Much like Rudyard Kipling’s tales about animals and their origins, Just So Stories, scientists have many hypotheses to explain the mystery of why zebras have stripes including that they function as interspecies identifying marks, detract flies, or confuse predators. For ten summers, biologist Tim Caro conducted trial-and-error experiments to test these hypotheses, going so far as to walk around dressed in a custom-made black-and-white striped pajama suit and count flies that landed on himself. Write a poem inspired by Caro’s perseverance that explores the human desire to solve mysteries and explain unknown origins. How can you use diction, sound, and imagery to create an atmosphere of curiosity, frustration, or discovery?
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.
In The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris, the eleventh-century Japanese poet and courtier created a series of lists based on her daily life. Her topics included “Hateful Things” (“A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise”), “Elegant Things” (“A pretty child eating strawberries”), “Things That Have Lost Their Power” (“A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air”), and “Things That Should Be Large” (“Men’s eyes”), among others. The list form allowed her to celebrate, or denigrate, details that may have otherwise been passed by unnoticed. This week, take ten minutes to invent and populate a list of your own—the more specific, the better. Make more lists with each day if the spirit strikes you.
John Berger begins his classic book Ways of Seeing with the sentence: “Seeing comes before words.” He argues that, “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” In a sense, the stories we write depend upon what we choose to focus on; by looking at something, we bring it to life. Yet it’s possible to fall into patterns of attention in which our vision becomes predictable, and potentially meaningful curiosities go unseen. Try freewriting about an object that might typically be overlooked. Maybe it’s a toothbrush, or the zipper on a jacket, or a stain on a sidewalk. What does it look like? Where did it come from? How was it made? How long has it been there? What has it seen? At a certain point, description may give way to imagination, which could lead to the beginning of a new story.
As the landscape and terrain of planet Earth shifts and transforms over time due to impact caused by natural and human forces, some ancient trees, bodies of water, cliffs, and stone formations have disappeared. Taking inspiration from National Geographic’s photo slideshow of natural wonders that are in the process of vanishing or have already vanished, think of a specific situation or physical item in your own life that one day will cease to exist. Write an ode to this ephemeral subject, exploring the idea of transience as part of an inevitable progression.
In O. Henry’s 1905 short story “The Gift of the Magi,” a young woman is in desperate need of the perfect Christmas present for her husband one day before the holiday. The two have fallen on hard times and find themselves with little money and only a pair of prized possessions: Della’s long brown hair and Jim’s gold watch. Della ends up selling her hair to buy a watch-fob chain for Jim, only to discover during the gift exchange that Jim has sold his watch to buy her combs for her formerly long hair. Think of a time when you’ve made a significant personal sacrifice in order to bestow a gift or act of generosity, or when someone else has done the same for you. Write an essay about the emotional journey involved in committing to such an act of kindness and selflessness. What feelings of conflict or uncertainty accompanied the situation, and what outcomes made the sacrifice worth it?
Max Brooks’s fantasy novel Minecraft: The Island (Del Rey, 2017), about a main character who must learn to survive on an island, is designed to reflect the experience of playing the Minecraft video game; in fact the narrative can be re-created in the actual video game. Write a short story that incorporates a video game, real or imagined, perhaps taking inspiration from other game-related novels such as Dennis Cooper’s God Jr. (Black Cat, 2005), in which a father is preoccupied with a scene in his deceased son’s favorite game; Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown, 2011), in which the teenage protagonist seeks to discover the secret hidden inside a game by its creator; or Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 2016), in which the main character is addicted to video games. Can you draw any parallels between the journey of being a player in a game and the character arc that develops over the course of your story?
“If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title. / Where in the body do I begin.” Many of the poems in Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection, Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017), explore historical relations between Native Americans and the U.S. government through a lens focusing on linguistics and different forms of official language. Write a poem using found language from official documents or reference materials, such as legal decrees, applications, surveys, dictionary definitions, history textbooks, or identification cards, to explore personal feelings about nationality, identity, or family history. What makes the language and grammar in these texts powerful? Taking inspiration from Long Soldier’s poems, incorporate formatting and styling that contribute to the emotional intentions of your poem, such as strikethrough, border boxes, white spaces, sideways orientation of words and lines, italics, quotation marks, punctuation, and parentheses.
In his experimental memoir, I Remember (Angel Hair Books, 1970), Joe Brainard begins every paragraph with the phrase, “I remember.” By repeating this simple form again and again, Brainard is able to uncover memories previously buried beneath other memories: “I remember my grade school art teacher, Mrs. Chick, who got so mad at a boy one day she dumped a bucket of water over his head. I remember one very hot summer day I put ice cubes in my aquarium and all the fish died. I remember after people are gone thinking of things I should have said but didn’t.” Try borrowing Brainard’s construction for your own experimental essay. Follow the beads of memory and see if they lead you somewhere surprising.
Miranda July’s short story “The Metal Bowl” is about a marriage and a secret that one partner brings to it, but the narrative ends up depending on the eponymous metal bowl. July’s story joins a tradition of short stories that hinge on a single (often surprisingly mundane) object, such as Lydia Davis’s “The Sock” and Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Accordion.” Try writing your own short story or scene in which a nondescript object plays a crucial role.
In a series of poems titled “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” Terrance Hayes seemingly addresses an abstraction: How can one have both a past and future assassin? Would this assassin be a person, or would it be a system, a history, a feeling? Hayes embraces the ambiguity, and writes his poems as if he were speaking to an individual: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” Is there a force in your own life that is asking to be addressed? Try writing your own sonnet that confronts this force—however abstract—and speaks to it as if it were a person.
With the current trend of online clothing delivery services, computer algorithms and staff stylists can pair a subscriber’s predilections with clothing options delivered to the front door. If you were to outsource your fashion choices to someone else, who would it be? Write a personal essay on your dream personal stylist, perhaps choosing a historical figure, celebrity, or best friend with an enviable wardrobe. Which elements of this person’s aesthetics would you want to co-opt, and what would you specify about your own preferences to ensure your sartorial needs are amplified instead of overshadowed? Are there notable personality traits or characteristics of this person that might filter through in the clothing choices made for you?
In the New York Times Magazine’s piece “The Dinners That Shaped History,” Jessica B. Harris, Bee Wilson, and Brenda Wineapple each write about an eventful meal that changed the course of history, including Harris’s account of a rowdy dinner party in Paris hosted by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire in 1908 which reportedly transformed Henri Rousseau from unappreciated joke into legitimate painter. Write a short story that revolves around a meal that has drastically unexpected and far-reaching results. At what point during the meal does it become evident that something extraordinary is brewing, and can any of the guests foresee the momentousness of the occasion? How does the food serve as a reflection of, or foil to, the history-making consequences of the meal?
“I did not yet consider myself a poet, but I could not forget the sensual power of her words,” writes Tina Carlson, in “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, about the experience of watching Lucille Clifton read her poem “homage to my hips” in the 1980s. Browse through other poems about the body, from Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” to Jane Hirshfield’s “A Hand,” and write a poem that focuses on the human body, perhaps incorporating themes of celebration, awe, history, intimacy, or health. How might you play with diction and repetition, line breaks, and rhythm and sounds to reflect the sensual power of the body?
In “The Art of Reading James Baldwin: The Truth of Our Pain” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, William Giraldi quotes Baldwin’s 1962 essay “The Creative Process”: “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself.” Think of a current social issue you have conflicting feelings about, and write a personal essay that approaches the issue as you might a lover’s quarrel. While sharing your own specific experiences and emotions, how might you aim to reveal a piece of society to itself in a tender and loving way? From a lover’s point of view, what kind of stipulations, exceptions, or assumptions might strengthen or weaken your argument?
“Jane Googles ‘Edward Rochester.’” In a humorous post on the New Statesman, Amelia Tait lists “how 25 of the world’s greatest tales would be destroyed by dastardly tech,” including Jane Eyre. This week, choose a scene from a classic story and write a new version in which you introduce an anachronistic piece of technology into the plotline. How does the modern invention highlight the ways in which interpersonal communication and conventions are tied to the speed and ease with which knowledge is accessed? Does something like Instagram, autocorrect, or a smartphone help, hinder, or transform your characters’ ultimate goals?
Every summer in the village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme in Spain, participants of an annual festival enact a death ritual by climbing into coffins that are then paraded by pallbearers through music-filled streets. The festival falls on the feast day of Saint Martha, and is seen as a way for devotees to express gratitude and celebrate the triumph of life and health, after having narrowly escaped death in the previous year. Write a poem that explores a time when you have felt particularly sensitive to mortality, perhaps because of a personal or loved one’s brush with serious illness or death. Instead of steering clear of the conventional words, images, symbols, and objects that are associated with death, focus on highlighting them. How might a direct confrontation of the proximity between vitality and mortality create new perspective?
In Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a mysterious narrator recounts committing the murder of an old man, all the while insisting on his own sanity. In order to hide the body, the narrator dismembers and buries the corpse beneath the floorboards, but continues to hear the dead man’s beating heart. The terror and madness that the increasingly loud beating wreaks on the narrator’s psyche throughout the rest of the story is seen as a manifestation of guilt. Think about a situation in the past when you have felt guilty about something you’ve said, done, or witnessed. How did the guilt manifest? Was there a secret involved? Was there an eventual confession or resolution? Write an essay about this memory, focusing on the immediate emotions and any bodily response or flights of imagination that may have resulted.
Earlier this year, scientists published a finding that all of the spiders in the world together consume a total of four to eight hundred million tons of prey every year, which is more than the estimated weight of all humans in the world. In its report of this study, the Washington Post offered the nightmare-inducing headline, “Spiders Could Theoretically Eat Every Human on Earth in One Year.” Write a short story that could adapt this headline as its title and considers a confrontation between human being and spider, whether one-on-one, or perhaps a freakishly larger-scale battle. Can you find both humor and horror in the scene?
“The mellow autumn came, and with it came / The promised party, to enjoy its sweets. / The corn is cut, the manor full of game; / The pointer ranges, and the sportsman beats / In russet jacket:—lynx-like is his aim; / Full grows his bag, and wonderful his feats. / Ah, nut-brown partridges! Ah, brilliant pheasants!” writes Lord Byron in his epic poem “Don Juan.” The poem, which satirizes the legendary Don Juan and portrays him as a character easily seduced by women, is told in seventeen cantos and this section describes a party at an English countryside estate. Use Byron’s line about a mellow autumn as the first line of your poem. Continue on from there and write about a festive autumnal gathering, perhaps using Byron’s mentions of outdoor recreation and landscape, animals and nature, a country or rural setting, or the ottava rima rhyme scheme for further inspiration.
A bar napkin on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. shows the now famous Laffer Curve, a mathematical curve economist Arthur Laffer sketched that convinced President Ford to cut tax rates in 1974. Recently it was revealed that it is not the original bar napkin, but a copy Laffer later recreated as a keepsake. The Smithsonian put the napkin on display in 2015, but at the time of the meeting more than forty years ago, Laffer was a young professor and nobody suspected anything especially momentous was occurring. Imagine that decades into the future, the Smithsonian will be acquiring a relic or souvenir from your own life that has taken on historical importance. What would the object be? Write an essay exploring mementos you’ve kept over the years in hopes that these objects might be of importance in the future.
In “5 Over 50” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, author Laura Hulthen Thomas describes a phone call in which her elderly great-aunt recounted Thomas’s great-grandmother engaging in recklessly brazen behavior. Hearing this tale gave Thomas the courage and inspiration to recommit to writing during a period when she had almost given up on it. Write a short story in which your main character has a phone conversation with a relative who offers up a long-ago and unexpected memory about a family member. How does the story change the character’s perspective on life and trajectory? What kind of an effect might the revelation of a bold sense of adventure in one’s familial past have on someone feeling hopeless and apprehensive of taking risks?
Those inclined toward superstitious beliefs may be relieved that last Friday marked the second and last Friday the thirteenth of this year. Whether you are a believer or not, a study by behavioral scientist Jane Risen reveals that superstitions can affect both believers and nonbelievers. Though it may not be considered rational, the feeling of being cursed can be relieved if some sort of ritual is performed, like throwing salt over one’s shoulder or knocking on wood. Write a poem that begins with the presentation of a mysterious or inexplicable anxiety. Then in the latter half of the poem, present a ritual to reverse the effects, perhaps in the form of a physical ritual, lucky objects, or an incantation. Does the act of creating or poeticizing a ritual to lessen worries of a bad outcome have a soothing effect of its own?
“You can always tell prettiness from beauty. Beauty arises from contradiction, even when it’s under the surface. Any report of experience will be contradictory. And part of the reportage is to include those contradictions,” says Chris Kraus in a conversation with Leslie Jamison for Interview magazine. Write a personal essay exploring the idea that an underlying contradiction is intrinsic to the value of beauty. What are some images, scenes, or emotions in your own life or in art you’ve encountered that you found to be beautiful, and what contradictions might lie within them? How can you effectively integrate contradictions into your own reportage to explore true beauty?
Earlier this year, Ernest Hemingway’s first short story was discovered in Key West, Florida, spanning fourteen handwritten pages of a notebook. The untitled story, written when Hemingway was ten years old, is a fictional travelogue through Ireland and Scotland that includes both researched facts and imagined scenes and characters. Write a fictional travel story that mirrors Hemingway’s epistolary form and incorporates letters and diary entries, or other invented documents.
In his poem “Rain,” Houston-based poet Kevin Prufer creates a distinctive atmosphere through repetition: “Rain made red leaves stick to car windows. / Rain made the houses vague. A car / slid through rain past rows of houses.” The poem begins innocently enough, but the accumulation of the word “rain” soon brings it into a nightmarish territory. Try choosing one word and letting its repetition guide you through a poem. The poem’s logic may need to contort itself in order to make room for the repetition, but that is the point—use a formal constraint to get your creative mind moving differently.