Several years ago, New York Public Library staff discovered a box filled with file cards of written questions submitted to librarians from the 1940s to 1980s, many of which have been collected in the book Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom From the Files of the New York Public Library (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019). Questions include: “What does it mean when you’re being chased by an elephant?” and “Can you give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” and “What time does a bluebird sing?” Write a poem inspired by one of these curiously strange questions. Does your poem provide a practical answer, or avoid one altogether leading instead to more imaginative questions?
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.
Last week Science journal published a study with the DNA analyses of graves and found objects from prehistoric German households that demonstrates wealth disparities in inhabitants not previously seen. The findings include indications that under the same roof, there were family members who passed down inherited wealth, unrelated individuals not buried with wealth, and nonlocal women who maintained or married into wealth. Consider the beloved and functional items in your home and write a personal essay that examines how these objects express social complexity or class status. How might you be remembered based on your possessions?
Earlier this month the transcription of a long-lost chapter from The Tale of Genji was found in a storeroom in the Tokyo home of a descendant of a feudal lord. Often called the world’s first novel, the eleventh-century masterpiece written by Murasaki Shikibu recounts the love life of a fictional prince named Genji. In the recently discovered chapter, the prince meets his future wife, Murasaki, who shares the same name as the book’s author. Write a new chapter from a story or novel you know well. What occurs in this portion of the story that might fill in some gaps or offer a new discovery? How does it fit in with, or transform, the meaning of the original text?
What is documentary poetry? In “Where Poetry Meets Journalism” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, documentary poetry, also known as docupoetry, is described as “socially engaged poetry that often uses nonliterary texts—news reports, legal documents, and transcribed oral histories.” Select a piece of journalism that particularly catches your eye or imagination, and then search for nonliterary texts around the same topic or theme. Write a docupoem that chronicles a story or experience by combining these found texts with your own observations and language.
“John Bonham was the coolest member of Led Zeppelin and getting hit in the auricle region with a wrench thrown by his apparition would be a damn honor,” writes Timothy Cahill in “Five Things I’d Rather Get Hit With Than Have to Hear Led Zeppelin’s ‘All My Love’” on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Think of a song that’s gotten stuck in your head, an especially irritating earworm that was just the wrong thing at the wrong time. Write a humorous personal essay about the song and the havoc it wreaked on your life, perhaps using satire or exaggeration for comedic purposes. Does the song have a pop cultural context? Was there a time when you enjoyed it? If so, what changed your outlook?
“I try to produce work to help somebody know something of a world they don’t know,” says Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Felon (Norton, 2019), in “Name a Song,” a conversation with Mahogany L. Browne in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, think of the various worlds that you’re privy to, perhaps through your geographical location, cultural background, work history, hobbies and passions, or life experiences. Write a short story inspired by an expansion and fictionalizing of one of these worlds, providing a glimpse of a world you know well.
A recent study published in Open Science reveals that the songs of male humpback whales are informed by the exchanges they have with each other during their travels. In this way their vocalizations denote their migratory route. Throughout the day, jot down bits and pieces of conversation you’ve either partaken in or overheard, song lyrics you have in your head, and any phrases or words that strike you. Use these bits of language to compose a poem that will then become your travel song, a way of detailing the encounters you’ve had throughout your daily voyage. Where have you been and what have you heard?
“At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned toward the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top.” The entirety of Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, Mezzanine (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986), takes place during a ride up an office escalator during a lunch break. Baker inserts extensive footnotes on ordinary phenomena such as shoelaces, milk cartons, perforated paper, plastic straws, paper towel dispensers, and the contents of his lunch into the story. Write a personal essay that uses footnotes to delve into the details of an hour in your daily routine. Incorporate minutiae about your physical movements and observations of mundane objects to express the significance of your everyday experience.
Can’t fall asleep? Would it help if a voice soothed you with murmured reassurances and flattering serenades? A recent New York Times article featured the creator of DennisASMR, a YouTube channel in the growing genre known as A.S.M.R. (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) boyfriend role-play. The teenager who lives with his parents in Savannah, Georgia creates eerie scenarios of one-sided conversations that are watched by millions of viewers. Write a short story that imagines the lives of characters viewing these videos. Why do they look to these videos for comfort? How does this role-play help or hinder their lives?
Last year a British ultramarathoner competing in northwest Canada donated his frostbitten amputated toes to a Yukon hotel bar. Renowned for serving the Sourtoe Cocktail, a shot of whiskey with a mummified human toe dropped inside (the toe is not swallowed, but must touch the drinker’s lips in order to join the club and receive a certificate), the bar depends on donated digits. Write a poem inspired by emotional and visceral responses to this unusual cocktail and ritual. Explore the possible themes of human connection, extreme adventure, sacrifice and generosity, and horror with humor.
In a recent interview for BOMB Magazine, poets Prageeta Sharma and James Thomas Stevens visit the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and discuss topics ranging from Native American artists to identity, community, and appropriation. Throughout the interview the paintings and artworks viewed at the museum are brought into their conversation, propelling them to go in new directions or to speak more deeply on a subject. This week take a walk somewhere scenic—perhaps in a park, natural environment, or art museum—and write a short lyric essay that ties together issues already on your mind with ones that come up as you explore and carefully observe your surroundings.
“Sometimes the narrator tries to steer her thoughts in directions she prefers, or recoils from certain darker avenues of thought, but she can’t keep it up for long,” writes Lucy Ellmann in a Washington Post interview about her new novel, Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, 2019), which is comprised of a single sentence that extends over a thousand pages. Write a short story that is entirely contained within one sentence. Allow for detours and interruptions—tidbits of song lyrics, physical sensations, flashbacks—to flow and come out. How do all the thoughts and distractions combine to form a bigger picture or statement?
“When you get into the occult community and the literature, it’s not just about ‘talking’ to or ‘communing’ or ‘feeling’ spirits. It’s also at the other extreme, evocation,” writes Katy Bohinc in “Poetry as Magic” in the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. “Evocation is the practice of calling a spirit into a room, getting its signature on a piece of paper, interpreting its messages as divination, and then sending the spirit into the world to do your bidding.” Have you ever felt yourself in the presence of a spirit, or seen evidence of one? Write a poem that revolves around a real or imagined evocation of a spirit. What do you ask of this spirit?
The abacus: a time-tested tool or outdated artifact? A recent New York Times article showcased an annual abacus tournament in Kyoto with competitors ranging in age from eight to sixty-nine years old. Children across Japan were taught proficiency in using the tool for calculations until the early 1970s, but since then instruction has been cut down to a couple of hours of basic use during elementary school, though advocates are pushing for reinstatement. Think of an object, tool, or method that you currently use that might be considered old-fashioned. Write an essay that reflects on why you continue to use this method. What are its drawbacks and advantages?
A study published last week in the journal Science detailed findings that the North American bird population has dropped by three billion since 1970, a decline of twenty-nine percent in less than fifty years. Write a story that revolves around how an imminent extinction of all birds affects one specific character. Is there a moment of realization when this decimation impacts your character’s life? How does the disappearance of these creatures change the human relationships in your story?
The “Don’t have a bookmark?” meme began as a brand marketing tool on Twitter showing photos of objects—including Chex Mix, Oreo cookies and milk, and Vitaminwater—poured into the pages of books to use as bookmarks, which quickly ignited a storm of retorts. In one response, a librarian posted a photo depicting a soft taco that had actually been flattened into the pages of an edition of Edward Lear’s 1871 book, Nonsense Songs and Stories, found at her library in Indiana. This week write a poem inspired by this literal mash-up of food and words. How can you play with diction, line breaks, spacing, and typography to express humor, dissonance, and a mix of themes?
The summer season is always ripe for trends that pair with warm weather like beaded necklaces, tie-dye T-shirts, and the bright orange Aperol Spritz cocktail. Some might revel in what’s in vogue, and others might scoff at the buzz. Now that the fall equinox is just around the corner, reflect on what’s been all the rage and pen a humorous essay declaring a controversial opinion about something trivial but trendy. Consider the reasons behind the proliferation of the fad of your choosing—Cronuts, standing desks, axe throwing bars—and then discuss why you find the craze overrated, absurd, or downright dangerous while interjecting personal history and experiences.
“It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie.” In the New York Times, Tina Jordan writes about mystery author Agatha Christie’s unexplained eleven-day disappearance in the winter of 1926. Jordan’s article unfolds through a series of excerpts and news clippings detailing the incident. This week write a short story that similarly uses fragments from news reports or photographs to slowly reveal information over a period of time.
“I focused on myself all this time because that’s what I thought poetry was—personal narrative,” says poet Jake Skeets in an interview about his debut collection, Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019), in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It was during his time with mentors at Santa Fe’s Institute for American Indian Arts that Sheets began to see the intersections between his personal life and broader explorations of the New Mexico reservation where he grew up. Jot down a short list of seemingly disparate topics you’ve written about in different pieces or projects, and write a poem that combines two or more of these themes. Consider both the natural intersections you land on initially, and perhaps some distant connections that require more of an imaginative stretch.
In Marguerite Duras’s 1985 essay, “Reading on the Train,” from the collection Me & Other Writing (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2019), translated from the French by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan, Duras writes about reading the first half of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace while on a train and feeling that in speeding through the story, she’d sacrificed a more intense, less narrative-driven understanding of the book. “I had realized that day and forever after that a book was contained between two layers superimposed with writing, the legible layer that I had read that day as I traveled and the other, inaccessible.” Write an essay about a beloved piece of literature in which you discuss both the legible layer and attempt to decipher or articulate a deeper resonance of the writing. What can you glimpse—in the story and in yourself—when you delve beyond the literal reading?
“When you’re in boarding school you imagine how grand and fine the world is, and when you leave you’d sometimes like to hear the sound of the school bell again.” In Fleur Jaeggy’s 1989 novel, Sweet Days of Discipline, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks and recently rereleased by New Directions, the adult narrator recounts her experiences as a fourteen-year-old boarding school student in postwar Switzerland, a time of conflicting desires and emotions, repetitive routines, and confusing power dynamics. Write a story that takes place in a school, inspired by memories of your own school days. Aside from the knowledge gained from textbooks, what were some of the lessons you learned about relationships and social dynamics? You might choose to integrate narration from an older, more removed character with scenes from an adolescent’s perspective.
In “Sisters,” from Brian Evenson’s story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World (Coffee House Press, 2019), the narrator recounts her sister’s observations of an unfamiliar holiday: Halloween. “The carving of pumpkins into the shapes of those rejected by both heaven and hell, the donning of costumes (by which she meant a sort of substitute skin affixed over the real skin, though in this locale they used an artificial rather than, as we were prone to do, an actual skin), and the ‘doorstep challenge.’” For the family of ghosts new to the neighborhood, the contemporary customs of scary costumes and trick-or-treating are defamiliarized, and the reader is presented with parallels between humans wearing costumes—“artificial” skins—and the ghosts’ tendency to inhabit real human bodies, or “actual” skin. Write a poem in the first person that explores the idea of slipping into another’s skin. Invoke both horror and humor as you consider what might become unfamiliar once you experience the world through someone else’s eyes.
“I saw the book as another kind of house. How did I want the reader to pass through it? What room would they enter first, and how should that room feel?” writes Sarah M. Broom about the structure of her debut memoir, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019), in “The New Nonfiction 2019” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a memoiristic piece, or revisit one already in progress, and work on constructing it like a house that the reader must pass through. Plan out the points of entry and exit, and organize different sections or vignettes to be experienced as rooms visited one after another.
How does the atmosphere of a cathedral change when a carnival slide is installed inside of it? A recent New York Times article reported that in an attempt to engage people into visiting and attending their services, a number of ancient churches and cathedrals in England have incorporated installations such as a four-story-tall winding carnival slide, a space-themed exhibit with a reproduction of the moon’s surface, and a mini golf course. Write a story that takes place in a cathedral that has incorporated some untraditional elements. Does the incongruity offer a different perspective of the space? Are the new features considered a disruption or are they welcomed?
How many people does it take to make a community? At Station Nord, a Danish military outpost and research facility located in Greenland just over five hundred miles from the North Pole, only six people and two dogs live there year-round. Even with such a limited population, isolated locale, and frigid temperatures, inhabitants establish a convivial sense of home and community with shared meals, silly rules, pig roasts, and game nights. Write a poem about a group of people that has provided you with a warm sense of community. What small, perhaps mundane, moments do you recall that have helped create a sense of belonging, support, and bonding?