August 2, 2015


August 2, 2015

Some time before I began writing my current work in progress about my sister’s suicide, I was given a copy of “The Collage Journal, The First Decade: 2005-2015, Peter Jacobs” by Eric Levin, an editor at New Jersey Monthly. Levin wrote the introduction to this stunning catalog of an exhibition of Jacobs’ daily collages, currently at the Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey. He began this daily practice on March 31, 2005 and has continued producing one collage a day until the present and he says he’ll continue with this practice for the foreseeable future. You can view Jacobs’ remarkable work at and

Levin quotes Jacobs’ description of why he started making a daily collage. Jacobs and his wife, also an artist “were sitting around talking about the value of discipline in making art, and about finding projects that have some weight.” His wife, Elizabeth, suggested that they do “something every day.” And Jacobs thought about what was a part of his everyday world, and realized it was the newspaper. So he decided “to do an assemblage every day.”Part of his motivation was to have “a visual dialogue with the state of politics, the environment and the divisions in the country.”

So Jacobs began making collages from images in the day’s newspaper, cut from the paper with an X-Acto knife, assembled and pasted onto a 9 by 12 inch Strathmore watercolor pad. Some of the collages are figurative; some abstract; some surreal.

To prepare for writing his introduction, Levin interviewed Jacobs about his creative process, and about the limitations he’s imposed on himself to do his work. Jacobs sees his work as “a visual game . . . a puzzle I try to create a different ending each time.” He begins each day, not knowing what he’s going to do, what the work is going to look like. But to create his works, Jacobs imposed some self-styled limitations. And here I’m quoting Levin’s introduction:

“1) Make one collage every single day. 2) Make it only from that day’s newspaper. (With very few exceptions, usually involving travel, the paper has been the New York Times.) 3) Start the collage first thing in the morning, or as early as possible and complete it in about two hours. 4) Once work commences, continue until the collage is finished. Do not put it down, incomplete, think about it, and come back to it later. 5) The finished collage must form some kind of square or rectangle. 6) It can be of any size as long as it can be glued, whole, onto one page of a 9-by-12-inch Strathmore watercolor pad.”

Jacobs has discovered that “‘through these limitations’” he has found “‘freedom’.”

I knew that in writing about my sister’s suicide, I was taking on a difficult project that would tax me as a writer. For writing about a subject like this is not only difficult in terms of craft; it is hard emotionally. So that when I learned about the limitations Jacobs set for himself, I immediately knew that I couldn’t write this book unless I imposed some limitations on the way I worked. This is the reason I love to read about artists’ and writers’ creative processes: because doing so inevitably teaches me something I need to learn.

I loved that Jacobs started each day’s work without a preconception about what he’d create. And I decided to do that, too. I thought that because thinking about the suicide of a family member is so hard, and that I–at least–can’t dwell on the subject for too long, and that ideas and images about the event come and go, it would be important for me to begin each day not knowing what I’d write so that I could grab the most immediate image or idea that came to me when I sat down to write, or as I made my way to the desk to sit down to write. This was the first limitation I set: that I wouldn’t decide what to work on until the moment I started working.

I also knew that I could get lost in the subject and that it wouldn’t be good for me emotionally. So that, imitating Jacobs, I set a time limit for my day’s work. I decided that I would work about one hour. This has worked well because it means I don’t have to spend that much of my day mired in this difficult subject. It has also stopped whatever writer’s block I might have about this subject because I know that I must finish whatever circle of meaning I’ve begun by the end of the hour. This is the second limitation I set: to write for one hour and one hour only.

I haven’t stipulated a time for me to work on this project, and so I’ve found myself working on it at various times of the day. The only limitation I’ve set is that the work has to be finished by the time I start cooking dinner–around five o’clock. This is the third limitation I’ve set: to complete the hour’s work by 5 PM.

I knew from working on the book about my father, Chasing Ghosts, A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War (coming out from Fordham University Press in October), that I could get lost in the subject if I let myself write several versions of the same moment the way I did when I worked on that book so that I sometimes had to wade through fifteen versions of the same scene to see which worked best, which detail I’d left out of the best version. It was, I must say, a maddening process although perhaps necessary for the writing of that book. But not for this one, a far more difficult subject. And so I set the fourth limitation on my work: to work as directly as possible; to revise in the document; to print only one version of what I worked on; and if I decided to revise, to destroy any earlier versions. This has worked very well for me. For what I have is the latest version of each piece.

I decided to write short pieces that work together juxtapositionally rather than to compose a linear narrative. And so a fifth limitation is that each piece–with few exceptions–can’t be longer than the revision of what I can draft in one session. What this means is that on day one of working on an image or an idea or a set of meanings, I draft what I can in an hour. The next day, I return to that beginning and continue to work. But I can’t extend the work beyond the range of meanings I established on day one. And I can’t revise the work more than four times. This, too, has worked well because I tend to be a compulsive reviser and this is helping me write, revise, finish, and move on.

I’m very grateful to Eric Levin for giving me a copy of the catalog. It provided me with exactly what I needed when I needed it.

Too often the creative process becomes equated with openendedness, that we keep writing on a given day until we feel like stopping. But I’ve found, with this project, that these strict limitations have helped me enormously.

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One Response to “Limitations”

  1. Kirie Says:

    This is really brilliant. Thank you so much for passing on this beautiful methodology for working with difficult material. I will read this more than once. I just started for perhaps the fiftieth time work on a challenging topic. I swear and have witnesses that sometimes when I write about the topic, my computer goes haywire. Jagged lines, freezing, even the computer giving up the ghost completely. The urge to silence myself is that powerful. Setting limits, as you are doing, makes so much sense. It’s about, in part, being kind to oneself in the writing process that some compare, in their own words, to cutting off the tips of one’s fingers and letting the blood pour out onto the page.

    Do you ever find yourself crying when you write?

    This post is a real gift. Thanks again.

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