In the title essay of landscape photographer Robert Adams’s collection Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values (Aperture, 1981), he goes about the impossible task of defining beauty, a position he acknowledges is “unprovable.” Through a variety of mediums, including fiction and poetry as well as photographs, Adams goes about discussing beauty’s relevance to society, its unavoidability in an artistic practice, and whether it is the goal of art. In his essay, Adams posits that beauty is “a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life.” Using the catalog of your own experiences and knowledge, write an essay searching to answer what beauty is to you. What life events does the word conjure?
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
Virginia Woolf’s modernist 1931 novel The Waves weaves together the voices of six protagonists across various stages of their lives from infancy to maturity. The first chapter begins with a swirl of dialogue that avoids narration and the chapters that follow use individual monologues to explore the internal lives and desires of each character. Create a group of characters that are joined by a particular relationship. Then, without external narration, write individual monologues for each character that distinguish their voices, desires, and conflicts. How do your characters develop both as individuals and as a group? What do they reveal and what do they hide in these interior conversations?
In Natasha Trethewey’s “Repentance,” included in her retrospective poetry collection Monument (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), she describes the term pentimento as: “the word for a painter’s change of heart revision / on canvas.” Trethewey uses this painting practice as a metaphor for contending with the memory of a quarrel with her father: “a moment so / far back there’s still time to take the glass from your hand / or mine.” What memory would you want to revise or repent, as if you could paint over it? Inspired by painting, write a poem that uses detailed imagery to imagine the possibility of a new past.
Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books, 2016) is an essay collection that experiments with memory. Each single-subject essay—on topics such as foot washing, dossiers, house-sitting, and Br’er Rabbit—is based on what the author has read and remembers (or misremembers) and was written without the internet or any kind of research. The book ends with “Corrections,” which fact-checks the claims in the essays, cataloguing Blanchfield’s errors and what his memory has altered. Write a series of flash essays on a variety of subjects that relies exclusively on your memory, then write a catalogue of corrections that fact-checks your claims. How does the experience of relying on your memory change your relationship to fact and truth?
In Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” the short story starts with the protagonist Anders, an ill-tempered and cynical book critic, caught in the middle of a bank heist interacting with fellow customers and the robbers. In the second half of the story, Anders is shot by one of the bank robbers and the story suddenly swerves into a retelling of his memories and private desires, leaving the linear plot of the story and allowing readers in on some of his backstory. Write a short story that is affected by a major event and causes a shift in the direction of the narrative. How can you dig further into a character’s inner life after a momentous event?
In Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Anodyne,” he writes an ode to his body and its survival, and catalogues the parts of his body that make it his own with lines such as: “I love my crooked feet / shaped by vanity & work” and “The white moons / on my fingernails.” As the poem progresses, the images transform and expand to mythological proportions: “this spleen floating / like a compass needle inside / nighttime, always divining / West Africa’s dusty horizon.” Write an ode to your body that starts with the crooked parts and continues by going past the physical into the mythological.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (Norton, 1934), is a collection of letters written when he was twenty-seven and living and working with the artist Auguste Rodin in Paris. Rilke’s correspondence was with Franz Xavier Kappus, an aspiring nineteen-year-old poet seeking advice. Many scholars say that much of Rilke’s advice to the younger poet is advice he himself received from a more experienced Rodin when they worked together at different points of their career. Write a short series of letters addressed to your younger self. What experiences can you use to encourage your less experienced self?
In a 2003 Paris Review article recounting the research for her book Solitude & Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told With Help From His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls (Seven Stories Press, 2020), Silvana Paternostro writes about how often the Nobel laureate used facts from his life for classic works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude. The article lists various acquaintances and distant relatives who knew Márquez and offered intimate anecdotes that helped shape an organic portrait. Write a story that acts as a portrait of a single person told through the anecdotes of various characters, distant or familial. What does this narrative mode reveal about the protagonist?
In “Killing My Sister’s Fish” by Sharon Olds, which appears in her 1996 poetry collection, The Wellspring, she writes of a child pouring ammonia into the bowl of her sister’s pet goldfish and ruminates on the action “as if something set in motion / long before I had been conceived / had been accomplished.” Reflect on a time when you did something wrong, or even sinister, as a child and list the physical details of the event. Write a poem that narrates this memory as truthfully as possible and consider why the event remains so vivid in your mind.
In California’s chaparral plant ecosystem, there are dozens of species known as “fire followers”—including tree and fire poppies, whispering bells, phacelia, lupine, poodle-dog bush, and snapdragons—whose growth is triggered after regional fires by changed chemical conditions of charred soil, and fire- or smoke-activated seeds or buds. Write a series of flash nonfiction pieces, each pointing to a small beginning of sorts after a specific event of chaos or destruction in your life. Does each short narrative pick up a thread from an originating incident and carry it toward something new?
In “Yoshitomo Nara Paints What He Hears” by Nick Marino published in New York Times Magazine, Mika Yoshitake, curator of an upcoming retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says of Nara’s signature paintings blending the cute, innocent, or childish with an ambiguous anger or menace: “People refer to them as portraits of girls or children. But they’re really all, I think, self-portraits.” Write a short story based on a new character, someone who is seemingly very different from yourself but whom you can use as a vehicle for a self-portrait. What are the superficial ways in which this character is disguised, and what are the characteristics or traits that mark the character as undeniably you?
Over thirty years after the release of the classic sci-fi comedy film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, this fall marks the release of Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third installment of the series following the two title characters, played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter, slacker metalhead musicians from California tasked with traveling through time to save the world. Elsewhere in Reeves’s filmography there is more time traveling, including the mind-bending 2006 film The Lake House, in which an architect is engaged in an epistolary romance with a doctor who inhabits the same lake house, but two years apart. Write a series of short poems inspired by the concept of time travel. If you could go back or move forward in time, who would you see and what would you change?
Henri Cole’s latest memoir, Orphic Paris (New York Review of Books, 2018), mixes the forms of autobiography, diary, essay, and poetry with photographs for a complete and intimate look into his time spent in Paris. Each line in the last essay of the book begins with “j’aime,” as Cole uses anaphora, a form which repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, to write a final moving ode to Paris. Whether it be by your travels or ancestry, what city or place do you feel captivated by? Write a personal essay that uses the repetition of a word or phrase, or the anaphora form to examine your connection to that particular place.
In a recent essay for FSG’s Work in Progress, Andrew Martin breaks down the experience of putting a collection of stories together and how he gleaned inspiration from listening to his favorite albums. Martin writes about how Neil Young is “famous for his idiosyncratic approach to assembling and releasing albums. A song recorded a decade earlier will suddenly find itself sharing space with a collection wildly different in tone and style.” He continues by comparing punk albums that “get in and get out quickly” to more sprawling albums like Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and Notorious BIG’s Life After Death. Choose a favorite album and listen to how the songs react to one another and the importance of their order. Then, write a story with the structure, language, or character development inspired by this musical trajectory.
The abecedarian is a poetic form in which the first letter of each line or stanza follows sequentially through the English alphabet. Poets such as Natalie Diaz, Carolyn Forché, and Harryette Mullen have used the form to tackle the historical subjugation of a people and the inadequacy of language when faced with great disaster. The controlled form builds a visual structure that calls attention to the poem’s subject matter. Write an abecedarian poem that reflects on the English language and your place in it. Read Natalie Diaz’s “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” for inspiration.
Whether it’s a nod that means “yes,” or a pointed finger that says, “over there,” we all likely express some form of nonverbal language in our day-to-day lives. But just how specific can we be with our body language? Think about how you communicate nonverbally to those around you. Are there certain gestures or facial expressions that only certain friends or family members understand? In a personal essay, reflect on when you use these actions and behaviors, where you learned them, and how they differ culturally and within particular social circles.
At the start of John Cheever’s short story “Goodbye, My Brother,” three paragraphs are dedicated to introducing the Pommeroy family before the plot begins. Although the section seems to go against the classic writing rule to “show, don’t tell,” it cleverly helps the reader understand the narrator’s personality, as well as learn details about the individual lives of each member of the family. The introduction’s final sentence also sets up the conflict: “We had disliked Lawrence, but we looked forward to his return with a mixture of apprehension and loyalty, with some of the joy and delight of reclaiming a brother.” Write a story in first person that uses an opening section to characterize your narrator and create tension. What subtext can we glean from what’s revealed in these first sentences?
In an interview with Yahdon Israel for the LIT video series, Whiting Award–winning poet Safiya Sinclair describes poetry as the “language of an impolite body.” Sinclair considers “wildness” and “madness” while writing and engages with the task of decolonizing the English language as a Jamaican writer. Consider your own relationship with the English language and write a poem that presents any complications or disturbances as an impolite body. Play with word choice or form to go against the grain of learned rules. For guidance, read Sinclair’s poem “In Childhood, Certain Skies Refined My Seeing” from her collection, Cannibal (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).
“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.
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.