Every year Oxford Languages picks a word of the year, which in the past has included “climate emergency” in 2019, “toxic” in 2018, and “youthquake” in 2017. However, this year in lieu of choosing one word, a sixteen-page language report was released with sections on COVID-19, remote work, social movements, and the environment, highlighting words of the year which include “social distancing,” “pods,” “Blursday,” “allyship,” and “bushfire.” Write an essay that reflects on the personal experiences of this complex year using some of these featured words. In what ways have you witnessed the evolution of language in your attempt to describe new experiences?
The Time Is Now
Visual art can be a source of inspiration for all writers by providing what philosopher Walter Benjamin describes as an aura that one can only experience in the presence of that art piece. Although many are not presently able to visit a museum or physically stand in front of a work of art, inspired by Sharon Dolin’s installment of Writers Recommend, try a virtual visit by using Google’s Art and Culture museum page to choose a work of art from a museum that is new to you. Write a scene or story from the perspective of a subject or object in the painting, using its aura in order to build the story’s conflict or tone.
Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection, Three Poems (Faber & Faber, 2018), begins with “You, Very Young in New York,” where she recounts experiences living in New York with details akin to the intimacy found in some of Frank O’Hara’s poems: “Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground. ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’” In a poem that sprawls across twenty-three pages, Sullivan covers a wide range of registers and tones, ranging from the high lyric, philosophical musings on youth, to the comical and familiar recountings on what cocktail or dessert is in fashion. Write a poem divided into three sections that captures the quick-paced and unceremonious experiences of youth. Try to include specific scenes to avoid using grand gestures or falling into nostalgia.
In a 2018 Boston Review interview, Avni Sejpal asks Arundhati Roy about the narrative differences between her two novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, elaborating on how the former is “written in a style often described as lyrical realism,” while the latter is “more urgent, fragmented, and bleak.” Arundhati’s response pushes back on the word “bleak” as she explains that “most of the characters, after all, are ordinary folks who refuse to surrender to the bleakness that is all around them, who insist on all kinds of fragile love and humor and vulgarity, which all thrive stubbornly in the most unexpected places.” Write about a time when you chose to push against despair and bleakness. How did love, humor, and hope persist despite dire circumstances?
Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 suspense novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, recently adapted into a television series for Showtime, centers around a character who has set the bar for the literary archetype of “the grifter.” In a T Magazine essay, Megan O’Grady writes that Tom Ripley embodies self-authorship, which is “all about creating a convincing character within the narrative structure of one’s own aspirational thinking.” O’Grady argues that Highsmith’s novel has foretold our era of self-invention: “con artists and ‘visionaries,’ the gurus and hucksters, schemers and dreamers, the online dating scammers—all of our 21st-century buccaneers of society, politics, and commerce.” Write a story with a grifter as its protagonist, one with a self-invented identity that drifts into high society in search of prestige.
“Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?” begins Margaret Atwood’s poem “Ghost Cat” from Dearly (Ecco Press, 2020), her first collection of poetry in over a decade. The poem centers on a cat with dementia who wanders the house at night nibbling on bits of food: “from a tomato here, a ripe peach there, / a crumpet, a softening pear. / Is this what I’m supposed to eat?” Cats have been at the center of literature for centuries, ranging from Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century poem “Jubilate Agno,” which begins “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita and Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore. Write a poem inspired by a cat. As an added challenge, try writing from the perspective of a cat, instead of from a human watching one.
“A farmer lived, but not well. If she planted grain, it would not sprout. If she grew rice, it would rot. If she tried to raise livestock, they would gasp and choke and die before they’d seen a second dawn,” begins The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott, a GalleyCrush pick forthcoming from FSG Originals in February. These straightforward conditional sentences help to quickly synthesize information and set the tone for conflict in the story. This week write an essay that begins with a conditional phrase expressing a conflict in your life. Start the first sentence with an “if this, then that” scenario to produce tension and set the stage for what will unfold.
“When words elude us as adults, music can soothe or stir the mind. When sight fails, music can clarify our emotional perceptions,” writes Jenny Bhatt in a recent installment of Craft Capsules, where she describes how music became the gateway to writing her short story collection, Each Of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). “Before writing a story’s first draft, I would pick out a song that had the imagery, mood, and lyrics that resonated with my early vision for the story’s themes and narrative style.” Pick a draft of a story you’ve had trouble getting off the ground and find a song that captures the themes and emotions you aim to present. Use the dynamics in music to help revise and reimagine the story in a new direction.
In his years as a teacher, John Ashbery used Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” for a translation exercise in which students sounded out the German words and wrote down English words resembling those sounds, such as interpreting “sich hält und glänzt” as “sick halt and glance.” The exercise relied less on meaning and subject and more on sound and rhythm, despite the final product sounding silly. Pick a poem in a language unfamiliar to you and phonetically translate the poem into English. What surprising combination of words come together? Once the translation is finished, try to find a sense of logic in the words to produce an original poem.
“Craft is not simply technical. If we take our craft seriously, or even if we want to play, we must realize that what we bring to craft is the world that crafted us,” writes Joy Priest in an installment of Craft Capsules published in July. “The way we work, our technique, holds all of our subconscious anxieties and desires.” What was the world like that shaped you, and how does it manifest in your writing? Write an essay describing how your childhood shaped the way you think and the choices you make as a writer. Consider the questions that Priest poses throughout her essay, such as, “What are you avoiding? What are you leaving out? What is uninterrogated?”