That Time I Crawled into a Dumpster for the Sake of my Writing: Embracing the Odd in the Creative Process

Written by: Abigail Campbell

In the fall, I had a hefty asynchronous schedule which included my capstone project with Dr. Sarkar, English grammar with the lovely Dr. Biggs, and Chinese literature with scholar Dr. Hogan. My fall semester zoomed by as I formed connections with those wonderful faculty, and suddenly it was time for Spring registration. Knowing my interest in creative writing, my advisor suggested a Nature Writing Workshop to fulfill my environmental requirements. A few emails and one permission number later, I was enrolled.

Melting Ice on Brick, Source: Abigail Campbell

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t groan at the thought of a synchronous course after an entire semester of almost all asynchronous instruction, but I was excited for some creative nature writing. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of attending an MFA program in creative writing,  so I was on the edge of my seat for my  first real creative assignment in a nature writing workshop. What would it be? Perhaps to write a poem from the perspective of a flower swaying in the breeze, or maybe even to emulate the classic literary writing geniuses. Either way, I couldn’t wait. But when Darcie Dennigan, UConn creative writing scholar and poet, assigned us to ‘go for a walk’ and ‘bring a piece of trash back home,’ I felt deflated.

My excitement for the creative writing workshop dwindled, though only a little bit.  I planned for my trash-picking walk later in the week while I geared up for a morning run on an icy January morning. About halfway through my run, I nearly tripped over an entire Reddi Wip can lying on the side of the road. I shook my head in annoyance and kept on running, but about ten paces past the can, I remembered my assignment: to find a piece of trash. Reluctantly, I turned back and picked up the freezing cold can.

The entire walk home, I held the battered piece of metal and plastic out in front of me with two fingers while my suburban neighbors nodded at what they assumed was merely a good deed. This was it; this was what was behind the magical, mythical creative writing doors I had always stood on the closed side of: feeling humiliated while staring at a bumped up, bruised out old Reddi Wip can that someone had flung from their car window.

Reddi wip can laying on the ground
Source: Abigail Campbell

When I got home I snapped a photo of my can, tossed it into my parents’ oversized trash bin, and brought the photo to workshop the following day. At the beginning of class, Darcie asked everyone to hold up their trash, and to my surprise, I was the only one with a photo. She cooed at everyone’s treasures but shrugged at my phone screen. She joked, there really is something about having the physical trash, Abbey.

The rest of the day, I fidgeted at my desk while I worked remotely. To be frank, I was revolted by the prospect of hanging out with a piece of trash I had found on the side of the road, but I knew it was there, taunting me, lying at the bottom of the rubbish bin. After a few  hours, I couldn’t take it anymore. With gritted teeth, I swung open my front door, marched out to the trash can, laid it on its side (because I am just too short to reach the bottom of this five foot tall dumpster) and crawled inside. Finally, I held my prize: the bumped up, bruised out, now even grosser-than-before Reddi Wip can.

Reddi whip can in ziplock bag
Source: Abigail Campbell

Over the following weeks, we were tasked with things like meditating on our trash, writing definitions of our trash, and even personifying and becoming friends with our trash. To me, this can became a vehicle through which I created a dialogue between a mother and daughter, imagined the waste of a date night spent sharing desserts, and even considered propelling myself forward into the future by the nitrous oxide that powers the whipped cream in the first place. My creative mind lit up while thinking abstractly about this seemingly meaningless object, an intellectual process which was enormously different from my literary criticism work in the past. Once I got over the oddities of collecting trash for the sake of my writing and really embraced the nature of being creative, I started writing better than I ever had before. Poems, prose, and stories flowed out of me, and through this workshop, I even developed an entirely novel way of looking at nature and a very different process of creative writing. The benefit this has had on me is amazing, though I’m not sure anything will ever hit me the same way crawling into a trash can for my beloved scrap of metal and plastic did back in January. It taught me a wildly valuable lesson: to write unique, peculiar, head-scratching, wildly impactful pieces is to live uniquely, with peculiar intentions, engaging in head-scratching activities, and feeling enlivened by your craft. 

When the assignment was finished and we moved onto collecting dirt in the field, Darcie let us know we could finally bid our trash farewell. Several weeks past coursework relevance, my Reddi Wip can, bumped up and bruised out, with a dent to the right of the nozzle and scratches up and down its side, still sits in its ziplock bag on my dresser as a reminder never to put bounds on a limitless creative spark. 

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