Last month, French president Francois Hollande’s hair made the news when it was revealed that its maintenance requires a personal, on-call hairdresser who is paid a salary equivalent to almost eleven thousand dollars per month. Write an essay about the care—whether it’s a lot, a little, or none—that you put into your own hair. Do you prioritize practicality or aesthetics? Have there been phases in your life when you had particularly memorable haircuts? Are your hairstyles representative of that time in your life?
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.
This week, find a short story you wrote in the past and reread it, making note of new observations about the characters and their actions, as well as pacing and style. Then, write a sequel to the story that either takes place immediately after the ending of the original or far off into the future. Use the experiences and wisdom you yourself have gained in the window of time since writing the original story to imbue your characters with newfound maturity, insight, and energy as they face fresh challenges.
Heat dome, corn sweat, thundersnow. Meteorologists and weather reports often coin new words and phrases for the purposes of both explaining and entertaining. Learn some new weather-related terminology, or create your own phrases that explain existing and made-up weather phenomena. Select one of these terms as the title of a poem, and allow it to guide your imagination as you write your lines. Do you end up with a poem that is somehow connected to meteorology, or does the title lead you toward a completely different direction?
In the “First Fiction” feature in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Yaa Gyasi, author of the debut novel Homegoing (Knopf, 2016) says, “I was interested in the idea that people can inherit something invisible. These invisible inheritances could be personal, small, familial, like someone’s tendency toward rage or compassion in difficult circumstances, but they could also be large and political, a historical inheritance that is not tied to family per se, but to an entire generation of people who lived before you.” Write an essay about something invisible that you’ve inherited—it can be a personality trait or habit, or a larger cultural inheritance from ancestors. Conclude your essay with a conjecture about what invisible inheritance—however big or small—you and your generation may be passing on to the future world.
In 2012, New Zealand courts granted legal standing to the country’s third largest river, the Whanganui River. The agreement, signed by the government and the local Māori people, allows for the river to be recognized as a person in the eyes of the law—similar to the granting of corporate personhood to businesses—and for its rights and interests to be protected by appointed guardians. Write a short story in which your main character’s primary opponent is a body of water, forest, or other natural entity, which may manifest in a plot that involves environmental and cultural concerns, or perhaps more mystical and fantastic elements. What emotions, voices, and relationships will you explore in your depiction of this man versus nature story?
Did this past winter seem to drag on interminably, while spring was over in the blink of an eye, and the summer months keep zipping on by? Sometimes days, weeks, and months feel like they pass at varying speeds, depending on factors such as the weather, travel obligations, school or work schedules, and personal tastes and moods. Write a poem that explores two or more distinctly paced periods of time that occurred in the past year or so. Manipulate the sound and rhythm of your language—as well as the expository or emotional content of your lines—to reflect the drag or rush of each period.
Summer eating competitions in New York earlier this month included both the long-running hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, and a kale eating contest in Buffalo. Imagine that you have to consume one type of food for a ten-minute all-you-can-eat contest—what food would you choose? Write a short essay about how you would prepare physically and psychologically, and recount your favorite memories that involve this food.
Over the past two weeks, the popularity of the new mobile video game Pokémon Go, which incorporates cartoon characters into the real world using GPS maps, has resulted in conversations about many related issues and consequences—from privacy and surveillance, to sore legs and outdoor exercise, to city engagement and the future of technology. Write a short story that takes place in a world in which all citizens have integrated augmented reality software, games, and apps into their everyday lives. Does the story’s main conflict arise from a societal shift due to the new technology or from the lack of human interaction?
This week, look through some photographs you’ve taken while you were on a trip, either from recent summer travels or a long-ago vacation. To what extent does the photograph encapsulate that locale and your memories of that trip with emotional accuracy? Write a poem that explores the distance between your current self and that photograph, and between an image and a feeling or memory.
The new animated film The Secret Life of Pets explores the idea that when human owners are away, household pets shed their conventional façades and get into all sorts of mischief. Think about a pet you’ve owned or one you’ve been acquainted with through someone else, a movie, or a book. Write an essay that first notes the pet’s most readily apparent, idiosyncratic traits and habits, then imagines its secret life. What does the secret life you’ve imagined for the pet reveal about your own behavior when nobody's watching?
In “Superpowered Storytelling” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Benjamin Percy refers to Tony Earley’s quote: “Every story is about the thing and the other thing.” Percy explains by citing two examples of fiction in which the story is about a character working a job, and an added layer about that character in a developing relationship. Write a short story in which the exterior plot follows the day-to-day actions of your main character at work, while the interior landscape is about her evolving relationship with a secondary character. How can you manipulate the details about the job to serve as a metaphor for the relationship?
Last week, a bunch of Ruby Roman grapes sold at an auction for almost eleven thousand dollars in Japan, where highly valued seasonal fruit can serve as an important status symbol. While money may not be the most obvious choice for poetic lyricism, it can reveal a lot about our society and human nature. Write a poem about a situation in which you had to make a sizable financial decision—saving or spending, dealing with a sudden gain or loss—and examine how your personal value system is intertwined with money.
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?
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?