Zadie Smith, author of the new novel, Swing Time (Penguin Press, 2016), considers dancers who have influenced her writing in a recent essay for the Guardian. About Mikhail Baryshnikov, she says: “He has high and low modes, tough and soft poses, but he’s always facing outwards, to us, his audience.” Write an essay that begins with one of your memories of watching a dancer. How does the dancer’s body move through space? Did you feel a connection with the performance and the artist? Were you moved emotionally?
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.
Earlier this month, actress Emma Watson hid books with handwritten messages in the London Underground and New York City subway stations as part of the community project Books on the Underground. Write a short story that begins with a character hiding a book in an unlikely place, like a bus stop or a graveyard or the hollow of a tree. What book would be hidden and why? Is anyone supposed to find it, and if so, what happens after? Is the discovery the beginning of a mystery?
In an essay for the Ploughshares blog, Emily Smith discusses representations of witches in literature and how they are usually associated with fear and terror. In her exploration of Macbeth, Smith notices that, “Shakespeare’s witches are…followed by dark clouds of rain.” Write a poem using dark or gothic imagery, such as a woman being followed by dark clouds of rain. What emotions are elicited from your depiction? Is she focused on the storm clouds or does she notice them only peripherally? How might you alter your rhythm and sounds to mimic those of a thunderstorm?
The 1987 John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles stars Steve Martin and John Candy as a mismatched pair both trying to travel from New York City to Chicago in time for the Thanksgiving holiday in what proves to be a comedic journey filled with bad luck, misunderstandings, and ill-timed coincidences. At its core are two central characters who seem to have philosophical outlooks, priorities, and skills that clash, and whose differentiation occupies much of the screen time and seemingly much of their respective psyches. Write an essay about a time when you were in a difficult situation and at complete odds with another person involved. Did you find yourself dwelling on your differences, and if so, how did that affect the trajectory of the outcome of events? In what ways might your differences have been emphasized by the attraction to larger-than-life oppositions?
“During the day, as I worked, I clarified daydreams, rehearsed thoughts. Phrases rose up, and as I shoveled compost, mulched garlic, or turned over the soil, the phrases turned too…. The world’s margins shrank but also grew luminous. After working outside in my body all day long, my mind felt brightly lit.” In “Turning the Soil” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Tess Taylor writes about her revelatory experience volunteering at a farm while at a writing residency in southwestern Massachusetts. Try to carve out a few hours this week to spend engaged in an activity that is very different from—and outside of—your usual working environment. Get your hands dirty in a garden or park, sit quietly in a library, or people-watch at an airport or train station. Allow your mind to roam over unexpectedly fresh images and phrases that surface, and then write a series of flash fiction pieces inspired by your time spent “outside.”
In the early twentieth century, anthropologist Franz Boas published claims that the Eskimo languages had dozens or more words for snow—claims that have been pored over and analyzed, debunked and reaffirmed, and criticized and clarified in countless investigations since. Think of a natural or cultural phenomenon, such as a certain type of food, or an emotion, that you believe deserves or warrants a larger vocabulary. Write a poem that presents these new words—perhaps compound words of your own invention—along with their definitions and an exploration of why these articulations are significant to you.
“Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it,” writes Marilynne Robinson in her 2004 novel, Gilead. “I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave…to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.” The winter holiday season is often associated with generosity and giving—being generous with one’s home and spirit, and the giving of thanks and gifts. Write a personal essay about a time when you have been the giver or receiver of a great act of generosity. Explore the connection between courage and generosity, reflecting on the exemplary people or events you encountered. What do you find are the greatest emotional challenges to doing something so bravely useful?
What do we mean when we call a story Dickensian? Often it is a lengthy work incorporating one or more of these elements: a dramatic and convenient twist of events, social-justice themes, a sentimental tone, a bustling city setting, a large cast of characters with vivid personality traits. Choose a memorable character from a Dickens story, such as Tiny Tim, Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, or Abel Magwitch. Write a short story in which this character has been inserted into un-Dickensian circumstances—perhaps a solitary exploration of the wilderness, a contemporary technology-filled existence, or a supernatural landscape. How do you maintain a Dickensian feel while ensuring that this piece reflects your unique creative voice?
In his 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” Percy Bysshe Shelley writes, “Poetry is…the perfect and consummate surface and bloom of all things; it is as the odor and the color of the rose to the texture of the elements which compose it….” Make a list of words and phrases that describe the surface textures, odors, and colors that surround you as this year draws to an end, choosing the details that are most evocative of the season. You may find yourself drawing inspiration from the contrasting primary colors of holiday cheer, bright puffy parkas or dark wool coats, the shiny prints and textures of patterned gift wrap, the stark tones of snow, or the scents of fragrant conifers and baked desserts. Write a trio of poems, each focusing on one type of sensory input. Select an element—setting, narrator’s voice, repeated words, or a specific object—that stays constant through all three, tying them together.
As the dust settles from this year’s U.S. presidential election, think of a time in your youth when you participated in a school election or were involved with the student council. Were you optimistic of the changes that could be made? Did you vote with enthusiasm or take part in any protests? Write an essay reflecting on your experiences and what was important to you then, and how this might say something about who you are today.
The Saharan silver ant is able to survive in the extreme temperatures of the Sahara Desert, which often reaches almost 120 degrees Fahrenheit, with the help of physiological adaptations including highly reflective hairs that deflect the sun’s rays and longer legs, keeping them further above the hot sand. Write a short story that explores how a human character adapts when placed in a geographical location with extreme atmospheric conditions. Is your character alone or part of a pack? You may choose to write a story based in reality, or one that incorporates elements of the fantastic.
“By existing in a cinematic space, Shakespeare can feel alive and present,” says Ross Williams, founder of the nonprofit New York Shakespeare Exchange, whose film project Maya C. Popa writes about in “The Shakespeare Sonnet Project” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The project aims to collect videos of each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets performed by actors in different locations in New York City, with a future series to be filmed in locations in the rest of the country and abroad. Browse through some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and choose one that reminds you of a place you know, or which evokes a site-specific memory. Write your own sonnet in response, bringing phrases and ideas used almost half a millennium ago into the present by incorporating cinematic imagery of a contemporary locale.
“Sometimes the humor is a way to mask all that, so the reader won’t know that what I’m writing about is me, or figure out what side of the argument I stand on. Then there’s a risk in just trying to say what you mean to say…. Writing is a risk no matter what.” In a 2015 interview with Chris Jackson for the Paris Review, Paul Beatty, who was awarded the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout last week, speaks about the risks of criticizing and including heated topics in his writing. Think of a topic or stance you are personally drawn to—but also afraid of—writing about. Write a personal essay in which you gradually expose this risky issue or opinion in a humorous way. How can offbeat humor, satire, or a generally funny approach allow you to tackle difficult subjects in a more oblique way?
As pollution levels worsen in many cities around the world, some enterprising companies have found a market for selling packages of bottled air from Wales (with a "morning dew feel"), as well as from Australian beaches and Canadian mountains. Write a short story that takes place in a world that has perfected the ability to conveniently bottle not just air, but other highly sought-after items, both tangible and intangible. What happens when emotional states and feelings, like happiness or love, can be bottled, sold, and bought?
Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday celebrated during the first two days of November in which family and friends commemorate the dead: gathering to tidy up tombs in the cemetery, presenting offerings on altars, eating and drinking, playing music, and telling stories. Write a poem that joyfully honors a loved one who has passed away—or that confronts death and mortality in a more general way—with a tone of both respect and celebration. How does imbuing the gravity of mortality with liveliness and vitality inspire you to think about imagery, rhythm, and diction in new ways?
“He walked warily, stopping often to scan the clouds for clues to an impending downpour...” A recent article in the New York Times explores why the National Weather Service is not able to better predict and track storms like this fall’s Hurricane Matthew, and speaks to a meteorologist and professor of atmospheric sciences about the need for improvement. Write an essay exploring an experience that disrupted plans in your life—perhaps an illness, a breakup, or an unexpected opportunity—that you were not able to predict. How did you respond to the challenge? In retrospect, were there signs or clues of the change to your forecast?
In Julio Cortazar’s short story, “Graffiti,” two graffiti artists develop a relationship admiring each other’s work and create a dialogue through their art like love letters. This week, think of a recent encounter you had with someone you admire. Then, write a short story where you reimagine that experience from the perspective of the other person. What might be noticed about the interaction that is different from what you interpreted? Will the feelings expressed be mutual?
Edward Gorey wrote and illustrated more than one hundred books, including several alphabet-driven works such as The Gashlycrumb Tinies (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs”), The Glorious Nosebleed (“She wandered among the trees Aimlessly”), and The Just Dessert (“Apologize”). In the spirit of Gorey’s dark humor unexpectedly combined with a children’s alphabet primer, write a macabre poem similarly derived from the first ten letters of the alphabet, or any ten letters of your choosing.
“Self of steam,” “from the gecko,” and “lack-toes intolerant” are examples of the verbal errors that became points of inspiration for editor and writer Daniel Menaker, whose book collaboration with cartoonist Roz Chast, The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), is featured in News and Trends in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Keep your eyes peeled for a verbal error in signs or newspapers, or think back to one you remember encountering in the past—perhaps even song lyrics you once misheard. Write a short essay inspired by the poetry of the mistake noting the memories, images, and idiosyncrasies that allow the error to “make surprising sense” to you.
Fanny Longfellow, wife of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, tragically perished in 1861 when her dress caught on fire. The combination of long dresses, flammable materials, oil lamps and the open flames of fireplaces and candles—in addition to the chemicals and toxic materials used in the manufacturing of many types of clothing—increased the frequency of fashion-related ailments and accidents in the nineteenth century. Write a spooky short story in which a character’s downfall is brought about by her wardrobe choices. Read about lead makeup, toxic socks, hatters poisoned by mercury, and arsenic dyes in this National Geographic piece on “Killer Clothing” for further inspiration.
Last week, in a surprising decision, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dylan is the first musician to win the award and in its citation the Swedish Academy, which administers the prize, credited Dylan with “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Whether you agree with the decision or not, examine some of Dylan’s lyrics. Then, write a poem that begins with a line you find compelling.
As creative nonfiction writers, we face the difficult task of trying to capture people we know, often intimately, as characters. Here’s a prompt to help. Pick someone in a piece you’ve been working on. Choose the sense memory that best personifies your relationship with that person, the one moment or event that most purely embodies your particular dynamic. Write it as a scene. From that scene (my mom teaching me to bake bread as a little girl), list the qualities (capable, patient, encouraging) that person embodied and the emotions you felt (reverent, curious, happy). Every time you write a scene with this person, think about how the actions and dialogue exemplify the qualities and emotions on your list. Or if it is a scene in which this person behaves in a surprising way, focus on how the qualities and emotions in that scene are the opposite of your expectations.
This week’s creative nonfiction prompt comes from Sarah Tomlinson, author of the father-daughter memoir, Good Girl (Gallery Books, 2015). Read Tomlinson’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.
For the first time in the United States, bees—seven species that are native to Hawaii—have been placed under protection on the endangered-species list. Write a short story in which a seemingly commonplace animal species suddenly becomes endangered or extinct. Do your storytelling instincts take you to environmental activism, a futuristic sci-fi universe, or an adventure in the wilderness? Or perhaps, to an apartment scene in which this news seems, for the time being, to have no bearing on the characters?
Taking inspiration from the “Dear President” feature in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, in which fifty American poets and writers were asked to write several sentences addressing the next president, write a short poem of address that starts with the words, “Dear President.” Touch upon one or two of the most important issues to you about contemporary society and/or government. Share any advice, wisdom, wishes, or requests.
This past weekend, the New York Review of Books published an exposé in an attempt to uncover the true identity of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, provoking anger and criticism from those in support of the writer’s wish to remain anonymous. Have you ever wished for anonymity, or do you imagine that you might in the future? Drawing examples from your own experiences with writing and private versus public life, write a personal essay about the issues at stake in this situation, such as celebrity authors, sexism, and the changing relationship in contemporary culture between artist and audience.