“If you’re like me, you may have a tendency to skim over historical passages,” writes Layli Long Soldier in a recent Literary Hub essay about instincts, memory, and the violent history of the United States. “I don’t know why I do this and I don’t like my habit. But I ask you, warmly, to return to accounts from our Lakota ancestors, quoted previously. Take your time. Because, in their words, you may sense an old, yet very present energy.” Begin with a bit of research into a historical event connected to your personal history, taking care to think about the contexts and biases present in any history. Write an essay that allows for gaps, contradictions, and memories to seep in, as you use your instincts to draw connections between the past, present, and yourself. What can you discover or sense when you take your time with a historical text?
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 power will your words hold in one hundred years? In the New Yorker profile “Maxine Hong Kingston’s Genre-Defying Life and Work,” Hua Hsu writes about Kingston’s idea to publish a posthumous novel, which came to her after learning that Mark Twain’s autobiography wasn’t released in uncensored form until a hundred years after his death. “If Kingston knew that she wouldn’t have to answer for her work, perhaps she would be able to write more freely,” writes Hsu. Write a short story with the thought that it will not be published or read for one hundred years after your death. What freedom does this grant you in terms of subject matter, voice, style, politics, characterization, or structure?
In “The Linguistic Case for Sh*t Hitting the Fan” at JSTOR Daily, Chi Luu writes about the functions of idiomatic speech, their linguistic origins, their usage and effects, and their power to draw people together with a feeling of intimacy or community, citing examples such as “chew the fat,” “pull someone’s leg,” “kick the bucket,” “shoot the breeze,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and others. “Idioms, though seemingly mundane, are the fossilized poetry of language,” writes Luu. Write a poem that springs from one of your favorite idioms, perhaps one you use frequently or one with particularly evocative imagery. What memories, associations, or resonances arise?
Conceptual artist Christo, who died on Sunday, was known for his large-scale environmental pieces mostly created in partnership with his wife Jeanne-Claude and involving the cooperation of many others—including politicians, legal workers, landowners, environmental groups, engineers, and city administrators—and often taking decades to complete. In a 1972 New York Times article, Christo said: “For me esthetics is everything involved in the process—the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people. The whole process becomes an esthetic—that’s what I’m interested in, discovering the process. I put myself in dialogue with other people.” Find a personal essay you wrote in the past, or perhaps one you never finished, and work on adding a new layer that incorporates all of the people and things that have to be in place for you to do your creative work. You might include documents, photographs, found text, or other ephemera in your piece.
“One week before my wedding day, upon returning to my hotel room with a tube of borrowed toothpaste, I find a small bird waiting inside the area called the antechamber and know within moments it is my grandmother.” In Marie-Helene Bertino’s second novel, Parakeet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), the narrator’s dead grandmother returns to life as a parakeet and bestows the bride-to-be with the task of finding her estranged brother. Write a story in which your protagonist is confronted with a lost loved one who has come back to life in another form. What is the significance of the form you choose to house the spirit? Is there an important purpose or mission handed down?
“Grief is a heated iron comb: // The kerosene of grief, it doesn’t age well, it degrades: / Grief is a kind of time: // Sign your name. Become a series of signals...” For the Academy of American Poets’s Poem-a-Day, Sun Yung Shin writes that her poem “A History of Domestication” is part of a forthcoming collection exploring “how climate threat and mass extinction may affect our social relations, our sense of death and the afterlife/underworld, and how we think of violence in our species.” Write a poem that explores issues that have become important to you as you think about current forces of destruction. When you imagine the near future, how do you envision priorities shifting? What about further on down the line?
In Tracy O’Neill’s new novel, Quotients (Soho Press, 2020), one character says to another: “When the luck is good, the answer is not why. It is yes.” Over the years countless authors—and their characters—have shared a range of perspectives on the notion of luck, many of them leaning toward skepticism or wariness. Emily Dickinson wrote: “Luck is not chance— / It’s Toil— / Fortune’s expensive smile / Is earned.” In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy wrote: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” And in The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.” Write a personal essay about a time when you experienced a stroke of luck, good or bad. Has the significance of luck in your life changed over time?
“In the hollow of her throat, a tendon was jumping. I felt it in my own neck. The rigid angle of her arm: my arm, too, was oddly bent. Always between us there had been this symmetry,” writes Kyle McCarthy in her debut novel, Everyone Knows How Much I Love You (Ballantine Books, 2020). This scene, in which the protagonist reunites with a childhood friend and experiences a rush of intense feelings, serves as a portent of the story that follows: a dark exploration of the secret and inexplicable longings present in ourselves and our relationships with others. Write a short story that begins with a main character coming face-to-face with an old friend. Do sentiments that went unarticulated as children surface in unexpected ways years later?
The first 858 lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales is the focus of a new web and mobile phone app that allows users to listen to the text read aloud in Middle English. Developed by a team at the University of Saskatchewan, General Prologue pairs a digitized version of the original manuscript with explanations and a new line-by-line modern translation by the late Monty Python actor Terry Jones, who wrote two books on Chaucer. The lively stories of the group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury, which are notable for being written in the common vernacular, are told from different viewpoints and form a humorously critical portrait of social classes of the time. Write a series of poems that celebrates the everyday people in your life, perhaps drawing inspiration from Chaucer’s characters, such as the Cook, the Man of Law, the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, and the Merchant. What humor do you find in the mundane affairs of quotidian life?
“I reached toward the mask, toward my friend, trying to keep away from her at the same time—both of us a little bit nervous, a little bit scared (I’ve never before noticed that “scared” and “sacred” are so close),” writes Ross Gay in “The Joy of Caring for Others,” one of fourteen New York Times pieces in which writers describe what is currently bringing them joy. In the series, Aminatou Sow writes about “The Joy of Perfecting the Sexy Selfie,” Max Read writes about “The Joy of Consuming an Obscene Number of Calories Before Noon,” and Jenna Wortham writes about “The Joy of Regrowing My Scallions—Yes, Regrowing My Scallions.” Write your own “Joy of…” essay, zeroing in on joy found in unexpectedly mundane or previously suspect corners. What is simple and what is complex about this pleasure?
A recent headline on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s discussion site announced “Migration Alert: northeastern North America flood gates open, 14–18 May 2020,” reporting high-intensity concentrations of migratory birds, which “coincides with a significant warming trend and also the potential for precipitation.” Write a short story that launches with the opening of floodgates—something that has been restrained or kept in containment which now bursts free. What confluence of forces had to combine to create the circumstances that would allow this to happen? Focus on the impact this release has on characters’ emotions, and how they deal with the fallout.
“The journey runs right through the eye of desolation. The murdered albatross is a bottomless symbol: It stands for everything you greedily grabbed at, everything you squandered or spurned, every ornament of the ego, every plastic water bottle, every corrosive pleasure, every idle meanness,” writes James Parker in “The 1798 Poem That Was Made for 2020,” his essay at the Atlantic about the “Ancient Mariner” Big Read, a collective online reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic curated and produced by the University of Plymouth. Write a poem that revolves around a bottomless symbol—perhaps an animal, a plant, or everyday object—inspired by the ancient mariner who “is condemned to tell his tale, to recite his rhyme, over and over again.”
“The tendency in western cultures is to value finished objects, to put a price on them and to preserve them. In other cultures, such as in the islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, value lies not in the physical object, but in knowing what it means and how it is made.” In Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans, and Their Threads (Strange Attractor Press, 2016), Eleanor Morgan writes about how cultural attitudes about spiders and their silk is dependent on how those cultures value objects and their making. Think about an object you’ve made in the past—a meal, a birthday card, a piece of furniture, an article of clothing, a poem. Write a personal essay that excavates and examines the value of not the physical object, but the process of its making.
“Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” writes Olga Tokarczuk in her novel Flights (Riverhead Books, 2018), translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. This sentence is repeated throughout the book, which unfolds as a series of scenes, vignettes, and stories told and relayed by a traveling narrator, stories both expansive and intimate which span and hop back and forth between different eras, continents, and a vast array of histories and disciplines. This week, conceive of a pilgrimage for a main character who is in search of an answer to a big life question. How might your character find guidance on this journey by turning toward other pilgrims from the past?
“My current definition of poetry...is that a poem is the artifact or the trace that is left behind and created through the poet’s movement of mind over a problem or a situation,” says Kiki Petrosino in “Between Worlds,” an interview by India Gonzalez for Poets & Writers. “When we think about these problems, language is generated, and what we are left with is a poem.” Think of a problem or issue you have been struggling with—practically or emotionally—and write a poem inspired by this idea that poetry is language left behind by work done in the mind. How do these trace words combine to form a portrayal of your concerns?
“However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us,” writes John Berger in “The White Bird,” his 1985 essay on aesthetics. Write a personal essay that examines a moment or particular object that you found beautiful during a difficult time in your life. What was this beauty in despite of? Describe the physical and emotional environment that surrounded this object or incident. How did this beauty change your perspective on your situation or on what was going on in the wider world?
“You know who I imagine? The narrator. I imagine the narrator as an actual reader, reading what I’ve written and commenting to me about the voice and point of view,” writes Lorrie Moore in a New Yorker interview by Deborah Treisman, about the reader she imagines when writing. “You have to be true to your narrator. The narrator is the supreme reader. And narrators may quibble with the narration you’ve created for them.” Write a new version of an old story, or perhaps one you never finished, while imagining that the narrator has objections about how they are portrayed. Adjust the voice to be true to your narrator’s new needs.
What comes to mind when you think of indoor activities versus outdoor activities? As the weeks of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown wear on, many have found it necessary to reconsider the traditional boundaries of these divisions. A recent New York Times article featured Michael Ortiz, a “financial executive and recreational endurance athlete” who has been running hundred-mile marathons inside his 960-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn, first running 13,200 laps around his living room rugs in sixty hours, and then on a treadmill. Write a pair of poems; one that focuses on an indoor activity, and one on an outdoor activity. How has your notion of those designations been transformed since the pandemic? Are there new designations you’ve created?
“The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to pay attention,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum in a recent Paris Review essay. This phrase is repeated throughout the piece as Koestenbaum floats from one memory to another and suggests that a writer should “revisit books to which we have ceased paying sufficient attention, books we have failed adequately to love” and “play with words and to keep playing with them—not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage, and awakening conscience.” Write an essay about your personal perspective on the role of a writer today. Allow for a fluctuating and expansive definition, one that can accommodate not-writing, playfulness, contradictions, and elasticity.
In what circumstances are a person’s true colors revealed? Sometimes in times of chaos or upheaval, latent strengths, abilities, foibles, or idiosyncrasies come to the surface, which can be as much of a surprise to oneself as to others. This week, write a short story in which your main character learns something new about themselves during a crisis. Is there an unexpected feeling of panic, wild and unpredictable behavior, or is all eerily calm? Does your character step up to the plate or cower under pressure?
“It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light,” writes Bernadette Mayer in the introduction to her book Memory (Siglio Press, 2020), featured in the Written Image in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The book presents a collection of photographs and text from 1971 when Mayer shot a roll of film every day for the month of July and wrote in a journal—a record of her consciousness. Taking inspiration from this project, jot down notes describing several images and observations each day this week. Then, write a poem that combines them into a single, sequential mass, a contemporaneous manifestation of your conscious mind.
In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Cathy Park Hong discusses the writing process for her first nonfiction book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2020), in an interview by Dana Isokawa. Hong talks about patching together “scenes, personal anecdotes, analyses of books, vents about things” and how this eventually developed into a form. “I began mixing and matching these paragraphs the way you would put together stanzas for a poem, and that’s how I arrived at a modular form.” Write a personal essay that revolves around an important belief, opinion, or question. Begin accumulating different paragraphs that contribute to your argument, and then collage them together, perhaps using other texts and facts from research. What’s your organizing principle in providing shape to this structure?
“I had never tried to map story—the elements of narrative that move from a state of equilibrium for the protagonist to disequilibrium to equilibrium restored—onto theory. I had never interrogated that artistically. That arc is not available to blackness, there is no equilibrium to be regained,” says Frank B. Wilderson III in a New York Times interview with John Williams about writing his new book of memoir and philosophy, Afropessimism (Liveright, 2020). “What does it mean to tell the story of a sentient being who does not need to transgress to experience the violence of lynchings, of slavery, of incarceration? What does it mean to not have an arc from innocence to guilt?” Write a short story that tells the tale of a main character’s unsettling experience, one that does not follow a conventional arc but upends this narrative order. What questions or new ideas are brought up by this disruption?
“Language and the body are inextricable, if not synonymous, and often the body can express what language cannot,” writes Nicole Rudick in her Poetry Foundation essay “Mutual Need and Equal Risk” about Dodie Bellamy’s writing. Rudick offers examples of this blur of language and body communication from Bellamy’s book Cunt-Ups (Tender Buttons, 2001): “I used to have brains but now my tongue moves aback and forth along you” and “My fingers have turned into poems like a very real possibility.” Write a poem focusing on the expressions of the body—one that allows physical movements to be described by the vocabulary of intellect, linguistics, or poetics and vice versa. How can one type of language or expression step in when another seems insufficient?
“Doctor, you say there are no haloes / around the streetlights in Paris / and what I see is an aberration...” In the Paris Review’s “Poets on Couches” video series, Maya C. Popa reads Lisel Mueller’s “Monet Refuses the Operation” and speaks about how the poem brings her comfort. In the poem, Mueller imagines a conversation between a doctor and the painter Monet, who pushes back against having surgery to correct his cataracts, which may just be the source of his artistic vision. Write an essay where you express your unique vision of the world. Was there a moment in your life when you had to fight to be true to yourself?