“‘Not X, but also not not X.’” In a recent piece for the New York Times, Sam Anderson examines a sentence structure pattern that reappears frequently in Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country (Viking, 2018). Anderson notes that many authors tend to repeat sentence structures in a move that reflects a particular worldview or expresses the author’s thought process in some way. Browse through your writing and search for one of your own signature sentence structures. Reflect and write about what this style reveals of your philosophies or how your mind works.
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.
Does weakness have a smell? In a study published in June in Scientific Reports, scientists found that injured ring-tailed lemurs lose 10 percent of their body odor, thereby signaling via scent their weakened state to potential rivals. This week, write a scene in a short story where your main character is exposed and displays a moment of weakness. Who is there to witness this vulnerability and does this person take advantage of it or show sympathy?
“I walked abroad, / And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge / Like a red-faced farmer.” In an interview with Anselm Berrigan at Literary Hub, John Yau, winner of the 2018 Jackson Poetry Prize, talks about puzzling over the personification in these lines from T. E. Hulme’s 1909 poem “Autumn.” In what way does personification affect imagery in poetry? Write a poem that uses personification in a straightforward yet unexpected way. How does this kind of description enhance not only the perception of the object being personified, but also the idea of personhood and the narrator’s idiosyncratic perspective?
On the TV show Parts Unknown, the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain traveled the world and sampled cuisines from a variety of cultures. Although the show employed food as its central component, Bourdain was more interested in exploring the customs and histories of the countries he visited and got an outsider’s glimpse of the particular magic that makes each place uniquely itself. Write a personal essay based on an experience when you left your comfort zone for a place, community, or situation that felt different from your own. Your experience could involve travel, as Bourdain’s did, but travel is not required; the unknown often exists in your own backyard.
In Nikolai Gogol’s classic short story “The Nose,” the protagonist wakes up one morning and notices that his nose has disappeared. This week, try writing a short story in which something unassuming and unexpected goes missing. How does this absence impact your protagonist? Is there an anxious search for the missing object? In Gogol’s story, the missing nose takes on a life of its own, walking around St. Petersburg, pretending to be a human being. Perhaps your story will include this type of surreal, absurd twist.
What can science tell us about love? Make your own discoveries by writing a love poem inspired by a scientific concept or phenomenon. For inspiration, consider Henri Cole’s “Gravity and Center,” Ruth Madievsky’s “Electrons,” or Sara Eliza Johnson’s “Combustion.” Name your poem after a scientific phrase you find by looking through a science textbook, website, or article. Search for material that casts unexpected light upon your love poem.
As it turns out, human beings aren’t the only ones allowing their emotions to cloud their judgment. In a study published last week in Science, researchers reported findings that mice are as likely as people to have a hard time letting go of a task in which they have already invested time, energy, or another resource despite receiving any potential gain. Write a personal essay about a time when you were unable to let go of something, such as a relationship with a person or a comfortable living situation, even if there was no longer a way of moving forward or your energies would have been better spent elsewhere. What emotions were at play while you made the decision to stay put in stagnant circumstances? What happened when you finally let go?
Library books carry with them stories beyond their pages. “Each one shares the stories not only written on the pages, but through pen markings, coffee splatters, filled-in checkout cards, or yellowed tape stretching the book’s life out before its demise,” says artist Kerry Mansfield about her collection of old library books in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story that revolves around a library book and the readers who have checked the book out over a period of time. What significance does this particular book have to your main character, and is this shared or contrasted with other readers? How are the readers connected and do they end up meeting each other?
“At the etymological root of both healing and health is the idea of ‘wholeness.’ To heal, then, is to take what has been broken, separated, fragmented, injured, exiled and restore it to wholeness,” writes Jane Hirshfield in her essay “Poetry, Permeability, and Healing” in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of American Poets. Think of something in your life that has been either physically or figuratively broken, fragmented, or made distant, and write a poem that attempts to restore its wholeness. How might you use the ideas of rejoining parts, searching for new openings, or creating connections for empathy, to write a poem that begins to make what is broken whole?
In an interview published earlier this year by Electric Literature, Sofia Samatar discusses the concept of speculative memoir with authors Matthew Cheney, Carmen Maria Machado, and Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, all who have written work that blends memoir with elements of the highly imaginative that is typically reserved for science fiction, fantasy, and fabulist literature. Machado talks about alternating between real events and genre fiction that act as extended metaphor. Stevenson says, “In some ways introducing the imagined is perhaps a way of daring to approach the material.” Think of a specific memory whose particulars seem blurry or difficult to approach. Write a speculative essay or short memoiristic piece in which you approach this memory by inserting a blatantly fictional aspect or character. How does this element of fiction open up new or alternative possibilities for the way you’ve long recalled this event, situation, or relationship?
Ash, beech, dandelion, fern, ivy, lark, nectar, pasture, and other nature-related terms have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in the past decade or so, replaced by words related to social media and technology, such as blog, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, and voicemail. Write a short story that takes place in a society in which language is experiencing a transition of values from nature to technology, a change reflected in its use or regulation of words. What happens when references to nature are superseded by an emphasis on technology? How do your characters resist or rally in support of these social changes? Consider how this change in language might infiltrate other elements of daily life in your story, such as politics, food, family, housing, or arts and entertainment.
Although we often associate travel writing with essays about journeys or road-trip novels, poetry has had a long, rich history of association with travel. Many nineteenth- and twentieth-century poems explore wanderlust and faraway locales and new modes of transportation, which can be seen in the exoticism of John Masefield’s “Cargoes” and Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” and the romanticization of rail travel in Thomas Hardy’s “On the Departure Platform” and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Travel.” More recent poems, such as Khaled Mattawa’s “The Road From Biloxi,” Jenny Xie’s “Rootless,” Naomi Shihab Nye’s “The Burn,” and Roger Reeves’s “Brazil,” explore themes of identity, migration, and diaspora. Write a poem based on a favorite travel memory that brings to mind a rich mixture of emotions and a connection with contemporary issues, perhaps touching on ideas of alienation and belonging, or the allure and repulsion of a certain mode of transit. Consider the binaries of travel and home, movement and stillness, the foreign and the familiar. Where have you been and, perhaps more important, where are you going?
What do you do to put off important tasks? The social media hashtag #procrastibaking pulls up thousands of posts of goods baked while more pressing matters may have been at hand. Some procrastibakers claim that it’s part of the creative process and can help overcome writer’s block, that the sensory experience and rhythms of following a recipe’s steps can be conducive to warming up to a creative task. Write a personal essay about your own go-to procrastination method. How does your procrastination activity help or hinder your work? Does it do more than satisfy a desire to feel good and enjoy the present while postponing something else?
Octopuses have unusual characteristics and intellectual abilities that might just be from out of this world. Earlier this year, a group of international scientists published research in the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology asserting the possibility that octopuses may have their origins in outer space. Write a short story that makes use of a character who seems bafflingly odd or otherworldly. What sort of behaviors can be pointed out as unusual? What theories do the other characters have about the reasons for this strangeness, and what do these judgments and justifications reveal of the characters making them?
Do digital assistants like Siri and Alexa really understand what you’re saying? Last month, a Portland, Oregon couple’s Amazon Alexa device misinterpreted a series of sentences it overheard as instructions to record a private conversation and send it to an unsuspecting person in their contact list. Write a poem that centers on a misheard conversation between two people. Experiment with different homonyms or homophones, or other ways the sounds of different words or phrases can be misheard. How might the misinterpretation of words create unexpectedly fresh ideas or images?
Scientists published a study in Science magazine earlier this month observing that animals have been sleeping more during the day and increasing nocturnal habits in order to avoid interacting with humans who have steadily encroached upon their habitats and territories. Write a personal essay about a time when you felt the need to change a longstanding routine or habit. Was there a pivotal moment that motivated you to make the change or was it more gradual? How has your own flexibility or adaptability changed over the years?
This past spring, the Bairui Plaza shopping mall in Xi’an, China unveiled different colored pathways outside the mall designated specifically for pedestrians with their eyes glued to their cell phones. They have been given a nickname in Chinese roughly translating to “heads-down tribe.” The lanes are intended as a safety measure and relay messages urging walkers to look up and pay attention, including the message: “Please don’t look down for the rest of your life.” Write a short story that involves two characters who are constantly on their cell phones while walking. What happens when they collide on a sidewalk?
“I wrote an American Sonnet to Wanda Coleman, and I sent it to her. We exchanged letters,” says Terrance Hayes about the inspiration and motivation for his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Penguin, 2018), in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, write a sonnet as an homage to Terrance Hayes, or another favorite poet. What types of imagery, tone, and emotional resonances are inspired as you focus on this poet’s work and life?
What were your favorite books to read for pleasure as a child? In the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Christine Ro reports on Alvin Irby’s nonprofit organization Barbershop Books, whose programming creates reading spaces in barbershops to encourage young children to engage with literature. Through the program, Irby hopes to focus on “building boys’ motivation to read and helping them form a self-image as readers.” Write a personal essay about your most treasured and favorite book to read from your youth. What elements of the book resonated with you and encouraged you to take pride in identifying as a reader?
After Mexico’s victory over Germany in last Sunday’s World Cup match, the Institute of Geologic and Atmospheric Investigations in Mexico City reported a small artificial earthquake possibly caused by the mass jumping of tens of thousands of celebrants. Write a short story in which the concurrent actions of a large population of people causes some sort of noticeable geological event. What is the cause of the hoopla, and does it end up causing a ripple effect of far-reaching consequences? Perhaps your story will have a sci-fi slant with a futuristic setting or incorporate humor commenting on current environmental concerns.
Real lightning or lightning lite? Hungarian scientists published a study last week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A examining how realistic paintings portraying lightning are compared with photographs of lightning. They found that the bolts of electricity in artistic depictions typically show far fewer branching offshoots of electricity than actual lightning. Browse through painted versions of natural landscapes you are familiar with and note the differences between the artist’s rendering and the real life phenomena and scenery. Write a poem that explores these differences and reflects on your own emotional or aesthetic responses to the painted version versus your view or memories of that place.
Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood (Henry Holt, 2018) follows an unnamed protagonist as she has conversations, internal and external, about whether to have children. The novel asks questions about what it means to be or not be a mother, and what it means for artists seeking to balance their creative lives with their personal lives. This week, write an essay based on conversations you’ve had with friends or family about parenthood. Reflect on your own, or someone else’s, thoughts and experiences with the struggle to balance the role of parent with the rest of one’s identity. Use the essay to explore what beliefs or attitudes these observations stir in you.
We’ve all experienced feeling awkward: maybe you forget someone’s name and have to hope that they don’t notice; maybe you say goodbye to someone but then you both end up walking in the same direction; or someone says, “See you tomorrow” and you enthusiastically reply with, “You, too!” The possibilities are endless. And yet, in the world of fiction, awkwardness tends to take a backseat to the more classical conditions of passion, sorrow, fear, love, and longing. This week, try writing a short story that centers on an awkward encounter between two characters. Explore the contours and sources of feeling unsure, anxious, embarrassed, and perhaps even amused. In other words, let the awkwardness serve as an entryway into the psychology of your characters.
When you search for your name online, who else appears in the results? This week, write a poem inspired by your online doppelgänger. The poem could be a playful amalgamation of various characters, as in Mark Halliday’s poem “Google Me Soon,” or it could be an occasion for a more meditative address to an individual who shares your name, as in Jacques J. Rancourt’s poem “Hello My Name Is Also Jacques Rancourt.” How does it feel to imagine somebody else with the name you consider your own? If you can’t find someone else with your name, is that reassuring or disheartening?
“‘Now I can have a glass of orange juice in the morning and read the newspaper.’” In the New York Times essay “Philip Roth and the Whale,” Nathan Englander recalls Roth, who passed away last month, speaking lightheartedly about his free time upon retiring from writing fiction. If you had an abundance of free time, what are the small activities you would most look forward to enjoying? Write a personal essay about the simple, everyday things you wish you had more time to do, that are often sacrificed to a busy schedule. How are these activities enticing in a way that is different from the excitement of grander plans?