“I always feel that I’ve seen a thing after I’ve described it….when I’ve written a thorough physical description of something, then I feel like I’ve seen it and I’ll remember it,” says Barbara Kingsolver in “A Talk in the Woods,” her conversation with Richard Powers in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Choose an object that you have never really given much thought to, but that you see frequently in your home or on your commute, perhaps a houseplant or a mailbox or a street sign. Spend some time intensely observing it, and then jot down a thorough physical description. Afterwards, write a poem about the object. How did your perception of it change, in your mind’s eye, after going through the exercise of articulating it in language?
The Time Is Now
“As a nonfiction writer I tend to write about things when I am still in the midst of them, when I am too close to the subject matter and there is no possible resolution to the thing I am writing about,” writes Steph Auteri in “Writing Partners: Working Together Through Writing and Life” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. What issues or conflicts are you in the midst of struggling with right now? Begin an essay about a subject that you are dealing with at the moment, writing down all the raw emotions without self-editing. Perhaps in a few weeks or months, you can revisit the piece and decide whether to continue working on it from more of a distance.
Ligaya Mishan’s essay “In Literature, Who Decides When Homage Becomes Theft?” in the New York Times Style Magazine examines instances in which the authors of historical and contemporary literature have been accused of plagiarism or cultural appropriation, and questions the imbalance in response and criticism. Explore your thoughts on the boundaries of theft and homage with your own project. Write a short story that pays tribute to one of your favorite authors and offers a new perspective, such as how Kamel Daoud’s novel, The Meursault Investigation (Other Press, 2015), reimagines Albert Camus’s The Stranger or Preti Taneja’s novel, We That Are Young (Knopf, 2018), sets King Lear in contemporary India.
“My process of growing up and becoming has been figuring out that a lot of what I’ve been told is wrong,” says Morgan Parker in an interview with Joshua Wolf Shenk at the Believer on the subject of facts and truth and the literary imagination. “If you have a blank canvas, it’s about the kind of audacity to tell stories for yourself. Poetry is storytelling, in this particular way.” Think of something that you were told when you were growing up that has turned out to be wrong in one way or another. Write a twofold poem that first works to question what you’ve been told, and then moves on to tell a new truth.
Think about a place that has served as a sanctuary to you as a writer, whether in the past or present. Perhaps it is somewhere you’ve visited only once, somewhere you return to every year, or somewhere in-between. It could even be a writing retreat or residency. Write an essay about what makes this space so inspiring to you as a writer. Describe the setting using all the senses: You might include a favorite soft-cushioned chair, the aroma of fresh flowers, the colors of the walls, a favorite snack, or the sound of pen to paper. What are the elements that help motivate you to write in this place?
In an interview with Louisiana Channel, Zadie Smith talks about her interest in the way many young authors portray emotional distress or anger in their novels. The characters, often women, will “pinch a bit of their skin until it bleeds” or “hold their jaw” or perform some other quiet act of defiance, rather than letting their feelings surface. “The idea of verbalizing an emotion is quite distant. And the body is treated like this strange thing you have to drag around after you’ve finished your text messages and e-mails and your virtual life,” says Smith. Write a scene in which your protagonist is faced with an immediate conflict involving a partner, family member, friend, boss, or stranger. Instead of silently raging, find a way to describe these emotions that allows your character to engage fully and vocally in the moment.
“It’s my lunch hour, so I go / for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem “A Step Away From Them.” So often, we miss out on the potential for inspiration from our daily routines, passing muses on morning commutes, lunch breaks, or evening strolls. This week, read O’Hara’s poem and then go out into your neighborhood with no set destination, carrying a notepad with you. Observe and write down everything and everyone you see: invent background narratives, involve your senses, and record sounds and overheard phrases. At home, write a poem that starts with the time of day (“It’s eight in the morning,” or “It’s my lunch hour,” or “It’s midnight”) and take the reader through the streets with you.
This past August, a couple browsing through a Florida Goodwill store’s secondhand goods found a baseball mitt that was lost by their son forty years earlier when the family lived in their hometown in Ohio. Think of the various belongings you lost as a child. Is there one item in particular whose loss hit you the hardest, or that you find yourself thinking about often? Write a personal essay about several long-lost objects, drawing upon your memories and what the object’s importance expresses about your values. If the objects were to turn up now, would they still hold meaning for you?
The song “Emmenez-moi” by French Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, who died this week at the age of ninety-four, is played repeatedly in the soundtrack to the 2005 French Canadian coming-of-age film C.R.A.Z.Y. directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Throughout the film, Aznavour’s songs are sung by the protagonist’s father, who is a big fan of the singer. Write a short story in which a song of your choosing appears over and over. What is the significance behind the musician or the song’s lyrics to the themes or plot of your story?
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been convening in Elko, Nevada for over thirty years to highlight the “cowboy way” of life, with activities such as poetry and yodeling and sing-alongs, musical performances, dancing, and recounting tall tales and folklore. Many poems and songs that are performed describe the everyday work of ranchers, herders, and rodeo cowboys, and the wide, open spaces of the rural West landscape. Taking a cue from these themes of cowboy verse, write a poem that celebrates the simple pleasures of a work day, focusing on something mundane that brings joy, perhaps finding a way to incorporate the natural environment. Listen to a cowboy song for additional inspiration.