“This is a novel. All facts are true, but I have imagined feelings, thoughts, and dialogue. I used intuition and deduction rather than actual invention…. When I read about him, something happened. He started to live in my head like a character in a novel,” writes Catherine Cusset in the prologue to her latest book, Life of David Hockney: A Novel (Other Press, 2019), translated from the French by Teresa Fagan, which offers a portrait of the famous painter through a blend of biography and fiction. Think of an artist whose work you admire, whose character or life circumstances resonate with you in a personal way. Research some basic facts about this artist’s life, and then write a short story that focuses on emotional truth, using your intuition to imagine feelings and thoughts.
The Time Is Now
Have you ever listened to a plant? Adrienne Adar’s “Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations” exhibit at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, in which plants are attached with sensors to record their vibrations, revolves around the sonic life of plants, presenting recordings of their sounds to be heard by visitors and other plants, and exploring human reactions, perspectives, and relationships with plants and the natural world. Listen to some sample recordings, and write a poem that imagines what transpires during plant communication. Is the content urgent, mundane, profound, or silly? Perhaps play with arrangements of spacing, language, syntax, and sound to create an atmospheric piece that reflects your vision of plants in conversation.
“My feckless Googling had reaped a monstrous reality that I knew was going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” Douglas Preston writes in Wired about a nostalgia-induced online search for his childhood best friend that leads him into some unexpectedly dark territory. This week, think about a time when you inadvertently uncovered something (good or bad) you weren’t meant to know—perhaps you overheard a conversation about yourself or someone close to you, followed an Internet search that spiraled to an unintentional conclusion, or submitted an online DNA kit without considering the consequences. Write an essay about the discovery and the actions you took as a response. Did you confront this new truth or carry on as if you had never learned it?
In “Job Opening: Seeking Historian With Tolerance for Harsh Weather, the Occasional Bear,” MPR News reporter Euan Kerr interviews Lee Radzak about his retirement this spring after thirty-six years as the lighthouse keeper at Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior in Minnesota. Radzak says many of the romantic notions about lighthouses can be attributed to the physical space they inhabit on “the edge—the edge of land and of water,” but that there are also difficult and tedious tasks that accompany his job. This week, write a story about someone who resides and works in a space that is intermittently peopled and completely isolated—a national park, a large estate, or a new planet. How do these extremes affect the life of your character?
A recent United Nations report found that nearly one million species are at risk of extinction in the not-so-distant future, in large part due to human overconsumption of land and resources. This week, write a poem to honor one of these endangered species—perhaps the South China tiger, the Bornean orangutan, or the Hawksbill sea turtle. Frame your dedication as a love poem, an epistolary poem, a note of apology, or an elegy. What would you say to these creatures if they could understand you? For inspiration, peruse these animal-themed poems from the Academy of American Poets archives.
“Lyrical essays are more like jazz than a concerto. The idea that lyrical essays are more poetic than logical has allowed authors to play fast and loose with the truth,” writes GD Dess in his Los Angeles Review of Books review of Elisa Gabbert’s essay collection The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018). Think of a current conflict or issue in your personal life that remains unresolved—perhaps you are uncertain where exactly the truth of the matter lies. Write a lyric essay that engages with the seemingly solid facts of the topic, but allow yourself the freedom to veer into stream of consciousness and follow a “more poetic” logic.
“Experiencing gives you a ‘first’ person perspective. You see others while you act. Watching gives you a ‘third’ person perspective. You learn something about how others see you,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine professor who studies memory, in Julia Cho’s New York Times piece on how watching a recording of an event can alter one’s initial memory of the experience. Write a scene in which your character attends or participates in a performance, party, or special occasion. Explore how her initial memory of the experience changes once she watches a video of the event. What stands out from the recording that hadn’t been noticed before? How does this reshape her memory?
Created by former Disney Imagineer David Hanson, Sophia is one of the world’s most expressive robots. She can mirror people’s postures, discern emotions from tone and expression, and react with her own realistic facial movements. National Geographic photographer Giulio Di Sturco says about their first meeting, “She started to look at me and smile, and I looked at her, and at that point for me, she was not human, but there was kind of a connection.” Write a poem about an imagined encounter with Sophia. How do you envision an emotional connection with a lifelike robot? What kind of language would you use?
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life—and theirs,” Kio Stark says in her 2016 TED Talk “Why You Should Talk to Strangers.” As children, we are often cautioned against talking to strangers, but as adults, this warning becomes nearly impossible to heed. Whether online or in person, many of our daily interactions are with people we may never see or speak to again. Once in a while, this anonymity can lead to a level of intimacy and honesty that is surprising and unparalleled even with close friends or family. Think about a time in your life when an unexpected moment with a stranger had a profound effect on you. Write an essay about this exchange, the circumstances surrounding it, and what it meant to you.
What does it mean to be crowned the ugliest in the village? Every year, thousands gather in Piobbico, Italy to attend the Festival of the Ugly and vote for the president of the World Association of Ugly People, known by locals as Club dei Brutti. In the Paris Review, Rebecca Brill writes of the festival and attendees: “Centuries of hard work have destigmatized ugliness to the point that Piobbicans declare their ugliness cavalierly, as if the categorization were no more charged than that of having say, brown hair or blue eyes.” This week, write a story in which characters vie for a prize or title that would be generally considered undesirable. Describe the history of the competition and what this unusual accolade means to your characters.