Starting a new year often means an attempt at challenging resolutions or constraints, but in poetry, constraint can seem natural and even fun. For example, in Oulipo, formulas and frameworks (some more complicated than others) are applied to the lines and words of a poem. Try this exercise in constraint: Write a poem in which all of the words contain a vowel of your choice. For inspiration, read “Ballad in A” by Cathy Park Hong.
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.
One of the possible origins of the phrase “the elephant in the room,” which generally refers to a problem that is glaringly obvious but willfully ignored, is thought to be Russian writer Ivan Andreevich Krylov’s page-long 1814 fable, “The Inquisitive Man.” In the story, a man visits a museum and recalls seeing a multitude of tiny animals, but not the elephant. Write an essay about a time when you failed to see the idiomatic “elephant in the room”—was it difficult or easy to ignore the issue? Did the people around you help or hinder the situation? What were the consequences of your actions, and what did it reveal about your tendencies in social interactions?
Within some cultures in Africa, Australia, and India, there exist strict rules which regulate the type of language permissible to use with one’s in-laws—for example, married women in Ethiopia who speak the Kambaata language and follow the ballishsha rule are forbidden to use any word that starts with the same syllables as the names of their parents-in-law. Often the solution is to use synonyms, euphemisms, or more generic terms. Write a scene in which two characters must have a conversation while abiding by a law that restricts particular words. Why is this law in place, and how do your characters deal with it? What power dynamics are involved? Are there hidden messages within the dialogue that cause a misunderstanding?
“I began writing poetry as an act of survival,” writes Safiya Sinclair in “Shadows of Words: Our Twelfth Annual Look at Debut Poets” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Think about how you might look at your own writing as an act of survival: What are the most troublesome issues and sources of conflict in your everyday life, whether small and tangible or large and amorphous? How might the practice of putting pen to paper and giving words to emotions be integral to your encounter with these obstacles? Write a poem that helps you think through and voice your troubles.
“Surely nothing as simple as a notebook and a pencil could have saved my grandma, just as when things turned darkest for me, my wife had to intervene. Yet I still feel lucky that I became a writer when I did. Because for years those journal pages helped me hold myself together when the world pulled me apart.” In “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Frank Bures discusses the benefits of expressive writing and the power the practice has to expand one’s sense of self. Over the course of several days, jot down notes exploring your current emotional state. Perhaps these notes will be the start of an essay or an exploration that continues.
Wraps, bubble tea, pork belly, kale, elaborate hamburgers, macarons. Different years are prone to different food trends, with the popular items appearing everywhere from fine-dining establishments, to fast food joints and snack trucks, to packaged goods and home cooking. Incorporate a trending food item from a certain time period into a short story. How does the insertion contribute a specific sense of time and place into your piece? What does it tell the reader about your characters’ lifestyles?
The cento, whose name is derived from a Latin term meaning “patchwork,” is a form of fragmented poetry originating in the third century consisting of lines taken from poems written by other poets. Contemporary centos often offer a humorous juxtaposition of contrasting images, ideas, and tones. Read centos written by John Ashbery and Simone Muench, and then try writing your own, sampling verses from diverse time periods, styles, and subject matter, and citing your sources at the end.
“Truth is a matter of the imagination,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. For many writers, artists, and filmmakers in the latter half of the twentieth century, envisioning the truth of the twenty-first century and beyond meant creating dystopian worlds, universes in which human society has adapted its systems to accommodate technological transformations, global climate change, postapocalyptic geographies, and consumerist greed. Consider the 1971 episode of Name of the Game titled “L.A. 2017,” directed by Steven Spielberg; the 1982 film Blade Runner, set in 2019; Stephen King’s 1982 novel, The Running Man, set in 2025; the 1993 film Demolition Man, set in 2032; and William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s 1967 novel, Logan’s Run, set in 2116. Do you remember your childhood fears and visions of what the future would hold? What dramatic changes in society have you witnessed? Write an essay about the hopes, worries, and predictions for the future that are most pressing for you know. Do you have any dystopian predictions for the future? How are your worries a reflection of both your individuality and the larger world?
Last year the Atlantic reported that researchers using computer systems to analyze the emotional trajectories of protagonists in nearly two thousand works of English-language fiction found that there are just six basic storytelling arcs: “1. Rags to Riches (rise), 2. Riches to Rags (fall), 3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise), 4. Icarus (rise then fall), 5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise), 6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall).” Think of a story that you often tell in your own life, perhaps a childhood memory that involves schools friends or a family occasion, or an adventurous incident that happened on a trip or vacation. Does it seem to align with one of these basic plotlines? Write a short fiction piece that maps the major elements of your story onto a different, unexpected arc.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you – Nobody – too?” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her most popular poems, published in 1891. Have you ever jotted down a memo to nobody in particular? Ever sent out to sea a message in a bottle? Left a note on a wall or a park bench to someone, anyone, who might happen upon it? All these types of missives have in common a sense of mystery surrounding the identity of the recipient, and an uncertainty about the intended recipient ever receiving the communication. Write a series of short poems addressed to an unknown person. How does removing the certainty of an addressee place more emphasis on other external factors, like geography and physical distance, and your own current preoccupations and state of mind? As you engage in a conversation with Nobody, what insights are revealed?
Ten years ago, James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” passed away on Christmas Day. In a Rolling Stone article from 2007, Gerri Hirshey writes that Brown’s “musical calls to social justice were not as eloquent as Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches. But they were equally heartfelt.” In fact, after Dr. King’s assassination, Brown televised his concert in Boston and urged fans not to “react in a way that’s going to destroy your community.” Write a personal essay that explores a time you experienced music or a musician bringing a community together during difficult times. Did you feel more hopeful?
The holidays are a time full of festive cuisine with strange or unknown origins. The New York Times suggested in an 1890 article that the name “eggnog” may have originated with the way the drink is made, in that it is “necessary to ’knock’ the eggs with a spoon in beating up, and that on the thoroughness of this depends the quality of the ‘good cheer.’” Write a short story that includes a scene where the improper preparation of a holiday drink or dish escalates a conflict. How does this action become the catalyst for a confrontation?
“In the red room there is a sky which is painted over in red / but is not red and was, once, the sky. / This is how I live. / A red table in a red room filled with air.” Using these lines from Rachel Zucker’s “Letter [Persephone to Demeter]” as inspiration, write a poem where everything in the environment is red, as though the speaker is looking through red glass. How might color affect the way the speaker feels about an object, animal, or person? How might it affect tone?
The winter holiday office party is a tradition celebrated in workplaces of all kinds, and even chronicled in films. Write a personal essay about any sort of festive activity or event that you have attended with your coworkers. Do you consider your coworkers akin to close friends or family, or is your relationship more of a casual acquaintanceship? Has this changed over the years due to an experience or circumstance? Does a holiday office party serve as a setting in which you and your colleagues became closer or distanced?
“Creative people are drawn to each other, as notorious for falling in love as they are for driving each other insane,” writes Catherine Lacey in her new book, The Art of the Affair: An Illustrated History of Love, Sex, and Artistic Influence (Bloomsbury USA, 2017). The book, which is featured in “The Written Image” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, presents creative, romantic, and platonic connections between writers and artists such as Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, and Billie Holiday and Orson Welles. Write a short story inspired by the sort of romantic entanglements and creative collaborations that Lacey presents in the book. How does involvement with the arts influence the scope and trajectory of the relationship between your characters?
The Hong Kong film 2046, written and directed by Wong Kar-wai, predominantly follows the main character Chow, a writer, over the course of several years, escapades, and love affairs, often dipping into scenes of him dining out on Christmas Eve each year. Jot down specific moments or memories from the same holiday over the years that you hold especially resonant and seem to connect a narrative. Then, write a series of poems capturing these events and experiences. How does the holiday itself lend a certain expected or consistent atmosphere even if the events that occurred or people present were completely different?
The holiday shopping craze over Hatchimals may seem unprecedented, but there have been many comparably popular gift toys over the years—including Tickle Me Elmo, Transformers toys, Cabbage Patch Kids, and the Atari game system—with some parents even admitting the possibility that their excitement over procuring the gift might in fact be greater than the child’s excitement to receive it. Write a personal essay about a toy you were given as a gift when you were a child. Why was it important to you? Was your attachment to the toy connected to memories of the gift giver, a festive event, playing with friends, or something else entirely?
Write a short story that takes place inside a bookstore, or incorporate a bookstore scene into a story already in progress. What kind of encounter between characters seems most tonally or atmospherically natural for a bookstore? Or conversely, what type of interaction seems deliciously inappropriate or unexpected? Does the search for a particular title play an integral part in the story? Consider whether the bookstore is modern and expansive or small and cozy, and how that might affect the scene. Browse through these videos and photos of a selection of impressive bookstores around the world for inspiration.
In Iceland, to write poetry is considered “part of being an Icelander,” according to Icelandic literature professor Sveinn Yngvi Egilsson, and not a “specialist activity” but one that includes a variety of practitioners such as horse breeders, scientists, and politicians. Write a few ferskeytt poems, a popular Icelandic four-line verse form with alternating rhyme. Spend just ten minutes or so on each one, implementing the poem as a casual and functional way to inject some humor or wit into dealing with everyday duties, workday blues, or the oncoming winter.
In a letter to the Swedish Academy, Bob Dylan explained that he would not be attending this weekend’s Nobel ceremony and banquet to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature because of “pre-existing commitments.” Think of a time you have been unable—or unwilling—to appear at an important event. Was the decision-making process a foregone conclusion, or did you waver? Do you generally take on many commitments or few? Once made, do you stick to them? Use this essay as an opportunity to explore your social priorities, and memories of other times in your life when you’ve been needed in two places at once.
Browse through the winning photographs of this year’s National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year Contest, and select the one that most readily captures your imagination. Write a one-thousand-word piece of flash fiction inspired by this photo, and by the ways in which it both presents the natural world and offers insight, comparison, and reflection of humanity’s place within it. To go a step further, try writing more than one flash fiction story focused on a different perspective of the same photo.
The landay is a form of folk poetry from Afghanistan consisting of a single couplet—nine syllables in the first line, and thirteen in the second line—that is generally written anonymously and often recited or sung by women. As poet and journalist Eliza Griswold writes, “It must take on one of five subjects: meena, love; jang, war; watan, homeland; biltoon, separation; and, finally, gham, which means despair or grief.” Read more about the form and its historical and contemporary practices in Griswold’s piece in Poetry magazine. Then, write several landays of your own—biting, bawdy, or lamenting.
Zadie Smith, author of the new novel, Swing Time (Penguin Press, 2016), considers dancers who have influenced her writing in a recent essay for the Guardian. About Mikhail Baryshnikov, she says: “He has high and low modes, tough and soft poses, but he’s always facing outwards, to us, his audience.” Write an essay that begins with one of your memories of watching a dancer. How does the dancer’s body move through space? Did you feel a connection with the performance and the artist? Were you moved emotionally?
Earlier this month, actress Emma Watson hid books with handwritten messages in the London Underground and New York City subway stations as part of the community project Books on the Underground. Write a short story that begins with a character hiding a book in an unlikely place, like a bus stop or a graveyard or the hollow of a tree. What book would be hidden and why? Is anyone supposed to find it, and if so, what happens after? Is the discovery the beginning of a mystery?
In an essay for the Ploughshares blog, Emily Smith discusses representations of witches in literature and how they are usually associated with fear and terror. In her exploration of Macbeth, Smith notices that, “Shakespeare’s witches are…followed by dark clouds of rain.” Write a poem using dark or gothic imagery, such as a woman being followed by dark clouds of rain. What emotions are elicited from your depiction? Is she focused on the storm clouds or does she notice them only peripherally? How might you alter your rhythm and sounds to mimic those of a thunderstorm?