“I remember very vividly where I was when I saw my very first big Surrealist exhibition...It was sort of a Tarzan-and-the-giant-spider moment. I absolutely see it as a hinge. There’s a pre-that-picture me and a post-that-picture me. And I’m very glad to be the post-that-picture me,” China Miéville says about the Max Ernst painting “Europe After the Rain” in a New Yorker article. Write a short story in which a character encounters a work of art that changes his life in a similarly noteworthy way. What resonates with the character to have such a lasting impression? How does his life change post-that-picture?
The Time Is Now
British music critic, librettist, and author Paul Griffiths’s novel Let Me Tell You (Reality Street, 2008) is told from the point of view of Ophelia, the character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Using an Oulipo type of constraint, the novel uses only the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in the original play. Choose one of Shakespeare’s plays, and make a list of words spoken by one character in a pivotal scene, or part of a scene. Write a poem inspired by this list of words, allowing your creative impulses to dictate whether you use only words from the list, or include a few additional words of your own.
The Pageant of the Masters is a tableaux vivants—or “living pictures”—event held every summer at Laguna Beach’s Festival of the Arts in Southern California. The long-running tradition features hundreds of costumed volunteers who stand still for ninety-second intervals posing in elaborate re-creations of masterpieces of art. Write an essay describing the artwork—classical or contemporary—you would choose to “live” in. What would your role and pose be? Who would be your supporting cast of posers? What narration and music would accompany your tableau vivant?
In “Return and Repeat, Culminate and Continue: On Crafting the End in Fiction” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jennifer De Leon draws a connection between the sestina poetry form—in which six words are repeated throughout—and John Gardner’s “return and repeat” method of ending a fictional piece by returning to key elements of the story. Find a short story you’ve written in the past and select six important aspects of the story, such as characters, words, and images. Write a new, alternate ending by reiterating or revisiting these motifs on the last page.
Have you ever stepped onto foreign soil—whether it be another town, state, or country—and immediately felt like you were in a different galaxy? Or conversely, have you traveled to a seemingly faraway place only to find that it felt surprisingly just like home? Write two short poems about places you have visited or passed through, and explore your expectations and feelings of familiarity or strangeness in each one. For inspiration, read about Baarle, a small European village situated partially in Belgium and partially in the Netherlands, with its international borders actually cutting through the middle of shops, living rooms, and backyards.
If a statue in your likeness were to be someday erected in your honor, would you want to be rendered realistically, cartoonishly, or in abstract? Do you envision a marble bust or a whimsical woodcarving or perhaps to be cast in bronze? In what pose or action would you want to be commemorated? Write an essay describing what you imagine as the most suitable representation and location for your hypothetical statue, and include an examination of the reasons for your specifications. For inspiration, read about the recent hubbub over a Lucille Ball statue.
Last week, a young man from Virginia used suction cups to climb up the exterior of the sixty-eight-story Trump Tower building in midtown Manhattan, drawing the attention of eyewitnesses as well as millions more who watched live streaming videos on social media. Write a short story in which a character pulls off a risky and unusual stunt in an effort to communicate an important message to someone. Is the outsized gesture effective? What does his choice of action reveal about his personality? Are there unintended consequences involving the spectators?
Instead of using GPS coordinates or traditional street numbers and names, a postal mail service in Mongolia will begin using a new address location system, created by a British tech start-up, in which the world map is divided into trillions of nine-square-meter patches and assigned a unique three-word code. Find the code for your own address at the What3Words website or create your own code. Then write a poem inspired by the combination of these three random words and how they connect to your concept of home.
This Summer Olympics season, many U.S. fans look forward to cheering on the country’s swimming, gymnastics, and decathlon athletes. In other countries, the most closely watched competitions are sports like canoeing, handball, rugby, table tennis, and trampoline. Look over the list of sports at the Rio Olympic Games, and choose one you’ve had an established connection with, or one that seems newly fascinating. Write an essay that explores your attraction to this sport. What are your opinions about the extreme athleticism and discipline of the competitors? How do your memories of past Olympics differ from today’s games?
Setting up a lemonade stand in the neighborhood has long been a popular way for kids to have fun in the summertime, and learn some basic skills about operating a business. Write a short story in which a lemonade stand plays a pivotal role. Is your main character one of the kids, or one of the customers, or perhaps just a passerby for whom the sight of the stand catalyzes another inciting action?
Cargo shorts, which rose to popularity in the 1990s, have recently sparked heated opinions and reignited the debate of whether the fashion item should exist. Is there a particular style or article of clothing you have grown so attached to over the years that you refuse to part with regardless of new trends or the disapproval of loved ones? Write a poem inspired by the comforts of dressing in a familiar way. Include reminiscences about well-worn and long-cherished items from your wardrobe, and the people and events associated with them.
Last month, French president Francois Hollande’s hair made the news when it was revealed that its maintenance requires a personal, on-call hairdresser who is paid a salary equivalent to almost eleven thousand dollars per month. Write an essay about the care—whether it’s a lot, a little, or none—that you put into your own hair. Do you prioritize practicality or aesthetics? Have there been phases in your life when you had particularly memorable haircuts? Are your hairstyles representative of that time in your life?
This week, find a short story you wrote in the past and reread it, making note of new observations about the characters and their actions, as well as pacing and style. Then, write a sequel to the story that either takes place immediately after the ending of the original or far off into the future. Use the experiences and wisdom you yourself have gained in the window of time since writing the original story to imbue your characters with newfound maturity, insight, and energy as they face fresh challenges.
Heat dome, corn sweat, thundersnow. Meteorologists and weather reports often coin new words and phrases for the purposes of both explaining and entertaining. Learn some new weather-related terminology, or create your own phrases that explain existing and made-up weather phenomena. Select one of these terms as the title of a poem, and allow it to guide your imagination as you write your lines. Do you end up with a poem that is somehow connected to meteorology, or does the title lead you toward a completely different direction?
In the “First Fiction” feature in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Yaa Gyasi, author of the debut novel Homegoing (Knopf, 2016) says, “I was interested in the idea that people can inherit something invisible. These invisible inheritances could be personal, small, familial, like someone’s tendency toward rage or compassion in difficult circumstances, but they could also be large and political, a historical inheritance that is not tied to family per se, but to an entire generation of people who lived before you.” Write an essay about something invisible that you’ve inherited—it can be a personality trait or habit, or a larger cultural inheritance from ancestors. Conclude your essay with a conjecture about what invisible inheritance—however big or small—you and your generation may be passing on to the future world.
In 2012, New Zealand courts granted legal standing to the country’s third largest river, the Whanganui River. The agreement, signed by the government and the local Māori people, allows for the river to be recognized as a person in the eyes of the law—similar to the granting of corporate personhood to businesses—and for its rights and interests to be protected by appointed guardians. Write a short story in which your main character’s primary opponent is a body of water, forest, or other natural entity, which may manifest in a plot that involves environmental and cultural concerns, or perhaps more mystical and fantastic elements. What emotions, voices, and relationships will you explore in your depiction of this man versus nature story?
Did this past winter seem to drag on interminably, while spring was over in the blink of an eye, and the summer months keep zipping on by? Sometimes days, weeks, and months feel like they pass at varying speeds, depending on factors such as the weather, travel obligations, school or work schedules, and personal tastes and moods. Write a poem that explores two or more distinctly paced periods of time that occurred in the past year or so. Manipulate the sound and rhythm of your language—as well as the expository or emotional content of your lines—to reflect the drag or rush of each period.
Summer eating competitions in New York earlier this month included both the long-running hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, and a kale eating contest in Buffalo. Imagine that you have to consume one type of food for a ten-minute all-you-can-eat contest—what food would you choose? Write a short essay about how you would prepare physically and psychologically, and recount your favorite memories that involve this food.
Over the past two weeks, the popularity of the new mobile video game Pokémon Go, which incorporates cartoon characters into the real world using GPS maps, has resulted in conversations about many related issues and consequences—from privacy and surveillance, to sore legs and outdoor exercise, to city engagement and the future of technology. Write a short story that takes place in a world in which all citizens have integrated augmented reality software, games, and apps into their everyday lives. Does the story’s main conflict arise from a societal shift due to the new technology or from the lack of human interaction?
This week, look through some photographs you’ve taken while you were on a trip, either from recent summer travels or a long-ago vacation. To what extent does the photograph encapsulate that locale and your memories of that trip with emotional accuracy? Write a poem that explores the distance between your current self and that photograph, and between an image and a feeling or memory.
The new animated film The Secret Life of Pets explores the idea that when human owners are away, household pets shed their conventional façades and get into all sorts of mischief. Think about a pet you’ve owned or one you’ve been acquainted with through someone else, a movie, or a book. Write an essay that first notes the pet’s most readily apparent, idiosyncratic traits and habits, then imagines its secret life. What does the secret life you’ve imagined for the pet reveal about your own behavior when nobody's watching?
In “Superpowered Storytelling” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Benjamin Percy refers to Tony Earley’s quote: “Every story is about the thing and the other thing.” Percy explains by citing two examples of fiction in which the story is about a character working a job, and an added layer about that character in a developing relationship. Write a short story in which the exterior plot follows the day-to-day actions of your main character at work, while the interior landscape is about her evolving relationship with a secondary character. How can you manipulate the details about the job to serve as a metaphor for the relationship?
Last week, a bunch of Ruby Roman grapes sold at an auction for almost eleven thousand dollars in Japan, where highly valued seasonal fruit can serve as an important status symbol. While money may not be the most obvious choice for poetic lyricism, it can reveal a lot about our society and human nature. Write a poem about a situation in which you had to make a sizable financial decision—saving or spending, dealing with a sudden gain or loss—and examine how your personal value system is intertwined with money.
The Irukandji jellyfish, mostly found off the coast of Australia, are the most poisonous box jellyfish, and at one cubic centimeter, also the smallest. Another distinguishing feature is its sting, which produces what scientists call a “feeling of impending doom,” partially caused by venom triggering hormones connected to anxiety. Write a personal essay about a time in your past in which you felt intensely anxious about a situation, and were unfailingly convinced of a negative outcome. What were the circumstances and external factors that led you to this perspective? Did you overcome your fears and emerge from the other side with a new outlook?
A high school in Maine recently celebrated the forty-year anniversary of a Twinkie that has been on display on campus, still intact, since 1976, when a science teacher unwrapped one of the snack cakes and set it out for a spontaneous lesson on chemistry, food additives, and decomposition. Write a short story in which your main character makes a comparably spontaneous decision or gesture, and then fast-forward forty years later to reveal how that seemingly small action becomes far-reaching, or perhaps even life-changing.