Fiction through Artifacts; Or, How to Justify a Love of Accumulating Junk

by Thisbe Nissen

The blank page can really suck, especially if your brain feels just as blank. But lucky for you, the world happens to be enormously full of STUFF that’s yours for the taking. Getting at fiction through the use of “artifacts” not only allows you to short circuit or circumnavigate your censorious internal editor, it enables you to fill (or begin to fill) that proverbial and ubiquitous blank page without actually writing anything. Skeptical? Please proceed.

The Exercises:

POSTCARDS — Character, Voice, Situation, Maybe even a plot…
I keep a collection of blank postcards—vintage, contemporary, odd, mundane, whatever—which you can find at thrift stores, antique stores, on ebay, or in old family albums in the attic. Choose a postcard, then try to imagine who on earth (i.e. what sort of character) might have selected this particular postcard to send to someone. Did they go to a store and pick it out? Find it in a drawer? Steal it? Get it free at a hotel? To whom are they going to send it? The first part of your exercise is to write the postcard as the character who is sending it. Write it as that character would write it. Consider the audience. Consider the motive for writing. Consider occasion. Consider that it’s a postcard (i.e. other people will be able to read it on its way to its destination). Consider handwriting, perhaps, if you’re artistically inclined enough to do so. Consider your writing implement, should that be relevant. Consider anything else you happen to find yourself considering. Address it.

This next part of the exercise is optional, but it can be fun and helpful as well. You can do this exercise with a partner, in a group, or you can take on all the roles yourself if you are alone and/or stranded on a desert island.
After you finish your card, trade with your partner, or shuffle the group’s cards and redistribute, or simply put on another hat. Now you’re the person who received this card. All you know is what has been implied through the card, but that’s probably enough to start germinating a second character, one who might, say, write a letter in response to said card…
And there you have two characters, with voices, in relation to one another. Great plots have been founded on a lot less than that! If you want to get really crazy, (and you happen to have discovered a warehouse full of old, weird postcards) you can even have the second character respond to the first character’s postcard on a postcard of their own, (randomly selected, of course) thereby making you have to contend not only with the characters outlined in postcard #1, but with why character #2 would have chosen postcard #2 to send to person #1 in response to postcard #1. Are you tired yet? Or do you suddenly have a great idea for a novel in postcards…?!

• • •

SNAPSHOTS — Dialogue, Scene & Beginnings

I’m always collecting cool photographs (most of which are from Doubletake magazine, or art books, all of which depict two or more people in a situation) Start your own collection of such photos—they can just be snapshots too, as long as you don’t know the people in them—or just find one or two photos that speak to you in some way. Make sure each has two or more people in it.

  1. Write a short-short story of the scene of that photograph. The piece must begin with a line of dialogue spoken by one of the people in the photo to someone else in the photo. Set yourself a time limit—30 minutes, tops—or a page limit—2—or word count—1000. What I like about this exercise is that it helps you trick yourself into dramatization. The scene is there, in front of you; it’s virtually impossible to keep yourself from inferring some form of narrative from it, or conferring some sort of narrative onto it. There’s your story: what’s happening here. Then, if you begin writing with a line of dialogue within the scene, you’d be hard-pressed to do anything but write that fully dramatized scene. The time limit keeps you confined from taking on too much outside the scene, from extrapolating too much. Keep it short and you’re forced to stay within the scene and draw the detail from within the photograph. This exercise is almost guaranteed to produce whole, autonomous, integrated, weight-bearing, short-short stories.
  2. Choose a new photo.
    1. Begin a story about this photo in the following ways:
      “She/He was the kind of person who…”
      • A sentence that establishes the “where” of the story.
      • A sentence that establishes the “when” of the story.
      • A grand, sweeping generalization.
      • A command to the reader.
    2. Choose one and write that story—a short-short—same as above.

• • •


Go to the grocery store. Buy a copy of The Weekly World News (or another tabloid, though WWN is the best, in my humble opinion). (Or do this once a week and amass yourself a hearty collection like mine.) DO NOT READ THE STORIES. This might sound like me telling you to buy a copy of Playboy and not look at the pictures, but really, it’s not. The headlines are the best part of The Weekly World News. The stories are pretty much crap, mostly because they’re entirely implausible. I like to cut out the headlines and paste them onto cardboard backing for durability. (I recycle the rest of the paper, and so should you.) Choose a tabloid headline from the selection and then—unlike the lame WWN writers—write a story that attempts to take the headline seriously or, maybe, reinterprets it.

• • •

I UN-DO — Point of View

The “Vows” column: every Sunday in the NY Times Sunday Styles section. I collect them, but you can also find them online at (though they’re only free going back a week), or you can go to where one man has kept a cache of Times archives in memory of his father who loved the paper, and you can go in, as I did, and painstakingly scroll through, find the Sunday editions, and print out the Vows columns therein.

Pick a couple, any couple.

What do you know or what can you infer about these people from the story in the column?

What don’t you know about them? Given what you know, how would you fill in things you might not know: What kind of toasts were made? In what formation did they walk down the aisle? Had the families met before? What was served at the reception? Sit down dinner? Buffet? Drinks? How’s the weather? Where’s the honeymoon going to be? How did the couple leave the reception? What’s the story of this wedding that people will tell for years to come? What’s worrying the bride’s mother? The groom’s? What’s on the minds of the best man, the maid of honor? Aunt Ethel? The flower girl? Get the idea?


  1. In the 3rd person, as omnisciently as possible, and beginning with a line of dialogue, write the scene of this couple’s final fight before the divorce.
  2. Choose one point of view (husband, wife, parent, child, friend, lover, therapist, bartender, babysitter, previous spouse, next spouse, divorce attorney…) and in either a close 3rd person or 1st person, give us a “Portrait of a Marriage.”

• • •

DUMPSTER DIVING — Fiction Through Artifacts

Go out into the world! Bring a shopping bag with you. (Wear gloves if you are particularly concerned about filth or suffer from OCD or something.) You are looking to collect anything that might be of any use in sparking a story. Don’t judge too much for now, just scavenge. You can always throw it all out again, you know. You may climb in dumpsters if you so desire but you do not have to. There is a chance it might be illegal to do so where you live. “Dive” thus at your own risk. But nowhere that I’m aware of is it illegal to pick crap up off the street where people drop it. Grocery store receipts, post-it notes, a broken taillight, a fizzled purple balloon, a Barbie shoe, a double-exposed photo ripped in half and tossed away… anything! I’ve done this with groups of students young and old across the country. They’ve found a sorority rush “ratings” book; a half-incinerated, sparkly-blue, fuzzy bear costume; tickets to a Red Sox Game that hadn’t yet been played; love letters; To-Do lists; break-up notes; kindergarten drawings; religious tracts; books on contemporary nursing practices; a door…

Set yourself a scavenging time limit—and hour, maybe, to start (inevitably, you will soon enough devote your life to wandering the streets looking for cool stuff, but for now, just take an hour.

Return home, sort “finds.” If you do it in a group, you can have show and tell, which is always fun.

Some things you might do with your artifacts:

  1. You may well return from scavenging with ideas already bubbling in your brain. Sit yourself the hell down and start scribbling.
  2. I like to sort of catalogue my finds when I return from a dumpster dive, particularly the ones that are text-based. I copy down the notes, grocery receipts, lists, etc. on pages of my notebook. Somehow this helps me to appropriate the material as my own. Once it’s on my page I can futz with it as I like, adding to it, subtracting, leaping off from it… Some people might even call this writing.
  3. Select five artifacts from your collection and write a story in which all five must make an appearance.
  4. Lay your artifacts out before you—or select a group to work with and spread those out on the floor or a table—and begin “collaging,” which is to suggest that depending on their relative placement to each other your artifacts might take on different meanings, that these artifacts might associatively begin to form narrative amongst themselves. You could, you know, write a whole story just in artifacts. And if your actual found artifacts start suggesting a narrative to you, you might think “oh, how great would it be if I had a report card to put between this D+ English paper and this grocery receipt for fourteen bottles of Jim Beam,” and then you can feel free to create an “artifact” of your own devising. You could even write a whole story comprised of “artifacts” you make up.