“There’s a spot over Lake Superior where migrating butterflies veer sharply. No one understood why they made such a quick turn at that specific place until a geologist finally made the connection: a mountain rose out of the water at that exact location thousands of years ago,” writes Aimee Nezhukumatathil about a natural phenomenon that caused a reaction in an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed Editions, 2020), which appears in a Q&A by Ross Gay in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Maybe that is the loneliest kind of memory: to be forever altered by an invisible kiss, a reminder of something long gone and crumbled.” What belief, family story, or past event do you feel inexplicably tethered to? Write an essay that draws the connection between your physical reality and the unseen forces behind it.
The Time Is Now
Tim O’Brien’s classic war novel The Things They Carried (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990) begins by listing objects that each soldier carries with them: “Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits…” This inventory provides effective context for both their needs as characters and the exposition of the novel. Write a story that begins with a list of objects your protagonist carries. What objects are familiar, and which are surprising? How do these items connect to your character’s needs, desires, and motivations?
In Roland Barthes’s 1981 book Camera Lucida, he introduces the concept of a photograph’s punctum, which can be defined as the sensory, intensely subjective effect of a photograph on the viewer, or as he puts it: “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” Barthes contrasts the punctum with the studium, which is the more general approach to a photograph informed by historical and cultural experiences. Choose a personal photograph and meditate on the specific conditions, feelings, and circumstances behind it. What do you feel and know from looking at it? Then, identify the precise detail in the photograph you are drawn to—what is it exactly? Using your senses, write a poem that centers and delves into the punctum, the precise detail. What does a detail reveal about the whole?
“If this story was a stack of photographs—the old kind, rounded at the corners and kept in albums under the glass and lace doilies of center tables in parlors across the country—it would start with Vivek’s father, Chika. The first print would be of him riding a bus to the village to visit his mother,” writes Akwaeke Emezi at the start of their second novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, out this month from Riverhead Books. Taking inspiration from this novel’s introduction, think of a transformative time from your past or an incident that resulted in a change in perspective, one that involved family or friends. If you were to tell the story of this experience as a stack of photographs, what images spring to mind? Write a personal essay that begins with descriptions of a few memorable photos—or mental snapshots you’ve retained—allowing the details in the images to provide a contextual background.
“My first visit to Tokyo Station was ten years earlier, the summer I turned twenty. It was a day like today, when you can never wipe off all the sweat.” In the opening scene of Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breast and Eggs, translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd and published by Europa Editions in April, the thirty-year-old narrator is caught in a moment of loneliness and thinks back to another summer memory ten years prior. The second part of the novel occurs ten years later: “August. Two-thirty in the afternoon. Everything before our eyes burned white, and the sky was a perfect blue over the buildings, the total blue of a computer screen.” Write a short story that is split into two or three parts by the passing of a decade. How do familiar markers—like seasonal changes, reunions with friends or family, or descriptions of the body—pull to the surface the ways your main character has stayed the same, or changed?
Alt-rock, barista, codependent, designated driver, e-mail, frisée, G-spot, home theater, multitasker, spoiler alert, wordie. What do all these words have in common? They are all listed with a “first known use” year of 1982 according to Merriam-Webster’s online Time Traveler tool, which allows users to see what words first appeared in written or printed use in each year from the Old English to 2020. Choose a year that has particular resonance to you, perhaps one that marks a turning point or significant event in your life, and browse through the words that are listed as first recorded that year. Write a poem about a memorable event and incorporate some of these words. How does this language transform the tone or thematic direction of your poem?
“The realm of my own life is the quotidian, the everyday, where I sleep and eat and work and think,” writes Helen Macdonald in a New York Times Magazine essay adapted from her new collection, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, 2020). “It’s a space of rising and falling hopes and worries, costs and benefits, plans and distractions, and it can batter and distract me, just as high winds and rainfall send swifts off-course.” In the essay, Macdonald makes a connection between the flight patterns of swifts—how they ascend and descend to different altitudes, at times alone or in a flock—and her own routine movements, including those of her mind. Write a personal essay that takes a pattern or routine you observe in the natural world and applies it to your own everyday habits. You might decide to delve deeper into some scientific research, or use poetic license to draw connections from sensory observation.
“Storytelling has much to do with the experience of opening an old shoe box or a sandwich bag full of polaroids and building a narrative out of the bits and pieces that have been left behind,” writes Carlos Fonseca at FSG Work in Progress about the process of writing his novel Natural History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. This week open a drawer, closet, or old shoe box and search through miscellaneous objects. Then, write a story inspired by the narrative that builds slowly as you browse through the fragments of a makeshift archive. How does each piece of the puzzle reveal a tiny bit more of the big picture? Is the entire picture ever really completely realized or knowable?
Are trees immortal? Earlier this year, research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on findings that the biological behavior of gingko trees over six hundred years old was similar to those that were only around twenty years old, prompting the idea that perhaps these trees were immortal. Last month, a new paper published in response in Trends in Plant Science argues that while some trees may indeed live for hundreds or even thousands of years, eventually they are likely to die, and our studies are simply limited by the (relatively) short lifespans of the human beings conducting the studies. Write a pair of poems, one exploring immortality and one exploring mortality. Where do you find yourself turning for allusions or references—nature, civilization, interpersonal relationships?
Is everything just cake? Earlier this month, prompted by viral videos of Turkish chef Tuba Geckil cutting into her ultra-realistic cakes made to look like everyday objects—such as a red Croc shoe, a roll of toilet paper, a potted aloe plant, a carton of eggs, and plastic-wrapped raw chicken drumsticks—Twitter was flooded with cake memes and the internet began to question if everything in the world might, indeed, actually be cake. Write a personal essay that recounts a past incident that made you question your reality. Perhaps you caught sight of something particularly uncanny or jarring, and suddenly so many other things seemed terrifyingly possible. How did you reconcile this shifted perception with what your mind could tolerate? Or did everything remain cake?