What would motivate you to walk thousands of miles? Last month, researchers released data that tracked an arctic fox that had made a trek of over two thousand miles across the frozen Arctic Ocean from Norway to Canada over the course of seventy-six days, most likely prompted by a search for food or a new habitat. Write a personal essay about a time that you traveled a long way—traversing a great physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual distance—to achieve something that was of utmost importance to you. What motivated you along the way? How did the trials of the journey compare with the end result?
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.
“What is the difference between the truth and what the characters are telling themselves? If I can figure that out, then things really start to crack open,” says Téa Obreht in a profile by Amy Gall in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine about a question she poses to herself during the writing process. Keep this question in mind as you try writing a short story that revolves around a main character whose version of the truth—about another character, herself, or an event that has happened—differs drastically from a more objective reality. How does the storytelling perspective demonstrate this discrepancy to the reader? What is hidden underneath this version of the story?
“Autumn nibbles its leaf from my hand. / We are friends. // We shell time from the nuts and teach them to walk. / Time returns into its shell.” In an essay on Lit Hub, Sara Martin writes about compulsively reciting Paul Celan’s poem “Corona” on first dates as a “beautiful but impersonal” way to expedite intimacy. This week, write a poem you can imagine reciting to a new romantic prospect or lover, one that doesn’t necessarily dwell on traditional images or vocabulary of seduction but strives for a subtle sense of hope and urgency. What kind of language do you use to invoke an immediate intimacy?
“Glamour Shots was once the coolest store in every mall,” writes Mark Dent in the New York Times article “The Last Five Glamour Shots Locations in the United States.” In the mid-nineties, there were more than three hundred and fifty of these stores—part salon, part photography studio—around the world. Customers were treated to makeovers, and camera filters smoothed out any wrinkles or blemishes, a task that smartphones can now easily accomplish. For this week’s prompt, write a story that takes place in a chain store that has outlived its glory days. Who are the regulars that frequent this space and what ties them together?
For many of us, the elevation in temperature and invitation to spend more time outdoors during the summer can usher in a flurry of changes—both atmospheric and emotional. As Nina MacLaughlin writes in her Paris Review summer solstice series: “In summer we tend skyward. It invites us out and up…. We can stand outside when it’s dark and lift our faces to the sky and get spun back to childhood or swung into the swishing infinity above.” Write a poem that embodies this transformation. What smells, sounds, and sensations do you associate with the season? For more examples of warm weather poetry, see the Poetry Foundation’s collection of summer poems.
One hundred years from now, what physical objects from your life would you want preserved that express your work as a writer? In the New York Times, Thessaly La Force asks, “What should an artist save?” while examining the eclectic archives left behind by artists, including boxes of fabric in Louise Bourgeois’s basement, a rejection letter addressed to Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz’s “magic box.” Jot down a list of objects, physical spaces, and writings that you would consider integral to understanding the intersections of your life and work. Write a lyric essay composed of reflections on each of these items and how they are connected to your personal creative intentions or beliefs.
Earlier this month, Seamus Blackley, a physicist and the cocreator of the Xbox, baked a loaf of sourdough bread using yeast extracted from 4,500-year-old Egyptian ceramic vessels with the help of an Egyptologist and microbiologist at Harvard. This experiment provoked some to jokingly—or not—wonder if this might unleash the wrath of an Egyptian pharaoh’s curse. Write a short story that considers what kind of consequences, mundane or fantastic, could result from bringing back to life organisms from thousands of years ago. Do problems arise when your characters unleash their creation?
How’s the view from above? This week, browse through these aerial photographs from National Geographic of animals, including flamingos, sharks, elk, whales, camels, hippos, and salmon, to discover beautiful shapes, colors, and patterns in nature. How can a different perspective provide new insights, emotions, and modes of thought? Write a poem that considers a familiar subject—perhaps one you’ve written about before—from a bird’s-eye view. Consider what the tops of things look like and what you see from a wider range.
Earlier this year, quantum physicists succeeded in un-ageing a single, simulated particle, essentially moving it backward through time for one millionth of a second. The feat required so much manipulation and was considered so impossible for nature to replicate that scientists present it as reinforcement of the irreversibility of time. But what if the reversal of a single moment in time was possible? Write a personal essay that reflects on one moment in your life that you would do over, if you could. What actually happened, and what do you perceive as the long-term consequences if things changed?
Catacombs decorated with bones in Rome, an underground reservoir in Istanbul from the sixth century, a former subterranean city in northern France with hundreds of rooms, chapels, town squares, and a bakery. In a recent National Geographic article, nine different historic sites around Europe that are located underground are rediscovered. Consider what strange activities might be unfolding at any given moment right under your feet. Write a story that takes place in an underground location. Have historical sites been repurposed for an entirely new function, or has something new been built? Is the atmosphere lively and bustling, or cool and foreboding?
“I wanted to leave behind speakers who succumbed to paranoia, emaciation, and sleep. More and more, there arose in me speakers who would self-emancipate, lurk and leap, bite and fight, and consume ravenously,” writes Justin Phillip Reed on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog about the poems that came after finishing his book, Indecency (Coffee House Press, 2018). In his essay, Reed considers the figure of the monster in mythology—as a metaphor and an agent of dehumanization— and its relation to anti-Black constructions, and finds a revitalizing sense of urgency in confronting these ideas. Think of a current topic or personal situation that has been troubling and exhausting you for some time. Write a poem that combats succumbing to this conflict, one that lurks and leaps, bites and fights.
How much do you trust the Internet, and its users, to guide your life? For the last three years, data engineer and programmer Tyler Wood has set up a system online where thousands of subscribers watch a livestream of a plant and vote on whether or not it should be watered. Write a personal essay about an instance when you have trusted the knowledge or opinions of Internet strangers to provide information about something such as where to eat, what to buy, how to fix something, or how to navigate a place or situation. Did you have feelings of hesitation or did you trust the advice implicitly?
Earlier this month, a New York City resident formerly from California posted on social media about his mysterious and shocking discovery of a perfectly intact burger from the West Coast fast food chain In-N-Out Burger lying in the middle of the street in Queens. Write a short story that revolves around a character stumbling upon an inexplicable, mirage-like object on the street, perhaps one that evokes particular nostalgia or poignant longing. Why does it resonate so deeply with your character? Does the discovery result in wild speculation and conjecture when attempting to explain the mystery?
What happens when your favorite children’s book character grows up and moves out? A piece for the UnReal Estate series on Apartment Therapy’s website imagines what the studio apartments of characters like Ramona Quimby and Nancy Drew would look like if they designed their homes as adults. Taking inspiration from this idea, envision a favorite book character’s home years after the events depicted in the story. Write a poem that describes this environment—the furniture, colors, lighting—reflecting upon how your understanding of the character’s personality and narrative arc are physically manifested in this imagined grown-up home.
“Its freedom lies in fragmentation and even welcomed chaos. The embrace of intended disorganization felt right to me,” says Tina Chang in a Q&A with Poets & Writers about using the zuihitsu form in her third poetry collection, Hybrida (Norton, 2019). The zuihitsu is a Japanese form and genre comparable to the lyric essay comprised of casual, loosely connected fragments and ideas, often in haphazard order, such as in Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. Write a zuihitsu-inspired essay, collecting a dozen or so random thoughts and personal notes about your surroundings, and incorporating text fragments, observations, and lists.
“Among my obsessions I include cows, pencils and all things Greek,” writes Mary Norris in her New York Times essay “Golf Balls! Pencils! Whales! What Makes an Author’s Obsession a Thrill, Not a Bore?” in which she contemplates the pleasure of relating to another’s preoccupations through reading the work of obsessive writers. Write a short story in which one of your own obsessions is transferred to the main character. How does your character handle or respond to this obsession in ways both similar to and different from how you would?
This past weekend marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing by NASA’s Apollo 11. Along with footprints and the American flag, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left behind about one hundred other objects. Browse through a list of these items, which include a blanket, armrests, space boots, and cameras. Select one and write a poem from the point of view of this object, imagining its original trajectory from Earth to the moon, and the fifty years spent on the lunar surface. What emotions are evoked when you consider this lunar inventory?
In Thomas Clerc’s autobiographical novel, Interior (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, each chapter consists of the author documenting the objects in the seven rooms in his Parisian apartment, from the peephole in the entryway and the toilet brush in the bathroom, to a switch plate on his kitchen wall. Write a lyric essay inspired by this concept. Select one room, or one part of a room, and write a series of vignettes detailing the physical objects. Include mundane architectural components as well as the memories that surface when you encounter these items on a daily basis, revealing your interior thoughts.
What happens to your sense of time when the sun doesn’t set for sixty-nine days in a row? Residents of the Norwegian island Sommarøy, where the sun stays above the horizon from the middle of May to the end of July, have a “time-free way of living,” doing away with the constraints of tightly scheduled hours and deadlines. This week, write a short story that takes place in a location that has become a time-free zone. Have the residents adjusted smoothly to a flow of life that passes in a timeless blur, or are there unexpected hiccups and misunderstandings?
“Most of life is ordinary...ordinary isn’t the enemy but instead something nourishing and unavoidable, the bedrock upon which the rest of experience ebbs and flows,” writes Mike Powell in a recent New York Times essay about embracing the process of washing dishes as a ritual practice in patience. Write a poem that considers a household chore in a new light. Is there anything extraordinary about the ordinariness of an everyday activity such as your job commute, making your bed, taking out the trash, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, or pumping gas into your car? How can these tasks be viewed as a nourishing element of your life?
Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star (Nan A. Talese, 2019), begins with a photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt at a party in Berlin in 1928, a chance snapshot of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl during their early years of celebrity. Koe’s novel explores each of their lives and worlds, as they navigate womanhood in Berlin, Hollywood, the Alps, and Paris. Taking inspiration from this idea of drawing narrative—both historical and mythological—from a single image, search through your old photos and select one that depicts a few people from your past. Consider the period and its conventions, and research news events that were occurring at the time. Write a personal essay that examines your relationship with each person and their relationships with one another while also weaving in historical events and your memories about the particular occasion.
“We must believe in our souls that we are somebody, that we are significant, that we are worthful, and we must walk the streets of life every day with this sense of dignity and this sense of somebody-ness.” In Colson Whitehead’s seventh novel, The Nickel Boys (Doubleday, 2019), the protagonist, Elwood Curtis, replays these powerful words by Martin Luther King Jr. from a record album he received as a young boy in the early 1960s, which he considers “the best gift of his life.” Throughout the book Elwood repeatedly refers to King’s words as a source of guidance, inspiration, and morality. Write a short story in which your main character is similarly inspired by an important historical figure’s words—words of wisdom written or spoken by an artist, author, or activist. How did your character first come across these words? Are they comforting or provocative? Does the meaning or significance of the words change over time as the character evolves?
“Language is a living being. I think that language came before humans, not the other way around…. It might not have been a particularly logical language; more likely, it was paradisiacal and timeless, a kind of happy babbling for the sake of babbling, a kind of music.” In her essay “Language and Madness,” translated from the Swedish by Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney and posted on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Aase Berg writes about the influence of power and patriarchy on language and describes an evolution by which language has become self-conscious and utilitarian, “more descriptive instead of creative.” How has your own language output—in both everyday and poetic usage—been tamed? Write a poem that plays with the idea of timeless, illogical language. What does happy babbling look or sound like? What expressive potential can you tap into to write with childish madness about the banalities of private life?
“A plume came and a plume went,” said NASA scientist Paul Mahaffy about the possibility of a sign of life detected on Mars after a startling spike in the amount of methane gas found in a crater prompted excitement. A second test a few days later, however, came up with nothing. Write an essay about a time when something occurred which gave rise to a certain expectation, and then the situation did not pan out as hoped. What was the progression of emotions involved? How did your interactions with those around you fluctuate over the course of your experience?
“We think of the walls of a house as defining our domestic space, but in the novel these boundaries start to soften, for inside the house it’s as wild as outside,” says Chia-Chia Lin about her debut novel, The Unpassing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), in an interview with Yaa Gyasi in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the novel, an immigrant family lives in a house in Alaska and deals with isolation, grief, and the vulnerability of the house to infiltration. Write a short story in which the stability of a house as a domestic space has been compromised. What happens when what was once thought as safe and interior becomes blurred with what’s presumed to be wild and exterior?