Writing Prompts by Joseph Young

by | Jun 12, 2024 | Events

Joseph Young, author of our recent book, The Thing I Was Trying to Tell You, is leading a writing workshop in Westport, NY, on June 29. The event is being held in partnership with Whitcomb’s, which recently opened an art retrospective of the work of Ted Cornell. These are the prompts that visitors to the art opening received, and which we’ll work with at the workshop on June 29.

Prompt 1: A Weightless Heavy

Artists, and their audiences, are endlessly fascinated by the trick of making very heavy things seem weightless. Think about the sculptures of Richard Serra, his works of many tons of iron that, when encountered, walked around or between, do not feel oppressive but rather airy, even flying. Another variation on the idea are the very large canvases of Helen Frankenthaler, stained with the thinnest of washes.

Helen Frankenthaler

At Art Farm, you encounter this impulse in abundance. Most obviously, perhaps, in “Floating Stone Cone,” which Ted Cornell made along with Shelling McKinley, a hillock of stones that literally floats upon the waters of a pond, and, perhaps less obviously, though with contemplation just as evident, in the rest of the work of Ted Cornell.

An artist that also works with iron, you feel it in “Memorial Column,” a piece of rolled iron culvert that nonetheless recalls a stem of grass that might, with a breeze, bend and sway. The piece, “Welcome,” made of rusted iron and wood, asks you to enter like the wide, easy smile of a generous host.

What’s behind this fascination? Perhaps it’s an acknowledgement of the very common human feeling of weightlessness during “heavy” times: the floating, even at times giddy, sensation when attending the funeral of a loved one; the dread of losing one’s job, perhaps anticipated for weeks or months, attended on the day of actual separation with a windy freedom.

As a first writing prompt, record a piece of memory, fiction, poetry, that works in a similar vein, using the contrasts of airiness and weight as a central element in the piece to convey a state of mind. As a further constraint, try to embody this contrast not so much in the thoughts or feelings of your narrator or character, but, like an artist, in the materials of the world you build—with description of setting, landscape, objects, clothing, weather. The heavy work boots of a laborer in contrast with the mothy touch of a child’s hand, as just one example. 

Prompt 2: Funny or Dangerous?

“Danger,” a sculpture of the artist Ted Cornell, announces in its title its intended effect: Fear. Those black tendrils erupting from the metal ground, splaying haphazardly, organically, outwards towards you, bring to my mind, at least, something alien and subversive, threatening, the title creature in the Alien films, or the tentacled beasts of H.P. Lovecraft, a parasite of some kind.

Though isn’t there something hilarious going on here as well? Seems like it to me. There’s a cartoonish sproing! happening, like a pocket watch suddenly bursting apart in an episode of Bugs Bunny. Or it might be an uncomfortable laugh, maybe something more like Beavis and Butthead, but I don’t think you’d be wrong if that eruption of Cornell’s black spaghetti precipitated a burst of hilarity.

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. Is that a cattle gun in your hand, or are you just happy to see me?

Funny and dangerous go together: Javier Bardem’s ridiculous haircut in No Country for Old Men, the deeply wry humor of Flannery O’Connor’s violent stories. Cornell’s earthwork, “Two-Tone Stone Cone,” is pretty silly in shape, long grass jutting up like unkempt whiskers, but isn’t there something of the grave there too?

As a second prompt, work the funny and the dangerous together in a piece of writing. Keep in mind the lesson Cornell gives us of how funny carries dread, and dread conveys laughter. These two contrasts impose themselves on us through the eye, the fingers, the tongue. Maybe laughter is just the bodily expulsion of fear? Even if you’re not a “funny” writer or one of horror, stretch yourself!