Holiday window displays have long been a tradition for stores to show off their best gift-giving ideas, window dressers to demonstrate their creativity with tableaux of festive decorations and scenes of wintry activities, and for shoppers and strollers to look for inspiration and cheer. Write a short story in which your main character catches sight of something in a holiday window display that serves as a catalyst for a surprising course of action. Does something depicted in a window unravel a forgotten memory? Is there a gift that would be perfect for a long-lost friend?
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 Rockettes, who have been based at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall since 1932, are a precision-dance company best known for their synchronized performances during the winter holiday season. Though their shows have evolved over the years as they’ve incorporated innovative new numbers and routines, what has remained unchanged over the years is the spectacle of their precisely-timed, high-kicking dancing. Watch video footage of the Rockettes, or synchronized skaters, swimmers, or line dancers, and write a poem inspired by these performances. How can you replicate the emotion or aesthetic of the repetition and patterns in your poem’s syntax, rhythm, or format on the page?
In Amanda Hess’s New York Times essay “The End of Endings,” she writes about how in our current age of “the prequel, the reboot, the reunion, the revival, the remake, the spinoff,” the logic of the Internet contributes to a timeline where nothing ends, a time when scrolling through social media continues indefinitely, an age of never-ending online content. Whereas in the past, “we needed stories to end so we could make sense of them.” Write a personal essay that extends a previously explored subject or experience to investigate what came before or after, or that offers a different version or perspective.
Studies in the past several decades have repeatedly demonstrated that the placebo effect is quite real and, though unpredictable, has the potential to alleviate symptoms even when people know they’re taking a placebo. It’s been theorized that this efficacy is connected to an individual’s expectations for positive results. Write a short story in which your main character recovers from an ailment and then discovers it is due to a placebo effect. Who was responsible for prescribing the placebo? Does this discovery lead to a darker truth?
“Does a voice have to be auditory to be a voice? / where in the body does hearing take place? / which are the questions that cannot be addressed in language?” Jen Hofer has said that her poem “future somatics to-do list,” which is composed as a list of questions, is “a poem that is a to-do list that is a poem.” Write a poem that consists of a series of questions, all revolving around one topic or concern. In what ways do the types of questions, and their progression, reveal both your current state of mind and your hopes for the future?
In The Library Book, published by Simon & Schuster in October, Susan Orlean’s lifelong love of reading and books propels her toward an exploration of libraries, as well as the personal stories of librarians. In the process of turning an eye toward one specific subject, Orlean delves into larger themes of obsessions, collecting, and memory as they pertain to universal human tendencies and to her own life. Think of a broad subject of particular interest to you and write a personal essay about it that incorporates different types of nonfiction, including elements of memoiristic writing, historical research, interviews, and primary-source documents. Examine the ways in which the formation and collection of your own memories joins with other voices and stories to create a chorus.
Coauthoring a book with another human being might have its challenges, but what about coauthoring a book with a robot? Robin Sloane is currently at work on his third novel set in a near-future California, and with an artificial intelligence computer as one of its main characters. To help write this character’s lines, the author enters snippets of texts he composes into a computer program he designed that draws from a database of texts, such as old science fiction magazines, a range of California-related novels and poetry, wildlife bulletins, and oral histories. Write a short story in which your character decides to embark on a new project with the help of artificial intelligence. Does the machine stay under control and remain useful, or does something go unexpectedly wrong?
A 3-D-printed gun, a Nest thermostat, an iPhone, cargo pants and false eyelashes made in factories in South Asia, a Brexit campaign leaflet, a burkini, a knitted pink hat. In 2014, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum introduced Rapid Response Collecting, an initiative that allows the museum to collect and display objects associated with significant contemporary world events in a timely way. The National Museum of Ireland and the Jewish Museum Berlin have established similar programs, acquiring items with recent political or cultural importance, such as campaign banners and protest posters and signs. Make a list of objects or ephemera that have played a prominent role in your life in the past two or three years, including items that have figured into international news. Write a poem in response to a selection of these objects, exploring any emotional ties you have to them and their significance to larger social issues.
Is simpler always better? Last year, scientists reported findings that the familiar and more easily built, open bowl-shaped nests most birds build today likely evolved from more complicated dome-shaped nests with protective roofs, not the other way around as previously theorized. Write a personal essay about a task you’ve attempted to simplify, perhaps an everyday skill like cooking or cleaning that you learned from an elder as a child. Did you find your way was more efficient or did you go back to the ways you were taught? Has hindsight provided new perspectives?
Have you ever, out of impatience or curiosity, turned to the last page of a novel you were in the middle of reading in order to relieve your anxiety about the ending? This week, if you are staring at a blank page or screen unsure of where to begin, soothe yourself by fast-forwarding to the final page of the story. Write a stand-alone conclusion without halting to examine plausibility or the actions that could have gotten your characters to this place. Perhaps this exercise will lead you to write an origin for the story and flesh out your characters and the setting.
“I have always grown up in a world where there were things one did not understand, because there were languages that were not completely accessible,” said Meena Alexander in an interview with Ruth Maxey for the Kenyon Review in 2005. “It just gives you a particular sense of being in a world where you can be comfortable even though linguistically the world is not really knowable.” Write a poem that touches upon something unknown or that you may have misunderstood in the past. With the help of a dictionary or online research, try incorporating words from a language you are unfamiliar with to add to the ambiguity.
Imagine you are being interviewed for a literary publication. Pose incisive and personal questions another writer might ask you about yourself and your writing. For ideas, browse our rich archive of online exclusives for interviews. Consider a few open-ended queries that resonate with you and respond to them as honestly as possible: What are some of the lies you have had to let go of when writing about your life? Has writing changed your relationship to your body? Where is the line between what you will and won’t share with strangers? Then, try writing a personal essay as an expansion of one of your responses.
“I would still like to know things. Never mind facts. Never mind theories, either,” the narrator states in Alice Munro’s short story “The Turkey Season.” The comment refers to a mysteriously heated altercation between coworkers that occurred decades ago, when the narrator was fourteen and spent the holiday season working as a turkey gutter. Although the details of the dramatic fight remain unknown and continue to haunt her, the bulk of the story rests on descriptions of mundane recollections: learning how to clean turkeys; coworkers’ personal lives and habits; issues surrounding labor and class as well as gender and sexual dynamics; and the expression of each person in a photograph of the work crew. Take inspiration from Munro’s story and write a short story with an ambiguity at its core and a narrator who looks back on a period of time during a holiday season. Use this larger theme of puzzling over something unresolved to explore the nuances of an uncertain time in adolescence when personal value systems are tentatively being formed.
The Oxford English Dictionary has announced the 2018 word of the year: “toxic.” Originating in the mid-seventeenth century from the medieval Latin toxicus, signifying “poisoned” or “imbued with poison,” the word has taken on new associations and collocates in the years since—workplace, masculinity, relationship, and Britney Spears, to name a few. This week, read through the list of definitions and origins for this timely term and write an ode incorporating as many of the variations as you can.
In a recent New York Times profile by Penelope Green, author Anne Lamott says, “I don’t write stuff I don’t think is universal, if I write about my butt or my body or my, you know, challenges with self-esteem or my raging ego, I know it’s universal.” Jot down a list of personality traits, idiosyncratic beliefs or opinions, or past situations that seem extremely specific to you alone. Upon deeper reflection, is there a possible overlap between any of these topics and circumstances others may be familiar with? Select one of these items and write a personal essay that extends this seemingly personal concern into the realm of the universal.
“Graffiti Palace was the amazing confluence of three worlds that crashed together: The Odyssey, graffiti, and the Watts riots,” writes A. G. Lombardo in “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Lombardo describes the circumstances in his life, such as his job as a high school English teacher, that combined to form “this strange brew of ideas” around which his debut novel revolves. Write a short story that combines several elements of your life, perhaps including hobbies or passions, political events of national importance, and favorite works of art or entertainment. How can you crash these disparate interests together to form a cohesive narrative arc?
The headless chicken monster: the stuff of nightmares or a real scientific oddity? It’s actually the nickname for a deep-sea swimming cucumber recently captured on camera for the first time in the Southern Ocean between Australia and Antarctica, and caught on film only once before in the Gulf of Mexico. Write a poem inspired by this reddish-pink finned creature, taking inspiration from its scientific name Enypniastes eximia, and its other nicknames, such as the headless chicken fish, the Spanish dancer, and the swimming sea cucumber. Take a look at photos and videos to see this unusual creature’s bulbous, transparent body and webbed, veil-like appendages and tentacles moving across the ocean floor.
“Boredom becomes a seeking state. What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged,” says psychologist Heather Lench in an article for Wired about the connection between boredom and creativity. Do you remember the last time you allowed yourself to truly do nothing to the point that you felt bored? Write a personal essay about a time when you had nothing to do and how that inspired you to create something. This could be a childhood memory of inventing a new reality or a more recent experience when you allowed yourself time away from distraction and wrote a new piece. Use this essay to reflect on how silence and inactivity have played a role in your creativity.
This week, create your own cinematic adaptation. Select a movie or an episode from a television series in a language you are unfamiliar with, but do not turn on any subtitles. Instead, pay close attention to the body language, vocal intonations, and facial expressions of the characters in order to uncover, and invent, your own narrative. Don’t be concerned with accuracy; allow uncertainty to make way for creativity. Then, write a short story based on your interpretation of the events. How will you choose to describe the body language and atmosphere in a scene? What dialogue will you create for the characters?
Struggling to stay motivated? Researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business recently found that people having trouble achieving their goals benefit from the very act of giving advice to others. This week, try offering some advice to someone in a poem. Write a list of suggestions for handling a challenge, perhaps something you know very little about to add some levity. It can be specific, like what to do when your car breaks down on the side of the highway during a thunderstorm, or something more general like how to resolve an argument. Using an idea from your list, write a humorous poem addressed to someone who may or may not appreciate your guidance.
“Where would we be without the women who plant their feet, who set their chins, who step forward and never fear the dark?” asks Laird Hunt in his Literary Hub essay “In Gratitude for the Fierce Women of the World.” Hunt describes his high school girlfriend and his grandmother, who both served as fierce female inspiration for him and his novels which center on women who “are making their own story, their own names, their own games.” Write a personal essay about a woman who has had a powerful presence in your life, who inspired you to persevere, to overcome obstacles, to not back down.
In her New York Times essay “The Ghost Story Persists in American Literature. Why?,” Parul Sehgal writes about how ghost stories throughout American literature have functioned as social critique, manifestations of protest and redress that reveal “cultural fears and fantasies,” and which understand “how strenuously we run from the past, but always expect it to catch up with us.” Write a story that uses a dark or troubling part of history as the impetus for an appearance of a ghostly presence. How does the ghost serve “as a vessel for collective terror and guilt, for the unspeakable” in your story?
Constructions workers renovating a building in a Valdosta, Georgia last week discovered approximately one thousand teeth buried in a wall on the second floor. Historical researchers attribute the discovery, and the teeth found in walls in two other cities in Georgia, to the spaces having been occupied by dentists in the early 1900s. Write a poem inspired by the imagery, secrets, and possibilities evoked by these bizarre findings. How do the buildings and architecture that surround us hold and reveal local history? Have there been situations in your life when a buried past became uncovered in mysterious or revelatory ways?
In the chapter titled “The One Where Two Women Got Married” in the nostalgic retrospective I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends (Hanover Square Press, 2018), journalist Kelsey Miller writes about the prevalence of homophobic jokes and the depiction of the lesbian couple in the television show Friends. Looking back twenty years later, Miller explores the ways in which the series was a product of its time. Choose a television series that aired ten or twenty years ago that you used to watch, and find a clip or episode to view. Write a personal essay about how your perception of the show has changed with hindsight. Consider what your own opinions of the show were when you watched it the first time around, and then examine how your perspective might have evolved over the years with the culture.
Have you ever found yourself peering over a nearby stranger’s shoulder to see what’s on the phone’s screen? In a recent study, researchers at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich analyzed findings from a survey and found that “shoulder surfing was mostly casual and opportunistic” and was “most common among strangers, in public transport, during commuting times, and involved a smartphone in almost all cases.” Write a short story in which your protagonist peeks over the shoulder of a bystander and catches a glimpse of something unexpected on the person’s phone. Is it something vaguely suspicious that captures your main character’s imagination or is it something downright implicating?