The Irukandji jellyfish, mostly found off the coast of Australia, are the most poisonous box jellyfish, and at one cubic centimeter, also the smallest. Another distinguishing feature is its sting, which produces what scientists call a “feeling of impending doom,” partially caused by venom triggering hormones connected to anxiety. Write a personal essay about a time in your past in which you felt intensely anxious about a situation, and were unfailingly convinced of a negative outcome. What were the circumstances and external factors that led you to this perspective? Did you overcome your fears and emerge from the other side with a new outlook?
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.
A high school in Maine recently celebrated the forty-year anniversary of a Twinkie that has been on display on campus, still intact, since 1976, when a science teacher unwrapped one of the snack cakes and set it out for a spontaneous lesson on chemistry, food additives, and decomposition. Write a short story in which your main character makes a comparably spontaneous decision or gesture, and then fast-forward forty years later to reveal how that seemingly small action becomes far-reaching, or perhaps even life-changing.
The higher temperatures, longer days, and more time spent outside in the summer months propel many of us toward beach reads and dramatic blockbuster films. Oftentimes, these forms of entertainment are filled with exciting, action-packed scenes, plots that twist and turn, and sequences that keep us on the edge of our seats. Write the summer blockbuster version of a poem. Try to balance the use of easily accessible, widely appealing language and images with emotions that are both universally recognizable and unique to your personal sensibilities.
Every summer there’s that one song—or maybe two—that you just can’t escape at barbecues, pool hangouts, beach bonfires, on car radios, and in air-conditioned malls. Eventually you find your memories of that summer are inseparable from the ubiquitous song. Write an essay about a recent summer and the song that played throughout the season that stuck with you. You might decide to take a closer look at the lyrics of the song, and recount specific events and memories to help you process their harmonious connection.
Fireworks were first invented in the seventh century, during the Tang Dynasty in China, and were traditionally set off at special occasions—such as births, deaths, weddings, birthdays, and holidays—to channel good luck and scare away evil spirits with their bright lights and loud sounds. Write a short story that takes place at a celebration with fireworks. Do the pyrotechnics heighten the scene with a sense of wonder and drama? What do your characters hope to exorcise or gain, as they watch the fireworks display?
More and more cities are displaying poems on subway cars, in train stations, on buses, and even in coffee shops. In “Traveling Stanzas” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum reports on an initiative created by the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University to showcase poetry in public spaces throughout Northeast Ohio. Write a poem with a specific local spot in mind, such as a cafe, library, bus stop, or park bench—the poem’s content may be directly or indirectly related to your choice. If it’s permitted, post a copy of your poem at the intended location, or perhaps hand out copies or stage an impromptu reading there. For inspiration, watch Fatou M’Baye read her poem “Thank You, Tree” in a video produced by the Wick Poetry Center.
For a couple of months this past spring, anyone in the world with a phone connection could dial a Swedish phone number and “be connected to a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden” for a brief chat about anything under the sun. The Swedish Tourist Association created the “Swedish Number” to draw interest in the country by allowing everyday Swedes to act as ambassadors of that nation. Choose a country you’ve never visited before but are interested in, and write a personal essay exploring what you would ask if given the opportunity for a ten-minute chat with one of its citizens. Then turn the focus on yourself, speculating on the specific reasons for your curiosity. Would you instinctively approach the conversation as an opportunity for a political discussion or a personal one? What would you say if you were called to be an ambassador of your own country?
As important as it can be to develop regular writing routines, it can also be valuable to break out of them and discover new modes of inspiration and productivity. Try to actively disrupt your own process and write a short story that takes your habitual approach and turns it on its head: If you usually draw up precise outlines, jump immediately into the start of your story with some stream-of-consciousness writing. If you usually write at night, alone at an office desk, try writing during the day, outside on a public park bench. Instead of a pen or computer, write with a pencil. Get creative with your process. How does the change in the time of day, surroundings, or physical act of writing affect your ability to develop new ideas about plot or character? A little variety could go a long way.
“By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles," Annie Dillard wrote in Mornings Like This: Found Poems (Harper Perennial, 1996). "The poet adds, or at any rate increases, the element of delight." Many twentieth-century writers have experimented with found poetry, whether composing entire poems that consist solely of outside texts collaged together (David Antin, Blaise Cendrars, Charles Reznikoff) or incorporating pieces of found text into poems (T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams). Using these poets as inspiration, create a found poem using materials from street signs, newspapers, product packaging, legal documents, or e-mails. Play with different rearrangements and line breaks to form a new meaning that may be an unexpected juxtaposition to the original text.
The Brady Bunch, Married With Children, The Simpsons, Leave It to Beaver, Freaks and Geeks, That ‘70s Show. These television sitcoms, and others, have provided us with many memorable father characters over the years. Choose a favorite TV dad, past or present, and write an essay that explores the reasons behind your choice. What does your chosen sitcom dad reveal about your personality? Are there aspects of this character’s behavior that reflect the kind of guidance you wished you had growing up?
Researchers recently announced the discovery that the metal blade of a dagger belonging to King Tut was made from a meteorite, imbuing an element of the cosmic into the legacy of an already mysterious historical figure. Write a short scene in which a meteorite lands in the vicinity of your story’s setting. What are the consequences—in terms of affecting the plot or tone—of introducing this unearthly element into your story?
An ode is a poem that celebrates a person, an event, or object. But what if you don’t want to sing your praises for someone or something? Choose a person, event, or object with which you have a love-hate relationship, and write an anti-ode that examines the bases of your feelings of both opposition and attraction. How can you use diction and rhythm to reflect the complexity of tension between two extreme emotions for the subject of your poem? For inspiration, read Dean Young’s “Sean Penn Anti-Ode.”
From cities across the globe come reports of increasingly untraditional and casual fashion choices when it comes to getting married: brides in New York City who opt to wear wedding pants instead of a gown, and couples in Beijing showing up to the marriage registration office wearing “sleeveless shirts and shorts, or slippers.” Write a personal essay that examines the progression of your own clothing choices. Have you gone through phases when your outfits—whether influenced by a job, emotional state, or cultural shifts—were formal or informal, plain or adorned, monochromatic or colorful?
This week, write a scene in which your main character experiences a series of coincidences over the course of a single day. Perhaps he sees the same stranger twice in one day, or finds that he is wearing the exact same outfit as someone he encounters. Is he eager to derive meaning from the occurrences, or does he dismiss them as possessing no significance? What is revealed about his personality by the response to these coincidences? Will he be proven wrong?
Most people spend at least a few minutes a day in front of a mirror, whether while brushing teeth at the bathroom sink at night, or involved in a focused morning makeup or hairstyling routine. Spend a more intensive amount of time in front of a mirror and write a self-portrait poem as you study your own reflection. How has your face evolved over the years? Do your features seem more or less familiar the longer you look? Are there particular elements of your face that remind you of certain people or memories?
Our favorite actors and musicians often seem larger than life because they are able to produce powerful performances using personae that may or may not belie their more mundane, daily existence. Someone might always be the demanding diva or the goofy comedian on screen and live up to that reputation, or be the complete opposite once out of the public eye. Write a personal essay about one of your favorite celebrities, current or past. Describe the circumstances around your earliest encounters with this person's star quality, taking into account the elements of that celebrity image that were particularly striking or resonant for you. If you were to meet this person and have a heart-to-heart conversation, what would you share or hope to discover? How might your admiration change?
As personal information and financial transactions become increasingly digitized, more and more reliance is placed on online accounts and password-protected websites, thus the number of accounts any person maintains is growing each year. At the same time, studies report that most people reuse the same five or so passwords, and the most popular ones remain the same, year after year, such as: password, 123456, football, baseball, and qwerty. Write a short story in which your main character finds a list of important passwords. What does the combination of passwords and accounts reveal about the person who created them? Is there a pattern that leads to the discovery of additional information? If there are consequences for your character's unexpected access to someone else's private data, how do they play out in the context of your story?
"Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them," writes Oscar Wilde in his 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Drawing upon your own experiences with parents, guardians, mother or father figures—or your personal history as a parent yourself—compile a short list of specific memories and observations divided into three categories: love, judgment, and forgiveness. Would you agree with Wilde that children's love for and judgment of parents are inevitable, but forgiveness of them may be less so? How might you see forgiveness as a more conscious component of a parent-child relationship? Write a three-part poem that explores the many nuances of a parent-child relationship as it evolves with age.
Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard has been celebrated for her ability to use natural events as doorways into spiritual contemplation, as in her essay “Total Eclipse.” Write an essay about the most impressive natural event you’ve witnessed. It could be grand, like a tornado skirting the edge of a midwestern town, or more humble, though no less impactful, like a spider approaching prey caught on its web. What questions and realizations did this event spur in your mind? Why has it remained in your memory? What does it say about your relationship to nature?
If you’re having trouble starting a scene, try taking it out of the story and writing it as a screenplay. Made up of only the most essential pieces of expression, action, and dialogue, a screenplay can act as a kind of blueprint for a scene, helping you to make sense of the complexity and movement while forcing you to cut away whatever isn’t necessary. Once you understand the scene at its core, try plugging it back into the story, adapting it to the style of the prose, and giving it more body, like clay onto an armature. You can also try this on a scene or story you admire, adapting it into a screenplay to get a sense of how the author crafted such a powerfully dramatic moment.
Get out of town. Take a drive, a train, or a bus. It doesn’t matter how. It doesn’t have to be far. Just get away. Once you’re there, buy a postcard, address it to yourself, and write a poem on it. Fill up the whole card. Don’t edit yourself too much, just let it roll, then drop it in the mail. When it finally arrives back home, transcribe it onto a notebook and see if you can build from it. It may already be well on its way to a finished product, or it may only have one or two lines worth keeping. Regardless, stepping away from what’s familiar and writing a poem to your future self can help guide you to new images and thoughts that the daily writing life may not inspire.
Last month, a team of field research scientists discovered a new desert line drawing, or geoglyph, of “an animal sticking out the tongue” in the Nazca region of Peru, believed to be located on an ancient pilgrimage path to a ceremonial center. Think about the markers that guide you on your own often-traveled routes: physical signposts that you pass on the way to a favorite restaurant, a loved one’s home, place of worship, or perhaps a natural lookout or meditation spot. Write a personal essay exploring how these markers may be a significant element of the journey to your destinations.
In “The Deepest Place” by Kevin Nance in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adam Haslett says of his new novel, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, 2016), “it’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written,” referring to the intensity of the emotional truth laid bare on the page. Choose an emotional event from your past and transmute it into a fictional scene. Create new, imagined consequences that nonetheless reflect the true anguish of the moment. How can turning fact into fiction construct a distance between the life and the work that offers a new take on an intense situation?
Beginning next week, a collection of Marilyn Monroe’s personal possessions—including handwritten notes and receipts, an address book, lipstick and cigarettes—will be displayed on a worldwide tour before being put on auction. Choose one of Monroe’s items and write a poem imagining the story behind her connection to the item. You might even want to try writing from the point of view of the inanimate object.
In a recent public poll, over 120,000 online voters suggested “Boaty McBoatface” as the name for a British polar research ship only to be disappointed when the Science Ministry in Britain decided to name the vessel instead after naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Write an essay about a name you’ve bestowed upon a person, a car, a stuffed animal, a plant, a kitchen appliance, or anything else. Recount the story behind the naming, and think about how it reflects your own sensibilities.