Last week, after a swarm of almost one hundred small earthquakes in the Salton Sea region, California’s Office of Emergency Services issued an earthquake advisory to Southern California residents warning of the potential of a larger earthquake occurring on the San Andreas fault. Write a short story in which the main plotline’s background includes the looming threat of a major earthquake. How does this create tension in the atmosphere and bring out different personality traits in each character?
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 first Nobel Prize winner of 2016, announced in the Physiology or Medicine category this week, was awarded to Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi. Ohsumi is a cell biologist who won the prize for his studies of autophagy, Greek for “self eating,” a process in which the cells in our body break down or destroy, and then recycle, certain component parts. Write a poem inspired by the workings of the human body at a cellular level. You may find ideas by looking at different vocabulary and terminology, or drawing connections between cellular functions and processes to situations in your emotional life and interpersonal relationships.
Banned Books Week is an annual celebration led by a coalition of diverse organizations and foundations to encourage awareness of book censorship and recognize the freedom to read. Browse through the American Library Association’s lists of top banned books—organized by decade, classic titles, young adult authors, and more—and select a book you’ve read that strongly resonates with you. Write an essay that examines your response to the censorship or challenging of this book, drawing on your own memories of reading it and exploring the idea of an appropriate audience for this literature.
This week, write a scene in which the main character is watching the presidential debates on television with another character and a confrontation arises over a disagreement of opinions. Have these characters just met, or are they old friends? Do their differing politics come as a surprise to the reader, or to each other, or are they expected? Politics aside, what does the disagreement reveal about the characters’ respective personalities, emotional states, and motives in relation to the narrative? Consider incorporating this scene for a short story you’ve written in the past or are currently working on in order to deepen a relationship.
Hollywood has a long tradition of remaking films and television shows from decades gone by, including recent or forthcoming reboots of The Magnificent Seven, Die Hard, Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Point Break, MacGyver, Twin Peaks, Splash, and Mary Poppins. Write a remake of a poem written between the 1960s and 1980s. Select two major elements to retain from the original poem such as setting, narrative voice, overarching formal structure, or emotional progression, and then give it a fresh, new spin by altering other aspects of the poem.
“I think if you say that art and politics, or religion and politics, mustn’t mix, don’t mix, that is itself a political statement,” novelist Mohsin Hamid said in an interview in the Financial Times in 2011. While there are many writers who choose not to overtly link their creative work to politics, there is also a long history of political art: work that engages with patriotism or protest by poets such as W. H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Wole Soyinka, and Walt Whitman. Do politics ever figure into your own creative writing? Why or why not? In this presidential-election season, whether you are engaged and informed by politics or try to avoid the topic altogether, take a moment to examine the history of your personal relationship with politics. Write an essay that explores how your interest in or aversion to the topic might have been affected by your childhood upbringing and environment—family, friends, or local groups and organizations—and the reasons behind your choice to either integrate or separate politics from your creative work.
In Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod Crane attends an autumnal harvest feast, where he listens to local townspeople recounting ghost stories. Later that night, on his fateful ride home, he encounters the Headless Horseman. The ending of the story is left open to interpretation: Is the Headless Horseman a ghoulish spirit, or is it actually Crane’s rival in love, dressed in disguise and further exaggerated by Crane’s haunted, overactive imagination? Write a ghost story in which you play with this ambiguity between the mundane and the supernatural, perhaps manipulating the observations and emotions of your main character, the stability of the story’s setting, or the sequence of events that unfolds. How does blurring the lines between human folly and otherworld menace imbue your storytelling with a sense of dread or horror?
Pine, oak, cedar, birch, aspen, fir, maple. Joshua, jacaranda, palm. There are thousands of species of trees in the world; some are found in many regions and some in only one place. There are trees that grow fruits and nuts; there are desert trees and tropical trees. Robert Frost, H. D., Denise Levertov, Federico García Lorca, William Shakespeare, and many others have all written poems about trees. Spend some time studying a specific tree in your neighborhood, paying close attention to its shapes and sounds, its colors, smells, and textures. Perhaps make a sketch of it, or research it online or at the library. Then write a series of short poems about this one tree, trying to approach each poem from a different angle—exploring rhythm and sound, for instance, or your personal memories and associations.
The New York Times series “36 Hours” provides profiles and thirty-six-hour itineraries for must-see sights and spots in cities all over the world. Write your own “36 Hours” piece about the city you live in now, or one in which you became well-acquainted with in the past. Include main attractions, little-known locales, shops to browse, and places to eat or find entertainment, connecting each of your recommendations to a personal anecdote or memory. For some literary locale inspiration, visit our City Guides.
In mid-July, a young man caught an alligator gar—an extremely unusual, sharp-toothed, prehistoric-looking fish—while fishing from a lake in Schenectady, New York. He took a photo of the megafish to post on social media, and then let it go, in accordance with his catch-and-release policy. His mother subsequently shared the post, and her colleague then contacted the U.S. Geological Survey, which in turn contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, whose agents confirmed that it was an invasive species. This led to the mayor of Schenectady offering a one hundred dollar award to anyone who managed to catch the fish. Write a short story that unfolds in a similar fashion, beginning with the small action of one individual, which then puts into effect a chain of events involving a whole town.
There have been several notable recent occurrences of museumgoers from all over the world breaking or damaging artwork. In a video widely shared on the internet last year, a boy tripped in a museum in Taiwan, and in bracing his fall, accidentally smashed a hole through a seventeenth-century Italian oil painting valued at over one million dollars. Using this image or concept of the physical defacement of art, write a poem that experiments with the idea of broken surfaces with the use of fragments or erasure. What are some ways of inserting literal or figurative holes into the body of a poem?
Every year more and more people enroll in continuing education, adult learning, and extension courses covering diverse topics ranging from real estate to metalworking. What’s an elective you missed out on when you were a kid in school, or a skill you’ve always secretly coveted? Write a personal essay about the classes you would want to enroll in if you had the chance to return to school now; or if you’re currently taking courses, what additional subjects are you interested in? Explore what your choices might reveal about your priorities and values, and how this new skill set would fulfill you.
Americans spend more money per year on lottery tickets than on sports tickets, movie tickets, books, video games, and recorded music, with lottery players split between those who play for money or for fun. Write a short story with the focal point on a character buying a lottery ticket. How would she spend the prize money if she won? What does the lottery reveal about your character’s perspectives on luck and money? Whether your character plays often or rarely, whether she wins or loses, what makes this specific lottery purchase remarkable in the context of your story?
While at Omi International Arts Center in Ghent, New York, artists Alex Schweder and Ward Shelley built a house that spins and tilts in accordance with the wind, and the shifting weight of its inhabitants. Then they resided in the structure for five days; and will spend another several days living there this fall. Write a poem inspired by the image or idea of living in a structure that is constantly spinning, and which tilts up or down as you walk through it. What kind of vocabulary or pacing might mimic or reflect the sensation of spinning? How can you play with emotional weight or levity to create shifting feelings throughout your poem?
“Through the act of writing, I was able to find out what I knew about these things, what I was able to know, and where the limits of knowing lay….” In the preface to his new essay collection, Known and Strange Things (Random House, 2016), which is excerpted in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Teju Cole speaks about the way writing deepened his interests in photography, literature, music, travel, and politics. Choose a broad subject that you’ve long been interested in, perhaps related to arts and culture, nature and science, language and travel, or politics and technology. Write an essay that explores the history and evolution of your personal knowledge about the subject, and where you feel the limits of your knowledge lie.
“I remember very vividly where I was when I saw my very first big Surrealist exhibition...It was sort of a Tarzan-and-the-giant-spider moment. I absolutely see it as a hinge. There’s a pre-that-picture me and a post-that-picture me. And I’m very glad to be the post-that-picture me,” China Miéville says about the Max Ernst painting “Europe After the Rain” in a New Yorker article. Write a short story in which a character encounters a work of art that changes his life in a similarly noteworthy way. What resonates with the character to have such a lasting impression? How does his life change post-that-picture?
British music critic, librettist, and author Paul Griffiths’s novel Let Me Tell You (Reality Street, 2008) is told from the point of view of Ophelia, the character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Using an Oulipo type of constraint, the novel uses only the 483 words spoken by Ophelia in the original play. Choose one of Shakespeare’s plays, and make a list of words spoken by one character in a pivotal scene, or part of a scene. Write a poem inspired by this list of words, allowing your creative impulses to dictate whether you use only words from the list, or include a few additional words of your own.
The Pageant of the Masters is a tableaux vivants—or “living pictures”—event held every summer at Laguna Beach’s Festival of the Arts in Southern California. The long-running tradition features hundreds of costumed volunteers who stand still for ninety-second intervals posing in elaborate re-creations of masterpieces of art. Write an essay describing the artwork—classical or contemporary—you would choose to “live” in. What would your role and pose be? Who would be your supporting cast of posers? What narration and music would accompany your tableau vivant?
In “Return and Repeat, Culminate and Continue: On Crafting the End in Fiction” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jennifer De Leon draws a connection between the sestina poetry form—in which six words are repeated throughout—and John Gardner’s “return and repeat” method of ending a fictional piece by returning to key elements of the story. Find a short story you’ve written in the past and select six important aspects of the story, such as characters, words, and images. Write a new, alternate ending by reiterating or revisiting these motifs on the last page.
Have you ever stepped onto foreign soil—whether it be another town, state, or country—and immediately felt like you were in a different galaxy? Or conversely, have you traveled to a seemingly faraway place only to find that it felt surprisingly just like home? Write two short poems about places you have visited or passed through, and explore your expectations and feelings of familiarity or strangeness in each one. For inspiration, read about Baarle, a small European village situated partially in Belgium and partially in the Netherlands, with its international borders actually cutting through the middle of shops, living rooms, and backyards.
If a statue in your likeness were to be someday erected in your honor, would you want to be rendered realistically, cartoonishly, or in abstract? Do you envision a marble bust or a whimsical woodcarving or perhaps to be cast in bronze? In what pose or action would you want to be commemorated? Write an essay describing what you imagine as the most suitable representation and location for your hypothetical statue, and include an examination of the reasons for your specifications. For inspiration, read about the recent hubbub over a Lucille Ball statue.
Last week, a young man from Virginia used suction cups to climb up the exterior of the sixty-eight-story Trump Tower building in midtown Manhattan, drawing the attention of eyewitnesses as well as millions more who watched live streaming videos on social media. Write a short story in which a character pulls off a risky and unusual stunt in an effort to communicate an important message to someone. Is the outsized gesture effective? What does his choice of action reveal about his personality? Are there unintended consequences involving the spectators?
Instead of using GPS coordinates or traditional street numbers and names, a postal mail service in Mongolia will begin using a new address location system, created by a British tech start-up, in which the world map is divided into trillions of nine-square-meter patches and assigned a unique three-word code. Find the code for your own address at the What3Words website or create your own code. Then write a poem inspired by the combination of these three random words and how they connect to your concept of home.
This Summer Olympics season, many U.S. fans look forward to cheering on the country’s swimming, gymnastics, and decathlon athletes. In other countries, the most closely watched competitions are sports like canoeing, handball, rugby, table tennis, and trampoline. Look over the list of sports at the Rio Olympic Games, and choose one you’ve had an established connection with, or one that seems newly fascinating. Write an essay that explores your attraction to this sport. What are your opinions about the extreme athleticism and discipline of the competitors? How do your memories of past Olympics differ from today’s games?
Setting up a lemonade stand in the neighborhood has long been a popular way for kids to have fun in the summertime, and learn some basic skills about operating a business. Write a short story in which a lemonade stand plays a pivotal role. Is your main character one of the kids, or one of the customers, or perhaps just a passerby for whom the sight of the stand catalyzes another inciting action?