Paper Cuts: The healing art of collage

It happened like this: I was chopping wood in the backyard. It was August of 2013, 95 degrees and the air was thick with mosquitoes. I was mid-swing when I felt an alarming snap in the left side of my face, near my jaw, like the sound roots make when you pull them up. I secured the axe in a stump and within moments the sensation had morphed into something else. It was like someone had reached into my face and hastily restrung a tangle of nerves, plucking and fingering like some kind of sadistic Jimi Hendrix. It brought me to my knees, blinding and electric. My life as a writer and mother, a caretaker and a wife—all of it, in an instant, fell far away from me.

The eye-stabbing fluorescence of doctor’s offices is what I remember most about those first few weeks. There was also, early on, a stern and humorless physical therapist, always ready with Xeroxed lists of exercises and blender recipes. I remember the bitter powder of pain pills and the stranded look on my children’s faces when they found me crying. The pain was a thousand angry needles. I was a pincushion. An exhausted voodoo doll.

“Bringing Home the Benjamins”

Pain is drastic in its simplicity. I hoarded energy for the weekends when my husband and kids were home. But despite my desperate effort, they often watched warily as I vanished into the mute dark of my bedroom to ride out an attack. The kids would come to the door and whisper, “Mama, can you come out?” My husband would reach for me in the dark, sweep his fingers across my forehead. Sometimes it hurt to be touched.

I remember this: It was late evening, the kids were in bed, and I was lying on my back in the living room listening to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (I became exceedingly familiar with rugs: prone and low to the ground seemed to relieve some of the pressure in my head). I could no longer write. Any kind of rigorous ocular focus invited pain. It cannot be overstated, what I lost when I lost words. Ever since I could hold a pencil I have inhabited the bright rooms of language, picking through their spectacle for the words I needed most. But those rooms had been darkened without warning. My mind was a shadow, blunted and disfigured by pain. It hurt even to think. Instead I listened avidly to audiobooks while poring over the stacks of fashion magazines my husband brought me upon request. I had, by then, become deeply, urgently visual.

That night, on a whim, I found a scissors and started cutting up the ELLE I had in my hands. I chose a particularly ethereal scene: a circus act, all gold explosions and lit from behind. Ghostly-grim models in pale drapery hung from ropes in all kinds of impossible positions. I was soon covered in perfumed confetti, cutting and gluing and rearranging all those vivid paper-doll parts. Making them into something they weren’t before. I had discovered a new language.

Doctor Waters, with his serious eyes and faint Irish brogue, was the surgeon in Boston who finally puzzled me out. And when he did, the answer seemed—after so many months of unconquerable pain—depressingly simple. A detailed MRI told us that the disc that sits in the joint between the jaw and the skull had dislodged and fractured while I was chopping wood that day, resulting in the pinched nerve that was setting my face on fire. I was, as it turns out, no great lumberjack.

“Shadow Selves”

My surgery happened during a blizzard in February. Healing was slow going for my hazarded system. There was a series of Botox shots and a kind, scrappy physical therapist. After many months of backslides and gingerly victories I began, cautiously, to re-enter my life. I was given back the small, daily mutinies of my tribe. And I began to write again.

You’ll often find me armed with a glue stick and scissors, cutting through the glossy absurdity of high fashion. My paper girls are exquisitely unapologetic Frankenstein’s monsters, their patchwork bodies born of bright debris. Our living room is a fracas of confetti. My fingers throb, marker-smudged and full of papercuts. The art table my husband built for me is lined with green bins, each containing a designated body part: hands, legs, arms. We make dark jokes about Jeffery Dahmer.

Collage work is not unlike writing. I spend hours hunting for just the right hand instead of just the right word. I trade legs for verbs and clouds for nouns. My world is made of love, and tenacity, and a great many shredded edges. Art, I have found, speaks a nameless, painful language. It knows a hundred different ways to say this is how you survive.

To see Alicia Fisher’s work, go to

Alicia Fisher is a poet, artist and freelance writer. She lives in Saco with her husband and two children (a.k.a. her favorite people).

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