Cut and Paste: A Crafty Writing Prompt

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I was mesmerized by the sound of Captain Kangaroo’s scissors chomping through construction paper. I still love paper crafts—so it was a given that I’d love this LITERAL cut-and-paste writing exercise.

This prompt, which appears in poet Pat Schneider’s wonderful book WRITING ALONE AND WITH OTHERS, is a bit complicated—but, to me, the scissors and glue (not to mention the sometimes eerie results) make it worth it. (And, of course, it’s almost as cool if you do an electronic cut and paste!)

Writing prompt

Create (or dig out from your writing journals), two short poems, five to ten lines each. One poem should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone. The other poem should have an agitated, angry, or distraught tone.

Alternatively, you might use a paragraph (of equal-ish length) of two prose pieces. Again, one piece should have a gentle, happy, or peaceful tone, and the other, an agitated, angry, or upset tone.

Cut your poems—or paragraphs—apart, line by line as they appear on the page (NOT sentence by sentence). Here’s an example from the beginning of a paragraph I found in my journal to demonstrate how/where to cut:

I wandered in my neighborhood today and saw that the Halloween 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

decorations were up everywhere, giving a sort of orange-and-black cadence 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

to the crisp October afternoon. This lifted my spirits, almost as if . . . 

cut here >  – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Alternating lines from your first and second pieces, paste them together to make a single new piece. Don’t worry! It’s not supposed to make literal sense. But the poetic sense the juxtaposed lines create can seem quite uncanny.

I’ve created an example for you using two short poems—really just two ideas, only a couple of sentences each. The green lines are the first piece I wrote—the quiet one. The black lines are the second—the uneasy tone. I didn’t edit, just broke the lines apart and shuffled them back together. I did tweak the punctuation—and I’m not sure it improved matters. Maybe it would be better without punctuation?

Quiet now, neighbors gone to sleep, to rest.
The tension builds like paint; it flakes in scabs.
No more radio, backyard conversations
that reveal the raw red rash of remarks beneath
the buzzing tools that tame the yards,
the civility that is thinner than the peeling paint.
No more laughter
that chips when hands are extended to be shaken.
Only swaying branches, a quiet cloud,
or the window rolled down to wave, like in self-defense,
the bats dipping and silent on the invisible breeze,
the white flag of proximity.

If you’re struggling to loosen up your writing, this is a great way to lose control of intending a meaning and, instead, discovering the meaning that happenstance may provide.

Writing inspiration

The Dadaists, and then William Burroughs, created similar techniques. Check out the Cut-Up Machine on the Language Is a Virus site to play further with this and other writing games for grownups!

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