Have you ever smelled something so sweet it made you smile? The sense of smell, in contrast to vision, sound, and touch, is connected to areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion making it a powerful agent at triggering memories and feelings. Think of a scent, such as an ingredient for a meal, a perfume, or perhaps something from the outdoors or nature, that you associate with a person who has played an integral role in your life. Write a personal essay that explores the intertwining of smell and the resonant memories and emotions you associate with this person.
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.
“For me, what makes a novel is the unfolding of a question that haunts me, that I have to explore—and that I hope, in digging deep, will answer that question for myself and for my readers,” writes Caroline Leavitt in “The Novel I Buried Three Times” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, use Leavitt’s concept of the unfolding of a question for a short story. Consider two questions she has explored for her novels: “Must we let go of the things we cannot fix?” and “How do you love without destroying someone else’s love?” Write a short story that in some way attempts to answer one of these questions or an open-ended question of your own. Does the question change or evolve as the story proceeds?
In a 2013 interview for the National Book Foundation, poet Lucie Brock-Broido, who passed away earlier this month, spoke of a leather-bound journal she kept with lists of names and titles. “Sometimes, I just place a title at the top of the undisturbed, blank page and that name becomes something like a piece of sand that happened into the delicate flesh of an oyster, blank itself and closed off from the world…. The result, eventually, is a pearl.” Spend several days jotting down phrases and combinations of words you come across, either out in the world or from your imagination, that seem particularly imagistic, evocative, or disquieting. Select one to use as a poem title, and then let a poem build intuitively, layer by layer, around the “disturbance.”
Earlier this year, a supermarket chain in France held a promotion that slashed prices of Nutella, the popular hazelnut and chocolate spread, by 70 percent causing shoppers in some stores to stampede as they scrambled to snatch up the bargain. Think of one of your favorite food items, perhaps a gourmet good that you treat yourself to only occasionally but wish you could have every day. Write a lyric essay about this item, integrating your personal history and specific memories with references to researched tidbits or fun facts.
Julius Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 BCE, is indelibly linked to the phrase “Beware the ides of March,” the warning given by the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. In Roman times, the Ides of March, and the other mid-month-marking ides, were known as deadlines for settling debts. This week, write a short story in which a soothsayer or fortune-teller foresees a momentous event occurring during the middle of March. Is it a positive premonition or an ominous omen? How does your main character prepare for, or divert from, this prophecy? What does this behavior reveal about the optimism or pessimism of your character?
“Poetry isn’t a cure, and it isn’t a miracle…. But there are words, phrases, whole poems that—in the grimmest, loneliest, most shattered moments of my life—have offered me a lozenge of light,” writes Anndee Hochman in “The Poem Chooses You” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the national recitation competition Poetry Out Loud. Think of a poem that resonates with you emotionally, perhaps browsing through the Poetry Out Loud online database for ideas. Then, use your favorite words or phrases from the chosen poem as inspiration for your own poem filled with light and solace.
“Learning is more like a sport than we think,” writes Jim Sollisch in “Piano Lessons: Do Writers Need a Teacher or a Coach?” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, an essay about the importance of practice when developing creative writing skills, as with any other skill or craft. Think of a former teacher, coach, or mentor who played a part in teaching you a specific skill or subject. What memories do you have of your interactions with this teacher during your period of learning? Write a personal essay that zeroes in on one particular memory and how your emotions during the learning process affected your life in ways beyond the relationship and that teaching moment.
In an article published in Variety last week, Barbra Streisand revealed that two of her dogs are clones of her late dog Samantha, who died in 2017. Since the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996, researchers have cloned about two dozen other mammal species, and currently there are private companies that reportedly charge fifty thousand dollars to one hundred thousand dollars to clone beloved pets like cats and dogs. Write a short story in which a main character has made the decision to clone a pet. Why is it so important for the character to possess a near identical version of this pet? Do others agree or disagree with the decision and the process in general?
While scientists might describe the motion of snakes as rectilinear motion, Emily Dickinson’s poem “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” refers to the snake as “a Whip Lash / Unbraiding in the Sun.” This week, read scientific descriptions, or browse through video clips, of your favorite animal’s movements. Then, write a poem that employs unusual word choice, unexpected imagery, or mimics in some way the physical motion of an animal. Perhaps the manipulation of rhythm, sound, spacing, or repetition will help highlight the movement you capture in your poem.
“All actions have reactions,” says one guest on the podcast Heavyweight. In each episode, host Jonathan Goldstein discusses moments from people’s pasts that continue to haunt them and attempts to resolve (or at least learn from) these experiences in some way. In the episode “Julia,” for example, a woman who was bullied in her youth decides to get in touch with her old classmates to get to the bottom of a particular incident. Is there a buried experience from your own past that deserves some consideration? This week, write an essay about a past experience that has impacted you, perhaps a mystery, a grievance, or an argument. You may choose to write about what happened and its significance, or you may want to take the exercise a step further and write directly to someone.
How would it feel to move through a landscape where the most distinguishing features are missing? The artist Cory Arcangel created a unique environment like this with his piece Super Mario Clouds by altering the code of the video game Super Mario Brothers and removing all the graphics except for the iconic scrolling clouds. This week, try setting a short story in a location that has been ominously stripped of its usual characteristics: a forest with no trees, a supermarket with nothing on the shelves, a city with no humans. Will this setting create an eerie tone or inspire an altered way of life?
In her book Madame X (Canarium Books, 2012), Darcie Dennigan uses ellipses throughout her poems, which drastically alter their shape and texture. This week, try writing your own poem that employs ellipses. Do you find yourself writing in a different rhythm or omitting more words with this tool? There is something mysterious and suggestive about ellipses, as if a truth is being hinted at but not fully revealed. Perhaps this quality has a place in your poem.
Mary Ruefle’s essay “My Search Among the Birds” takes the form of short diary entries, all relating to birds. The entries each begin with a date and range from simple descriptions (“I saw a bird in the bushes near Dairy Queen. It looked thin to me.”) to more inward reflections (“Although all poets aspire to be birds, no bird aspires to be a poet.”). This week, try taking daily notes on a specific subject that will allow you to observe and be introspective. It could be anything: cellphones, airplanes, mice, socks. See where this act of sustained attention leads you, and craft your entries into an essay.
February 26 is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. To honor the occasion, try writing your own fairy tale with a contemporary twist. If you need some inspiration, examples abound of stories influenced by the magical logic and archetypes of fairy tales. In Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince,” for example, a woman marries a frog and kissing him offers her a hallucinogenic experience. The anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books, 2010), edited by Kate Bernheimer with Carmen Giménez Smith, is filled with diverse approaches to the retelling of classic fairy tales. What elements of modern life or progressive point of view will you incorporate into your tale?
Many cultures have expressions to describe the phenomenon of sunshowers. In Japan, a sunshower is said to mean that foxes are getting married; in Iran, that a wolf is giving birth; and in the United States, that the devil is beating his wife. In her poem “Sunshower,” Natalie Shapero uses this American expression as a refrain and twists it in a way that critiques both the saying and the culture it represents. Using Shapero’s poem as a model, try taking one of the many cultural expressions for a sunshower and use it as a refrain for a poem. Begin with the words: “Some people say…”
Adam Sternbergh’s essay “Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation” in the New York Times discusses the concept of the “subway read” as a book that seems especially suitable for reading on a subway train, in the vein of “beach reads,” “airplane reads,” or “cabin reads.” Write a personal essay about the ideal setting for your own writing to be read. Where do you want to take a reader emotionally or mentally, and what might be a desirable physical environment for that interplay? Perhaps it’s a space that aligns comfortably with elements of your writing, or one that provides striking contrasts.
While roses, chocolates, cards, jewelry, and romantic dinners are some of the conventionally popular gifts exchanged on Valentine’s Day, for the past several years, the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City has promoted an enticing alternative: the Name-a-Roach fundraiser. Donors are given the honor of naming one of the Bronx Zoo’s Madagascar hissing cockroaches after a special someone of their choice. This week, write a story in which a character receives an unusual token of affection. Is the gift a hit or a miss? How does the gesture, whether humorous, grotesque, or ill-conceived, affect this relationship?
In one of the most famous cat poems published, “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry],” eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart uses anaphora (each sentence in the poem begins with the word, “for”) to thoroughly meditate upon his cat, Jeoffry. More recently, the poet Chen Chen borrowed this form for his own poem “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey.” This week, try joining the tradition by writing a poem with the same form that begins with the words: “For I will consider.” Use the form to explore the behaviors and characteristics of a beloved person or pet in your life.
In his memoir Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Random House, 2007), Rob Sheffield centers each chapter around a mix tape from his own life and uses the songs to narrate and explore the love and loss of his wife. This week, try assembling a mix tape of your own. Write down the names of songs that were important to you at a particular time in your life, and build outwards from there to begin an essay. Reflect on that moment when you first heard these songs: Was it on the radio in a car, or on your headphones, or did someone share them with you? Is it the music or the lyrics that stay with you?
In 1994, Microsoft asked composer Brian Eno to create the start-up music for their Windows 95 operating system, a six-second piece that became iconic. In an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle, Eno reflected on the process: “It’s like making a tiny little jewel…. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work.” This week, try writing tiny stories: perhaps a single paragraph, or even a single sentence. Experiment by using as few words as possible to tell a memorable tale.
Ted Berrigan, a prominent figure in the second generation of the New York School of Poets, is best known for his book The Sonnets (Lorenz and Ellen Gude, 1964). Berrigan’s sonnets were assembled using collage techniques. For instance, many of the lines are found text from outside sources, and many of the individual lines are recycled throughout the book; two of the sonnets even use the exact same fourteen lines, presented in different orders. This week, try writing your own Berrigan-style sonnet (free verse or rhyming, as you please). Create a bank of individual lines—these could be original lines that you write, found text, or some combination—and then assemble these lines into a sonnet. Allow the poem to be nonlinear, if that is what the process calls for, and travel down unexpected trains of thought.
Recently, the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejected the White House’s request to loan Vincent van Gogh’s “Landscape With Snow” painting, instead offering to lend Maurizio Cattelan’s functional, solid gold toilet sculpture titled “America.” If you could borrow any work of art from a museum or collection in the world, what would you choose? Write a personal essay describing the piece and your emotional connection to it. Where would you choose to display it and how would its presence feel in your space? Is your choice related to a personal statement or a strictly aesthetic reason?
“Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.” Steve Almond’s essay “The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine examines off-putting characters throughout literature and the issues that surround readers’ responses to them: gender, reader sensibility, morality, the role of literature, the publishing industry. Write a short story that showcases a main character’s repellent or abrasive behavior. In what way does complicating the character to make the reader uncomfortable and unsympathetic express an understanding of how struggles with failure and darkness are an integral part of the human experience?
Swiss photographer Steeve Iuncker has photographed Yakutsk, Siberia (coldest city in the world); Tokyo, Japan (most populous city in the world); and Ahwaz, Iran (most polluted city in the world) for a photo series project focusing on different record-holding locations. Write a poem about a record-holding city, using a real or humorously obscure record of your invention. You might find inspiration in a city you’ve lived in, loved, have never been to, or that only exists in your imagination. How are the geography, culture, and inhabitants affected by the extreme conditions? What kind of behavior and interaction unique to this place will you explore?
In 2014, the oldest eel in the world passed away. Ale the eel was 155 years old and had been living in a well in a small fishing town in Sweden, thrown in the well by a young boy when eels were used to keep a house’s water supply clean from insects. That statement may sound like the premise of a fable, or perhaps the beginning of a joke, but in fact it is a true story. Reality abounds with such surprises. This week, seek out a bizarre fact from the news or a historical document and try using it as the starting point for an essay.