In “How Deep This Grief: Wrestling With Writing as Therapy” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Ian Stansel recounts not being able to write about his sister after her death, but realizing that he could write for her and try to write a book that she would love. Part of Stansel’s writing practice involves choosing someone he knows, often a family member, to stand in as the “ideal reader” that he keeps in mind while working on specific projects. Write a short story and use someone you know as an imagined ideal reader. Does having one specific person as your imagined reader inspire you to draw certain ideas, motifs, traits, or themes to the surface?
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.
Bright blue hot springs ringed by yellow and orange. Red canyons, green auroras, cloud-white ice caves, golden sand dunes. Browse through National Geographic’s slideshow of some of the most colorful places on earth, many of them naturally occurring, and take in the sights. Then, write a poem that incorporates a variety of colors, hues, and shades found in nature. Allow the images and colors to guide your poem’s thematic direction, perhaps toward an expansive meditation of the outdoors, or toward memories or associations with people in your life.
“First you live through the experience. Then you find out what it meant. Then you write.” Joyce Maynard’s essay “Patience and Memoir: The Time It Takes to Tell Your Story” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine emphasizes the importance of the passage of time and reflection as a vital part of the process of memoir writing. Write a memoiristic essay about an event or situation from your distant past. Was this a subtle experience that became more significant with time or an experience that instantly changed your life? What had to happen before you could gain enough distance for insights to be revealed? How might the meaning of this experience potentially continue to evolve in the future?
Total eclipses throughout history have been the cause and inspiration for countless tales of strange or mysterious occurrences, including odd behavior exhibited by confused animals: birds flying erratically, spiders destroying their webs, frogs and crickets chirping, whales breaching, and bats appearing. Write a short story that takes place over the duration of a total solar eclipse, in which an animal’s reaction to the sudden darkness is the catalyst for an unexpected turn of events.
Swamp soccer, air guitar, wife carrying, mosquito killing, and ant-nest sitting are all examples of the unusual competitive championships that have become increasingly popular in Finland in the last couple of decades. Write a poem inspired by the imagery you envision for one of these wacky sporting events, based on their name. How can you play with sound, syntax, and vocabulary to convey humor, joy, triumph, loss, and perseverance with an irreverent spirit?
In a new program that debuted earlier this month, the majority of employees at a technology company in Wisconsin agreed to have microchips implanted into their hands, which allow them to swipe into the office building and purchase food at the cafeteria. Many of the employees see the program as an opportunity to participate in cutting-edge technology that they believe will be standard protocol in the near future. Given the choice, would you opt in or opt out? Write a personal essay about your perspective on this issue, perhaps exploring how your opinion about the incorporation of technology into everyday life may have changed over the years, and your feelings about the prospect of integrating technology into your body.
The Atlas Pursuit is David Wise’s debut novel in which a fictionalized version of actress Patricia Neal hires a private detective to help her unravel a mystery. The novel uses true details from Neal’s life, including the fact that she was once married to author Roald Dahl, who was a British pilot and spy during World War II. In order to solve riddles and unlock chapters of the interactive digital book, readers can use online research supplemented by visits to public New York City landmarks connected to Neal and Dahl’s lives. Think of several public landmarks located in your city, and integrate them as clues or red herrings in a short mystery story. How does zeroing in on the small, specific details of familiar landmarks imbue your story with a layer of suspense or tension?
“As much as we might have enjoyed reading (and writing) poetry when we were children, in school we are taught that poetry is inherently ‘difficult,’ and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning,” writes Matthew Zapruder in the New York Times essay “Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think.” In “To Vibrebrate: In Defense of Strangeness,” a response to Zapruder's piece on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Johannes Göransson counters: “Not all poems prioritize everyday language. Some poems value arguments and narrative above the experience of language. Sometimes poems have mystical meanings.... The idea that poetry—or language in general—is ever ‘straightforward’ seems impossible to my immigrant ears and eyes.” Taking inspiration from the issues being argued, choose a theme or subject and then write two versions of the poem: one that uses more literal or straightforward language, and one that approaches your subject from a more oblique or mystical angle.
”I live in and think about cities a lot. When I think about intersectionality, I always see a literal intersection,” Rebecca Solnit said in a recent interview in the Nation. “Let’s hang out on the corner. Let’s meet at the intersection.” Intersectionality describes the interconnectedness of social categories, which may overlap to create systems of advantage and disadvantage. Jot down some notes on two or more social identities with which you identify, perhaps related to race, class, gender, religion, or age. Envision these categories meeting at a literal intersection or city street corner. Write a personal essay inspired by this image. Consider each category and how those categories interact and build on one another when they meet. Draw on memories and experiences you’ve had that exemplify or magnify your reality within these identities.
Though many of us look forward to the higher temperatures and longer daylight hours of summer, studies show that particularly hot and humid days often coincide with higher incidences and expressions of anger, frustration, and irritation. Many elements may factor into this correlation, including people spending more time outside in crowds, an influx of adolescents and tourists during the summertime, increased heart rates because of the heat, and discomfort from dehydration and lack of sleep. A feeling of helplessness or lack of control over the weather may also contribute to snappish behavior. Write a short story in which your main character struggles to keep calm on one of the hottest days of the year. What is the catalyst that drives your character to lose patience or keep cool?
“Generally I think that when you’re talking about the music of a country, you’re talking more or less about the soundtrack of a country, the soundtrack by which people’s lives are lived,” poet Tyehimba Jess said in a recent interview with the New School’s Wynne Kontos. “What’s interesting to me is to hear about the lives of the people who have created that soundtrack.” Jess’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Olio (Wave Books, 2016), covers an array of nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American musicians and performers, presenting a multiplicity of voices and histories through a collage of verse, song, and narrative. What musicians are part of the soundtrack of your life? Choose several musicians or bands integral to your soundtrack, and write poems that reflect on the lives of these musicians, combining research and imagination in a song of your own.
In times of conflict, we often experience an instinct for self-preservation. Last month, a truck transporting thousands of hagfish in Oregon was involved in a collision that resulted in the eel-like creatures spilling out and releasing massive amounts of slimy mucus onto the highway and cars. In their natural deep-sea habitat, one of the functions of the slime-spewing is as a defense mechanism, clogging the gills of attacking predators. Think of a time when you’ve responded in a stressful situation with a defense mechanism of your own. Write an essay about the encounter, exploring your emotional responses and aspects of your personal history that may have contributed to your instinctive reaction.
“And for me, while fiction is necessary, I prefer it to be timeless rather than timely,” says Arundhati Roy in “Worth the Wait,” Renee H. Shea’s profile of the author in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, try out an exercise to make your own fiction more timeless. Search through your writing for an excerpt in a short story that includes markers of a contemporary setting, perhaps in its mention of modern objects, technology, or usage of slang. Then revise that section of the story by transforming the contemporary elements into description or dialogue that incorporates more timeless language.
Watermelon, Mississippi Mud Pie, Red Velvet, Pumpkin Spice, Firework. The original Oreo with its classic pairing of chocolate cookie and white cream filling might remain unchanged, but over the years the Nabisco company has released limited edition flavors to the delight of some fans and the confusion or disapproval of others. Write a poem dedicated to a beloved snack from your childhood, exploring how it has changed or remained the same throughout the years. Consider the effect that consistency has on your life, even in the form of a favorite snack.
“To stand in this library again is a profound experience, a return to a wellspring of story and encouragement, here where many of the librarians knew me by name when I was a shy kid who’d walk home with a stack of seven books, one to devour each day before exchanging them for the next stack,” writes Rebecca Solnit in an essay about returning to her childhood public library, adapted for Literary Hub from a talk at Novato Public Library in California. Write an essay that reflects on your own experiences visiting libraries, whether long ago or more recently. Taking inspiration from Solnit’s essay, feel free to wander from metaphysical associations to books and reading, to personal memories tied to physical spaces, to the geographical and cultural history of the library’s locale.
According to the residents of La Unión, a small farming community in rural Honduras, at least once a year the skies rain fish, a phenomenon explained by locals with a variety of scientific, religious, and superstitious theories and legends. Locally regarded as a miracle, the day after a spectacular and torrential storm, the ground is covered with hundreds of small, silver-colored fish. Write a short story that takes place in a setting where a similarly surprising and perhaps inexplicable phenomenon exists year after year. Does your main character fall on the side of science or superstition? Does she respond with skepticism, wonder, or indifference? How does this experience affect her life?
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” begins Walt Whitman’s 1855 poem “Song of Myself.” Filmmaker Jennifer Crandall’s video series Whitman, Alabama, featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, captures a wide range of Alabamians in different settings and locales in the state, each reciting from one of the fifty-two verses of Whitman’s iconic poem. Watch the series and choose several lines from the poem that feel particularly resonant to you, either capturing the mood of the moment or a theme you’ve been thinking about for a while. Write a poem starting with Whitman’s words, and then move on to explore how this theme ties in with your own ideas about American identity, community, and interpersonal connections.
As a part of an interactive installation by artist Aman Mojadidi, three repurposed pay phones have been installed in New York City’s Times Square to transmit oral histories focusing on immigrant experiences. Anyone can enter into a phone booth and choose from a collection of seventy stories recorded by New Yorkers from a variety of countries, told in a variety of languages. What memories or anecdotes do you have about immigration or migration, feelings of belonging and displacement, or storytelling over long distances? Write a personal essay in the style of an oral history, as if you’re relaying a story over the phone to a faraway friend.
“But now I think I hate those fairy tales.... Not really the tales, but how they end. Three words that ruin everything. ‘Happily ever after,’” says an old man in Victor LaValle’s new novel, The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017). Write a short story that revolves around this notion that the phrase “happily ever after” can involve something more complex, or even ruinous, than what’s seen at first glance. You might choose to write a continuation from the established ending of a well-known fairy tale, or concoct a brand new story in which the idea of a happy ending is just the start to ruinous consequences.
The essay “The Art at the End of the World” is Heidi Julavits’s account of a pilgrimage to see Robert Smithson’s land art sculpture “Spiral Jetty” in the Great Salt Lake. Write a poem inspired by a land art piece that particularly draws you in. In her essay, Julavits juxtaposes the haunting otherworldliness and existential provocations of the landscape with family dynamics and mundane details of traveling with her husband and two children. Does the immensity of this land art piece in its natural surroundings propel you to think about the relative size and scope of your own concerns, goals, and relationships?
“We cannot write about death without writing about life. Stories that start at the end of life often take us back to the past, to the beginning—or to some beginning...” writes Edwidge Danticat in an excerpt from The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf Press, 2017), which is featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a personal essay that attempts to grapple with death and starts with the end, but then circles around to hope and beginnings. You might choose to write about a loved one you have lost, the end of a relationship, or explore your beliefs and questions about your own mortality. Search for the story of hope that exists in the examination of the beginning and what will be missed after the end.
July 2 is the anniversary of the vanishing of Amelia Earhart during her 1937 quest to be the first female pilot to fly around the world. Earlier this month, the History Channel revealed a photo found in the National Archives that some have speculated shows Earhart and her navigator on a dock in the Marshall Islands sometime before 1943, adding to the list of theories, conspiracies, possibilities, and probabilities that have long surrounded her disappearance. Write a short story that imagines the sudden unearthing of another piece of this puzzle, perhaps putting a fantastic, outlandish, or eerie twist on Earhart’s disappearance. Who discovers this potential evidence? What unexpected direction does this lend to Earhart’s story?
Street art, family and friends, selfies, concerts, a painting in a museum, funny signage. Many of us use our cell phones to capture photos and videos depicting everything from special occasions to the random striking visual encountered on a daily commute. Look through the photos on your cell phone and decide on a common theme, mood, or sentiment you’d like to convey in a poem. Are there photos you took by accident or ones you didn’t even know existed until browsing through? Write a poem consisting solely of descriptions of a selection of your photos. Which everyday objects, places, activities, or resonating visuals can you use to communicate a message?
Burgers, hot dogs, barbecue ribs, mac and cheese, apple pie…. What immediately comes to mind when you think: American food? Whether you’re influenced by pop culture and media, regional specialties, or your own family and cultural traditions, write a personal essay inspired by one or two of your favorite American dishes. Recount some of your favorite memories associated with this food. What about the dish makes it distinctly American?
In the 1982 comedy film Fast Times at Ridgemont High—based on Cameron Crowe’s 1981 nonfiction book of the same name—several of the main characters are depicted working summer jobs at various fast food joints in a Southern California mall. Write a short story that revolves around a high school student’s first summer job. What kind of unfamiliar characters or unexpected situations does she encounter? Does her inexperience lead to humorous or embarrassing misunderstandings? Use this new working experience and environment to explore a transformation in your character.