“I always feel that I’ve seen a thing after I’ve described it….when I’ve written a thorough physical description of something, then I feel like I’ve seen it and I’ll remember it,” says Barbara Kingsolver in “A Talk in the Woods,” her conversation with Richard Powers in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Choose an object that you have never really given much thought to, but that you see frequently in your home or on your commute, perhaps a houseplant or a mailbox or a street sign. Spend some time intensely observing it, and then jot down a thorough physical description. Afterwards, write a poem about the object. How did your perception of it change, in your mind’s eye, after going through the exercise of articulating it in language?
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.
“As a nonfiction writer I tend to write about things when I am still in the midst of them, when I am too close to the subject matter and there is no possible resolution to the thing I am writing about,” writes Steph Auteri in “Writing Partners: Working Together Through Writing and Life” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. What issues or conflicts are you in the midst of struggling with right now? Begin an essay about a subject that you are dealing with at the moment, writing down all the raw emotions without self-editing. Perhaps in a few weeks or months, you can revisit the piece and decide whether to continue working on it from more of a distance.
Ligaya Mishan’s essay “In Literature, Who Decides When Homage Becomes Theft?” in the New York Times Style Magazine examines instances in which the authors of historical and contemporary literature have been accused of plagiarism or cultural appropriation, and questions the imbalance in response and criticism. Explore your thoughts on the boundaries of theft and homage with your own project. Write a short story that pays tribute to one of your favorite authors and offers a new perspective, such as how Kamel Daoud’s novel, The Meursault Investigation (Other Press, 2015), reimagines Albert Camus’s The Stranger or Preti Taneja’s novel, We That Are Young (Knopf, 2018), sets King Lear in contemporary India.
“My process of growing up and becoming has been figuring out that a lot of what I’ve been told is wrong,” says Morgan Parker in an interview with Joshua Wolf Shenk at the Believer on the subject of facts and truth and the literary imagination. “If you have a blank canvas, it’s about the kind of audacity to tell stories for yourself. Poetry is storytelling, in this particular way.” Think of something that you were told when you were growing up that has turned out to be wrong in one way or another. Write a twofold poem that first works to question what you’ve been told, and then moves on to tell a new truth.
Think about a place that has served as a sanctuary to you as a writer, whether in the past or present. Perhaps it is somewhere you’ve visited only once, somewhere you return to every year, or somewhere in-between. It could even be a writing retreat or residency. Write an essay about what makes this space so inspiring to you as a writer. Describe the setting using all the senses: You might include a favorite soft-cushioned chair, the aroma of fresh flowers, the colors of the walls, a favorite snack, or the sound of pen to paper. What are the elements that help motivate you to write in this place?
In an interview with Louisiana Channel, Zadie Smith talks about her interest in the way many young authors portray emotional distress or anger in their novels. The characters, often women, will “pinch a bit of their skin until it bleeds” or “hold their jaw” or perform some other quiet act of defiance, rather than letting their feelings surface. “The idea of verbalizing an emotion is quite distant. And the body is treated like this strange thing you have to drag around after you’ve finished your text messages and e-mails and your virtual life,” says Smith. Write a scene in which your protagonist is faced with an immediate conflict involving a partner, family member, friend, boss, or stranger. Instead of silently raging, find a way to describe these emotions that allows your character to engage fully and vocally in the moment.
“It’s my lunch hour, so I go / for a walk among the hum-colored / cabs,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem “A Step Away From Them.” So often, we miss out on the potential for inspiration from our daily routines, passing muses on morning commutes, lunch breaks, or evening strolls. This week, read O’Hara’s poem and then go out into your neighborhood with no set destination, carrying a notepad with you. Observe and write down everything and everyone you see: invent background narratives, involve your senses, and record sounds and overheard phrases. At home, write a poem that starts with the time of day (“It’s eight in the morning,” or “It’s my lunch hour,” or “It’s midnight”) and take the reader through the streets with you.
This past August, a couple browsing through a Florida Goodwill store’s secondhand goods found a baseball mitt that was lost by their son forty years earlier when the family lived in their hometown in Ohio. Think of the various belongings you lost as a child. Is there one item in particular whose loss hit you the hardest, or that you find yourself thinking about often? Write a personal essay about several long-lost objects, drawing upon your memories and what the object’s importance expresses about your values. If the objects were to turn up now, would they still hold meaning for you?
The song “Emmenez-moi” by French Armenian singer Charles Aznavour, who died this week at the age of ninety-four, is played repeatedly in the soundtrack to the 2005 French Canadian coming-of-age film C.R.A.Z.Y. directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Throughout the film, Aznavour’s songs are sung by the protagonist’s father, who is a big fan of the singer. Write a short story in which a song of your choosing appears over and over. What is the significance behind the musician or the song’s lyrics to the themes or plot of your story?
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been convening in Elko, Nevada for over thirty years to highlight the “cowboy way” of life, with activities such as poetry and yodeling and sing-alongs, musical performances, dancing, and recounting tall tales and folklore. Many poems and songs that are performed describe the everyday work of ranchers, herders, and rodeo cowboys, and the wide, open spaces of the rural West landscape. Taking a cue from these themes of cowboy verse, write a poem that celebrates the simple pleasures of a work day, focusing on something mundane that brings joy, perhaps finding a way to incorporate the natural environment. Listen to a cowboy song for additional inspiration.
Labor Day, a holiday honoring the American labor and trade union movements celebrated on the first Monday in September, is the marker of the unofficial end of summer. Oldfangled fashion etiquette dictates that it also marks the annual cutoff point for wearing certain items of clothing such as white shoes or white pants, along with patterns and materials including seersucker, eyelet, patchwork madras, linen, and canvas. Write a personal essay about a seasonal item that you’re either reluctant to let go of at the end of summer or eager to dig out from the depths of your closet storage for the beginning of fall. Explore how the seasonal clothing you wear is associated with the climate and traditions of your particular geographic region, as well as the emotional ties and memories linked to this annual transition.
The first authorized prequel to the novel Dracula, written by Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker and coauthor J. D. Barker, will be published in October by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Titled Dracul, the book is based on an earlier, unedited draft of the Dracula manuscript, as well as on family legends and Bram Stoker’s journals, and focuses on events in the author’s youth that may have led him to write Dracula. Choose a classic horror story and write a short story that acts as a prequel to the main events in the original work. You may consider an element of structure or style to carry over, such as the use of the epistolary form in the prequel Dracul that is also prevalent in the original Dracula. Aside from setting the action of your story earlier than that of the original, how else might you create a sense of anticipation or homage?
Here’s a strange question that might get some ideas flowing: Where do spiders and stars overlap? Jumping spiders, whose eyes have tubelike structures akin to Galileo’s telescope, have retinas that can swivel so the arachnids are able to look in different directions without moving their heads. Despite being only a few millimeters long, the spiders have eyes that are capable of discerning the moon, according to calculations by scientists. Use the notion of moon-gazing spiders as a launchpad for a poem that draws together two unlikely objects—a celestial body and an earthly body. You might also find inspiration in John Donne’s “The Flea” or Marilyn Nelson’s “Crows,” which incongruously pair the examination of metaphysical subject matter with a mundane physical creature.
“And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.” In “The Chekhov Sentence That Contains Almost All of Life” published in the Atlantic, Gary Shteyngart talks to Joe Fassler about this last line of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story “The Lady With the Dog,” and explains why he believes it expresses a universal truth about all human relationships. Find a favorite final sentence from a prose piece you have long appreciated and write a personal essay about why you find it particularly resonant. How has your reading of it evolved over the years, and what memories surface upon its recollection?
Earlier this month, a pair of ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz was recovered by the FBI. The iconic shoes had been missing from the Judy Garland Museum since 2005 and details about the theft and suspects remain mysterious. Write a short story that revolves around the recovery, after many years, of stolen items that have great value to your main character. What speculative theories arise about the theft, and how do they match up with what actually occurred? Ultimately, does your main character learn exactly who took these items, or do mysterious elements and unanswered questions linger?
“Now, you are a haze, your body turned to watercolor…. You were always more than metal; you were the dream of the thousands of scientists who built you,” muses science writer Shannon Stirone in her National Geographic essay “Dear Cassini: Why the Saturn Spacecraft Brings Me to Tears.” The essay is a farewell letter to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which ended its decades of exploration last year with a deliberate plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. Taking inspiration from the emotional lyricism of Stirone’s sentiments, write a poem to an object of global importance that is now long gone, starting with the phrase “You were always more than….”
The National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have teamed up to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird, to celebrate and draw awareness to the centennial of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As you go about your daily tasks this week, keep an eye out for the birds that you encounter, whether flying overhead, perched in trees, or underfoot. Write an essay inspired by the feathered friends that fly in and out of your day. What memories or emotions do birds bring to mind? Have they been symbolic of an important moment in your life?
The technique of thematic threading, which can “provide a backdrop or a second story of resonance that runs parallel to the main story,” is a powerful tool for guiding readers through challenging stories as Tracy Strauss notes in “#MeToo: Crafting Our Most Difficult True Stories” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. By intertwining multiple themes, an author can imbue a story with additional nuance and allow for a narrative with more emotional balance. Write a short story that braids two story lines together, perhaps using one thread to explore an extended sequence of flashbacks or to focus more on sensory details.
Earlier this month a fire blazed through the National Museum of Brazil, endangering and destroying a significant portion of the collection of over twenty million artifacts carefully accumulated since the museum’s founding in 1818. One of the museum’s curators reported that the entire entomology and arachnology collections, most of the mollusk collection, and around seven hundred Egyptian artifacts were destroyed. Browse through some of the photos of the museum’s collections, and choosing one object, write a poem that considers the loss of this irreplaceable artifact. You might decide to research more into its history, or simply let your imagination lead the way.
In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Heather Lanier writes: “Don’t settle for your first idea or point, the thing that might have brought you to the page. Let that first point be a jumping-off place to deeper questioning.” Lanier shares an anecdote about starting an essay initially focused on exploring the etymology of a word, and then realizing it was on track to recreate a well-trod argument, a realization which steered her toward a more challenging and uncertain direction. Think of an essay topic that seems like a good idea for exploration, and then seek “the deeper questions, the ones for which you don’t have ready answers” as you write and dive into your topic. Where do you end up when you can’t see where you’re headed?
What kind of story would you write for someone reading it one hundred years from now? For Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project, which started in 2014, she has commissioned Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell, Elif Shafak, Sjón, and Han Kang to write manuscripts that will remain unread in storage in an Oslo library until 2114. The texts will then be printed on paper made from one thousand trees planted in a Norwegian forest when the project began. Write a short story with the notion that it won’t be read for one hundred years. While imagining a future generation of readers, explore themes involving time, eternity, and mortality.
“This place in which I dream the new body — whole & abiding — // I am reaching for the boy now as warden to both the living / & the afterliving…” Khaty Xiong’s poem “On Visiting the Franklin Park Conservatory & Botanical Gardens” is the basis for an interactive installation currently on view at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Visitors can write poems and messages exploring grief on paper cutouts of plants and animals which are then displayed in the gallery. Draw or cut out a paper template in the form of something from nature, and write a poem within its frame addressing or dedicated to a lost loved one. Does your poem, and the emotions contained within it, take shape in different ways according to the shape of your paper?
Can you remember the last time you handwrote a lengthy text? The Magic of Handwriting, an exhibit currently on view at the Morgan Library in New York City, showcases a collection of handwritten documents and autographs acquired by Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago. The exhibition includes intimate inscriptions by Jorge Luis Borges, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde, among others. Write a personal essay about how your own handwriting has changed from childhood, through adolescence and adulthood. What memories are brought to mind when looking at your old handwriting? Perhaps try handwriting the first draft of your essay to help connect back into this practice.
Imagine a town with no Wi-Fi, no cell phones or cordless phones, where microwaves are kept in metal cages, and only 1950s and diesel engine cars are allowed on the road. All of these are real restrictions in Green Bank, a tiny West Virginia town situated inside a designated National Radio Quiet Zone, where data collection by astronomers at the observatory can be disrupted by the presence of electronic interference. Write a short story in which your main character resides in a town with similar restrictions. Is living off the grid a choice? How do the daily tasks and communication of your character differ without the convenience of the tools and technology we often take for granted?
Gardens, forests, hills, fields, wild pink flowers, a farmhouse, a writer’s shed, birds. There is much inspiration to be found at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s former home in Austerlitz, New York, which is open to the public. Visitors can even peek into Millay’s wardrobe to see her shoes, hats, purses, makeup, dresses, and hunting jacket. In “Saving Millay’s Home” by Adrienne Raphel in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, she writes about Millay’s house and other writers’ homes in the region including the Emily Dickinson Museum, Edith Wharton’s estate, the Mark Twain House, Herman Melville’s home, and several of Robert Frost’s homes. Browse through writers’ homes in our Literary Places database for one of your favorites, or simply one whose photographs capture your imagination. Write a poem that draws on images you find, the writer’s work and milieu, and themes of home, geography, and legacy.