TED Talks have been translated into over one hundred languages, and their translators are often challenged by peculiar turns of phrase. Inspired by this predicament, TED asked translators from around the world to share their favorite idioms along with baffling literal English translations such as “the thief has a burning hat,” a Russian phrase that means, “he has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.” This week, write a poem that incorporates one or more of these eccentric sayings and create a world in which the literal interpretation holds water. Use the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch—to help illustrate these verbal expressions and your interpretation of them.
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.
Leanne Shapton’s second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009), takes the form of a fictional auction catalogue. The objects being sold—everything from furniture to photographs—present a chronology of an invented couple’s entire love affair from start to finish. How might the wider meaning of spring-cleaning as a transformative purge present an opportunity to use your possessions to tell a story about your own life? Jot down a list of objects that hold significance from a past relationship. Perhaps you’ve thrown them out or even hidden them because of their unpleasant associations. Think of them as objectively as possible, as if viewed in an auction catalogue, and write a personal essay using impersonal descriptions to reveal a series of events in your past that combine to form a larger story about this relationship.
“A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge…. After this gingerbread you might sweat, swell, and suffer, shed limbs.” In Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel, Gingerbread, published in March by Riverhead Books, a mysteriously powerful homemade gingerbread wends its way like a spell through multiple generations of friendships and familial relationships. At times it plays an integral role in the alienating forces that drive characters painfully apart, and at other times it proves to be a tie that reinvigorates the complex bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as between friends. Taking inspiration from an ingredient, dish, or recipe that has meaning for your own family, write a short story that revolves around food and how the sharing of it can be both nurturing and disruptive. You might do some research into the larger cultural or geographical history of the food, or integrate elements of folklore or mythology.
“I’ve always been interested in a bigger form, one that doesn’t just rest quietly on the page,” Anne Waldman said in a 2017 Wire interview in which she talked about mixing forms and incorporating song and chant into her work. “Rather than reading quietly, I feel the physical need to do something bigger.” In a New York Times review of Waldman’s most recent collection, Trickster Feminism (Penguin, 2018), Daisy Fried wrote, “The metaphor that comes to mind is of a river, its great volume washing by,” noting Waldman’s coverage of matters “ancient and contemporary, local and global.” Try writing a dynamic poem that washes by like a loud river, flowing through a wide range of topics. Don’t be afraid to mix the public with the personal, the ancient with the contemporary, the magical or spiritual with the mundane or mechanical. Imbue your lines with a playfully performative quality; read them out loud for rhythm as you compose them.
“There is a model of translation that resembles a funnel—everything from the source language swirls toward a single opening, and it all comes out the same way,” says Jeremy Tiang in “The Art of Translation: Many Englishes, Many Chineses” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “The kitchen implement I prefer is the sieve—allowing as much as possible through, falling as it will, breaking up clumps to ease the flow.” Think about a favorite book of translated literature, and write a personal essay that reflects upon your feelings about the translation choices within it. Consider Tiang’s analogy: Does it feel like the words came from the source language through a funnel or a sieve? Were there rough patches, or did the work feel frictionless? Which do you prefer and why?
Does common sense go out the window when you go grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Last fall scientists published findings in Science Advances that even snails start making questionable food choices when they’ve gone too long without eating. Extreme hunger alters the brain’s perception of stimuli in a way that makes otherwise unappealing nourishment seem worthy of the risk, which explains why you might find yourself walking out of a grocery store with bizarre food combinations. Write a short story in which your main character makes an unusual choice while in the throes of hunger. Does it turn out to be merely a comic interlude or are there irreversible consequences?
Is your telephone number secretly a portal to mystic truths? In “This Mysterious Website Generates Weird Short Stories About Phone Numbers” published in Electric Literature, Kristen O’Neal writes about a website where the ten-digit number in its URL can be modified and repeatedly refreshed for countless iterations of mysterious and inscrutably poetic sentences in the comments section. Try typing your own phone number into the URL and select one or two sentences from the resulting page that seem particularly evocative. Write a poem inspired by the strange resonance of these words to your own experiences.
In his essay “Being John” published in the Morning News, John Sherman writes about his experiences sharing a first name with over five million other people in the United States. Sherman also considers the rise and fall in popularity of different names and the trend in valuing unique and individualistic names over traditional ones, musing on how our identities are formed by our names with all their attendant histories, politics, pleasures, and nuisances. Write a personal essay about your own name, perhaps diving into some Internet research to see how popular it has been over time, its origins, and touching upon possible namesakes. What are your feelings about sharing your name with others? Did you ever wish for another name, or have you ever changed your name? How has your perspective on your name changed over time?
Ancient Greek and Egyptian texts dating back two thousand years have recorded the use of leeches to treat everything from headaches to ear infections to hemorrhoids. More recently, magnetic therapy has been marketed in the form of magnetic jewelry, belts, and blankets to help alleviate pain, depression, and even boost energy. Write a short story in which a character makes the decision to seek out an unusual or unorthodox form of treatment. Is it an unexpected choice or does it seem to align with personality, circumstances, and setting? What has led your character to this unconventional option and how do loved ones react to this decision?
“I am a love poet, or a poet in love with the world. It is just who I am…. Is it foolish to speak of little joys that occur in the middle of tragedy? It is our humanity.” In “Still Dancing” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Garth Greenwell interviews Ilya Kaminsky who speaks about writing poetry that witnesses and explores moments of joy, love, and tenderness even in the face of horror, violence, war, and tragedy. Write a poem that confronts an issue of strife or suffering, but also recognizes and allows room for the existence of love and little joys. Consider how you might strike a balance between the two emotional experiences and how they are intertwined.
In Medium’s Day Job series, Mike Gardner conducts a dozen interviews with writers about day jobs they’ve worked, particularly focusing on jobs they had when they were just starting out. Authors such as Kaitlyn Greenidge, Mitchell S. Jackson, Carmen Maria Machado, Karan Mahajan, Elizabeth Strout, and Andy Weir recount the variety of work they’ve done to pay the bills—as a subway conductor, private investigator, teacher, retail clerk, and more—and share insights into how different jobs effectively complemented (or didn’t complement) a writing practice, and what they’ve learned about protecting their writing time and energy from the demands of day jobs. Write a personal essay about a past or current job, exploring how it fits alongside your identity as a writer. How do issues of time, benefits, energy, inspiration, and language play into the job’s suitability for your writing life?
“Children force parents to go out looking for...the right way of telling the story, knowing that stories don’t fix anything or save anyone but maybe make the world both more complex and more tolerable,” writes Valeria Luiselli in her fourth novel, Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), which she speaks about in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story in which a parent or guardian character must figure out “the right way” to tell a child some difficult news, perhaps in a moment of particular uncertainty, danger, or crisis. Describe the conflicts in deciding what to tell and not tell in an effort to make the world feel more tolerable. How does the child react to what’s been told?
This week, write a poem that explores the overlap, transformation, or melding of two seemingly opposing or unrelated ideas or words. Loosely use a version of the diamante poem, a form often taught to young students, which takes a center-justified diamond shape and begins and ends with one-word lines. In this seven-line form, the first line of the poem starts with one subject, and the following two lines consist of modifiers describing this word. The middle of the poem has the longest line, a phrase that describes both the word in the first line as well as the word in the last line, the second subject. The next two lines shift to describe the subject that ends the poem in the last line. Play with the form and use a variety of adjectives, adverbs, and verbs to bring your two subjects together.
The fascination of writers with the color blue dates back more than two hundred years, as Maria Popova writes on her website Brain Pickings. In his journal, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Blue is light seen through a veil.” In Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), a book wholly dedicated to her relationship with the color blue, Maggie Nelson interrogates the madness of loving “something constitutionally incapable of loving you back.” This week, consider any powerful associations you’ve had with a color over the course of your life. Write an essay or series of short vignettes dedicated to this specific hue. What memories or emotions come rushing back when you see this color? Is there a theme? Consider Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colors for inspiration.
In “Color Blind Pal,” Zoe Dubno’s New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation essay, she writes about a life-changing experience at a family fondue dinner when she was twelve and upset her brother by grabbing his green fork repeatedly instead of her orange one. Only half of one percent of women have red-green color blindness (compared with eight percent of men), so it often goes unrecognized—unless a significant social faux pas brings it into focus. Write a story in which one of your characters is unable to see, feel, smell, or hear something specific (i.e. bird calls, plant thorns, burnt toast), but does not realize it until an encounter involving a mix-up occurs. Does this alter the way your character experiences the world? Is it a life-changing moment?
“Beech bark is a tender thing.” In C. D. Wright’s Casting Deep Shade (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), the late poet writes of childhood memories, climate change, art in nature, and other topics, all revolving around a single entity: the beech tree. This week choose a tree, flower, or similarly nonverbal but living being that has held some significance for you over the course of your life. Write a poem in its honor, toeing the line between verse and prose, research and memory, fact and speculation. Get to know your muse and move your reader to care for it as well. What sights and smells does it evoke from your past? How do you interpret its silence? What does it offer to you and the world?
The period of recovery time after an illness, injury, or medical treatment is known as a convalescence. As flu season abounds and we’re affected by changing temperatures, think back to a time in your life when you were returning to better health, whether after a prolonged cold, a serious illness, surgery, or a period of emotional distress. Write a personal essay about navigating this space between unwell and well. Did the disruption in health leave a permanent mark on your identity? Were there others you needed to rely on in order to recover? Describe the moments you felt weak and what it felt like to be vulnerable.
Scientists at NASA announced earlier this month that 2018 was officially the fourth warmest year since 1880, the earliest year that records of the Earth’s global surface temperature are available. In fact, the past five years have been the warmest in the record, marking a trend of steadily increasing temperatures. Write a short story that takes place somewhere that is always hot, and with temperatures that continue to rise. Do your characters remember and reminisce about days of cold? In what ways does this world function and look different from the one we live in today?
In The Kindergarten Teacher, a remake of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as an aspiring poet and elementary school teacher who becomes obsessed with the writing of a five-year-old boy named Jimmy. To craft the young boy’s verses, Gyllenhaal and director Sara Colangelo commissioned poetry from Kaveh Akbar and Ocean Vuong. In the New York Times, Vuong spoke about his creative process, which involved cannibalizing several of his own poems “to shift the complexity from the syntax to images.” This week, rewrite one of your poems so that the voice is from a child’s perspective. Pare down your language and focus on the core images. For ideas, read more about how Vuong adapted his poem “The Bull” to fit the character of Jimmy.
“I’ve just begun having text and feel self-conscious: should I sustain this performance, the analogy I’ve created between sexual and textual preference?... If textual preference is a matter of what gives a reader textual pleasure, with what categories does one establish preference?” asks Brian Teare in his Harriet blog essay “Textual Preference,” which plays with and explores the connections between sexuality and textuality. What are your idiosyncratic pleasures and displeasures when it comes to syntax, diction, rhythm, form, and imagery? Write a personal essay investigating what your textual likes and dislikes say about the way you encounter the world.
Last month’s total lunar eclipse during a “super blood wolf moon” was watched by millions of people around the world. Already a rare cosmic occurrence, what was particularly unusual was that many cameras caught a tiny flash during the eclipse, which one astronomer quickly deemed was a speeding meteoroid crashing into the moon. While lunar impacts happen all the time, the visibility and recording of one was unique since the flash of light could only be seen from Earth because of the shadow caused by the eclipse. Write a short story in which something unexpected is caught on camera during a shared celestial experience that has never been filmed before. Is it cause for concern, terror, wonder, or humor?
“I attempt to discuss, through a conflation of creation myths, the idea of being formed by literature,” writes Paige Ackerson-Kiely on the Poetry Society of America’s website about the title poem in her second collection, My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012), which began as a response to arctic explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s memoirs. “One fact of my life...is that I have often been consoled by books, have found a life for myself within those pages, when that sort of life was not available to me on the outside.” Write a love poem that points to how you have been formed by your favorite books, writers, and literature. How has a particularly memorable work of literature provided you with consolation and love, and helped create an inner vitality?
When does a ride to the airport mean more than a ride to the airport? In her New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation essay, Jacqueline Kantor refers to the idea that the offer to drive someone to the airport often holds signification in romantic relationships and friendships. Write an essay about a mundane task or practical favor that you have done as a gesture of your burgeoning feelings for someone. Did the recipient note the significance of the act? Was it the beginning of a new chapter in your relationship?
Last week, news surfaced that a glitch in Apple’s FaceTime group-chatting feature was allowing someone placing a video call to eavesdrop on another person through their phone’s microphone even if the call went unanswered. Write a short story that begins with your main character inadvertently catching something not meant for her eyes or ears through a video call. Does she pretend it didn’t happen, force a confrontation, or figure out a way to turn it to her advantage?
Since 1886, every February 2, a strange celebrity garners national attention: Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog with the power to predict the severity of winter weather based on his shadow. The tradition purportedly has roots in an ancient Christian holiday that involves bringing candles to church to be blessed for winter. It wasn’t until the holiday was introduced to Germany, that a small animal and his prognosticative shadow became a part of the tradition. Although there are others, the celebration at Gobbler’s Knob in Pennsylvania is arguably the most popular, and even inspired a movie. For this week’s prompt, think about an unusual ritual or belief among your family, friends, or community. Write a poem about your knowledge of its origins and how it has evolved over the years. What has been lost or gained with time?