“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.
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.
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.
“Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart / somehow or other still carried away by America,” writes Alicia Ostriker in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful.” This Fourth of July, begin a poem with the title “America the Beautiful” and let this phrase guide your piece, allowing your mind freedom to reflect on the things you find beautiful (or not so beautiful) about the nation. Read through some other Independence Day poetry by writers such as Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths for further inspiration.
Earlier this month, professional climber Alex Honnold completed a free-solo climb of the nearly three thousand-feet-high El Capitan cliff in Yosemite National Park in less than four hours. The accomplishment, done alone and without any safety gear, is considered almost impossible. J. B. MacKinnon writes in the New Yorker, “After twelve years of regularly climbing ropeless, he seems able to simply turn off his body’s fear response.” Write an essay about what you would dream of accomplishing if you could turn off your body’s fear response. What have you been afraid of in the past and been able to overcome? What do you consider possible and impossible in your future, and how might Honnold’s feat change your thinking?
Our willingness to forgive can be challenged by hurt feelings, guilt, and sometimes, our egos. It is not an easy task but in writing, we can explore different perspectives and outcomes. Write a story in which a character is trying to forgive someone. What are the circumstances that bring your character to this point of forgiveness? Is there an expectation that this act of forgiving will change their relationship for the better? To hear stories of people struggling to forgive others and themselves, listen to this episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour.
Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs mixes multiple languages and uses a variety of musical influences in the poems from her debut collection, TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Drawing inspiration from Nevada Diggs, write a poem where you incorporate words and phrases from two or more languages or dialects that are significant to you, whether they are fictional languages like Klingon or spoken languages like Cajun French.
A mission to launch a spicy, crispy fried chicken sandwich into orbit is scheduled to begin this week, as a joint venture between KFC and space tech company World View. The historic flight is partly a publicity stunt to celebrate the fast food chain’s launch of the Zinger sandwich in the United States, but will also explore what can be sent or accessed in the stratosphere. From the first human in space and then on the moon, to the first Mars landing, and the first space tourist, there have been innumerable milestones in space exploration since the mid-twentieth century. Choose one key moment that is especially iconic to you and write an essay about that memory. What was happening at that point in your life and how did the idea of exploring the unknown make you feel about your own potential?
Throughout his life, Henry James maintained friendships with and was influenced by painters such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. In his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction,” he wrote: “The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same.... They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another.” Write a short story that pays homage to a painting you particularly like. Perhaps there is a scene depicted or a statement made that sparks a narrative. Imagine the inspiration or cause for the painting, and then experiment with mirroring that to drive the writing forward.
“Palettes of mud, pillowcases of doorknobs, bags of ice…. Softest polyester stuffing spills out from black armor. It’s a leather jacket thrown over a bubble bath. This could describe a few people I know,” writes artist and author Leanne Shapton in a New York Times Magazine essay about the clothing designed by Rei Kawakubo. Taking inspiration from Kawakubo’s peculiarly surreal fashion designs, write a poem that starts with one of Shapton’s descriptive phrases, such as “a babble of valves and blisters,” “a reptile of lint,” “gobs of cheesecloth,” “potato-like clumps stuck to a neck,” or “exploded metallic popcorn kernel.” From there, let your imagination take over using these textures and shapes to portray an unexpected subject or feeling.
“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?” Some of the first and most influential relationships in our lives are with those in our biological or chosen family. Yet, it is not always easy to tell our loved ones what we are feeling in the moment. Write an epistolary, lyric essay that is addressed to a particular family member and that reflects on your relationship with that person. For inspiration, read more from “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read” by Ocean Vuong.
Beneath the streets of San Francisco lay the remains of dozens of old ships left over from the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. The ships transported prospectors hurrying to California, but eventually most were abandoned and buried under landfill as the city grew. Write a short story in which something monumental, such as abandoned vessels, secret documents, or mysterious remains, lies beneath the streets of the city. Which character becomes privy to this once hidden information? How can you be experimental or playful with the evocative image of a city built on top of layers of history?
Write a poem inspired by a natural park, area, or cultural monument in your region. Search through the National Park Service’s system of sites by state, or browse through photos of the parks for inspiration. The National Park Service, which celebrated its one hundredth anniversary last summer, may be most known for its large national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but also oversees hundreds of smaller outdoor monuments, scenic areas, and scientifically important sites that span the entire United States. Imagine the textures and sounds present in your chosen spot or site, and incorporate them into your poem’s rhythm and imagery.