Over June and July our NCW Book Club is In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. We hope you’ll join us in reading the book and joining the conversation – find out more about all the ways that you can get involved.
In Other Words mixes memoir and fiction to tell the story of Lahiri’s experience of learning a new language. It traces the highs and lows of this process, from the dizzying feeling of falling in love with Italian, to the abrupt disappointment of feeling excluded from it. Throughout the book, Lahiri uses a series of powerful metaphors to explore this changing relationship with language.
Here we share a writing exercise inspired by Lahiri’s use of metaphor and with the aim of generating material for a new short story. While this exercise is written with fiction in mind, it might also be helpful for writers of poetry and non-fiction in generating some notes towards a new, short pieces.
Let us know how you get on over on our Discord community. Happy writing!
The ill-fitting sweater
There are two chapters in In Other Words that take the form of short stories, rather than biography: ‘The Exchange’ and ‘Half-Light’. This exercise takes ‘The Exchange’ as its starting point – you might even wish to reread the chapter before or after trying the exercise.
Think of a time when you took a risk in your life. You might have moved to a new place and immersed yourself in a new language like Jhumpa Lahiri, or perhaps you tried a new hobby, confronted a fear, or set yourself a particular challenge. To illustrate the exercise, we could use the example of training for a fun run.
Think of a place associated with your chosen situation. Set a timer for ten minutes and note down all you can about the place, what you did, what equipment you used there, what you brought with you and what you left behind, who else was there. In the case of the fun run, you might write about the park where the running group met, what the other runners were like, what you took with you in your sports bag, and a little of the frustrations and satisfaction of the training.
When the 10 minutes are up, look back at your notes. Circle any concrete nouns that recur or are somehow important to the notes. In the fun run example, you might circle ‘running shoes’ or ‘coach’s whistle’. Choose one example that you would like to work with.
Look back at your notes again and do the same for any abstract nouns that recur or feel important to the notes. For example, feelings work quite well for this exercise, so you might circle the ‘exhaustion’ or ‘exhilaration’ of training for the fun run, or the ‘camaraderie’ with the other runners. Choose one example that you would like to work with.
Now, imagine a situation in which your chosen concrete noun disappears. What impact would this have on the situation? What would change or be different? And what impact would the loss of the concrete noun have on your chosen abstract noun? For example, you could imagine a situation where you turned up to training for the fun run, but had forgotten your running shoes. You’d be unable to take part in that day’s training and so would have to cheer on your fellow runners from the sidelines instead, which could place you in slightly different relationship to the group.
Now, imagine a situation in which your concrete noun is rediscovered. What does impact does this have on your scene? For example, you could leave running practice and find that your running shoes had been in the car all along. How would that make you feel and what would be the impact on the next time you went running?
You now have the basis for a short story inspired by ‘The Exchange’ – happy writing!
Photo by Olya Kobruseva from Pexels