“We need to grab the words that have possibility in them and begin using them anew,” writes John Freeman in the prologue to Dictionary of the Undoing (MCD x FSG Originals, 2019). Freeman selects terms from A to Z, from “Agitate,” “Body,” “Citizen,” and “Decency” all the way to “You” and “Zygote,” and writes entries that reclaim, redefine, and expand the definitions of the words to “build a lexicon of engagement and meaning.” Write a lyric essay that borrows this idea, selecting words related to current events of particular importance to you and providing personalized definitions in the form of brief exploratory passages. Reflect on your own experiences, the community around you, and what the future may hold.
The Time Is Now
If you’re looking for a change in perspective, why not try from the mind of a tiny animal? In a New York Times By the Book interview, when asked what subjects she wants more authors to write about, actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, “I wish more people would write from the point of view of tiny, witty animals.” Write a story from a diminutive, bright critter’s point of view. Consider whether this animal observes a larger story enacted by human beings, or if the story’s universe is comprised solely of tiny animals. Try incorporating humor in the voice of this quick-witted creature while still retaining its animal-like nature in unexpected ways.
“Take notes regularly. This will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability,” writes Lydia Davis in “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” in Essays One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). This week jot down several lists of different types of observations, such as your feelings, the weather, and your own reactions to the mundane behavior of others as you go about your day. Pay special attention to the facial expressions and small habits or routine movements of people you notice on your commute or while running errands. Write a poem inspired by one or two of these small observations.
This autumn, as you travel to see family, engage in outdoor activities, or plan gifts and meals, pay special attention to the sounds of the season. In “Seeking Silence on a California Road Trip,” National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George W. Stone writes about tracking the sounds he encounters on a summer journey made by airplanes, birds and insects, air conditioners, sand dunes, and crashing waves. “I set out on a 500-mile sound quest that took me from the drumbeat of civilization to nearly noiseless realms. I did not turn on the radio, though occasionally I sang a song that came to mind. I barely spoke; instead I tried to hear whatever came my way.” Jot down notes as you go about your day, then write a personal essay that explores the season’s soundscape. What harmonies do you find between the moments of sound—or noise—and silence?
The manipulation of memory has been a point of inspiration for a number of literary works, resulting in iconic fictional elements such as the memory implants in Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the mind-wiping in Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity (Bantam, 1980), and the memory downloads and uploads in George Saunders’s 1992 story “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” In Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019), translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, the authoritarian government of an unnamed island eradicates commonplace objects—hats, ribbons, birds, roses—and subsequently attempts to erase all memories associated with the objects. Write a short story that imagines a world in which memories can be manipulated by choice or by force, by individuals or by powerful governments. What are the rules? How are the emotional trajectories of your characters disrupted when certain memories are altered?
“I received a sign in my dream that you would vanish from me,” Naja Marie Aidt writes in When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back (Coffee House Press, 2019). “But images and signs cannot be interpreted before they’re played out in concrete events. You only understand them in retrospect.” In her memoir, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Aidt explores the dreams she had about her son, which in hindsight seem portentous of his accidental death in 2015. Think about dreams you’ve had in the past that still linger, or search through old writing to dig up images that are repeated. Write a poem that attempts to find meaning or a connection within these visual artifacts. How can you interpret their significance now?
Earlier this month, art critic Jason Farago wrote a New York Times article advocating for the removal and relocation of the Mona Lisa painting from its place in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Farago argues that the overwhelming popularity and crowding make for untenable viewing conditions, and that the painting itself is perhaps not worth the trouble. Write a personal essay that explores a piece of art—a book, painting, song, film, or live performance—you’ve experienced that left you with a feeling of disappointment. Describe the encounter, and then use the experience as an opportunity to reflect on a comparable work of art that’s underappreciated and deserves more widespread acclaim. How does your emotional response to the artwork affect your preferences?
Herb strewer, runemaster, toad doctor, bobbin boy. These are all occupations listed on a Wikipedia list of obsolete occupations—job positions that existed in the past that were rendered obsolete at some point because of technological advances and other sociocultural changes. Write a story that revolves around a character working a job that seems to be outdated or on the brink of obsolescence. How can you revitalize the job and its value in your story? Considering the rapid transformations brought about by technology in current times, what are the larger implications?
At JSTOR Daily, a recent story reports on the crowdsourced online slang dictionary Urban Dictionary from a linguistic perspective, noting its inclusion of both niche joke word usage and its usefulness as an archive of social meanings for words such as “like” and “eh.” This week write a poem that incorporates some of your favorite slang or informal vernacular phrases. You might decide to allow this diction to pull your poem towards one tonal direction, or to offset its informality with more conventional elements of meter.
“I had to write the book for two reasons. The first one was gratitude for all that kept me alive and made life worth living, and the second was vengeance against all that diminishes life,” writes Anne Boyer in an interview about her memoir, The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. Think of an urgent issue in your own life which has provoked in you both feelings of gratitude and vengeance. Write a personal essay that expresses both of these important emotional states. How do you give voice to these feelings in a complex and productive or healing way?