Stop making sense with Ryerson’s Surrealist Writing Group

Illustration by Pernia Jamshed.

Cat in illumination. Hooligan of brilliance. Ogre of awareness.

These unmethodical sequences of nouns, conjunctions and abstract concepts were just some of many peculiar titles to potential stories created in a writing exercise at Ryerson’s Surrealist Writing Group. Members passed around three scraps of paper in a circle and wrote down one word per category, pairing them together at random. They simultaneously speculated over any hidden meanings found in the selection of words, and laughed over the sheer bizarreness.

Now in its third year, the group meets the last Wednesday of each month at the Modern Literature and Culture Research Centre (MLC Gallery), and is led by Mark Silverberg, a creative writing professor and research associate at the MLC. A small group of eight writers were present, and a strong sense of collaboration and creativity stemmed from the numerous exercises, poems and vignettes written during the meeting.

Surrealism is a visual art and literary movement that surged in the 1920s with artists such as André Breton, Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo pioneering the craft. It is rooted in the creativity of the unconscious imagination and does not adhere to any strict structure or guidelines. A writing and artistic technique called automatism, for example, was used to begin most of the exercises. The free writing technique involves being given a prompt and writing whatever thoughts come to the mind, suppressing the urge to make perfect sense.

“Surrealism is not reducible to explanation.”

Without boundaries, how would one go about writing a surrealist short story complete with a solid plot, setting and characters? “Well, you can’t,” Silverberg explained. “Every line is potentially a surprise…there’s no way you could predict it. It keeps changing. But one mind can’t very effectively do that, and especially not if you’re trying to sustain a narrative.”

This is the allure of surrealism. While it appears thrown together erratically, all the varying parts making up a piece of surrealist art can somehow coexist in the same space. Without the art explicitly telling the audience what to feel, one can interpret surrealism however they choose — or choose not to. As Silverberg said: “Surrealism is not reducible to explanation.”

In addition to writing simply for pleasure or to stretch their artistic muscles, writers of the surrealist group, also known as the MLC Surrealists, will occasionally send their work out for publication. Zero, one of their first collaborative poems of the semester, was published in Surrealist Star Clustered Illuminations, a surrealist literary magazine based in Michigan.

As the writers read their poems about talking tomato plants and clouds raining alligator tears aloud, their confidence and desire to become more incoherent with their writing increased.

“Surrealism seems to make sense, but you can’t explain why it makes sense,” Silverberg said. And for surrealism, sense is only a small point in the grander scheme of creativity.”