“Sometimes the humor is a way to mask all that, so the reader won’t know that what I’m writing about is me, or figure out what side of the argument I stand on. Then there’s a risk in just trying to say what you mean to say…. Writing is a risk no matter what.” In a 2015 interview with Chris Jackson for the Paris Review, Paul Beatty, who was awarded the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout last week, speaks about the risks of criticizing and including heated topics in his writing. Think of a topic or stance you are personally drawn to—but also afraid of—writing about. Write a personal essay in which you gradually expose this risky issue or opinion in a humorous way. How can offbeat humor, satire, or a generally funny approach allow you to tackle difficult subjects in a more oblique way?
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 pollution levels worsen in many cities around the world, some enterprising companies have found a market for selling packages of bottled air from Wales (with a "morning dew feel"), as well as from Australian beaches and Canadian mountains. Write a short story that takes place in a world that has perfected the ability to conveniently bottle not just air, but other highly sought-after items, both tangible and intangible. What happens when emotional states and feelings, like happiness or love, can be bottled, sold, and bought?
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday celebrated during the first two days of November in which family and friends commemorate the dead: gathering to tidy up tombs in the cemetery, presenting offerings on altars, eating and drinking, playing music, and telling stories. Write a poem that joyfully honors a loved one who has passed away—or that confronts death and mortality in a more general way—with a tone of both respect and celebration. How does imbuing the gravity of mortality with liveliness and vitality inspire you to think about imagery, rhythm, and diction in new ways?
“He walked warily, stopping often to scan the clouds for clues to an impending downpour...” A recent article in the New York Times explores why the National Weather Service is not able to better predict and track storms like this fall’s Hurricane Matthew, and speaks to a meteorologist and professor of atmospheric sciences about the need for improvement. Write an essay exploring an experience that disrupted plans in your life—perhaps an illness, a breakup, or an unexpected opportunity—that you were not able to predict. How did you respond to the challenge? In retrospect, were there signs or clues of the change to your forecast?
In Julio Cortazar’s short story, “Graffiti,” two graffiti artists develop a relationship admiring each other’s work and create a dialogue through their art like love letters. This week, think of a recent encounter you had with someone you admire. Then, write a short story where you reimagine that experience from the perspective of the other person. What might be noticed about the interaction that is different from what you interpreted? Will the feelings expressed be mutual?
Edward Gorey wrote and illustrated more than one hundred books, including several alphabet-driven works such as The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”), The Glorious Nosebleed (“She wandered among the trees Aimlessly”), and The Just Dessert (“Apologize”). In the spirit of Gorey’s dark humor unexpectedly combined with a children’s alphabet primer, write a macabre poem similarly derived from the first ten letters of the alphabet, or any ten letters of your choosing.
“Self of steam,” “from the gecko,” and “lack-toes intolerant” are examples of the verbal errors that became points of inspiration for editor and writer Daniel Menaker, whose book collaboration with cartoonist Roz Chast, The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), is featured in News and Trends in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Keep your eyes peeled for a verbal error in signs or newspapers, or think back to one you remember encountering in the past—perhaps even song lyrics you once misheard. Write a short essay inspired by the poetry of the mistake noting the memories, images, and idiosyncrasies that allow the error to “make surprising sense” to you.
Fanny Longfellow, wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tragically perished in 1861 when her dress caught on fire. The combination of long dresses, flammable materials, oil lamps and the open flames of fireplaces and candles—in addition to the chemicals and toxic materials used in the manufacturing of many types of clothing—increased the frequency of fashion-related ailments and accidents in the nineteenth century. Write a spooky short story in which a character’s downfall is brought about by her wardrobe choices. Read about lead makeup, toxic socks, hatters poisoned by mercury, and arsenic dyes in this National Geographic piece on “Killer Clothing” for further inspiration.
Last week, in a surprising decision, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan is the first musician to win the award and in its citation the Swedish Academy, which administers the prize, credited Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Whether you agree with the decision or not, examine some of Dylan’s lyrics. Then, write a poem that begins with a line you find compelling.
As creative nonfiction writers, we face the difficult task of trying to capture people we know, often intimately, as characters. Here’s a prompt to help. Pick someone in a piece you’ve been working on. Choose the sense memory that best personifies your relationship with that person, the one moment or event that most purely embodies your particular dynamic. Write it as a scene. From that scene (my mom teaching me to bake bread as a little girl), list the qualities (capable, patient, encouraging) that person embodied and the emotions you felt (reverent, curious, happy). Every time you write a scene with this person, think about how the actions and dialogue exemplify the qualities and emotions on your list. Or if it is a scene in which this person behaves in a surprising way, focus on how the qualities and emotions in that scene are the opposite of your expectations.
This week’s creative nonfiction prompt comes from Sarah Tomlinson, author of the father-daughter memoir, Good Girl (Gallery Books, 2015). Read Tomlinson’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.
For the first time in the United States, bees—seven species that are native to Hawaii—have been placed under protection on the endangered-species list. Write a short story in which a seemingly commonplace animal species suddenly becomes endangered or extinct. Do your storytelling instincts take you to environmental activism, a futuristic sci-fi universe, or an adventure in the wilderness? Or perhaps, to an apartment scene in which this news seems, for the time being, to have no bearing on the characters?
Taking inspiration from the “Dear President” feature in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, in which fifty American poets and writers were asked to write several sentences addressing the next president, write a short poem of address that starts with the words, “Dear President.” Touch upon one or two of the most important issues to you about contemporary society and/or government. Share any advice, wisdom, wishes, or requests.
This past weekend, the New York Review of Books published an exposé in an attempt to uncover the true identity of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, provoking anger and criticism from those in support of the writer’s wish to remain anonymous. Have you ever wished for anonymity, or do you imagine that you might in the future? Drawing examples from your own experiences with writing and private versus public life, write a personal essay about the issues at stake in this situation, such as celebrity authors, sexism, and the changing relationship in contemporary culture between artist and audience.
Last week, after a swarm of almost one hundred small earthquakes in the Salton Sea region, California’s Office of Emergency Services issued an earthquake advisory to Southern California residents warning of the potential of a larger earthquake occurring on the San Andreas fault. Write a short story in which the main plotline’s background includes the looming threat of a major earthquake. How does this create tension in the atmosphere and bring out different personality traits in each character?
The first Nobel Prize winner of 2016, announced in the Physiology or Medicine category this week, was awarded to Japanese scientist Yoshinori Ohsumi. Ohsumi is a cell biologist who won the prize for his studies of autophagy, Greek for “self eating,” a process in which the cells in our body break down or destroy, and then recycle, certain component parts. Write a poem inspired by the workings of the human body at a cellular level. You may find ideas by looking at different vocabulary and terminology, or drawing connections between cellular functions and processes to situations in your emotional life and interpersonal relationships.
Banned Books Week is an annual celebration led by a coalition of diverse organizations and foundations to encourage awareness of book censorship and recognize the freedom to read. Browse through the American Library Association’s lists of top banned books—organized by decade, classic titles, young adult authors, and more—and select a book you’ve read that strongly resonates with you. Write an essay that examines your response to the censorship or challenging of this book, drawing on your own memories of reading it and exploring the idea of an appropriate audience for this literature.
This week, write a scene in which the main character is watching the presidential debates on television with another character and a confrontation arises over a disagreement of opinions. Have these characters just met, or are they old friends? Do their differing politics come as a surprise to the reader, or to each other, or are they expected? Politics aside, what does the disagreement reveal about the characters’ respective personalities, emotional states, and motives in relation to the narrative? Consider incorporating this scene for a short story you’ve written in the past or are currently working on in order to deepen a relationship.
Hollywood has a long tradition of remaking films and television shows from decades gone by, including recent or forthcoming reboots of The Magnificent Seven, Die Hard, Full House, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Point Break, MacGyver, Twin Peaks, Splash, and Mary Poppins. Write a remake of a poem written between the 1960s and 1980s. Select two major elements to retain from the original poem such as setting, narrative voice, overarching formal structure, or emotional progression, and then give it a fresh, new spin by altering other aspects of the poem.
“I think if you say that art and politics, or religion and politics, mustn’t mix, don’t mix, that is itself a political statement,” novelist Mohsin Hamid said in an interview in the Financial Times in 2011. While there are many writers who choose not to overtly link their creative work to politics, there is also a long history of political art: work that engages with patriotism or protest by poets such as W. H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Wole Soyinka, and Walt Whitman. Do politics ever figure into your own creative writing? Why or why not? In this presidential-election season, whether you are engaged and informed by politics or try to avoid the topic altogether, take a moment to examine the history of your personal relationship with politics. Write an essay that explores how your interest in or aversion to the topic might have been affected by your childhood upbringing and environment—family, friends, or local groups and organizations—and the reasons behind your choice to either integrate or separate politics from your creative work.
In Washington Irving’s story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Ichabod Crane attends an autumnal harvest feast, where he listens to local townspeople recounting ghost stories. Later that night, on his fateful ride home, he encounters the Headless Horseman. The ending of the story is left open to interpretation: Is the Headless Horseman a ghoulish spirit, or is it actually Crane’s rival in love, dressed in disguise and further exaggerated by Crane’s haunted, overactive imagination? Write a ghost story in which you play with this ambiguity between the mundane and the supernatural, perhaps manipulating the observations and emotions of your main character, the stability of the story’s setting, or the sequence of events that unfolds. How does blurring the lines between human folly and otherworld menace imbue your storytelling with a sense of dread or horror?
Pine, oak, cedar, birch, aspen, fir, maple. Joshua, jacaranda, palm. There are thousands of species of trees in the world; some are found in many regions and some in only one place. There are trees that grow fruits and nuts; there are desert trees and tropical trees. Robert Frost, H. D., Denise Levertov, Federico García Lorca, William Shakespeare, and many others have all written poems about trees. Spend some time studying a specific tree in your neighborhood, paying close attention to its shapes and sounds, its colors, smells, and textures. Perhaps make a sketch of it, or research it online or at the library. Then write a series of short poems about this one tree, trying to approach each poem from a different angle—exploring rhythm and sound, for instance, or your personal memories and associations.
The New York Times series “36 Hours” provides profiles and thirty-six-hour itineraries for must-see sights and spots in cities all over the world. Write your own “36 Hours” piece about the city you live in now, or one in which you became well-acquainted with in the past. Include main attractions, little-known locales, shops to browse, and places to eat or find entertainment, connecting each of your recommendations to a personal anecdote or memory. For some literary locale inspiration, visit our City Guides.
In mid-July, a young man caught an alligator gar—an extremely unusual, sharp-toothed, prehistoric-looking fish—while fishing from a lake in Schenectady, New York. He took a photo of the megafish to post on social media, and then let it go, in accordance with his catch-and-release policy. His mother subsequently shared the post, and her colleague then contacted the U.S. Geological Survey, which in turn contacted the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, whose agents confirmed that it was an invasive species. This led to the mayor of Schenectady offering a one hundred dollar award to anyone who managed to catch the fish. Write a short story that unfolds in a similar fashion, beginning with the small action of one individual, which then puts into effect a chain of events involving a whole town.
There have been several notable recent occurrences of museumgoers from all over the world breaking or damaging artwork. In a video widely shared on the internet last year, a boy tripped in a museum in Taiwan, and in bracing his fall, accidentally smashed a hole through a seventeenth-century Italian oil painting valued at over one million dollars. Using this image or concept of the physical defacement of art, write a poem that experiments with the idea of broken surfaces with the use of fragments or erasure. What are some ways of inserting literal or figurative holes into the body of a poem?
Every year more and more people enroll in continuing education, adult learning, and extension courses covering diverse topics ranging from real estate to metalworking. What’s an elective you missed out on when you were a kid in school, or a skill you’ve always secretly coveted? Write a personal essay about the classes you would want to enroll in if you had the chance to return to school now; or if you’re currently taking courses, what additional subjects are you interested in? Explore what your choices might reveal about your priorities and values, and how this new skill set would fulfill you.