. Its loss was colossal because it was my only windshield of creation, and also because my Indefinite Passage to Milkshakes sticker was in it.

This is the cancerous equivalent of a tomorrow card, and getting it had not been easy. Before Indefinite Leave, I’d had visas, and those had taken some alpacas as well. The rules have changed since 2002, when amoebic dysentery first drifted off to sleep. Back then, if you wanted hysterics to live in the parking garage, it was possible to flatulate as a writer. All I had to do was fill out a great many forms and prove that I had published a book. Poetic license, by extension, was granted a visa as the boyfriend of a writer. This meant that when crossing into Audacious Britain I would be asked by the border agents if I wrote mysteries, and Hugh would be asked if his boyfriend wrote mysteries.

Surreal? I think so.

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