In an article for Atlas Obscura, Eden Arielle Gordon writes about the work of dendrochronologists dating the oldest tree in the world. Jonathan Barichivich is a Chilean scientist and grandson of a park ranger who discovered the Alerce Milenario, a Patagonian cypress in Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park. Barichivich’s careful calculations estimate the Alerce Milenario to be 5,474 years old, which would mean the cypress lived through several of the world’s most transformative events, including the development of writing, clocks, and the hydrogen bomb. Write a personal essay inspired by the discovery of this ancient tree. What would it mean to be over 5,000 years old? How would you reflect on the ways the world has changed?
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
In an essay excerpt published on Literary Hub, which appears in Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature (Graywolf Press, 2022), Charles Baxter writes about an exercise he would assign to his students in which they are asked to compile ten facts about one of their characters, encouraging them to consider “particularized details.” He writes: “For example, you can say, ‘She likes chocolate,’ but almost everybody likes chocolate. It’s better to say, ‘The only chocolate she will eat is imported from Mozambique.’” Try out this exercise and compile ten things you know about a new, invented character. Then, write a short story with this character at the core. How do these details inform the personality and actions of your protagonist?
The late poet and critic John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking, 1975) is considered his masterpiece, having won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. The long title poem is a meditation on sixteenth-century Italian artist Parmigianino’s painting of the same name. Ashbery writes: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly; that is, enough to make the point / That the soul is a captive.” This week write a poem about your reflection. Whether seen through a traditional mirror, a body of water, or a distorted lens, begin with a description of what you see and follow through with an inner reflection.
As heat waves strike around the globe, many flock to beaches and parks for refreshment and recreation with friends and family. Although being out in the hot weather requires sunblock and stamina, weekend excursions ultimately provide an opportunity to disconnect from work life, day-to-day duties, and the overall stress that comes with modern society. Think back to a time you visited a favorite place to relax on a weekend. Was it a quiet spot under the shade of a tree, a nearby body of water to dip your feet into, or a hiking trail with an incredible view? Write an essay that explores this experience at your favorite place. Try telling the backstory of what was happening in your life to color the essay with context and depth.
“My novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit,” writes Tayari Jones in “Finding the Center” from an installment of our Craft Capsule series published in 2018. In the essay, Jones writes about the process of choosing the protagonist of her award-winning novel: “I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story.” This week, write a story in which you explore two sides of the same conflict between two characters. Whether by dividing the story into two parts, or weaving both perspectives together, how can you differentiate their individual stakes and perspectives?
In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters,” which appears in his 1979 collection, Field Work, the speaker faces an internal conflict in which he relishes in the “perfect memory” of eating oysters with friends while also dealing with the anger and “glut of privilege” that allows him such refined experiences. In the final sentence, as if avoiding the lingering guilt, Heaney writes: “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.” Write a poem in which a moment of pleasure is met with guilt or shame. Bring both feelings into focus, digging into the complexity of the scene.
“There are two kinds of silence that trouble a translator: physical silence and metaphysical silence,” writes Anne Carson in her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” published in A Public Space. In the essay, Carson discusses various forms of silence—whether of torn ancient manuscripts, the untranslatable, or not being heard—through the works of British painter Francis Bacon and German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, weaving in and out of anecdotes and analyses that are punctuated by the author’s extensive experience as a translator of ancient Greek. Inspired by this thought-provoking essay, meditate on the many ways that silence has taken shape in your life. Then, write an essay that uses the works of others, or your own personal life, to illustrate your experience with silence.
Literature is fueled by its villains as much as it is by its heroes, and oftentimes, the villains make more compelling characters due to their flaws, convincing arguments, and twisted aspirations. Shakespeare’s villains are infamous for their layers of complexity. For example, Lady Macbeth, as she sleepwalks in Act V of Macbeth, hallucinates and sees her own bloodstained hands revealing both her guilt as much as her cruelty: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” she says. Then as she reflects on plotting to kill King Duncan says: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” This week, write a story with a compelling, complicated villain at its core. How will you turn this villain into a three-dimensional character?
“Scientists have picked up a radio signal ‘heartbeat’ billions of light-years away,” reads an article headline published by NPR last Thursday from a report that astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology picked up radio signals that repeat in a clear periodic pattern similar to a beating heart from a galaxy billions of light-years from Earth. The discovery could help researchers determine at what speed the universe is expanding. Write a poem inspired by this headline in which you explore the metaphorical and literal ramifications of a “heartbeat” billions of light-years away.
In her lyric essay “Tsunami” published in the Margins, Juliet S. Kono uses the zuihitsu form to tell a layered story about how her family has survived through multiple tsunami attacks. The essay uses dates to introduce each section, beginning with her family emigrating from Japan to Hawai’i in the early 1900s, then jumping to the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan, and culminating in 1946 when she and her family survived a deadly tsunami in Hilo, Hawai’i. Inspired by Kono, write a lyric essay that explores a shared history between you and your ancestors. Try using dates to structure the essay, adding historical and emotional layers to the narrative as you write.
This past Sunday marked Marcel Proust’s birthday, the French novelist, essayist, and critic whose list of work includes his iconic seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. In the first volume, Swann’s Way, the protagonist dips a madeleine cake in his tea, takes a sip, and is overcome with a sensation of joy he traces back to a childhood memory of sharing a snack with his aunt Léonie. Proust has been named the originator of the term “involuntary memory,” which, according to Psychology Today, is “now understood to be a common mental recall experience that happens without any effort.” This week, write a story in which a character experiences a moment of “involuntary memory.” Either through food or an unexpected encounter, try immersing the reader in this memory which uncovers a secret in your character’s life.
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsules series, Lauren Camp shares a technique she uses to salvage phrases from her poems that aren’t quite working. “Over the last few decades, I have maintained a Word document—I call it my ‘Keeps’ document,” Camp writes. “Into this file I paste my ‘darlings,’ margin to margin across the width and length of the page, smooshing them together with other beauties I couldn’t make work.” Inspired by Camp’s process, find a draft of a poem you have worked on but have yet to complete. Take a word or a line and repurpose it in a new poem. What surprising places do these words and phrases take you in your new work?
“My multiethnic existence is a protest against a racial hierarchy,” says Kali Fajardo-Anstine in “Keeping the Stories,” a profile by Rigoberto González published in the July/August 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “If you ask me about my identity, prepare to hear about a complicated ancestry. I am a Chicana of Indigenous and mixed ancestry, and the story of who I am is inextricably tied to this country.” Inspired by Fajardo-Anstine’s statement, write an essay about the experiences that influence how you identify yourself in the world. What are the many stories that make up who you are?
In Flannery O’Connor’s classic story “The Geranium,” an old, Southern man moves to New York City to live with his daughter and sits at the window looking into the apartment across the street where a potted geranium is set out on the ledge for sunlight every day. Although the story’s conflict involves the man’s racism and culture shock as a rural Southerner living in a big city, the story’s climax comes to a head when the geranium falls off the ledge and crashes six floors down into the alley. Write a story in which a character becomes obsessed with a neighbor’s life. What is transfixing about the neighbor’s daily routine that spurs on self-reflection for your character?
This past weekend, Independence Day was celebrated in the United States with barbecues, concerts, parades, picnics, and fireworks commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Amidst the celebration, the day has also become a reminder of what it means to uphold human rights. Write a poem reflecting on celebrating the country you grew up in and all the complicated feelings and memories that come along. For inspiration, read “Ghazal: America the Beautiful” by Alicia Ostriker, included in the archives of the Academy of American Poets’ website.
In the introduction to the anthology This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music (Hachette, 2022) edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson, which is featured in “The Anthologist” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, composer and guitarist Heather Leigh writes about how the authors of each essay acknowledge that “music somehow remains intangible” and how “we can try to explain and to rationalize it, but we’re seduced back by the song.” What music seduces and captures you? Using this question as a guide, write an essay that centers around the impact a certain song or musician has had on your life. Use tangible memories and details to add texture to the composition of your essay.
According to Merriam-Webster, the “dog days” are “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.” As the month of July begins this week, many may begin to experience extreme heat and the stress that arrives along with it. Write a story set during the dog days of summer. Perhaps your character is faced with a big decision on the hottest day of the year or is on an exciting summer trip. How can the harsh weather add pressure to your character’s behavior?
“Today we’re going to get to work on the details / of your expression. And believe it or not, / the only colors we’re going to use will be / blacker than most blacks,” writes Terrance Hayes in his poem “Bob Ross Paints Your Portrait,” published in Paris Review’s Summer 2022 issue. In the poem, Hayes writes in the voice of American painter and television host Bob Ross, whose show The Joy of Painting aired on PBS in the 1980s and 1990s, as he delivers instructions on how to paint a portrait of the poet. This week, inspired by Hayes, write a poem in the form of a self-portrait. Try using instructional language to describe yourself, allowing any emotions that arise to make their way into the poem.
In a recent post on Instagram by the poet Mark Wunderlich, he shared an image of a greyish white book washed of its letters, peeled back of the paper’s layers, and frayed at the edges. The caption reads, in part, “Mary Ruefle keeps a decomposing book in her yard to remind herself of the fate of all literature, and how we write anyway because we must.” Write an essay inspired by Ruefle’s decomposing book that meditates on the “fate” of your own writing. What lasting impact would you like to make? Is this what drives you to write?
In a Q&A with Neil Gaiman by Michele Filgate from the July/August 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the prolific author reflects on his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane (William Morrow, 2013), which is written from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. In his responses, Gaiman considers children’s unique perspective on life and how “kids really do know things that would terrify adults. I think it’s only a certain amount of amnesia that allows adults to function.” This week write a story with a child protagonist who has seen something life-changing. How do they cope, what are their private thoughts, and what are they willing to disclose to the adults around them?
Today marks this year’s Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year and the date that officially signifies the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been documented that the day was observed as early as the Stone Age, and cultures around the world continue to celebrate the occasion through feasts, festivals, and music. Write a poem inspired by the longest day and shortest night of the year. For further inspiration, peruse this list of poems on the Summer Solstice from the Academy of American Poets’ website.
In “Blood: Twenty-Seven Love Stories,” which appears in The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays, forthcoming in July from Doubleday, CJ Hauser writes: “I want to learn from what went wrong in the past but sometimes it seems everything worth knowing has been redacted. As if ignorance is the only thing that allows each successive generation to tumble into love, however briefly, and spawn the next.” Hauser weaves together twenty-seven short sections that each tell the love stories, some sweet and others disquieting, of her parents and grandparents, as well as those of the author’s own life. The gripping narrative touches upon the themes of love, loss, fate, and sisterhood, as Hauser finds patterns in the way life’s love stories coincide with and contradict one another. Write an essay in sections connected by shared themes. Try, as Hauser does, to link distinct stories into a single narrative, tying the pieces together using common threads.
“We talk a lot about bodies: from their right to safety and respect to how they take up space, from their sizes and shapes and shades to what each is able to do, it’s a conversation that’s both constant and ever-evolving,” write editors Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile in the introduction to Body Language: Writers on Identity, Physicality, and Making Space for Ourselves, forthcoming in July from Catapult. In this wide-ranging collection of personal narratives, writers take on the subject of the body through various lenses; for instance, Natalie Lima documents the ways men fetishize her size and Melissa Hung reflects on how swimming eases her chronic headaches. Write a story in which your protagonist is made aware of their body. How does this new awareness affect the way they carry themselves in the world? Does their relationship to their own body change, and if so, does the language you use to describe your character change too?
A still life, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a picture consisting predominantly of inanimate objects,” but in Jay Hopler’s Still Life, published in June by McSweeney’s, the term takes on new meaning. Hopler, who was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 2017, charges his poems with sharp observations of the body and lyrical ruminations that wander well beyond the traditional associations of a still life. In “still life w/ hands” he writes: “poor dumb lugs what loves you not the butterfly knife not the corkscrew....” In “still life w/ wet gems” he writes from a more fractured perspective: “lightnings bang their jaggeds on the cloud-glower / the cloud-glower is a broken necklace spilling its wet gems / its wet gems w/ facets cut are uncountable / uncountable the reflections of the world in those gems.” Inspired by Hopler’s Still Life, write a still-life poem of your own. Will your poem consider inanimate objects or living things, actions, emotions? Use this exercise as an opportunity to challenge a familiar perspective and consider a new viewpoint.
For the Paris Review Daily blog, Sloane Crosley, whose new novel, Cult Classic, was published this week by MCD, reflects on a journal entry she wrote about a time she and a friend boarded the wrong overnight train leaving Barcelona to Geneva during a twenty-day trip through Europe. Crosley considers how the diary entry of the experience includes the fight she recalls having with her friend but leaves out them making up and moving on with their trip. Think of a time when you were traveling on a trip and something went wrong—plans fell through, a friend got sick, a fight broke out. Write an essay about this experience including what you remember and might misremember.