Brooke Berman is an award-winning playwright, whose work has been produced across the United States and London. She recently published her personal story, No Place Like Home, A Memoir in 39 Apartments, which follows young Brooke through New York as she tries to make ends meet and make her dreams of a life in theater come true. She currently lives in Los Angeles with her fiancé and boxes full of sourcebooks — her means of collecting inspiration for work, and life.
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is — it’s to imagine what’s possible.” — Bell Hooks
When I was a college freshman, the red-haired, bohemian teacher of “Theater One” gave an assignment. (Note: to a 19-year-old from the Midwest, “bohemian” just meant mismatched socks and a walk-on role in Desperately Seeking Susan.) She asked us to buy a blank book — any size, any format — and to “Imagine yourself a collector of images. Put something in the book every day.” She didn’t tell us how to use the images or what we’d do with the books. The “sourcebooks” were meant to be personal, a visual conversation between the outside world and our own inner lives.
I immediately went out and bought a medium-sized hardcover blank book and started filling its pages. I colored, wrote, watercolored and pasted things into the book. It became my favorite pastime. And I have kept it going — now a series of books — for 20 years. During that time, I’ve also moved 39 times, and these sourcebooks are heavy! Last week, when my fiancé moved the contents of our storage space into a “pod” to be shipped to L.A., he noted the number of boxes marked “JOURNALS” and remarked, “For a girl who’s moved 39 times, she sure has a lot of journals.”
So why keep them? Certainly not for nostalgia, that’s not my thing. But as a visual record, so that I can refer back to them, mine their pages for projects and honor the process of making something from nothing. The sourcebooks are a key part of how I understand the creative process, teach myself new skills and summon new writing. They give me a workshop, a laboratory, in which to make concoctions — to mix whatever catches my eye: color, image, style, or found pictures with pieces of writing. The books are also places to collect wisdom from others and stuff that I find — fortune cookie papers, candy
wrappers, the business cards of strangers. I keep track of performances and exhibits, too.
I take notes for work that I hope someday to form into a play. I cover whole pages with pictures, collages, and questions while writing plays — sometimes to imagine the “world” of the play, sometimes to help visualize a character. When I’m not working on a specific project, I update the books anyway, cataloguing and pasting together anything that captivates, intrigues or even freaks me out. The books keep my creative process alive no matter where I’m living, what I’m working on, or what else is happening. They are how I receive and digest information. Keeping them is my favorite thing to do.
These books aren’t just for “artists,” anyone can benefit from this process of visual mapping. Making a collage can help you formulate what you want to create in your life, how you’d like to revamp your fall wardrobe or even repaint your kitchen. You can investigate design ideas. You can explore fashion the way that designers and stylists do, with “lookbooks” or idea boards. You can use a sourcebook to create stories for children (or help them make up their own). Recently, I started keeping a book for my wedding — I had no idea how to plan a wedding, but I did know how to make a good collage and start to brainstorm creatively. So I cut out pictures of what I wanted and what I imagined mattering… and eventually discovered that I want to elope. (But what a beautiful elopement it will be!)
Making collages for my creative life and theater projects has also translated well to my daily life. As someone who faces a menu tormented over what to eat, the ease of making choices while working in the book has an instructive quality. I can draw from the experience of knowing what I want to look at (or write about), and thus, I can summon that same presence of mind when faced with more mundane decision-making. The point is, collecting images has a payoff — you’re able to show yourself, very tangibly, the world that you want to live in and create. And then, you can go about making it happen.
How do you collect inspiration? Tell us in the comments below.