In “‘I Read Morning, Night and in Between’: How One Novelist Came to Love Books” in the New York Times last month, Chigozie Obioma writes about how his journey to becoming a voracious reader was shaped by a childhood full of books and storytelling, and recounts a discovery made about the differences between stories told by his father versus those told by his mother. Write a personal essay about a storyteller who has played an important role in your life, such as a parent or guardian who animatedly read you bedtime stories, a relative whose tales are particularly exaggerated, or a friend whose sense of comedic or suspenseful timing is always just right. How has this person had an effect on your own storytelling and writing?
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.
“The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories we learn from others are a matter of life and death. Literature has the ability to literally change our minds—to change how we act, how we grow, what we believe, how we vote, how and when we speak,” says Morgan Parker in “Portraits of Inspiration” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story that revolves around a subject, topic, issue, or idea that feels intensely important, urgent, or vital to you. How can you create a character that becomes a source of empathy for what matters to you?
The Humboldt Glacier, located high in the Andes mountain range in Venezuela, is the country’s last glacier. Glaciers are disappearing around the world due to climate change, which has also been a factor in declines and extinctions of animal species elsewhere. This month saw the death of George, the last snail of the Hawaiian species Achatinella apexfulva, named after Lonesome George who died in 2012, the last of the Galápagos tortoises. Write a poem about an object that is the last of its kind to ever exist, either in reality or hypothetically. How is the disappearance of your chosen subject significant in its own way?
Poet Maggie Smith’s essay “Tracking the Demise of My Marriage on Google Maps” published in the New York Times Modern Love column, uses images of her house on Google Street View, photographed throughout a period of several years, as a means of imagining and remembering the events that occurred inside the residence. Smith reflects on the trajectory of her relationship with her husband and the gradual transformations of their family. Look up a current or former residence of yours using Google Street View. Click through photos taken over the years if available, and write a remembrance of your time spent there, focusing on your habitual movements within the home and how they have affected your relationships.
In E. L. Konigsburg’s 1967 classic children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, two young runaways hole up in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for some adventure, but what would happen if it were a museum of food instead of art? Browse through National Geographic’s roundup of food museums and food factory tours—including ones for bread, Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, chocolate, and ramen—and write a short story in which your protagonist has a memorable experience in one of these gastronomically focused places. Does the experience leave nothing—or everything—to be desired?
Works of poetry composed of tiny glass vials, a mineral collection, a board game, lunch boxes, Rolodexes, and View-Masters? In “Authors Thinking Outside the Box” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adrienne Raphel takes a look at Container, a small press founded by poets Jenni B. Baker and Douglas Luman, which teams with authors to publish books in nontraditional forms, oftentimes as a modified object or series of objects. Take a look around your home, a grocery store, or a hardware store for an everyday object that sparks your interest, and compose a poem that could be printed or inscribed onto the object in some way. Take in consideration how the object and your poem relate to one another.
“Philosophically, the New Year is a time for beginnings, a time for reflection and change. I can’t think of a better place than this vast and ruggedly beautiful continent to put things in perspective,” says traveler Chuck Ward in a recent New York Times article about celebrating New Year’s Eve in Antarctica. Write a personal essay about a particularly poignant or exciting New Year’s celebration you’ve had in the past. Describe the setting and how it influenced your mood. What made the night memorable and did you intend for your festivities to help start the year off in a certain way? How did the rest of the year measure up to your New Year’s expectations?
“There is no market, school, doctor, or shop, and from late-autumn until mid-spring the village is inaccessible by car and uninhabited,” Alex Crevar writes in National Geographic about Lukomir, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest village and home to just seventeen families. Write a story set in such a place (real or imagined) that is similarly caught between modernity and the social and technological isolation of its landscape. What does living in this world do to alter the interactions and daily concerns of its inhabitants? Is there a generational shift or a longing for change?
“Whenever I find myself at a literary crossroads, I reach for my Tarot deck. In my regular life, I’m a staunch scientific materialist…but in my creative life, I’m an unqualified mystic,” writes Will Dowd in a 2017 installment of Writers Recommend. In fact, there are many writers who have found inspiration in the Tarot, including W. B. Yeats, Italo Calvino, and Charles Williams. Try your hand at choosing a card to guide you for this week’s poem. Conduct an online search for a card and allow the image to be your muse. Their names, such as Temperance, Wheel of Fortune, the Magician, and Death, may be enough to conjure up ideas.
In the essay “The Poet’s Table,” published by the Poetry Foundation, food writer Mayukh Sen pays tribute to the late Maya Angelou for her lesser-known literary feats: her cookbooks. Angelou published two cookbooks when she was in her seventies and eighties, which offer readers more than just lists of measured ingredients and directions. The pages are filled with anecdotes and deeply personal stories touching upon cultural narratives, racial divisions, juvenile traumas, and moments of joy. “I feel cooking is a natural extension to my autobiography,” Angelou told the Guardian in 2011 regarding her cookbooks. This week, think of a recipe that contains some of your personal history within it—childhood memory, exploration of heritage, sense of place, or simply a snapshot of life. Write about the dish in detailed prose, allowing instruction to blend with your reminiscence.
In “How to Write a Family Newsletter Your Friends Will Actually Read,” New York Times writer Anna Goldfarb offers suggestions for the dos and don’ts of penning a family holiday newsletter. Perhaps you receive these missives annually from a friend or relative with a curated list of their accomplishments that year, or you participate voluntarily or involuntarily in one. For this week’s exercise, write a fictionalized holiday dispatch—maybe from someone with mischievous and beloved pets, parents that detail each of their children’s achievements, or that pays tribute to a departed relative. For tone, take in consideration Goldfarb’s advice: “Figure out whether you want this piece of writing to be preserved for future generations—a keepsake—or if you want this to be a throwaway piece of mail—scan, chuckle and toss.”
There is a long tradition of writers waxing poetic about the moon, dating back as far as ancient Vedic texts. Recently, Louisiana Channel asked six authors to discuss the mysterious figure in the sky and why it has such a profound effect on their writing lives. There’s even a word in German, Yoko Tawada says, which literally means “addicted to the moon”: mondsüchtig (translated as lunatic). For this week’s poem, continue the tradition of lunar poetry with your own lines about the moon. If you need more inspiration, read “To the Moon” by Percy Bysshe Shelley or “The Moon and the Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath.
What riches lie in that special space between the conscious and unconscious mind, when you’re just about to fall asleep or right as you’re waking up? In “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Harnessing the Power of Hypnagogia” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Melissa Burkley writes about this mental twilight state, and the ways that these daily moments before and after sleep can be used for storytelling inspiration. Read about the hypnagogic techniques Burkley outlines in the piece and try one of her tips for harnessing these moments of creative potential. For example, use a twenty-minute nap or ease yourself out of your waking routine slowly to let your semi-conscious mind work over the ideas. Record notes on your experiences as soon as you get up, and then see how you might incorporate them into your writing.
Holiday window displays have long been a tradition for stores to show off their best gift-giving ideas, window dressers to demonstrate their creativity with tableaux of festive decorations and scenes of wintry activities, and for shoppers and strollers to look for inspiration and cheer. Write a short story in which your main character catches sight of something in a holiday window display that serves as a catalyst for a surprising course of action. Does something depicted in a window unravel a forgotten memory? Is there a gift that would be perfect for a long-lost friend?
The Rockettes, who have been based at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall since 1932, are a precision-dance company best known for their synchronized performances during the winter holiday season. Though their shows have evolved over the years as they’ve incorporated innovative new numbers and routines, what has remained unchanged over the years is the spectacle of their precisely-timed, high-kicking dancing. Watch video footage of the Rockettes, or synchronized skaters, swimmers, or line dancers, and write a poem inspired by these performances. How can you replicate the emotion or aesthetic of the repetition and patterns in your poem’s syntax, rhythm, or format on the page?
In Amanda Hess’s New York Times essay “The End of Endings,” she writes about how in our current age of “the prequel, the reboot, the reunion, the revival, the remake, the spinoff,” the logic of the Internet contributes to a timeline where nothing ends, a time when scrolling through social media continues indefinitely, an age of never-ending online content. Whereas in the past, “we needed stories to end so we could make sense of them.” Write a personal essay that extends a previously explored subject or experience to investigate what came before or after, or that offers a different version or perspective.
Studies in the past several decades have repeatedly demonstrated that the placebo effect is quite real and, though unpredictable, has the potential to alleviate symptoms even when people know they’re taking a placebo. It’s been theorized that this efficacy is connected to an individual’s expectations for positive results. Write a short story in which your main character recovers from an ailment and then discovers it is due to a placebo effect. Who was responsible for prescribing the placebo? Does this discovery lead to a darker truth?
“Does a voice have to be auditory to be a voice? / where in the body does hearing take place? / which are the questions that cannot be addressed in language?” Jen Hofer has said that her poem “future somatics to-do list,” which is composed as a list of questions, is “a poem that is a to-do list that is a poem.” Write a poem that consists of a series of questions, all revolving around one topic or concern. In what ways do the types of questions, and their progression, reveal both your current state of mind and your hopes for the future?
In The Library Book, published by Simon & Schuster in October, Susan Orlean’s lifelong love of reading and books propels her toward an exploration of libraries, as well as the personal stories of librarians. In the process of turning an eye toward one specific subject, Orlean delves into larger themes of obsessions, collecting, and memory as they pertain to universal human tendencies and to her own life. Think of a broad subject of particular interest to you and write a personal essay about it that incorporates different types of nonfiction, including elements of memoiristic writing, historical research, interviews, and primary-source documents. Examine the ways in which the formation and collection of your own memories joins with other voices and stories to create a chorus.
Coauthoring a book with another human being might have its challenges, but what about coauthoring a book with a robot? Robin Sloane is currently at work on his third novel set in a near-future California, and with an artificial intelligence computer as one of its main characters. To help write this character’s lines, the author enters snippets of texts he composes into a computer program he designed that draws from a database of texts, such as old science fiction magazines, a range of California-related novels and poetry, wildlife bulletins, and oral histories. Write a short story in which your character decides to embark on a new project with the help of artificial intelligence. Does the machine stay under control and remain useful, or does something go unexpectedly wrong?
A 3-D-printed gun, a Nest thermostat, an iPhone, cargo pants and false eyelashes made in factories in South Asia, a Brexit campaign leaflet, a burkini, a knitted pink hat. In 2014, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum introduced Rapid Response Collecting, an initiative that allows the museum to collect and display objects associated with significant contemporary world events in a timely way. The National Museum of Ireland and the Jewish Museum Berlin have established similar programs, acquiring items with recent political or cultural importance, such as campaign banners and protest posters and signs. Make a list of objects or ephemera that have played a prominent role in your life in the past two or three years, including items that have figured into international news. Write a poem in response to a selection of these objects, exploring any emotional ties you have to them and their significance to larger social issues.
Is simpler always better? Last year, scientists reported findings that the familiar and more easily built, open bowl-shaped nests most birds build today likely evolved from more complicated dome-shaped nests with protective roofs, not the other way around as previously theorized. Write a personal essay about a task you’ve attempted to simplify, perhaps an everyday skill like cooking or cleaning that you learned from an elder as a child. Did you find your way was more efficient or did you go back to the ways you were taught? Has hindsight provided new perspectives?
Have you ever, out of impatience or curiosity, turned to the last page of a novel you were in the middle of reading in order to relieve your anxiety about the ending? This week, if you are staring at a blank page or screen unsure of where to begin, soothe yourself by fast-forwarding to the final page of the story. Write a stand-alone conclusion without halting to examine plausibility or the actions that could have gotten your characters to this place. Perhaps this exercise will lead you to write an origin for the story and flesh out your characters and the setting.
“I have always grown up in a world where there were things one did not understand, because there were languages that were not completely accessible,” said Meena Alexander in an interview with Ruth Maxey for the Kenyon Review in 2005. “It just gives you a particular sense of being in a world where you can be comfortable even though linguistically the world is not really knowable.” Write a poem that touches upon something unknown or that you may have misunderstood in the past. With the help of a dictionary or online research, try incorporating words from a language you are unfamiliar with to add to the ambiguity.
Imagine you are being interviewed for a literary publication. Pose incisive and personal questions another writer might ask you about yourself and your writing. For ideas, browse our rich archive of online exclusives for interviews. Consider a few open-ended queries that resonate with you and respond to them as honestly as possible: What are some of the lies you have had to let go of when writing about your life? Has writing changed your relationship to your body? Where is the line between what you will and won’t share with strangers? Then, try writing a personal essay as an expansion of one of your responses.