“One Life: Sylvia Plath,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., features a selection of the poet’s manuscripts, journals, clothing, and other personal objects, including a typewriter and even a lock of her hair, as well as numerous pieces of Plath’s artwork: collages, drawings, self-portraits, and photographs. The museum also incorporates other types of art and interdisciplinary projects into its Plath programming, such as “I Am Vertical,” a dance performed in December in the museum’s courtyard, created by choreographer-in-residence Dana Tai Soon Burgess and named after one of Plath’s poems. Envision how your own life and work as a writer might be presented in an art museum, and write a lyric essay about this hypothetical exhibit. What objects would be on display? Which e-mails or photographs would help tell your stories? Consider using different forms and conventions, such as lists and fragments.
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.
Authors such as Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Carmen Maria Machado have drawn inspiration for their stories from well-known fairy tale tropes and styles, and other writers have adapted classic fairy tales for their own usage, like Anne Sexton’s Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1971) and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead Books, 2014). My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin Books, 2010), an anthology of fairy tale–inspired writing edited by Kate Bernheimer, includes stories such as Joy Williams’s “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin.” Write your own interpretation of a fairy tale, imagining well-known characters in the present or future, and incorporating relevant issues of contemporary society revolving around class, poverty, crime, race, war, or gender. How might you incorporate new technology, politics, or communication habits while maintaining the emotions, relationships, mood, and themes at the core of the tale’s plot?
Manipulating the shape of a poem on the page has a long history, from George Herbert’s seventeenth-century religious verse “Easter Wings,” which was printed sideways, its outlines resembling angel wings, to the “concrete poetry” of the 1950s in which the outline of poems depict recognizable shapes. More recently, Montana Ray’s gun-shaped poems in (guns & butter), published by Argos Books in 2015, explore themes of race, motherhood, and gun violence, and Myriam Gurba uses a shaped poem in Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017) to probe acts and cycles of assault on and abuse of women’s bodies. Write a series of concrete poems, perhaps first jotting down a list of resonant images, subjects, or motifs that already recur frequently in your work. How can you subvert or complicate the reader’s initial response to the shape of the poem? How does your word choice shift when you’re confined to predetermined shapes and line breaks?
The “missed connections” section of the classified advertisements website Craigslist has long been a virtual bulletin board to share a memory (i.e. I smiled at you on the train and you smiled back) in hopes that someone would answer back. Write a personal essay recalling a situation in which you may have missed an opportunity to connect with someone, whether a romantic or professional prospect, or a potentially significant person who may have slipped through your fingers. Explore ideas of fate and chance, persistence, lost opportunities, and assertiveness. How have your approaches to meeting new people evolved over time? Are there any missed connections from your past that might be picked up again now, years later?
Earlier this month, a man in southeast Georgia photographed what appeared to be the remains of a mysterious sea creature on the shore of a wildlife refuge beach. The photographs were sent to several media outlets and analyzed by marine scientists who were unable to verify the identity of the animal. Some surmised that it might be a hoax, possibly created to perpetuate the local legend of the Altamaha-ha, a hissing, serpentlike river monster. Write a short story featuring a legendary creature of your own making, perhaps one that is enshrouded in regional folklore. What happens when a character discovers evidence of its existence and tries to prove that it’s real? What do your characters’ attitudes and responses to the sighting reveal about their personalities?
The candy manufacturer Just Born has been producing their popular Peep confections since 1953. Over the years, these seasonal sugarcoated marshmallow chicks have expanded into a year-round line of different animals, colors, and flavors, and spawned a Washington Post diorama contest, countless creative recipe ideas, eating competitions, and other offbeat uses. This week, write a Peep-inspired poem, perhaps exploring themes of springtime, holiday consumerism, kitsch, iconic candy design, or childhood nostalgia.
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.
“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?