In an interview in the September/October 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jordan Pavlin, who was recently promoted to editor in chief at Knopf, speaks about how “there are often two essential people in the life of a passionate reader: a great local librarian and a brilliant, inspiring high school English teacher.” Did you have an English teacher who inspired you to become the writer you are today? Write an essay discussing the influence a teacher or mentor had on the books you read and the early stages of your writing.
The Time Is Now
The first chapter of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), titled “Found Objects,” first published in 2007 in the New Yorker, explores the perspective of a woman reckoning with a dangerous habit of stealing from others while at a session with her therapist. The conversation between Sasha and her therapist creates moments to weave in and out of the present and past. Throughout the chapter, Sasha lies to her therapist, to others, and to herself, as she struggles to figure out the reason for her addiction. Inspired by Egan, write a story set during a therapy session. What is the protagonist contending with, and how does the setting allow for the story to weave in and out of the present?
“A language is a map of our failures,” writes Adrienne Rich in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” a poem that begins by reflecting on an incident involving children burning a book in a backyard. In the five-section poem, several forms and topics are discussed as the scope of the situation is widened to a global scale, then focused onto the intimacies of sexual relations, resulting in a capacious exploration of language and its failures. Write a poem that reflects upon your relationship to your first language and expands upon how communication can fail us.
“There’s a real cognitive dissonance as a person in the world,” says Katie Kitamura in an article by Brandon Yu for the New York Times on the inspiration for writing her new novel, Intimacies (Riverhead Books, 2021). “Your consciousness can only accommodate so much, and certainly it’s been incredible to me how I can simultaneously be very worried about the state of democracy and also thinking, has the turkey gone off?” The novel introduces readers to the mind of a language interpreter at The Hague confronting a moral ambivalence about a former president on trial for war crimes, while simultaneously grieving the loss of her father. Inspired by Kitamura’s character, write an essay in which you recount a time you faced moral ambivalence about a situation. What two seemingly disparate realities were you balancing at once?
“The forgetting of Afro-Chinese histories, and furthermore of Afro-Chinese women, is an example of what it means to be beyond the interest or comprehension of coloniality,” writes Tao Leigh Goffe in an excerpt from The Other Windrush: Legacies of Indenture in Britain’s Caribbean Empire (Pluto Press, 2021) published in gal-dem. Goffe discovers photographs of a previously unknown relative, her great aunt Hyacinth Lee who migrated to the U.K. from Jamaica, and traces her story. Write a story from the perspective of a family member, real or imagined, who you feel has been lost to history or whose story is still untold. Are there mysterious family photographs you’ve seen that might tell a story?
In an article for the New Statesman, Andrew McMillan writes about discovering the poetry of Thom Gunn after his death and the impact of his writing on male desire and the male body: “While for the Romantics the sublime might have been an engagement with the vastness and wildness of a landscape, Gunn locates it in encounters with lovers or strangers, a striving towards and never quite achieving transcendence of the self.” This week, write a poem that strives for transcendence through a desirous encounter with a lover or a stranger. For inspiration, browse Gunn’s poetry published on the Poetry Foundation website.
In an interview for the Rumpus, Musa Okwonga, author of In the End, It Was All About Love, (Rough Trade, 2021), discusses the use of magical realism to address the complicated history of his book’s setting, Berlin. “I wanted the readers to sink into a place that unmoored them somewhat, I wanted to untether them from reality and be like, this is deeply surreal but also entirely real,” says Okwonga. Choose a city you have a deep connection with and write an essay that contends with its history, both personal and global, through a mythical or surreal lens. Try experimenting with form to bring attention to the complexity of the city’s history.
In this week’s installment of Ten Questions, author Pajtim Statovci and translator David Hackston discuss the writing of Bolla (Pantheon, 2021), a novel with an unlikely love story set in Kosovo between two young men at the outbreak of a war. The novel’s title comes from the name of a demonic serpent that remains in a dark cave hidden from humans except for one day every year when it transforms into a dragon and is released, wreaking havoc and destruction. Through this legend, Statovci gives the love story a shape, as their conflict is refracted through the metamorphosis of this mythical dragon. Think of a fable from your childhood and consider ways you could use it as inspiration for your own story—as a template for your plotline, as a metaphor for your character’s conflict, or as a way to build the story’s setting.
The sonnet form dates back to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy where it was popularized by the poet Petrarch, whose work was translated and introduced in the sixteenth century to English poets. A new type of sonnet with a different rhyme scheme was then developed and made famous through the work of William Shakespeare. Poets such as Wanda Coleman, Diane Seuss, and Terrance Hayes have given voice to the more contemporary “American” sonnet, demonstrating the flexibility of the fourteen-line form. This week, write your own sonnet—either a traditional sonnet or one inspired by a contemporary poet.
In a reading list published on Electric Literature, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, author of Mona at Sea (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021), recommends stories about struggling under capitalism, such as Temporary by Hilary Leichter, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, and And Then I Got Fired: One Transqueer’s Reflections on Grief, Unemployment & Inappropriate Jokes About Death by J Mase III. In introducing these books, Gonzalez James writes that “unemployment doesn’t actually make for great fiction” and that she is all the more impressed when writers express the experience well. Write an essay in which you discuss a time you struggled with employment. Peruse the list for ideas on how to do this in fresh and surprising ways.