In a recent report in Current Biology, researchers published findings that the white-throated sparrow’s birdsong, which originally sounded like “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody,” had evolved over the last fifty years to sound more like “Old Sam Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh.” In the New York Times, Ken Otter, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, says this unexpected shift related to the migration patterns of the sparrow is “kind of like an Australian person coming to New York, and all the New Yorkers start suddenly deciding to adopt an Australian accent.” Write a story about a character who has moved to a new city, and whose behavior has an outsize influence on the town’s citizens. Does the change happen gradually, going largely unnoticed for a long period of time, or does your character set off a rapid-fire chain reaction of transformations?
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.
In “The Untranslatable” published on the Paris Review website, the translators of poems featured in the magazine’s summer issue write short essays about their processes. Patricio Ferrari and Susan Margaret Brown, who translated António Osório’s poems from the Portuguese, write about choosing between words in the English language that have Latin versus Germanic origins: “Most words representing abstract ideas stem from the Latin while the majority of words exemplifying concrete ideas come from the Saxon. In a newspaper article, the choice may be irrelevant; in a poem, the choice matters.” Rewrite or draft a new version of a poem you’ve written in the past, switching out some of the Latinate words for those with Germanic roots, and vice versa. How does this change the sound, tone, and other nuances of your poem?
“Search YouTube with the word ‘commercials’ and the decade of your choosing, and you will find hundreds of compilations, including transfers of old broadcasts,” writes Eve Peyser in “In Vintage TV Ads, a Curious Fountain of Hope (and Cheese)” in the New York Times, about her habit of watching old television commercials in order to “make believe that I live in a world I never got to inhabit but is still familiar.” Browse through some old commercials from the decade of your choice, and write a personal essay that explores how the viewings lead you to thoughts about the past and the future. What emotions are evoked as you think about broader themes such as the passing of time, the omnipresence of consumerism, and the trends and values of different eras?
“We realized there was a whole hidden collection within the collection,” says Kristin Jensen, the manager of a project that archives the marginalia and materials found in circulating library collections around the world, in “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Readers from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it turned out, used books as souvenirs, journals, greeting cards, funeral programs, and invitations, among myriad other purposes.” Write a short story in which a character uses the blank pages or margins of a book to write a diary entry or letter, or to press flowers. What’s the significance of the particular book chosen? Is there someone on the receiving end, or are the traces discovered years later by accident?
In response to the increasingly searing and muggy days, a recent Bustle article detailed the effects of humidity on the body. “You may feel more uncomfortable on a humid day because your body is not as easily able to evaporate the sweat on your skin, due to the moisture in the air,” says physician assistant Christina L. Belitsky, adding that “evaporation of sweat on our skin is our body’s way of naturally cooling us down in warm temperatures.” Write a poem in which you discuss an aspect of how the body—internal organs, skin, or your own joints—functions in such sticky heat. What images and vocabulary enable you to perfectly encapsulate the physical effects of a sweltering summer day?
“What’s in your guts, in your muscles, in your blood?” asks Sarah Bellamy in her Paris Review essay “Performing Whiteness” in which she uses her experience as a stage director to examine the ways in which racial trauma and sentiments are manifested in our physical bodies. “Bodies arrive written with racial scripts that inform the meaning of gesture, stillness, and movement onstage.” Write a personal essay in which you focus on the way you move your body in the world and how those physical gestures and subtle movements inform who you are. What kind of tension, freedom, joy, strength, or weakness do you feel? How can you connect those sensations with bodies throughout history that have resembled yours?
The New York Times’s recent “More Than a Meal” series featured essays by renowned writers about memorable meals experienced in restaurants at a time when reminiscing about dining out has been the restaurant goer’s solace. The meals described range from Ruth Reichl writing about a fancy restaurant in Paris, to Samantha Irby writing about the Cheesecake Factory, to Alexander Chee writing about waiting tables at a Theater District restaurant in Manhattan. Write a scene that takes place in a restaurant. Is this the first time your character has dined out in a long time, or does she frequent this establishment every week? What is revealed about her personality or state of mind through her interactions with others in the restaurant?
When’s the last time you took a really close look at an insect? In Aliens Among Us: Extraordinary Portraits of Ordinary Bugs (Liveright, 2020), photographer Daniel Kariko uses a scanning electron microscope and a stereo microscope to present extreme close-up photographs of insects—beetles, flies, centipedes, bees, wasps. Browse through some of Kariko’s photos, and write a poem inspired by the surprising details you discover in these portraits. Focus on reflecting texture, color, and the form and function of insect bodies into the fabric of your poem.
Inside the Actors Studio, hosted for twenty-two seasons by the late James Lipton, began as a craft seminar for students of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York. Now a well-known network television show, famous actors, writers, and directors are interviewed, and a questionnaire is submitted to the guest. This list of ten questions, meant to reveal deep truths about one’s psychology, includes: “What is your favorite curse word?” “What sound or noise do you hate?” and “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Write an essay in which you explore one or more of these queries. Are there any misconceptions about yourself revealed in the process?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful? What is your most terrible memory? What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about? In a 1997 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologist Arthur Aron along with scholars Edward Melinat, Elaine N. Aron, Robert Darrin Vallone, and Renee J. Bator developed thirty-six questions that supposedly lead to accelerated intimacy between two strangers. Write a story in which two strangers stuck together for a set amount of time decide to ask each other some of these questions. Is it by accident? Does one of them have designs on the other? Do the questions succeed in breaking down emotional barriers or lead to unexpected consequences?Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this prompt, we neglected to include information about Elaine Aron’s professional qualifications as well as the other scholars involved in the study; the prompt has been updated to include this information.
“If we study what we are attracted to, tease out the correspondences, follow the connections, and find the parallels, we make something new—something that speaks to a shared past and idiosyncratic present,” writes Emily LaBarge in a Bookforum review of Moyra Davey’s new essay collection, Index Cards (New Directions, 2020). Write a poem that revolves around a selection of everyday objects that you feel inexplicably drawn to, perhaps a particular pencil or spoon, a favorite mug or lamp, a preferred toothbrush or view from a window. What connections or parallels can you draw between them? How do they exist in harmony or tension with each other?
“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?
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?