In his experimental memoir, I Remember (Angel Hair Books, 1970), Joe Brainard begins every paragraph with the phrase, “I remember.” By repeating this simple form again and again, Brainard is able to uncover memories previously buried beneath other memories: “I remember my grade school art teacher, Mrs. Chick, who got so mad at a boy one day she dumped a bucket of water over his head. I remember one very hot summer day I put ice cubes in my aquarium and all the fish died. I remember after people are gone thinking of things I should have said but didn’t.” Try borrowing Brainard’s construction for your own experimental essay. Follow the beads of memory and see if they lead you somewhere surprising.
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.
Miranda July’s short story “The Metal Bowl” is about a marriage and a secret that one partner brings to it, but the narrative ends up depending on the eponymous metal bowl. July’s story joins a tradition of short stories that hinge on a single (often surprisingly mundane) object, such as Lydia Davis’s “The Sock” and Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Accordion.” Try writing your own short story or scene in which a nondescript object plays a crucial role.
In a series of poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Terrance Hayes seemingly addresses an abstraction: How can one have both a past and future assassin? Would this assassin be a person, or would it be a system, a history, a feeling? Hayes embraces the ambiguity, and writes his poems as if he were speaking to an individual: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Is there a force in your own life that is asking to be addressed? Try writing your own sonnet that confronts this force—however abstract—and speaks to it as if it were a person.
With the current trend of online clothing delivery services, computer algorithms and staff stylists can pair a subscriber’s predilections with clothing options delivered to the front door. If you were to outsource your fashion choices to someone else, who would it be? Write a personal essay on your dream personal stylist, perhaps choosing a historical figure, celebrity, or best friend with an enviable wardrobe. Which elements of this person’s aesthetics would you want to co-opt, and what would you specify about your own preferences to ensure your sartorial needs are amplified instead of overshadowed? Are there notable personality traits or characteristics of this person that might filter through in the clothing choices made for you?
In the New York Times Magazine’s piece “The Dinners That Shaped History,” Jessica B. Harris, Bee Wilson, and Brenda Wineapple each write about an eventful meal that changed the course of history, including Harris’s account of a rowdy dinner party in Paris hosted by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1908 which reportedly transformed Henri Rousseau from unappreciated joke into legitimate painter. Write a short story that revolves around a meal that has drastically unexpected and far-reaching results. At what point during the meal does it become evident that something extraordinary is brewing, and can any of the guests foresee the momentousness of the occasion? How does the food serve as a reflection of, or foil to, the history-making consequences of the meal?
“I did not yet consider myself a poet, but I could not forget the sensual power of her words,” writes Tina Carlson, in “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the experience of watching Lucille Clifton read her poem “homage to my hips” in the 1980s. Browse through other poems about the body, from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” to Jane Hirshfield’s “A Hand,” and write a poem that focuses on the human body, perhaps incorporating themes of celebration, awe, history, intimacy, or health. How might you play with diction and repetition, line breaks, and rhythm and sounds to reflect the sensual power of the body?
In “The Art of Reading James Baldwin: The Truth of Our Pain” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, William Giraldi quotes Baldwin’s 1962 essay “The Creative Process”: “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself.” Think of a current social issue you have conflicting feelings about, and write a personal essay that approaches the issue as you might a lover’s quarrel. While sharing your own specific experiences and emotions, how might you aim to reveal a piece of society to itself in a tender and loving way? From a lover’s point of view, what kind of stipulations, exceptions, or assumptions might strengthen or weaken your argument?
“Jane Googles ‘Edward Rochester.’” In a humorous post on the New Statesman, Amelia Tait lists “how 25 of the world’s greatest tales would be destroyed by dastardly tech,” including Jane Eyre. This week, choose a scene from a classic story and write a new version in which you introduce an anachronistic piece of technology into the plotline. How does the modern invention highlight the ways in which interpersonal communication and conventions are tied to the speed and ease with which knowledge is accessed? Does something like Instagram, autocorrect, or a smartphone help, hinder, or transform your characters’ ultimate goals?
Every summer in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Spain, participants of an annual festival enact a death ritual by climbing into coffins that are then paraded by pallbearers through music-filled streets. The festival falls on the feast day of Saint Martha, and is seen as a way for devotees to express gratitude and celebrate the triumph of life and health, after having narrowly escaped death in the previous year. Write a poem that explores a time when you have felt particularly sensitive to mortality, perhaps because of a personal or loved one’s brush with serious illness or death. Instead of steering clear of the conventional words, images, symbols, and objects that are associated with death, focus on highlighting them. How might a direct confrontation of the proximity between vitality and mortality create new perspective?
In Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a mysterious narrator recounts committing the murder of an old man, all the while insisting on his own sanity. In order to hide the body, the narrator dismembers and buries the corpse beneath the floorboards, but continues to hear the dead man’s beating heart. The terror and madness that the increasingly loud beating wreaks on the narrator’s psyche throughout the rest of the story is seen as a manifestation of guilt. Think about a situation in the past when you have felt guilty about something you’ve said, done, or witnessed. How did the guilt manifest? Was there a secret involved? Was there an eventual confession or resolution? Write an essay about this memory, focusing on the immediate emotions and any bodily response or flights of imagination that may have resulted.
Earlier this year, scientists published a finding that all of the spiders in the world together consume a total of four to eight hundred million tons of prey every year, which is more than the estimated weight of all humans in the world. In its report of this study, the Washington Post offered the nightmare-inducing headline, “Spiders Could Theoretically Eat Every Human on Earth in One Year.” Write a short story that could adapt this headline as its title and considers a confrontation between human being and spider, whether one-on-one, or perhaps a freakishly larger-scale battle. Can you find both humor and horror in the scene?
“The mellow autumn came, and with it came / The promised party, to enjoy its sweets. / The corn is cut, the manor full of game; / The pointer ranges, and the sportsman beats / In russet jacket:—lynx-like is his aim; / Full grows his bag, and wonderful his feats. / Ah, nut-brown partridges! Ah, brilliant pheasants!” writes Lord Byron in his epic poem “Don Juan.” The poem, which satirizes the legendary Don Juan and portrays him as a character easily seduced by women, is told in seventeen cantos and this section describes a party at an English countryside estate. Use Byron’s line about a mellow autumn as the first line of your poem. Continue on from there and write about a festive autumnal gathering, perhaps using Byron’s mentions of outdoor recreation and landscape, animals and nature, a country or rural setting, or the ottava rima rhyme scheme for further inspiration.
A bar napkin on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. shows the now famous Laffer Curve, a mathematical curve economist Arthur Laffer sketched that convinced President Ford to cut tax rates in 1974. Recently it was revealed that it is not the original bar napkin, but a copy Laffer later recreated as a keepsake. The Smithsonian put the napkin on display in 2015, but at the time of the meeting more than forty years ago, Laffer was a young professor and nobody suspected anything especially momentous was occurring. Imagine that decades into the future, the Smithsonian will be acquiring a relic or souvenir from your own life that has taken on historical importance. What would the object be? Write an essay exploring mementos you’ve kept over the years in hopes that these objects might be of importance in the future.
In “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, author Laura Hulthen Thomas describes a phone call in which her elderly great-aunt recounted Thomas’s great-grandmother engaging in recklessly brazen behavior. Hearing this tale gave Thomas the courage and inspiration to recommit to writing during a period when she had almost given up on it. Write a short story in which your main character has a phone conversation with a relative who offers up a long-ago and unexpected memory about a family member. How does the story change the character’s perspective on life and trajectory? What kind of an effect might the revelation of a bold sense of adventure in one’s familial past have on someone feeling hopeless and apprehensive of taking risks?
Those inclined toward superstitious beliefs may be relieved that last Friday marked the second and last Friday the thirteenth of this year. Whether you are a believer or not, a study by behavioral scientist Jane Risen reveals that superstitions can affect both believers and nonbelievers. Though it may not be considered rational, the feeling of being cursed can be relieved if some sort of ritual is performed, like throwing salt over one’s shoulder or knocking on wood. Write a poem that begins with the presentation of a mysterious or inexplicable anxiety. Then in the latter half of the poem, present a ritual to reverse the effects, perhaps in the form of a physical ritual, lucky objects, or an incantation. Does the act of creating or poeticizing a ritual to lessen worries of a bad outcome have a soothing effect of its own?
“You can always tell prettiness from beauty. Beauty arises from contradiction, even when it’s under the surface. Any report of experience will be contradictory. And part of the reportage is to include those contradictions,” says Chris Kraus in a conversation with Leslie Jamison for Interview magazine. Write a personal essay exploring the idea that an underlying contradiction is intrinsic to the value of beauty. What are some images, scenes, or emotions in your own life or in art you’ve encountered that you found to be beautiful, and what contradictions might lie within them? How can you effectively integrate contradictions into your own reportage to explore true beauty?
Earlier this year, Ernest Hemingway’s first short story was discovered in Key West, Florida, spanning fourteen handwritten pages of a notebook. The untitled story, written when Hemingway was ten years old, is a fictional travelogue through Ireland and Scotland that includes both researched facts and imagined scenes and characters. Write a fictional travel story that mirrors Hemingway’s epistolary form and incorporates letters and diary entries, or other invented documents.
In his poem “Rain,” Houston-based poet Kevin Prufer creates a distinctive atmosphere through repetition: “Rain made red leaves stick to car windows. / Rain made the houses vague. A car / slid through rain past rows of houses.” The poem begins innocently enough, but the accumulation of the word “rain” soon brings it into a nightmarish territory. Try choosing one word and letting its repetition guide you through a poem. The poem’s logic may need to contort itself in order to make room for the repetition, but that is the point—use a formal constraint to get your creative mind moving differently.
“Something about series finales, it’s about ending, but ending with an opening,” says Durga Chew-Bose, author of Too Much and Not the Mood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), in an interview with the Creative Independent about her habit of watching the series finale of a television show before sitting down to write. Revisit a personal essay you wrote in the past that ends with a solid sense of closure. Then, try out Chew-Bose’s technique and watch the series finale of a popular television show before settling down to write a new ending for your essay, one that hints at a new beginning.
It was recently discovered that a Viking warrior who was buried in present-day Sweden more than a millennium ago and long presumed to be a wealthy man, was actually a woman. Since the grave contained a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, signifying the individual was a professional warrior, most researchers assumed the body was male. This week, think of a male character from a favorite short story, and write a new version of the story in which the character is a woman. Which elements of the story will you keep the same and which do you change?
What can be accomplished without a brain? Three graduate biology students at the California Institute of Technology published a study last month revealing that jellyfish can sleep, the first documented instance of an animal without a brain having the ability to fall asleep. Think of an activity you engage in regularly, and then leap into the realm of the fantastic by imagining how that activity would be different if it didn’t require the use of your brain. Write a poem inspired by this idea, perhaps playing with notions of ancient behaviors, instinctive movements, and primordial processes.
Last Friday was the autumnal equinox, one of two times each year when the lengths of day and night in both hemispheres are equal because the sun is directly over the earth’s equator. Jot down several of your favorite memories of experiences that took place this summer during daylight hours, and then several that took place during the darkness of night. Look through your lists and select one daytime memory and one nighttime memory that share an element in common, such as geographical location, people present, or mood. Taking inspiration from the binary nature of the equinox, write a personal essay that focuses half on your daytime memory and half on your nighttime memory, and explores the connections between the two.
“Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it,” writes Wiley Cash in “The Art of Active Dialogue,” a micro essay in our Craft Capsules series. Cash examines the ways in which using purposefully planned action beats can give written dialogue a more powerful impact. Write a short fictional conversation between two characters, perhaps inspired by a recently overheard dialogue. Play around with Cash’s tips, ensuring each line is character-specific, using strong active words, minimizing gerunds, and experimenting with placing action beats and dialogue lines in separate sentences.
This month, the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced the addition of over two hundred and fifty new words and definitions, including bibimbap, froyo, hive mind, sriracha, and troll. Browse through some of the newcomers, and write two short poems that incorporate one or more of the words. Does the word or term have emotional resonances or a personal connection to you? Play with multiple meanings or your own definitions to present the words in unexpected or surprising contexts.
In the New York Times Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation series, writers focus their essays around mundane objects and activities that they personally cherish but feel are underappreciated by society as a whole: Aleksandar Hemon recommends skiing, Meghan Daum recommends the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles, Joshua Cohen recommends alternative search engines, Sheila Heti recommends sick days, Jia Tolentino recommends Cracker Barrel restaurants, Sarah Manguso recommends acupuncture, and Karl Ove Knausgaard recommends chewing gum. Write a letter of recommendation for an item, experience, or habit that others don’t seem to especially value, but which you enjoy immensely. Present your encounters and memories to advocate for the subject.