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.
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.
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.
“Storytelling has much to do with the experience of opening an old shoe box or a sandwich bag full of polaroids and building a narrative out of the bits and pieces that have been left behind,” writes Carlos Fonseca at FSG Work in Progress about the process of writing his novel Natural History (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. This week open a drawer, closet, or old shoe box and search through miscellaneous objects. Then, write a story inspired by the narrative that builds slowly as you browse through the fragments of a makeshift archive. How does each piece of the puzzle reveal a tiny bit more of the big picture? Is the entire picture ever really completely realized or knowable?
Are trees immortal? Earlier this year, research published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported on findings that the biological behavior of gingko trees over six hundred years old was similar to those that were only around twenty years old, prompting the idea that perhaps these trees were immortal. Last month, a new paper published in response in Trends in Plant Science argues that while some trees may indeed live for hundreds or even thousands of years, eventually they are likely to die, and our studies are simply limited by the (relatively) short lifespans of the human beings conducting the studies. Write a pair of poems, one exploring immortality and one exploring mortality. Where do you find yourself turning for allusions or references—nature, civilization, interpersonal relationships?
Is everything just cake? Earlier this month, prompted by viral videos of Turkish chef Tuba Geckil cutting into her ultra-realistic cakes made to look like everyday objects—such as a red Croc shoe, a roll of toilet paper, a potted aloe plant, a carton of eggs, and plastic-wrapped raw chicken drumsticks—Twitter was flooded with cake memes and the internet began to question if everything in the world might, indeed, actually be cake. Write a personal essay that recounts a past incident that made you question your reality. Perhaps you caught sight of something particularly uncanny or jarring, and suddenly so many other things seemed terrifyingly possible. How did you reconcile this shifted perception with what your mind could tolerate? Or did everything remain cake?
The setting of a story can act as more than just a backdrop, such as in Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” in which the train station acts as a physical representation of movement and decision. Louisiana’s landscape and climate plays an active role in Kate Chopin’s short story “The Storm.” More recently, the modern-day Brooklyn setting in Daniel José Older’s paranormal novel Shadowshaper was praised in a 2015 New York Times review for offering up “parallels between personal histories and histories of place.” For this week’s prompt, write a piece of short fiction that makes the setting an active character in the story. Consider the protagonist’s relationship and history with their physical surroundings. How can you make a place come to life and interact with the subjects of your story?
In “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” published in the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, poet and novelist John Keene reflects on language as “a medium, a field, a tool, a site of being and expression and communication.” Through his translation work, Keene engages with writing that is often overlooked, such as poetry “by women writers, by LGBTQ writers, and by writers of African descent,” in order to publish the work for more readers. Choose a poet whose work you admire and translate one of their poems into another language or form. Perhaps you attempt a translation from one language to another or try “translating” a sonnet into a pantoum. What would you like to express through this exchange of language?
“A cliché is thoughtless, whereas love is thoughtful. A cliché reproduces ideas originating in the culture, not in lived experience; it is antithetical to love because whereas love is alive, a cliché is dead. It’s an empty husk,” writes Sarah Gerard in “On Falling in Love With Your Characters” published in Literary Hub, an essay that explores the writing process of her second novel, True Love (Harper, 2020), as she experienced the end of one love and the beginning of another. Write a personal essay that examines a cliché about love, or a conventional cultural “truth” that is often associated with love. How has this played out in your own life, with your own past or present experiences of love?
“I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average Far Side reader.” In the fall of 1982, cartoonist Gary Larson published his “Cow Tools” cartoon, which confused so many readers that he was compelled to issue a public statement, revealing that even his own mother was puzzled by the meaning of the cartoon. Write a story that centers around an object, maybe even a tool, that becomes integral to your character’s survival. Perhaps you explain what the object does or you keep it a mystery as to why your character needs it so badly. Either way, have fun with your overactive imagination.
What can you tell from a kelp’s DNA? In a paper published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists reported findings that the genes of bull kelp found in New Zealand bear different genetic markers because of an earthquake that occurred eight hundred years ago, a reminder of how nature has the power to recover from a disruption. Write a poem that revolves around a specific idiosyncrasy or personality trait, and imagine its connection to an ancient ecological disaster. You might take inspiration from the undulating forms of seaweed waving underwater as you braid in themes of history, continuation, inheritance, and the twinning of destruction with renewal.
In “What We Found in Writing: Authors on Creativity in Quarantine” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, thirteen authors describe their experiences of writing and not writing during the past several months of quarantine. Ada Limón writes: “What struck me, almost immediately, is that fear was more incapacitating than despair. I could surrender to a hopelessness and still make something. Even if it felt like a last gasp of my own humanity or love or tenderness, I could still write it. However, if I focused on fear, I was always silenced.” Write a personal essay that examines how your own creativity has ebbed and flowed during this time. Are there things that have been easier or more difficult to write about? Where have you found inspiration? What has been unexpected?
“Like other artistic endeavors, garden making can be a response to loss. Creating a garden can be as much a re-creation as a creation; an idea of paradise, something that reconnects us with a landscape we have loved and which compensates us for our separation from nature,” writes Sue Stuart-Smith in The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature (Scribner, 2020). Write a short story in which a garden is created in response to a loss. Is the garden a gift? What is the character or community’s connection to nature? Include details of what is grown in the garden and how it is used.
“Rituals—or the tasks we perform repeatedly, not for what they accomplish but for what they mean to us—help athletes prepare their minds for the unknowns they’ll face when they perform,” writes psychiatrist Neha Chaudhary in a New York Times article about how rituals—such as “Steph Curry’s sinking a shot from the tunnel before each basketball game” or “Serena Williams’ bouncing her tennis ball five times before her first serve”—can help instate feelings of connectedness and calmness during anxiety-inducing times. Write a poem about a ritual that’s a part of your everyday life, or perhaps one that you performed regularly during a past phase of your life. How can you play with repetition, pacing, sound and rhythm, and white space to mimic the enactment and aftereffects of a ritual?
This week, take a look at a photo essay by Jared A. Brock of one hundred well-known authors in their writing spaces and write a personal essay about a particular spot where you have written a significant amount of work. Perhaps the space is at a desk in the same corner you’ve retreated to for years, or a specific seat on a certain bus during a commute, or a summer cabin you visited a handful of times years ago. What was one writing project you worked on in that space that you remember particularly well? Describe your mindset in that space versus outside of it. Incorporate the sounds, smells, and other details needed to create a sensorial experience of the space.
In a recent report in Current Biology, researchers published findings that the white-throated sparrow’s birdsong, which originally sounded like “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody,” had evolved over the last fifty years to sound more like “Old Sam Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh.” In the New York Times, Ken Otter, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, says this unexpected shift related to the migration patterns of the sparrow is “kind of like an Australian person coming to New York, and all the New Yorkers start suddenly deciding to adopt an Australian accent.” Write a story about a character who has moved to a new city, and whose behavior has an outsize influence on the town’s citizens. Does the change happen gradually, going largely unnoticed for a long period of time, or does your character set off a rapid-fire chain reaction of transformations?
In “The Untranslatable” published on the Paris Review website, the translators of poems featured in the magazine’s summer issue write short essays about their processes. Patricio Ferrari and Susan Margaret Brown, who translated António Osório’s poems from the Portuguese, write about choosing between words in the English language that have Latin versus Germanic origins: “Most words representing abstract ideas stem from the Latin while the majority of words exemplifying concrete ideas come from the Saxon. In a newspaper article, the choice may be irrelevant; in a poem, the choice matters.” Rewrite or draft a new version of a poem you’ve written in the past, switching out some of the Latinate words for those with Germanic roots, and vice versa. How does this change the sound, tone, and other nuances of your poem?
“Search YouTube with the word ‘commercials’ and the decade of your choosing, and you will find hundreds of compilations, including transfers of old broadcasts,” writes Eve Peyser in “In Vintage TV Ads, a Curious Fountain of Hope (and Cheese)” in the New York Times, about her habit of watching old television commercials in order to “make believe that I live in a world I never got to inhabit but is still familiar.” Browse through some old commercials from the decade of your choice, and write a personal essay that explores how the viewings lead you to thoughts about the past and the future. What emotions are evoked as you think about broader themes such as the passing of time, the omnipresence of consumerism, and the trends and values of different eras?