“Consider this: I’ve spent nine months cradled in my mother’s body,” writes Nawaaz Ahmed in his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, published earlier this month by Counterpoint. “My world was small and safe and familiar, interrupted only occasionally by light and sounds from the outside. And even those arrived muted by my mother’s flesh and bone, the light tinted by her blood.” The novel, a saga involving an immigrant family’s secrets and betrayals, begins from the point of view of the protagonist’s child at the moment of his birth, infusing the novel’s prelude with disorienting descriptions recounting the experience of first encountering the world. Write a story that begins through the eyes of a newborn. Consider the reason for this beginning and try, as Ahmed does, to suffuse the scene with sensual imagery.
The Time Is Now
Rising global temperatures and natural disasters, such as the recent tropical storms and hurricanes in North America and the earthquake in Haiti, bring to mind the fragility of the environment and the effects of climate change. Over the years, poets have taken to their craft to raise awareness and humanize the climate crisis in works such as “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth” by Fatimah Asghar, “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now” by Matthew Olzmann. Write a poem about the environment that draws the reader in emotionally, whether it is by describing a changing landscape or reflecting on the issue. For further inspiration, browse these poems engaging with the climate crisis curated by the Academy of American Poets.
In 1950, German artist Josef Albers began creating his world-famous series known as Homage to the Square, which consisted of three or four differently colored squares, each inside the other in successively smaller sizes. The nonprofit arts organization Public Delivery explains on its website that Albers originally started the series to help students and other artists “approach and study color experimentally,” but it eventually led him to create more than a thousand square paintings until his death in 1976. Inspired by Albers, choose a word as simple or fundamental as a square, then write an essay—or a series of linked essays—about this word, studying its presence in your life along with its etymology. What connections can you draw from one word?
“My story starts decades before my birth. In my father’s earliest memory, he is four years old, shooting a toy gun at nearby birds as he skips to the town square,” writes Qian Julie Wang in Beautiful Country, her memoir about coming of age as an undocumented child in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1990s, published in September by Doubleday. Wang begins by telling the story of her family decades before, during China’s Cultural Revolution, shedding light on the lives her parents led as professors before working in sweatshops and sushi factories in America and relying on their young daughter for help with their daily lives. Write a series of character studies about your protagonist and their parents. Consider how a drastic change in culture can shift the roles in a family. How does this inform the reasons for your character’s actions as well as their values and preoccupations?
In a preface to “After Cecilia Vicuña,” a poem from the collection Villainy, published in September by Nightboat Books, Andrea Abi-Karam includes a note on the Chilean poet and visual artist Cecilia Vicuña, who condemned General Augusto Pinochet and spoke out about how “the lies (the words, the language) of the Chilean dictatorship murdered & tortured thousands of people.” In the poem, Abi-Karam asks questions about the power of words and how to provoke change through a medium such as poetry that at times can feel devoid of consequence. “i ask questions like / … how to weaponize the poem words as weapons / give the poem teeth.” What questions would you ask yourself about the power of your own words? Write a poem that contemplates the impact you wish to make as a writer—the reasons, hesitations, desires, and conflicts that arise when you create.
Summer marks the celebratory time of outdoor activities and vacations, as well as a popular season for moving. Families might find the summer holiday from school a good time to move, students graduate into dorm life on college campuses, and others find the need to relocate during warm weather. Moving has been ranked one of the most stressful life events one can experience, and yet it is something universally experienced. Write an essay about a stressful time you moved between living situations. What season was it, and why was it particularly stressful?
This past Sunday marked the end of the 2020 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, an international, multi-sport event that celebrates the tenacity of the human body and the achievements of athletes at the top of their field. Historically the Olympics have also caused controversy, such as holding the 1936 Berlin Games amid the rise of Nazism, the 1968 Mexico City Games preceding the Tlatelolco Massacre, and the 2008 Beijing Games in which migrant workers were denied proper wages and protections during construction. Write a story that takes place during the Olympic Games in which a dramatic event separate from the athletic competition occurs. For more on controversial Olympic incidents, read this list curated by Teen Vogue.
In Paul Tran’s “Progress Report,” published on Literary Hub and featured in their forthcoming debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Poets, 2022), the poem catalogues the speaker’s life while filling out a form: “Photograph of the ’93 Mazda MPV he reportedly turned into an ice cream truck. / I marked Humor. / Holes where the nails had been in the wall. / I marked Self-harm.” The poem, made up of single end-stopped lines, uses a call-and-response technique to reveal new information as it progresses. Write a poem in which the speaker is filling out a form—perhaps a progress report, an immigration document, or a demographic survey. How can you use the poem’s form as a way of highlighting an important event?
“It was a challenging but exhilarating time, and I’ve come away with a deeper understanding of what I’m capable of,” writes Anjali Enjeti in her last Craft Capsule essay “How to Be a Writer and an Organizer.” In the essay she discusses the importance of finding balance as a writer and how she spent most of last year revising and editing two books for publication, teaching at a low-residency MFA program, reporting for two news publications, and organizing for leadership councils during the presidential election. Write an essay about a time in which your endurance and capacity for work was tested. Whether it be political organizing, parenting, or working several jobs, what did you learn from the experience of trying to balance multiple tasks?
In a profile of Alexandra Kleeman for the New York Times, she discusses her relationship to the speculative and the setting of a post-apocalyptic California in her latest novel, Something New Under the Sun, out this week from Hogarth. In the novel, only the wealthy have access to temperature-controlled interiors and real water. “Things that we’ve always needed, like land, a place to live, resources, become privatized and turned into possessions, when they weren’t to start with,” says Kleeman. Write a story with a speculative setting in which a necessary resource is privatized. Ask yourself “what if” when considering this altered version of reality.