From cities across the globe come reports of increasingly untraditional and casual fashion choices when it comes to getting married: brides in New York City who opt to wear wedding pants instead of a gown, and couples in Beijing showing up to the marriage registration office wearing “sleeveless shirts and shorts, or slippers.” Write a personal essay that examines the progression of your own clothing choices. Have you gone through phases when your outfits—whether influenced by a job, emotional state, or cultural shifts—were formal or informal, plain or adorned, monochromatic or colorful?
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.
This week, write a scene in which your main character experiences a series of coincidences over the course of a single day. Perhaps he sees the same stranger twice in one day, or finds that he is wearing the exact same outfit as someone he encounters. Is he eager to derive meaning from the occurrences, or does he dismiss them as possessing no significance? What is revealed about his personality by the response to these coincidences? Will he be proven wrong?
Most people spend at least a few minutes a day in front of a mirror, whether while brushing teeth at the bathroom sink at night, or involved in a focused morning makeup or hairstyling routine. Spend a more intensive amount of time in front of a mirror and write a self-portrait poem as you study your own reflection. How has your face evolved over the years? Do your features seem more or less familiar the longer you look? Are there particular elements of your face that remind you of certain people or memories?
Our favorite actors and musicians often seem larger than life because they are able to produce powerful performances using personae that may or may not belie their more mundane, daily existence. Someone might always be the demanding diva or the goofy comedian on screen and live up to that reputation, or be the complete opposite once out of the public eye. Write a personal essay about one of your favorite celebrities, current or past. Describe the circumstances around your earliest encounters with this person's star quality, taking into account the elements of that celebrity image that were particularly striking or resonant for you. If you were to meet this person and have a heart-to-heart conversation, what would you share or hope to discover? How might your admiration change?
As personal information and financial transactions become increasingly digitized, more and more reliance is placed on online accounts and password-protected websites, thus the number of accounts any person maintains is growing each year. At the same time, studies report that most people reuse the same five or so passwords, and the most popular ones remain the same, year after year, such as: password, 123456, football, baseball, and qwerty. Write a short story in which your main character finds a list of important passwords. What does the combination of passwords and accounts reveal about the person who created them? Is there a pattern that leads to the discovery of additional information? If there are consequences for your character's unexpected access to someone else's private data, how do they play out in the context of your story?
"Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them," writes Oscar Wilde in his 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Drawing upon your own experiences with parents, guardians, mother or father figures—or your personal history as a parent yourself—compile a short list of specific memories and observations divided into three categories: love, judgment, and forgiveness. Would you agree with Wilde that children's love for and judgment of parents are inevitable, but forgiveness of them may be less so? How might you see forgiveness as a more conscious component of a parent-child relationship? Write a three-part poem that explores the many nuances of a parent-child relationship as it evolves with age.
Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard has been celebrated for her ability to use natural events as doorways into spiritual contemplation, as in her essay “Total Eclipse.” Write an essay about the most impressive natural event you’ve witnessed. It could be grand, like a tornado skirting the edge of a midwestern town, or more humble, though no less impactful, like a spider approaching prey caught on its web. What questions and realizations did this event spur in your mind? Why has it remained in your memory? What does it say about your relationship to nature?
If you’re having trouble starting a scene, try taking it out of the story and writing it as a screenplay. Made up of only the most essential pieces of expression, action, and dialogue, a screenplay can act as a kind of blueprint for a scene, helping you to make sense of the complexity and movement while forcing you to cut away whatever isn’t necessary. Once you understand the scene at its core, try plugging it back into the story, adapting it to the style of the prose, and giving it more body, like clay onto an armature. You can also try this on a scene or story you admire, adapting it into a screenplay to get a sense of how the author crafted such a powerfully dramatic moment.
Get out of town. Take a drive, a train, or a bus. It doesn’t matter how. It doesn’t have to be far. Just get away. Once you’re there, buy a postcard, address it to yourself, and write a poem on it. Fill up the whole card. Don’t edit yourself too much, just let it roll, then drop it in the mail. When it finally arrives back home, transcribe it onto a notebook and see if you can build from it. It may already be well on its way to a finished product, or it may only have one or two lines worth keeping. Regardless, stepping away from what’s familiar and writing a poem to your future self can help guide you to new images and thoughts that the daily writing life may not inspire.
Last month, a team of field research scientists discovered a new desert line drawing, or geoglyph, of “an animal sticking out the tongue” in the Nazca region of Peru, believed to be located on an ancient pilgrimage path to a ceremonial center. Think about the markers that guide you on your own often-traveled routes: physical signposts that you pass on the way to a favorite restaurant, a loved one’s home, place of worship, or perhaps a natural lookout or meditation spot. Write a personal essay exploring how these markers may be a significant element of the journey to your destinations.
In “The Deepest Place” by Kevin Nance in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adam Haslett says of his new novel, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, 2016), “it’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written,” referring to the intensity of the emotional truth laid bare on the page. Choose an emotional event from your past and transmute it into a fictional scene. Create new, imagined consequences that nonetheless reflect the true anguish of the moment. How can turning fact into fiction construct a distance between the life and the work that offers a new take on an intense situation?
Beginning next week, a collection of Marilyn Monroe’s personal possessions—including handwritten notes and receipts, an address book, lipstick and cigarettes—will be displayed on a worldwide tour before being put on auction. Choose one of Monroe’s items and write a poem imagining the story behind her connection to the item. You might even want to try writing from the point of view of the inanimate object.
In a recent public poll, over 120,000 online voters suggested “Boaty McBoatface” as the name for a British polar research ship only to be disappointed when the Science Ministry in Britain decided to name the vessel instead after naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Write an essay about a name you’ve bestowed upon a person, a car, a stuffed animal, a plant, a kitchen appliance, or anything else. Recount the story behind the naming, and think about how it reflects your own sensibilities.
Cult books, as with films that are considered cult favorites, often contain elements of the extreme, bizarre, or subversive—their power to inspire and persuade seemingly just on the edge of propriety. This week, choose one of your favorite cult books, or browse through this top-fifty list for ideas. Then, write a story about a character who stumbles upon this cult book for the first time, and after speeding through it from cover to cover, is suddenly empowered toward a new course of action. What is the single most influential element of this book for the character?
A recent study by Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, examines the phenomenon of “word aversion”—the extremely visceral distaste that some people have in response to certain words, such as “moist,” “luggage,” and “phlegm.” Write down a list of five words that you find particularly repulsive, words that might not otherwise have any definitively negative connotations. Use these words in a poem and explore how word choice can propel you toward certain subject matter. Do you find yourself pulled to other repellant images and memories, or pushed to offset those words with more pleasing evocations?
Many people were overjoyed to learn several weeks ago that Inky, an octopus at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, had escaped from his tank, wiggling through a drainpipe in the floor that eventually led him out into the ocean. NPR reporter Scott Simon commented, “it's hard not to note that Inky chose to bolt from surroundings in which he was safe, secure, and hand fed, for the dangers of an open sea that teems sharks, seals, and whales that might eat him. Inky chose liberty over security.” Write a personal essay about a time when you chose freedom, whether via a daring escape or by bravely walking away, from a lifestyle you weren’t satisfied with that may have seemed like a safer, more stable route. Were there risky obstacles to overcome? What are your thoughts about your decision in hindsight?
“Can we really mold a narrative around something that defies narrative itself?... How can we re-create an experience that eludes the conscious mind?” In “This Is Your Brain on Fear” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, J. T. Bushnell asks these questions as he explores the relationship between narrative storytelling and the often fragmentary, uncertain nature of memory and observation when people experience trauma. Write a scene of high stress, fear, or trauma for a first-person narrator that makes use of “selective description of external details.” Resist the temptation to fill in the blanks or describe the passage of time in a linear way. Explore the way the human brain processes events, and incorporate your findings into your storytelling.
For a period of eighteen months in the late 1970s, an unexpected pairing of communities took place: the building that housed the San Francisco Club for the Deaf, a social club for the deaf community, became the venue for notable punk rock shows and album recordings. In an article about a Deaf Club event in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Opal Gordon, a deaf performer, said, “Music is strong, [deaf people] can feel the vibrations. Punk is perfect because it’s loud, it’s heavy, it’s in your face.” Write a poem in which you imagine experiencing a musical performance—whether punk, classical, country, or jazz—that you can see and feel, but not hear. Think about the ways in which music can transcend sound, focusing on the visual or literal attitude of the performance.
Think of a work of art—a film, book, painting, or song—that has received significant critical acclaim, but that you cannot stand. That you might, in fact, hate. Write an essay exploring why this work grates against your aesthetic sensibilities. Approach this not as a hatchet job, but an honest, probing examination of the work and why you believe it falls short. Consider what your distaste may reveal about your own sense of art and what the critical praise reveals more generally about our arts culture.
Kevin Barry's novel Beatlebone (Doubleday, 2015) imagines John Lennon taking a mini pilgrimage to an island he's purchased off the west coast of Ireland. Led by his driver, Cornelius, they jump from one strange encounter to another as they try to avoid the paparazzi and make it to the island. Write a story in which the main character is someone famous in popular culture. Research the character, try to inhabit them far beyond the public persona, and send them on a journey that reveals the person beyond the limelight.
In During (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), the new collection by National Book Award finalist James Richardson, there are, in addition to many wonderful poems, dozens and dozens of aphorisms (a poetic specialty of his), including gems like, “Maybe what interests me in the mirror is not myself but that person who looks so interested in me.” Try your hand at writing a handful of aphorisms, focusing on the way they use brevity and clarity to find their way into an idea. For inspiration, read more of Richardson’s aphorisms, and some from his favorite aphorist Antonio Porchia.
In “Recovering the Classics” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Vatner reports on the project by San Francisco companies DailyLit and Creative Action Network, along with other community partners, to revitalize interest in classic novels by creating new, eye-catching cover designs. Choose a classic novel you’ve read in the past with a book cover you find particularly memorable. Write a short essay examining the features that make the design striking, drawing upon the relationship between the artistic style of the cover and the novel’s contents. Does the design resonate with your own aesthetic sensibilities?
If you haven’t heard of it already, a “promposal” is a request for a date to high school prom through a dramatic gesture often involving witty puns and surprise declarations of affection in public, all recorded on camera and shared widely on social media. Write a scene in which a secondary character carries out an elaborate “promposal.” Is it angst-ridden and cringe-worthy, or humorously slapstick? Does the success or failure of the act offer foreshadowing for the atmosphere of the entire story?
Technological and scientific advances have recently enabled surgeons to implant a chip into a human brain that, through a computer, can send signals to the body allowing a person living with paralysis to regain movement. Write a poem reflecting on your own observations about autonomy, the role of technology, and the physical mechanisms of the body. Think of unique ways to describe the inner workings of our minds, muscles, and limbs.
To celebrate the presentation of the Paris Review’s lifetime achievement award to Lydia Davis, her twenty-word story, “Spring Spleen,” was printed on the label of bottles of mouthwash. Write a few very short pieces of creative nonfiction totaling no more than twenty words that could each fit onto a small bottle label. Taking a cue from Davis’s story, incorporate elements of both nature and social behavior.