Like the taste and scent of the madeleine that prompts a flood of memories in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the pungent aroma of a grandmother’s homemade tea transports the main character of Dorothy Tse’s short story “Sour Meat,” translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce and included in That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction (Two Lines Press, March 2020). “F’s memories of Grandma were hazy. If it hadn’t been for the intense, distinctive smell of the tea, she’d have written them off as figments of her imagination.” Write a story that revolves around an aromatic encounter that brings to the surface unexpected memories for your main character. Do these memorable aromas propel your character toward light or fraught memories, or perhaps something complex and pleasurably in between?
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.
“Caught in the rain today, I recall that couple kissing and holding each other infinitely close in the rain one dark evening under the nearly invisible trees,” wrote Paul Valéry in 1910, in a notebook included in The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry of Paul Valéry, translated from the French by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody and forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this month. Draw inspiration from rainy scenes in poetry such as William Carlos Williams’s “Spring Storm,” Sara Teasdale’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and Emily Dickinson’s “Like Rain it sounded till it curved” and write a poem that captures a moment in the rain, one that seems quiet or private but also carries emotional weight. Is there something poignant, parallel, or contradictory between the subject of the poem and the themes of rebirth and renewal that are conventionally associated with springtime?
“September 3: (Lord’s day.) Up; and put on my colored silk suit very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair, for fear of the infection,” writes Samuel Pepys in his diary about the Great Plague of 1665 in London, excerpted in Lapham’s Quarterly. This week start writing short, daily journal entries about your observations and feelings about the current coronavirus pandemic. How have your small, everyday routines been affected by the crisis? How have new habits popped up? Record your tangential musings along with feelings of loss, helplessness, anger, humor, or hope as they arise.
In “How to See the World When You’re Stuck at Home,” a New York Times essay about using Google Street View to explore the world, Reif Larsen writes: “I often turn to it as a research tool when I’m writing a novel but more often than not, I simply use it to practice being a curious human. What an unbelievable resource! An endless fountain for little details.” Think of a place—a region, country, specific city, or remote locale that you find evocative—and take a voyage using Street View on Google Maps, which collects panoramic images from Google Street View car cameras and individual contributors. Explore the architecture, local flora and fauna, and any people who were caught on camera. Write a short story that responds to the images you see, and let your imagination fill in other sensory details and observations.
“I return to some books that have helped ground me and given me this long-seeing perspective, and from their words I made some poems,” Alli Warren writes at Literary Hub, where she created short poems from books that help her feel less alone, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia, and Emanuele Coccia’s The Life of Plants. “These are not my words, they are the words of their authors—I just translated them into poems, so that we can sing them and remember (poetry is a technology of memory), building up community memory, humming these fight songs.” Think of a book that you turn to for solace or wisdom in difficult times, and select lines from the book to turn into a fight song poem of your own to sing.
“I have to remind myself that the possibility of everything ending up okay is no more outlandish than any worst-case scenario I can conjure,” writes Lilly Dancyger in her essay “My Book Comes Out Next Year. Do I Even Still Believe in Next Year?” at Electric Literature. “If I can imagine a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I tell myself, I should also be able to imagine something like stability.” While acknowledging the precariousness of making plans during this uncertain time, write a personal essay about your hopes for next year. What comes to mind when you allow for the possibility that accomplishing small, controllable tasks today can have a bearing on the possibilities you might be working toward for next year? Reflect on how you have dealt with anxiety or panic in difficult times in your past, and how you might carry some of that knowledge to the present moment.
When asked the question, “What kind of writing is possible in a time of crisis?” by the Guardian, author Bhanu Kapil responded, “That is a question that people have been answering with their bodies all over the world for a very long time. But here we are. Let’s see what unfolds. What is a page for? What is a sentence for?” This week, open up a new page. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself what this page can be, for you, right now. What will your first sentence offer? What about the next? Allow a story to pour or trickle out until your page is full. Perhaps you will be surprised with what there is to say.
Can’t tell the difference between a Canada goose and a snow goose? Even if you have no experience in birdwatching, New York Times science writer James Gorman recommends watching birds during this time of isolation and social distancing. “I’m suggesting you just watch birds in the way that you might watch people in a crowd, in the days when there were crowds. I like Canada geese, because they are a lot like people. They gather and squawk, conducting unknown goose business and gossip.” Keep your eyes peeled for birds as you peer out your window or go for a solitary walk outside, browse for zoo and aquarium webcam videos online, or watch live streaming videos for a peek at other animals. Then, write a poem that captures the liveliness and camaraderie provided by these creatures.
“I sometimes find talking about a piece of visual art can help illuminate certain abstract ideas,” says Jessi Jezewska Stevens, author of the debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), in a BOMB magazine interview by Kristina Tate. “I am drawn to visual art as a tool of writing about perception and the fragility of perception.” Take a cue from Stevens’s way of connecting writing and visual art, and write a lyric essay inspired by a particular painting or work of art that you find resonant. What kind of inferences can you make about the artist’s ways of perception from looking at the work? How can you connect this with the ways you perceive the world?
“This is how you tell a story,” says narrator Tilda Swinton in a short film written and directed by Andrew Ondrejcak, which goes through six steps of a writer’s process paired with a dance choreographed by Kyle Abraham. “There is a problem. It is an obstacle so monumental that it seems unlikely our tiny protagonist will be able to overcome something so impressive. It’s a mountain pressing down, it’s a witch, a curse, a giant.” Think of the motions associated with loneliness and heartbreak, and write a scene of a short story that foregrounds your protagonist’s movements as they experience one of these invisible obstacles.
“The carnation had possessed me,” is a sentence from Amparo Dávila’s short story “The Breakfast,” illustrated in a New York Times piece by Tamara Shopsin. Through her illustrations, Shopsin presents quotes from Dávila’s story collection The Houseguest (New Directions, 2018), translated from the Spanish by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, that imbue mundane plants with a sense of strange terror. Another sample is from the short story “The Cell”: “She was like ivy attached to a giant tree, submissive and trusting.” Select one of the lines—or jot down your own menacing plant simile or metaphor—and use it as a starting point for a poem.
This month, TIME magazine unveiled their 100 Women of the Year project, which shines a light on influential women from the past century who have been overshadowed by their past Man of the Year covers. Choose a woman who has played an important role in your life—someone you have been close to for many years, or an acquaintance or celebrity whose words or actions have affected you in a significant way—and think of one year that was particularly affected by your encounter. Write a personal essay that details your memories of an inciting incident, and that celebrates the impact of this woman. Browse through TIME’s new covers for inspiration.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell,” concludes the prologue to Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (Knopf, 1992). In a piece in Book Riot in praise of prologues, Nikki VanRy writes, “a good prologue is one that introduces the tone and style of the story. A great prologue, however, is all about setting the stage, baiting the tease, opening up the mystery, allowing the reader to come in slowly and—once they’re there—hooking them.” Write a brief prologue to a short story you’re in the process of writing. How does your prologue create an opening to your story that strikes a balance of laying the groundwork and setting the bait?
In the New York Times, Elisa Gabbert writes about Alice Notley’s new book, For the Ride (Penguin Poets, 2020), which takes place in a world where most of civilization—and therefore language—has been destroyed. “Because language is broken, the verse is intentionally awkward, as though carelessly translated: ‘glyph doth include the real air? / yes, including vraiment the other air.’ Words from French and Spanish are peppered in, while others are cut off (‘lying togeth, floor of hypermarket in afterli’) or smashed together (‘playtoyswords’), creating unresolvable ambiguities.” Write a poem that uses words that are cut off, smashed together, or borrows from other languages in a way that opens up the possibilities of meaning. How do you provide guidance through the ambiguity or confusion?
“On the average Tuesday morning most people are waiting in more than one way: waiting to get to their stop, but also waiting for news, for inspiration, for intervention, for a promotion, for a diagnosis, for breakfast,” writes Jordan Kisner in “Attunement” from her debut collection, Thin Places: Essays From In Between (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). In the essay, Kisner writes about phases of her life spent in suspension, waiting for God, an epiphany, meaning, and for clarity of conviction to “come crashing through the ceiling.” Write a personal essay about a time when you waited for something philosophical, spiritual, or emotional to reveal itself, perhaps juxtaposing it with another memory of waiting for something more practical and tangible. Was there clarity that made it worth the wait?
“It is a very old sound, the sound of people who decided to sit in the same sheltered space for a few hours, with food and drink in front of them, their family or friends at their side, and forget about the snarling beasts they battled all day,” writes New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells in defense of noisy restaurants. “There is the skipping, questioning rhythm of flirtation; the confident bleat of people showing off money; the squawk of debate.” Write a story that takes place amidst the hustle and bustle of a meal in a noisy restaurant. How do the words spoken by other diners and restaurant staff, and the ambient sounds of moving bodies and food being served, intertwine with the interactions of your characters?
At the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Ruby Brunton writes about Elaine Kahn’s collection Romance or The End (Soft Skull Press, 2020), whose first poem, “ROMEO & JULIET & ELAINE,” has a speaker who inserts herself into Shakespeare’s iconic love story. “There aren’t ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in Kahn’s game of love, only flawed humans who make mistakes even when trying their best not to. The book plunders traditional love story tropes to offer a more authentic, and sometimes more cynical, counternarrative.” Write a poem in which you insert yourself into a famous relationship from literature. Do you approach your intrusion through a lens of different cultural customs, or perhaps a more open-minded approach to perspectives on love, loneliness, or sexuality?
In the Paris Review Daily’s Eat Your Words series, Valerie Stivers creates recipes inspired by food references in literature. Writing about her favorite Hilda Hilst novel, Letters From a Seducer (Nightboat Books, 2014), translated from the Portuguese by John Keene, Stivers mentions the eccentric ways food is incorporated into the text: “Blouses smell of apples; people sell clams, oysters, coconuts, hearts of palm, dried meat; a penis is a giant chorizo or a ‘wise and mighty catfish’ or a strawberry.” Write an essay that incorporates the shapes, smells, textures, and connotations of food in an unexpected way. What comes to your mind when considering the skins, peels, fat, seeds, flesh, pulp, nubs, and bones from your meals?
“There is sort of a recurring character with different names, this extremely self-possessed, undereducated person. There’s absolutely an element of autobiography there,” says Emily St. John Mandel in a profile by Michael Bourne in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Bourne describes the different iterations of heroines that have surfaced again and again in each of Mandel’s novels: “The figure of the rootless young woman with few worldly possessions beyond a fierce intelligence and a certain relentlessness.” Think of a character from a short story you’ve written in the past who possesses certain personality traits based on your own, and resurrect this character for a new story. Which characteristics remain intact and which are more dispensable?
In “‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out” in the New York Times, Winnie Hu reports on elements of urban architecture in New York City that are designed to enforce order and deter lingering, loitering, sleeping, skateboarding, and the homeless. This includes metal spikes, studs, teeth, bars, bolts, walls, and railings placed on resting surfaces like benches, ledges, and low walls in public plazas. This week, look around more closely at the architectural details you pass by and write a poem about an interesting feature or texture whose design functions in a specific way. Is it welcoming or hostile? Can you express the physical details by playing with sound, rhythm, and spacing?
In the New York Times Letter of Recommendation series, Durga Chew-Bose writes about the value of getting an assortment of things framed after moving to an apartment in Montreal. “Some of us are born a little mournful, and we spend our lives discovering new traditions for housing those ghosts we’ve long considered companions. Framing, I’d venture, is central to this urge. It gives memories a physique.” Think of a memory that continues to haunt you like a ghost. Write a personal essay that uses a frame technique—the telling of a story within a story—to give the narrative a fixed structure. Tell the story of your memory, framed at the beginning and end with your current state of mind. What is revealed by the juxtaposition of this story embedded within another?
In A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s latest film about an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight on behalf of the Nazis during World War II even while faced with execution for his defiance, the camera moves across landscapes as actors are kept in constant motion. Vulture film critic Bilge Ebiri reasons that this continuous movement of both camera and actor becomes a dance of sorts. Write a short story where you place emphasis on the movement of your characters’ bodies. Focus closely on their actions, how they relate to one another spatially, and try to keep your writerly eye on the move. Create a dance that becomes a narrative of its own. What emotional states do these movements reveal?
“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?
“Objects make love visible. They give us an archive, a timeline with clear milestones. They tell a story that would otherwise be almost impossible to see or even narrate,” Jenn Shapland writes in her Literary Hub essay “The Maggie Nelson Test for Lesbian Dating Success.” Shapland explores the value of shared and exchanged objects and artifacts between friends and lovers, with an emphasis on gifting books. Write an essay about a book that you gave or received from someone with whom you’ve had a significant relationship, perhaps at a particularly precarious turning point. Describe the book and set the scene, exploring what the exchange revealed about you and the state of the relationship.
“Infatuation is a solitary pursuit. Dante doesn’t want to be with Beatrice: he wants to be alone,” writes Anne Boyer in “The One and Only” in the journal Mal. “A real Beatrice stands with real desires on a real street in a real city in real shoes. This is inconvenient to any Dante.” Write a story in which your main character is in love with the idea of someone, perhaps a stranger in the neighborhood or an imagined being. What is it about not knowing the real or actual object of affection, and their mundane opinions and habits, that allows for fantasy to bloom? What are the consequences of keeping this sort of distance?