In the December 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine, photographer Corey Arnold writes about an expedition last winter to change the batteries in the radio collar of a black bear in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park that he assumed would be hibernating. The bear turned out to be awake, which made the adventure more adventurous than expected. Write a short story in which your main character is operating under the assumption that an upcoming activity will be safe, but at a crucial moment discovers that danger is lurking. How do you ramp up the sense of anxiety and tension? Does your protagonist respond calmly or with panic when confronted with a sudden terror?
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.
“Often discussions of persona poetry focus on its potential for cultivating empathy, inhabiting another’s perspective, but I have always felt that, inevitably, one circles back upon oneself,” writes Jennifer S. Cheng in Literary Hub about her second collection, Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018). “Persona poetry is often compared to wearing a mask, but to me it is like speaking into a shell.” In her book, Cheng writes a series of persona poems in the voice of Chang’E, the woman who floats up to the moon in Chinese folktales. Think of a mythical figure or other fictionalized character who resonates with you, and write a short series of poems that explores this person’s inner self. Allow your own voice to intermingle and draw you toward imagining where your identities might overlap.
“We need to grab the words that have possibility in them and begin using them anew,” writes John Freeman in the prologue to Dictionary of the Undoing (MCD x FSG Originals, 2019). Freeman selects terms from A to Z, from “Agitate,” “Body,” “Citizen,” and “Decency” all the way to “You” and “Zygote,” and writes entries that reclaim, redefine, and expand the definitions of the words to “build a lexicon of engagement and meaning.” Write a lyric essay that borrows this idea, selecting words related to current events of particular importance to you and providing personalized definitions in the form of brief exploratory passages. Reflect on your own experiences, the community around you, and what the future may hold.
If you’re looking for a change in perspective, why not try from the mind of a tiny animal? In a New York Times By the Book interview, when asked what subjects she wants more authors to write about, actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, “I wish more people would write from the point of view of tiny, witty animals.” Write a story from a diminutive, bright critter’s point of view. Consider whether this animal observes a larger story enacted by human beings, or if the story’s universe is comprised solely of tiny animals. Try incorporating humor in the voice of this quick-witted creature while still retaining its animal-like nature in unexpected ways.
“Take notes regularly. This will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability,” writes Lydia Davis in “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” in Essays One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). This week jot down several lists of different types of observations, such as your feelings, the weather, and your own reactions to the mundane behavior of others as you go about your day. Pay special attention to the facial expressions and small habits or routine movements of people you notice on your commute or while running errands. Write a poem inspired by one or two of these small observations.
This autumn, as you travel to see family, engage in outdoor activities, or plan gifts and meals, pay special attention to the sounds of the season. In “Seeking Silence on a California Road Trip,” National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George W. Stone writes about tracking the sounds he encounters on a summer journey made by airplanes, birds and insects, air conditioners, sand dunes, and crashing waves. “I set out on a 500-mile sound quest that took me from the drumbeat of civilization to nearly noiseless realms. I did not turn on the radio, though occasionally I sang a song that came to mind. I barely spoke; instead I tried to hear whatever came my way.” Jot down notes as you go about your day, then write a personal essay that explores the season’s soundscape. What harmonies do you find between the moments of sound—or noise—and silence?
The manipulation of memory has been a point of inspiration for a number of literary works, resulting in iconic fictional elements such as the memory implants in Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the mind-wiping in Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity (Bantam, 1980), and the memory downloads and uploads in George Saunders’s 1992 story “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” In Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019), translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, the authoritarian government of an unnamed island eradicates commonplace objects—hats, ribbons, birds, roses—and subsequently attempts to erase all memories associated with the objects. Write a short story that imagines a world in which memories can be manipulated by choice or by force, by individuals or by powerful governments. What are the rules? How are the emotional trajectories of your characters disrupted when certain memories are altered?
“I received a sign in my dream that you would vanish from me,” Naja Marie Aidt writes in When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back (Coffee House Press, 2019). “But images and signs cannot be interpreted before they’re played out in concrete events. You only understand them in retrospect.” In her memoir, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Aidt explores the dreams she had about her son, which in hindsight seem portentous of his accidental death in 2015. Think about dreams you’ve had in the past that still linger, or search through old writing to dig up images that are repeated. Write a poem that attempts to find meaning or a connection within these visual artifacts. How can you interpret their significance now?
Earlier this month, art critic Jason Farago wrote a New York Times article advocating for the removal and relocation of the Mona Lisa painting from its place in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Farago argues that the overwhelming popularity and crowding make for untenable viewing conditions, and that the painting itself is perhaps not worth the trouble. Write a personal essay that explores a piece of art—a book, painting, song, film, or live performance—you’ve experienced that left you with a feeling of disappointment. Describe the encounter, and then use the experience as an opportunity to reflect on a comparable work of art that’s underappreciated and deserves more widespread acclaim. How does your emotional response to the artwork affect your preferences?
Herb strewer, runemaster, toad doctor, bobbin boy. These are all occupations listed on a Wikipedia list of obsolete occupations—job positions that existed in the past that were rendered obsolete at some point because of technological advances and other sociocultural changes. Write a story that revolves around a character working a job that seems to be outdated or on the brink of obsolescence. How can you revitalize the job and its value in your story? Considering the rapid transformations brought about by technology in current times, what are the larger implications?
At JSTOR Daily, a recent story reports on the crowdsourced online slang dictionary Urban Dictionary from a linguistic perspective, noting its inclusion of both niche joke word usage and its usefulness as an archive of social meanings for words such as “like” and “eh.” This week write a poem that incorporates some of your favorite slang or informal vernacular phrases. You might decide to allow this diction to pull your poem towards one tonal direction, or to offset its informality with more conventional elements of meter.
“I had to write the book for two reasons. The first one was gratitude for all that kept me alive and made life worth living, and the second was vengeance against all that diminishes life,” writes Anne Boyer in an interview about her memoir, The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. Think of an urgent issue in your own life which has provoked in you both feelings of gratitude and vengeance. Write a personal essay that expresses both of these important emotional states. How do you give voice to these feelings in a complex and productive or healing way?
Queering the Map is an online interactive mapping project where users can post queer stories, memories, and anecdotes that are geolocated on a browsable world map. In Condé Nast Traveler, Melissa Kravitz writes, “Rather than centering the stories around a building or historical monument, it adds a bench carved with the initials of a couple on the west coast, the spot where a person came out to themselves, or the site where a fundraising group collected money for AIDS victims to the collective queer history.” Write a scene in a story that establishes the setting by noting a memory that is attached to a mundane item or physical structure. How does this infusion of a backstory inform the relationships that your character develops?
Is there something in the way you move? A study published last month in the Journal of Applied Physiology presented findings that people have unique movement patterns like fingerprints, ways of walking specific to each individual due to distinct muscular contractions. This week observe the idiosyncratic motions of someone close to you, whose gait you can detect from afar or out of the corner of your eye. Write a poem that attempts to capture this person’s particular way of moving. Utilize sound, rhythm, and spacing in your lines to depict these recognizable footsteps.
“We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity,” writes Carmen Maria Machado in her new memoir, In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, 2019), about the need to acknowledge the queer community as human beings who are multifaceted and morally complex. Think of someone who at some point has occupied a heroic role in your life and write an essay that attempts to represent all the dimensions of this person. What possibilities are you allowing for when you articulate a person’s flaws or mistakes instead of simply presenting the best version?
“I wanted to write a story and fit it all on a menu and call it ‘Myself as a Menu,’ writes Lynne Tillman in Frieze about a story she wrote for Wallpaper magazine in 1975. “This way I would have a structure and humorously author ‘a self’ as an assortment of so-called ‘choices’, while representing a text as arbitrary, like a menu of disparate dishes and tastes.” Write a story inspired by this menu form, perhaps using a real restaurant menu as a template or launchpad. Create a persona by choosing certain “courses” or “sides” to further elaborate on your character’s personality.
Last month poetry scholars from Keele University opened up a “Poetry Pharmacy” in a Victorian shop in a small town in England. Visitors can participate in poetry classes, specialist day retreats, and consultations and prescriptions for poetry, which all focus on providing mental health support for the local community and emphasize the therapeutic benefits of poetry. “We believe that poetry can do so much to match or alter a mood, to assist in so many ways with good mental health,” says Deborah Alma, the pharmacy’s designated “Emergency Poet.” This week write a poem with an intentional mood in mind, one that is designed to match a bright or pensive mood, or combat and soothe a conflicted one.
Do you believe in ghosts? Browse through the New York Times’ list of haunted hotels and National Geographic’s photo gallery of cemeteries with “views to die for” and think back to a hotel stay or cemetery visit from your own past that might have been tinged with something eerie in the air. Write an essay that centers on this haunting experience. What kind of decorative adornments, distinctive architecture, or imposing weather might have contributed to the mood? Was the tone of the visit tempered by more practical considerations and activities, or did you deliberately revel in the phantasmic atmosphere?
A marine heat wave known as a blob has recently been detected in the Pacific Ocean around Hawaii, similar to the hot spot discovered several years ago that led to massive amounts of coral reef bleaching. In other blob news, a unicellular organism, also known as a blob, has just gone on display at the Paris Zoological Park. The bright yellow slime mold can move an inch and a half per hour, is comprised of 720 sexes, is capable of solving problems, and can split itself into multiple parts and fuse back together. Write a short story in which a blob of your own making appears. Does it bring foreboding, mayhem, or wondrous joy?
Several years ago, New York Public Library staff discovered a box filled with file cards of written questions submitted to librarians from the 1940s to 1980s, many of which have been collected in the book Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers: A Little Book of Whimsy and Wisdom From the Files of the New York Public Library (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2019). Questions include: “What does it mean when you’re being chased by an elephant?” and “Can you give me the name of a book that dramatizes bedbugs?” and “What time does a bluebird sing?” Write a poem inspired by one of these curiously strange questions. Does your poem provide a practical answer, or avoid one altogether leading instead to more imaginative questions?
Last week Science journal published a study with the DNA analyses of graves and found objects from prehistoric German households that demonstrates wealth disparities in inhabitants not previously seen. The findings include indications that under the same roof, there were family members who passed down inherited wealth, unrelated individuals not buried with wealth, and nonlocal women who maintained or married into wealth. Consider the beloved and functional items in your home and write a personal essay that examines how these objects express social complexity or class status. How might you be remembered based on your possessions?
Earlier this month the transcription of a long-lost chapter from The Tale of Genji was found in a storeroom in the Tokyo home of a descendant of a feudal lord. Often called the world’s first novel, the eleventh-century masterpiece written by Murasaki Shikibu recounts the love life of a fictional prince named Genji. In the recently discovered chapter, the prince meets his future wife, Murasaki, who shares the same name as the book’s author. Write a new chapter from a story or novel you know well. What occurs in this portion of the story that might fill in some gaps or offer a new discovery? How does it fit in with, or transform, the meaning of the original text?
What is documentary poetry? In “Where Poetry Meets Journalism” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, documentary poetry, also known as docupoetry, is described as “socially engaged poetry that often uses nonliterary texts—news reports, legal documents, and transcribed oral histories.” Select a piece of journalism that particularly catches your eye or imagination, and then search for nonliterary texts around the same topic or theme. Write a docupoem that chronicles a story or experience by combining these found texts with your own observations and language.
“John Bonham was the coolest member of Led Zeppelin and getting hit in the auricle region with a wrench thrown by his apparition would be a damn honor,” writes Timothy Cahill in “Five Things I’d Rather Get Hit With Than Have to Hear Led Zeppelin’s ‘All My Love’” on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Think of a song that’s gotten stuck in your head, an especially irritating earworm that was just the wrong thing at the wrong time. Write a humorous personal essay about the song and the havoc it wreaked on your life, perhaps using satire or exaggeration for comedic purposes. Does the song have a pop cultural context? Was there a time when you enjoyed it? If so, what changed your outlook?
“I try to produce work to help somebody know something of a world they don’t know,” says Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Felon (Norton, 2019), in “Name a Song,” a conversation with Mahogany L. Browne in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, think of the various worlds that you’re privy to, perhaps through your geographical location, cultural background, work history, hobbies and passions, or life experiences. Write a short story inspired by an expansion and fictionalizing of one of these worlds, providing a glimpse of a world you know well.