“Renga for Obama” is an ongoing project edited by Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review in which each linked segment is written by a pair of poets, creating a chain of verse meditating on Barack Obama’s presidency. Renga, a traditional Japanese collaborative form, consists of alternating three- and two-line stanzas: a haiku (5-7-5 syllables) followed by a couplet, each line of which consists of seven syllables, that responds to the haiku. This pattern can be repeated up to a few dozen or even hundreds of lines. Choose a current theme that you are interested in probing further with words and imagery—it could be political, aesthetic, domestic, environmental, or pop culture–related. Spend some time discussing, sharing reflections, and expressing gratitude or feelings about the topic with a friend, family member, or colleague. Write a renga together, and pass it on to others with an invitation to contribute to the chain, thereby initiating a continuing exploration.
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.
What do Ancient Rome, Western Civilization, the History of China, Early Middle Ages, the Civil Rights Movement, U.S. Constitutional History, and Dolly Parton have in common? They’re all the subjects of courses offered this past year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “Dolly Parton’s America: From Sevierville to the World” is a history class that uses Parton’s life as a lens through which to view pop culture in the twentieth century, cultural politics, and the history of the Appalachian region. Choose a local celebrity from your city, region, or state, and write a personal essay that explores the intersection of the pop icon’s cultural context and your own memories of time spent in this locale.
In Fijian legend, a young girl falls in love with a boy from a neighboring village to the disapproval of her parents, and her tears of despair transform into red and white flowers. The hanging clusters of the elusive tagimoucia blossoms—only found regularly on one specific mountain ridge on the island of Taveuni—are the subject of a number of local Taveuni stories, several of which involve young women whose tears turn into the petals of the flower. Write a short story that revolves around an imaginary legend or folk tale about local flora. How does the story gain significance as it’s transmitted among peers and between generations? What sort of unexpected ramifications does the legend have on your characters? Who falls under its spell, and who remains immune to its powers?
“’It wasn’t a rhyme time,’” said Gwendolyn Brooks in 1968, as quoted in Major Jackson’s essay “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Brooks was speaking about her decision to move away from the sonnet and other traditional verse forms in favor of allying more closely to the black community and politically conscious poetry. Do you consider the contemporary moment a “rhyme time”? Why or why not? How might you transform the style and/or meter of your poetry to reflect your own evolving creative interests, priorities, and influences? Write a poem that marks some sort of departure from your typical work, in spirit and purpose.
Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations. Write a lyric essay in which you explore the connections between literature, landscape, and your own memories. For inspiration, look at Montreal-based artist Guy Laramée’s newly released collection of sculptures, in which the artist creates landscapes from old books.
The Met Gala is an annual fundraiser held in May to celebrate the opening of the Costume Institute’s fashion exhibit. The Gala is known for the elaborate attire of its guests, like the 2017 looks from pop icons Rihanna and Zendaya. Write a story that includes a scene in which a character briefly wears an elaborate outfit or costume. How might the clothing change the way they understand themselves? How might it change the way other characters view them?
“May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. / My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. / My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.” Taking inspiration from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under One Small Star,” write a poem that plays with apology or an apologetic tone. What may you have taken for granted in the past? To whom might you offer your apologies, and for what are you sorry? What are you grateful for now?
“My whole life I’ve been interested in trying to rewrite both war and girl myth,” says Lidia Yuknavitch about her new novel, The Book of Joan (Harper, 2017). “I’m trying to open up an old story so we can look it over again. I believe anything that can be storied can be de-storied and re-storied, and it’s one of the only ways we can retain hope.” In “The Other Side of Burning” by Amy Gall in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Yuknavitch discusses what it was like to reimagine the story of Joan of Arc for the new novel. Think of a myth or a heroine whose story has resonated with you, or that connects to a certain aspect of your identity. Write an essay that actively works to de-story and then re-story, and incorporates a discovery in your own life—perhaps resulting in a new version of an old truth.
One of the oldest trees in the United States—a white oak in a church cemetery in New Jersey estimated to be six hundred years old—was cut down last month after it began failing and was ultimately declared dead. According to local stories, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette met and picnicked under the tree during the American Revolution. Write a short story that revolves around a series of imagined encounters that took place under this tree. You might experiment by combining fictional moments with historical events, or write from the point of view of the tree to provide a fresh perspective.
“I was young when you came to me. / Each thing rings its turn…” begins Meena Alexander’s poem “Muse.” Write a poem of direct address to a muse—any specific object, memory, person, moment, or idea that invokes wonder and reflection. Read the rest of Alexander’s poem for inspiration derived from sensory pleasures, multiple languages, and the associations between words and images.
As self-driving cars get closer and closer to becoming a reality, the social interaction of driver and passenger may become a thing of the past. Think back to a significant memory you have as the driver or passenger in a motor vehicle. Perhaps it was an adventurous road trip, a taxi ride on a faraway vacation, or in a bus with classmates on your way to a field trip. Write an essay about this event and your role in it. Were you directing the way and in control, or staring dreamily out the window? Was there an argument or a memorable conversation on the journey?
What kind of secret should be taken to the grave? How might a secret act as proof of intimacy? For the debut of Sophie Calle’s most recent art installation, the artist spent two afternoons receiving and transcribing visitors’ secrets, and then depositing them into a monumental obelisk installed in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. In Calle’s instructive text about the project, she writes of one previously divulged secret, “At the very moment he was depriving me of his love, this man offered me, through his confession, the ultimate proof of our intimacy.” Write a short story in which you imagine the ending to that story. What is the secret that this man confesses to Calle as they are breaking up? Why does he share it with her in their last moments together?
While a crocodile’s ankles might be something you’ve never thought much about, a recent discovery of fossils shows that an early relative of dinosaurs had “crocodylian-like ankle morphology”—or crocodile ankles—an important factor in placing the carnivore within the evolutionary timeline. Write a poem inspired by an unusual phrase or terminology for an animal’s (or human’s) physicality, such as purlicue, perhaps finding humor or playfulness in its sound, sense, and associated imagery.
Three current Monopoly board game tokens—the boot, the thimble, and the wheelbarrow—will be cycled out this fall and replaced with a penguin, a rubber ducky, and a T-Rex. Classic board games often get continually updated with new features, and brand new games are constantly created, but most of us have favorites and personal memories of playing board games in the past. Write an essay that focuses on an old board game you’ve held onto, or explores memories of playing, arguing, and competing with friends and family during game nights.
Can you write a story with a hook, chapters with twists and turns, pages that end on cliffhangers? In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Vatner’s article “Serial Fiction for the Digital Age” reports on Radish, a serial-reading mobile app in which writers release fiction installments chapter by chapter for readers to download. Over the course of several weeks, try your hand at writing a long-form story in one-thousand-word segments made for serial reading. How do you manipulate the tone, imagery, and structure of each segment’s ending so that it both concludes the standalone chapter and entices the reader to continue wondering what comes next?
Poetry and science combined to join forces at this year’s March for Science in Washington, D.C. Jane Hirshfield organized writing workshops and readings, and science poems by writers like Tracy K. Smith and Gary Snyder were displayed on banners. Many poets are using social media to respond quickly and powerfully to events occurring in the tumult of the political climate. Browse through newspapers or online for fresh science news—such as scientists attempting to capture the first image of a black hole—and write an urgent poem in response. What sort of emotional or philosophical significance can you draw between this scientific news and your feelings about current affairs?
“Thinking thought to be a body wearing language as clothing or language a body of thought which is a soul or body the clothing of a soul, she is veiled in silence,” writes Harryette Mullen in Trimmings (Tender Button Books, 1991). Mia You considers these words and the intersection of the body, language, and fashion in her essay “Sublime Deformations of Nature.” Write your own essay exploring thoughts, experiences, and inspirations on the relationship between language and fashion. How does this influence your ideas on what a body is?
For many species of animals, spring is not only a time of birth and renewal, but also a time of migration. Write a story in which a character witnesses a strange animal migration. Perhaps your character is also in transition—moving towards or away from someone or something. How does this experience affect the story’s plot? For inspiration, read and watch videos about unusual animal migrations in Smithsonian Magazine.
Can girls be robots? How do you make water? What does extinct mean? Children have a curiosity for the world that can often inspire them to ask difficult questions like these from filmmaker Kelly O’Brien’s five-year-old daughter Willow. In the spirit of childish inquisitiveness, write a poem entirely of questions. How might you use a child’s persona to explore your own concerns and wonder for the world?
“When I read her the old fairy tales about stepmothers, I worried I was reading her an evil version of myself,” writes Leslie Jamison in a recent essay published in New York Times Magazine. “In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale” explores Jamison’s personal experience as a stepmother through the lens of stepmothers in fairy tales and cultural archetypes. Choose a fairy-tale archetype that feels resonant in some way to you, whether now or in the past. Write an essay examining the various connections between this archetype and its contemporary sociocultural counterpart, which may have resulted in certain expectations and anxieties. In what ways do you fit—and also not quite fit—into the role?
Do we sleep to dream, or to forget? Earlier this year, scientists on two separate research teams published findings that we may sleep in order to forget, essentially paring back the synaptic connections that are formed over the course of a day’s worth of learning, and storing the important information. Write a short story inspired by these discoveries, perhaps imagining a society that has created a technology that can control this nighttime streamlining, or a character who attempts to manipulate this pruning process for her own advantage.
Last month, Crayola announced the retirement of one of their yellow crayon colors, Dandelion, which will soon be replaced by a blue crayon. Since Binney & Smith first began producing Crayola crayons in 1903, many colors have been cycled in and out. Some colors have remained the same shade but changed names over the years, such as Peach, which was previously named Flesh Tint, Flesh, and Pink Beige. Read more about the history of Crayola crayon colors, and write a poem inspired by some of the names you find most evocative, perhaps finding thematic potential in how the types of names have evolved over the years.
“Let Nature be your teacher,” wrote William Wordsworth in his poem “The Tables Turned.” As spring arrives, seek out changes in the environment around you and jot down some observations: later sunsets, lighter clothing, the pastel colors of budding leaves and flowers, the buzzing and chirping of insects and birds. Write a personal essay that explores your relationship with nature, whether that involves being out in the woods or desert, or interactions with urban wildlife and navigating public transportation in extreme weather conditions. Reflect upon the ways in which the natural world introduces itself into your everyday life and how it affects your moods and emotions. How does the changing light and weather influence your daily rhythms? Are you uplifted and energized by a sense of renewal, or exasperated by pollen and allergies? What has nature taught you about yourself?
In classic Greek tragedies, the term hamartia, first described in Aristotle’s Poetics, refers to a fatal flaw in the main character of the drama, which causes a chain of events to unfold: a reversal of fortune from good to bad, and the eventual downfall of the character. One traditional example of such a flaw is hubris, an overblown ego and lack of humility. Write a short story in which your protagonist suffers from an unfortunate degree of hubris. Does overconfident pride blind the character to the consequences of that individual’s actions? Does arrogance lead the protagonist toward one big mistake, or several small errors that lead inevitably to tragic misfortune?
“For the first time, I agreed last year to cotranslate a book from a language I don’t speak at all…. It was an opportunity for new kinds of thinking but also new kinds of failure,” writes poet, novelist, and translator Idra Novey in her essay “Writing While Translating.” Many contemporary writers have expanded the art of translation by experimenting with form and content: Mary Jo Bang filled her translation of Dante’s Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) with pop culture references; David Cameron used spell-check and word-association methods for Flowers of Bad (Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007), his “false translation” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal; and Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s Books, 2012) is a translation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry into one-line renderings, from English into a different version of English. Try your hand at translating a short series of poems from one language to another. Use your knowledge of another language, slang, dictionaries, or any unlikely source to explore the elasticity of language while considering how new kinds of failure might inspire a refreshing direction for your writing.