“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?
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.
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.
“One of the most surprising responses to my book came from my mother. She said above all what the poems illustrated to her is that anyone can be a monster to any number of people—even if they don’t intend to act in ways that harm,” writes Diana Arterian in an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet. Write an essay about a time when you were caught off guard by a surprising or unusual response to your creative writing, perhaps by someone close to you. How did this unexpected, or unintended, reaction offer a new perspective into your own work?
How did your neighborhood get its name? Was it christened by long-ago settlers or spread slowly by local gossipers or journalists? Or might it have been cartographers at Google Maps, which often lists neighborhood names with seemingly no recognizable origin or historical basis, such as East Cut in San Francisco, Fishkorn in Detroit (a typographical error from what was formerly known as Fiskhorn), Midtown South Central in New York City, or Silver Lake Heights in Los Angeles. Invent a descriptive name for a fictional town. Then, write a short story based around the origin of this name. Does the geography or a consequential event play a part in the name and story?
In “Why Songs of the Summer Sound the Same,” a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Sahil Chinoy and Jessia Ma break down summer hit songs from years past into several key shared elements: danceability, energy, loudness, valence (cheerfulness), and acousticness (use of acoustic instruments). This week, write a poem about your summer that incorporates some of these hit song elements. Can you induce danceability in verse form? How might you play around with typography, punctuation, spacing, or diction to create a sense of loudness or acousticness?
As part of its 2018 exhibition season focused on the future, the Rubin museum in New York City has a program for visitors to write a letter to an incoming museumgoer. The letter may provide directions or insights that could potentially transform the future visitor’s own museum experience. This week, after completing an activity such as going to an art show, watching a movie, or eating at a restaurant, write a letter to a hypothetical follower in your footsteps. Include your emotional responses and personal memories, and any suggestions or recommendations that might offer guidance for the experience.
“When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place in the Paris Ritz,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote of the hotel he often frequented with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The hotel is used in his novel The Sun Also Rises, and is also the setting of his story “A Room on the Garden Side,” written in 1956 and published for the first time in this summer’s issue of the Strand magazine. Think of a short story you’ve written in which the setting plays a significant role, and write a new story that uses the same locale. How do different characters’ perceptions of the same setting add new dimension to the space?
Toxins, acid baths, trigger-haired cages, bursting spores, complex plumbing systems, thorny irritants, and the ability to eat sunlight. Behind their placid green exteriors, plants lead a hidden life full of elaborate processes. Browse through this National Geographic slideshow of microscopic views of different plants and write a poem inspired by the up close images of cells, stems, and pollen. Do the photos propel you toward otherworldly thoughts, or do they remind you of particularly human tendencies?
What does a rolling lemon gather? Apparently, a mass of viewers. Since photographer Mike Sakasegawa posted a two-minute video of a lemon he saw rolling down a hill in San Diego on Twitter last month, the video has accumulated almost ten million views, and garnered thousands of comments of encouragement and feelings of inspiration. Write a personal essay about a time when you have been cheered up or inspired by a video or photo, perhaps documented by a stranger or from someone you know. What was it about the imagery that provoked this positive response? Explore any memories or associations that might have made your viewing particularly resonant or emotional at that moment.
In the mid-twentieth century, American publishing house Dell issued “Mapback” editions of paperback books, whose back covers were printed with detailed illustrations and diagrams of maps showing where story events took place. Oftentimes these books were mystery or crime novels, and the back covers displayed cross-sections, floor plans, or bird’s-eye view maps. Sketch out your own map for a short mystery or crime story that takes place in several rooms or floors of a building, or among several landmarks scattered around a specific locale. Allow the map to guide the narrative for your story. Do these visual cues help you plot out the action and your characters’ motives?
How many times have you tossed away a used tea bag without a second thought? In an interview series for New York Times Magazine, author Emily Spivack asks artist Laure Prouvost about the use of tea in her work, and specifically about a tea bag she’s kept for fifteen years once used by her grandmother. “I like that you can look at something that seems like nothing, like a very, very boring object, but it’s got so much history,” Prouvost says. Choose an everyday object that seems unexceptional, perhaps something ordinarily discarded, and write a poem that delves into a deeper history that adds complexity or magical importance. How does taking an in-depth look give more value to an object?
“‘Not X, but also not not X.’” In a recent piece for the New York Times, Sam Anderson examines a sentence structure pattern that reappears frequently in Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country (Viking, 2018). Anderson notes that many authors tend to repeat sentence structures in a move that reflects a particular worldview or expresses the author’s thought process in some way. Browse through your writing and search for one of your own signature sentence structures. Reflect and write about what this style reveals of your philosophies or how your mind works.
Does weakness have a smell? In a study published in June in Scientific Reports, scientists found that injured ring-tailed lemurs lose 10 percent of their body odor, thereby signaling via scent their weakened state to potential rivals. This week, write a scene in a short story where your main character is exposed and displays a moment of weakness. Who is there to witness this vulnerability and does this person take advantage of it or show sympathy?
“I walked abroad, / And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge / Like a red-faced farmer.” In an interview with Anselm Berrigan at Literary Hub, John Yau, winner of the 2018 Jackson Poetry Prize, talks about puzzling over the personification in these lines from T. E. Hulme’s 1909 poem “Autumn.” In what way does personification affect imagery in poetry? Write a poem that uses personification in a straightforward yet unexpected way. How does this kind of description enhance not only the perception of the object being personified, but also the idea of personhood and the narrator’s idiosyncratic perspective?
On the TV show Parts Unknown, the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain traveled the world and sampled cuisines from a variety of cultures. Although the show employed food as its central component, Bourdain was more interested in exploring the customs and histories of the countries he visited and got an outsider’s glimpse of the particular magic that makes each place uniquely itself. Write a personal essay based on an experience when you left your comfort zone for a place, community, or situation that felt different from your own. Your experience could involve travel, as Bourdain’s did, but travel is not required; the unknown often exists in your own backyard.