Every summer in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Spain, participants of an annual festival enact a death ritual by climbing into coffins that are then paraded by pallbearers through music-filled streets. The festival falls on the feast day of Saint Martha, and is seen as a way for devotees to express gratitude and celebrate the triumph of life and health, after having narrowly escaped death in the previous year. Write a poem that explores a time when you have felt particularly sensitive to mortality, perhaps because of a personal or loved one’s brush with serious illness or death. Instead of steering clear of the conventional words, images, symbols, and objects that are associated with death, focus on highlighting them. How might a direct confrontation of the proximity between vitality and mortality create new perspective?
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.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a mysterious narrator recounts committing the murder of an old man, all the while insisting on his own sanity. In order to hide the body, the narrator dismembers and buries the corpse beneath the floorboards, but continues to hear the dead man’s beating heart. The terror and madness that the increasingly loud beating wreaks on the narrator’s psyche throughout the rest of the story is seen as a manifestation of guilt. Think about a situation in the past when you have felt guilty about something you’ve said, done, or witnessed. How did the guilt manifest? Was there a secret involved? Was there an eventual confession or resolution? Write an essay about this memory, focusing on the immediate emotions and any bodily response or flights of imagination that may have resulted.
Earlier this year, scientists published a finding that all of the spiders in the world together consume a total of four to eight hundred million tons of prey every year, which is more than the estimated weight of all humans in the world. In its report of this study, the Washington Post offered the nightmare-inducing headline, “Spiders Could Theoretically Eat Every Human on Earth in One Year.” Write a short story that could adapt this headline as its title and considers a confrontation between human being and spider, whether one-on-one, or perhaps a freakishly larger-scale battle. Can you find both humor and horror in the scene?
“The mellow autumn came, and with it came / The promised party, to enjoy its sweets. / The corn is cut, the manor full of game; / The pointer ranges, and the sportsman beats / In russet jacket:—lynx-like is his aim; / Full grows his bag, and wonderful his feats. / Ah, nut-brown partridges! Ah, brilliant pheasants!” writes Lord Byron in his epic poem “Don Juan.” The poem, which satirizes the legendary Don Juan and portrays him as a character easily seduced by women, is told in seventeen cantos and this section describes a party at an English countryside estate. Use Byron’s line about a mellow autumn as the first line of your poem. Continue on from there and write about a festive autumnal gathering, perhaps using Byron’s mentions of outdoor recreation and landscape, animals and nature, a country or rural setting, or the ottava rima rhyme scheme for further inspiration.
A bar napkin on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. shows the now famous Laffer Curve, a mathematical curve economist Arthur Laffer sketched that convinced President Ford to cut tax rates in 1974. Recently it was revealed that it is not the original bar napkin, but a copy Laffer later recreated as a keepsake. The Smithsonian put the napkin on display in 2015, but at the time of the meeting more than forty years ago, Laffer was a young professor and nobody suspected anything especially momentous was occurring. Imagine that decades into the future, the Smithsonian will be acquiring a relic or souvenir from your own life that has taken on historical importance. What would the object be? Write an essay exploring mementos you’ve kept over the years in hopes that these objects might be of importance in the future.
In “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, author Laura Hulthen Thomas describes a phone call in which her elderly great-aunt recounted Thomas’s great-grandmother engaging in recklessly brazen behavior. Hearing this tale gave Thomas the courage and inspiration to recommit to writing during a period when she had almost given up on it. Write a short story in which your main character has a phone conversation with a relative who offers up a long-ago and unexpected memory about a family member. How does the story change the character’s perspective on life and trajectory? What kind of an effect might the revelation of a bold sense of adventure in one’s familial past have on someone feeling hopeless and apprehensive of taking risks?
Those inclined toward superstitious beliefs may be relieved that last Friday marked the second and last Friday the thirteenth of this year. Whether you are a believer or not, a study by behavioral scientist Jane Risen reveals that superstitions can affect both believers and nonbelievers. Though it may not be considered rational, the feeling of being cursed can be relieved if some sort of ritual is performed, like throwing salt over one’s shoulder or knocking on wood. Write a poem that begins with the presentation of a mysterious or inexplicable anxiety. Then in the latter half of the poem, present a ritual to reverse the effects, perhaps in the form of a physical ritual, lucky objects, or an incantation. Does the act of creating or poeticizing a ritual to lessen worries of a bad outcome have a soothing effect of its own?
“You can always tell prettiness from beauty. Beauty arises from contradiction, even when it’s under the surface. Any report of experience will be contradictory. And part of the reportage is to include those contradictions,” says Chris Kraus in a conversation with Leslie Jamison for Interview magazine. Write a personal essay exploring the idea that an underlying contradiction is intrinsic to the value of beauty. What are some images, scenes, or emotions in your own life or in art you’ve encountered that you found to be beautiful, and what contradictions might lie within them? How can you effectively integrate contradictions into your own reportage to explore true beauty?
Earlier this year, Ernest Hemingway’s first short story was discovered in Key West, Florida, spanning fourteen handwritten pages of a notebook. The untitled story, written when Hemingway was ten years old, is a fictional travelogue through Ireland and Scotland that includes both researched facts and imagined scenes and characters. Write a fictional travel story that mirrors Hemingway’s epistolary form and incorporates letters and diary entries, or other invented documents.
In his poem “Rain,” Houston-based poet Kevin Prufer creates a distinctive atmosphere through repetition: “Rain made red leaves stick to car windows. / Rain made the houses vague. A car / slid through rain past rows of houses.” The poem begins innocently enough, but the accumulation of the word “rain” soon brings it into a nightmarish territory. Try choosing one word and letting its repetition guide you through a poem. The poem’s logic may need to contort itself in order to make room for the repetition, but that is the point—use a formal constraint to get your creative mind moving differently.
“Something about series finales, it’s about ending, but ending with an opening,” says Durga Chew-Bose, author of Too Much and Not the Mood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), in an interview with the Creative Independent about her habit of watching the series finale of a television show before sitting down to write. Revisit a personal essay you wrote in the past that ends with a solid sense of closure. Then, try out Chew-Bose’s technique and watch the series finale of a popular television show before settling down to write a new ending for your essay, one that hints at a new beginning.
It was recently discovered that a Viking warrior who was buried in present-day Sweden more than a millennium ago and long presumed to be a wealthy man, was actually a woman. Since the grave contained a sword, an axe, a spear, armor-piercing arrows, a battle knife, two shields, and two horses, signifying the individual was a professional warrior, most researchers assumed the body was male. This week, think of a male character from a favorite short story, and write a new version of the story in which the character is a woman. Which elements of the story will you keep the same and which do you change?
What can be accomplished without a brain? Three graduate biology students at the California Institute of Technology published a study last month revealing that jellyfish can sleep, the first documented instance of an animal without a brain having the ability to fall asleep. Think of an activity you engage in regularly, and then leap into the realm of the fantastic by imagining how that activity would be different if it didn’t require the use of your brain. Write a poem inspired by this idea, perhaps playing with notions of ancient behaviors, instinctive movements, and primordial processes.
Last Friday was the autumnal equinox, one of two times each year when the lengths of day and night in both hemispheres are equal because the sun is directly over the earth’s equator. Jot down several of your favorite memories of experiences that took place this summer during daylight hours, and then several that took place during the darkness of night. Look through your lists and select one daytime memory and one nighttime memory that share an element in common, such as geographical location, people present, or mood. Taking inspiration from the binary nature of the equinox, write a personal essay that focuses half on your daytime memory and half on your nighttime memory, and explores the connections between the two.
“Trust your dialogue. If you don’t, make it stronger. Then, once your dialogue is strong, bring in action beats that amplify the speaker’s message, not messy gerunds that clutter it,” writes Wiley Cash in “The Art of Active Dialogue,” a micro essay in our Craft Capsules series. Cash examines the ways in which using purposefully planned action beats can give written dialogue a more powerful impact. Write a short fictional conversation between two characters, perhaps inspired by a recently overheard dialogue. Play around with Cash’s tips, ensuring each line is character-specific, using strong active words, minimizing gerunds, and experimenting with placing action beats and dialogue lines in separate sentences.
This month, the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced the addition of over two hundred and fifty new words and definitions, including bibimbap, froyo, hive mind, sriracha, and troll. Browse through some of the newcomers, and write two short poems that incorporate one or more of the words. Does the word or term have emotional resonances or a personal connection to you? Play with multiple meanings or your own definitions to present the words in unexpected or surprising contexts.
In the New York Times Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation series, writers focus their essays around mundane objects and activities that they personally cherish but feel are underappreciated by society as a whole: Aleksandar Hemon recommends skiing, Meghan Daum recommends the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles, Joshua Cohen recommends alternative search engines, Sheila Heti recommends sick days, Jia Tolentino recommends Cracker Barrel restaurants, Sarah Manguso recommends acupuncture, and Karl Ove Knausgaard recommends chewing gum. Write a letter of recommendation for an item, experience, or habit that others don’t seem to especially value, but which you enjoy immensely. Present your encounters and memories to advocate for the subject.
Plant blindness is a term used by botanists and horticulturists to describe contemporary humanity’s general inability to see the plants and trees in our daily environments as more than just decorative background. Many gardening and plant experts and enthusiasts encourage educational courses or casual tree identification walks as activities that can begin influencing the way the majority of people view and value plants. Write a short story in which a character who once had plant blindness develops a new awareness of greenery. What moment or situation provokes the change? Does the change manifest itself in dramatic and monumental ways, or in more subtle shifts of behavior and beliefs?
“Well, I only write about cute boys and snowy streets, so my poems are always in tune with each other. Seriously, though, I find myself returning to the same subjects. I try to vary my approach to these subjects,” poet Chen Chen says in an interview in the Adroit Journal. Select a poem you’ve written in the past and write a new poem that returns to the same subject from a different angle. Has your perspective become more nuanced over time? How does altering your point of view, verse form, or language provide your topic with a refreshed perspective?
Earlier this year scientists published a study in the journal Nature detailing the first time genes with serious disease-causing mutations have been successfully edited in human embryos to produce healthy mutation-free embryos. Write a personal essay about the moral and ethical implications of gene-editing science as it continues to progress. In a hypothetical time when these advances might be a part of routine medical procedures, what decisions would you make for yourself and your family and loved ones? Read National Geographic’s “5 Reasons Gene Editing Is Both Terrific and Terrifying” for more insight.
In the past fifteen years or so, dozens of lighthouses no longer needed by the United States Coast Guard have been auctioned off to the public. Buyers have found a variety of new uses for their lighthouses, such as converting them into hotels or vacation homes, or even a concert venue. Write a short story in which your main character comes into possession of a decommissioned lighthouse. Where is it located and how does she decide to make use of it? Does it end up being a blessing or a burden? How can you play with the metaphorical potential of the lighthouse in an unexpected way?
“Part of the pleasure I take in being a writer and reader of poetry is this instant intimacy. By the first page, we’re practically what one would refer to as family—at this point, I’m comfortable in my nightclothes and headscarf.” In “Vagrant & Vulnerable,” Dawn Lundy Martin’s conversation with Nicole Sealey in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Sealey talks about feeling comfortable infusing her poems with a naked vulnerability and intimacy. What do you find yourself thinking about when the notion of outside criticism or judgment is not an issue? While envisioning your most comfortable clothing, an outfit you might wear at home with family, write a poem that embodies this level of immediate familiarity, delving into a tightly held or private subject perhaps only known by your closest loved ones.
Many people associate drinking apple cider with popular fall activities in the northern and eastern United States, such as apple picking and leaf peeping, but few likely know it is New Hampshire’s official beverage. The state approved the official designation in 2010 following a petition submitted by fourth-grade students. In fact, more than half the states in this country have official beverages, a trend started by Ohio, which made tomato juice its official beverage in 1965, and followed by Massachusetts (cranberry juice) and Florida (orange juice). Many other states (Wisconsin, New York, Vermont, and Oregon among them) selected milk. Write a personal essay or manifesto under the premise of petitioning for your own beverage of choice. Support your argument with personal memories, anecdotes, and research.
The campus novel is a work of fiction that revolves primarily around an academic campus, most often a college or university. Some fall into the category of coming-of-age stories, such as Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, while others are more focused on faculty, such as Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe and Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Campus novels offer the opportunity to explore characters within the hierarchical structures and pressurized environment of a closed educational system and the contrasting perspectives of teachers and students because of differences in age, power, class, and social and cultural values. Write a short story that focuses on students and/or teachers in a high school or college setting, perhaps integrating elements of comedy and satire like Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Jane Smiley’s Moo, science fiction like Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table, murder mystery like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, sports like Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, or supernatural Gothic horror like Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed.
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, / Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore— / While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping…” First published almost two hundred years ago, Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative poem “The Raven” was itself partially inspired by the raven in Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge and has gone on to spark numerous renditions, homages, and parodies. And the poem’s influence has extended far beyond literature, giving a name to an NFL team (Baltimore Ravens) and providing inspiration for a range of artists, from cartoonists (The Simpsons and Calvin and Hobbes) to musicians (Lou Reed and the Grateful Dead). Write a poem that takes its cue from an element of Poe’s verse that you are especially drawn toward. Consider its themes of loss and devotion; the extensive use of alliteration and rhyme; the “nevermore” refrain; classical, mythological, and biblical references; the question-and-answer sequencing; the symbolism of the raven; or the forebodingly dark atmosphere.