Scientists at NASA announced earlier this month that 2018 was officially the fourth warmest year since 1880, the earliest year that records of the Earth’s global surface temperature are available. In fact, the past five years have been the warmest in the record, marking a trend of steadily increasing temperatures. Write a short story that takes place somewhere that is always hot, and with temperatures that continue to rise. Do your characters remember and reminisce about days of cold? In what ways does this world function and look different from the one we live in today?
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 Kindergarten Teacher, a remake of the 2014 Israeli film of the same name, Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as an aspiring poet and elementary school teacher who becomes obsessed with the writing of a five-year-old boy named Jimmy. To craft the young boy’s verses, Gyllenhaal and director Sara Colangelo commissioned poetry from Kaveh Akbar and Ocean Vuong. In the New York Times, Vuong spoke about his creative process, which involved cannibalizing several of his own poems “to shift the complexity from the syntax to images.” This week, rewrite one of your poems so that the voice is from a child’s perspective. Pare down your language and focus on the core images. For ideas, read more about how Vuong adapted his poem “The Bull” to fit the character of Jimmy.
“I’ve just begun having text and feel self-conscious: should I sustain this performance, the analogy I’ve created between sexual and textual preference?... If textual preference is a matter of what gives a reader textual pleasure, with what categories does one establish preference?” asks Brian Teare in his Harriet blog essay “Textual Preference,” which plays with and explores the connections between sexuality and textuality. What are your idiosyncratic pleasures and displeasures when it comes to syntax, diction, rhythm, form, and imagery? Write a personal essay investigating what your textual likes and dislikes say about the way you encounter the world.
Last month’s total lunar eclipse during a “super blood wolf moon” was watched by millions of people around the world. Already a rare cosmic occurrence, what was particularly unusual was that many cameras caught a tiny flash during the eclipse, which one astronomer quickly deemed was a speeding meteoroid crashing into the moon. While lunar impacts happen all the time, the visibility and recording of one was unique since the flash of light could only be seen from Earth because of the shadow caused by the eclipse. Write a short story in which something unexpected is caught on camera during a shared celestial experience that has never been filmed before. Is it cause for concern, terror, wonder, or humor?
“I attempt to discuss, through a conflation of creation myths, the idea of being formed by literature,” writes Paige Ackerson-Kiely on the Poetry Society of America’s website about the title poem in her second collection, My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012), which began as a response to arctic explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s memoirs. “One fact of my life...is that I have often been consoled by books, have found a life for myself within those pages, when that sort of life was not available to me on the outside.” Write a love poem that points to how you have been formed by your favorite books, writers, and literature. How has a particularly memorable work of literature provided you with consolation and love, and helped create an inner vitality?
When does a ride to the airport mean more than a ride to the airport? In her New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation essay, Jacqueline Kantor refers to the idea that the offer to drive someone to the airport often holds signification in romantic relationships and friendships. Write an essay about a mundane task or practical favor that you have done as a gesture of your burgeoning feelings for someone. Did the recipient note the significance of the act? Was it the beginning of a new chapter in your relationship?
Last week, news surfaced that a glitch in Apple’s FaceTime group-chatting feature was allowing someone placing a video call to eavesdrop on another person through their phone’s microphone even if the call went unanswered. Write a short story that begins with your main character inadvertently catching something not meant for her eyes or ears through a video call. Does she pretend it didn’t happen, force a confrontation, or figure out a way to turn it to her advantage?
Since 1886, every February 2, a strange celebrity garners national attention: Punxsutawney Phil, a groundhog with the power to predict the severity of winter weather based on his shadow. The tradition purportedly has roots in an ancient Christian holiday that involves bringing candles to church to be blessed for winter. It wasn’t until the holiday was introduced to Germany, that a small animal and his prognosticative shadow became a part of the tradition. Although there are others, the celebration at Gobbler’s Knob in Pennsylvania is arguably the most popular, and even inspired a movie. For this week’s prompt, think about an unusual ritual or belief among your family, friends, or community. Write a poem about your knowledge of its origins and how it has evolved over the years. What has been lost or gained with time?
Last November, over five hundred pieces from the art collection of Patricia and Donald Oresman were auctioned off in New York City, including work by Roz Chast, Allen Ginsberg, William Kentridge, Jacob Lawrence, and David Wojnarowicz. What is unique about the couple’s collection is that all of the drawings, paintings, and photographs depict a common subject: They are all portraits of someone reading. Inspired by this singular focus, write a series of vignettes that all explore a shared subject or theme. Experiment with different styles, perspectives, or tones to create a multivalence in your collection.
Marie Kondo has been making recent headlines for her Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, which follows the organizing consultant as she helps families clean up and declutter their homes. The show has sparked a wave of donations to used bookstores and thrift stores as well as social media posts of celebrities and noncelebrities following Kondo’s tips and KonMari method. For this week’s prompt, brainstorm a list of the strangest items you might find in a donation bin or out on the curb. Write a series of flash fiction stories about a few of these objects. Describe each piece in careful detail—involving as many of the senses as you can—and imagine why it was discarded and what it may have meant to the original owner.
One day doesn’t always last twenty-four hours in the universe: A day on Saturn lasts a total of ten hours, thirty-three minutes, and thirty-eight seconds, according to a recent paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. Jupiter’s day lasts approximately nine hours and fifty-five minutes, whereas it takes Venus two hundred and forty-three days to rotate around the sun. Write a poem that explores the idea of a day that lasts not twenty-four hours, but is shortened to just a fraction of that, or conversely stretches way beyond it. How might a distorted sense of time and urgency change your concept of aging? Can you convey this difference with rhythm or the format of your lines on the page?
Wesley Yang’s essay collection, The Souls of Yellow Folk (Norton, 2018), takes inspiration from W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, which addresses the experience of double consciousness: a divided identity split between the consciousness of how one views oneself and how one is viewed by others. A number of Yang’s essays examine his role as a writer within “the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is the condition of being an Asian American man,” and circle around the frustration and isolation of attempting to reconcile or unify public opinion with one’s inner life. In your own nonfiction, have you struggled with representing yourself honestly while being conscious of how your readers might view you? Write an essay about striking a balance between writing truthfully about your interior self and considering the pressures of others’ perceptions.
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say,” writes Daphne du Maurier in her 1938 Gothic novel, Rebecca. First love between characters who meet and bond at a young age has often been depicted in literature as feverish obsession sustained over the course of many years. Consider the monstrously toxic romance between Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the fifty-plus-year separation of lovers in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Write a story that revolves around a character’s experience of first love. Explore your character’s perceptions of love and how they evolve over time.
“Someone was always, always here, / then suddenly disappeared / and stubbornly stays disappeared,” writes Wisława Szymborska in “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” translated from the Polish by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanaugh. Although we often think of inspiration in terms of an overheard fragment, a fleeting sentiment, a glimpsed object, a visit from a muse—the presence of some thing—many poets have found inspiration and emotional resonance in emptiness. “Implodes, and all the way to nothing. / To illumine, first, then fades to black. / Hole where light was. / Absent star, perforation in there,” writes Valerie Martínez in the title poem of Absence, Luminescent (Four Way Books, 1999). Diana Khoi Nguyen’s poems in Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018) delve into absence by presenting family photographs from which her brother had cut himself out before his death, followed by concrete verse that takes the shape of the excised silhouette or rectangular blocks of text that fill the shape of the negative space. Write a poem that takes inspiration from an absence or emptiness of a person, place, or feeling.
In “‘I Read Morning, Night and in Between’: How One Novelist Came to Love Books” in the New York Times last month, Chigozie Obioma writes about how his journey to becoming a voracious reader was shaped by a childhood full of books and storytelling, and recounts a discovery made about the differences between stories told by his father versus those told by his mother. Write a personal essay about a storyteller who has played an important role in your life, such as a parent or guardian who animatedly read you bedtime stories, a relative whose tales are particularly exaggerated, or a friend whose sense of comedic or suspenseful timing is always just right. How has this person had an effect on your own storytelling and writing?
“The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories we learn from others are a matter of life and death. Literature has the ability to literally change our minds—to change how we act, how we grow, what we believe, how we vote, how and when we speak,” says Morgan Parker in “Portraits of Inspiration” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story that revolves around a subject, topic, issue, or idea that feels intensely important, urgent, or vital to you. How can you create a character that becomes a source of empathy for what matters to you?
The Humboldt Glacier, located high in the Andes mountain range in Venezuela, is the country’s last glacier. Glaciers are disappearing around the world due to climate change, which has also been a factor in declines and extinctions of animal species elsewhere. This month saw the death of George, the last snail of the Hawaiian species Achatinella apexfulva, named after Lonesome George who died in 2012, the last of the Galápagos tortoises. Write a poem about an object that is the last of its kind to ever exist, either in reality or hypothetically. How is the disappearance of your chosen subject significant in its own way?
Poet Maggie Smith’s essay “Tracking the Demise of My Marriage on Google Maps” published in the New York Times Modern Love column, uses images of her house on Google Street View, photographed throughout a period of several years, as a means of imagining and remembering the events that occurred inside the residence. Smith reflects on the trajectory of her relationship with her husband and the gradual transformations of their family. Look up a current or former residence of yours using Google Street View. Click through photos taken over the years if available, and write a remembrance of your time spent there, focusing on your habitual movements within the home and how they have affected your relationships.
In E. L. Konigsburg’s 1967 classic children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, two young runaways hole up in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for some adventure, but what would happen if it were a museum of food instead of art? Browse through National Geographic’s roundup of food museums and food factory tours—including ones for bread, Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, chocolate, and ramen—and write a short story in which your protagonist has a memorable experience in one of these gastronomically focused places. Does the experience leave nothing—or everything—to be desired?
Works of poetry composed of tiny glass vials, a mineral collection, a board game, lunch boxes, Rolodexes, and View-Masters? In “Authors Thinking Outside the Box” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adrienne Raphel takes a look at Container, a small press founded by poets Jenni B. Baker and Douglas Luman, which teams with authors to publish books in nontraditional forms, oftentimes as a modified object or series of objects. Take a look around your home, a grocery store, or a hardware store for an everyday object that sparks your interest, and compose a poem that could be printed or inscribed onto the object in some way. Take in consideration how the object and your poem relate to one another.
“Philosophically, the New Year is a time for beginnings, a time for reflection and change. I can’t think of a better place than this vast and ruggedly beautiful continent to put things in perspective,” says traveler Chuck Ward in a recent New York Times article about celebrating New Year’s Eve in Antarctica. Write a personal essay about a particularly poignant or exciting New Year’s celebration you’ve had in the past. Describe the setting and how it influenced your mood. What made the night memorable and did you intend for your festivities to help start the year off in a certain way? How did the rest of the year measure up to your New Year’s expectations?
“There is no market, school, doctor, or shop, and from late-autumn until mid-spring the village is inaccessible by car and uninhabited,” Alex Crevar writes in National Geographic about Lukomir, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest village and home to just seventeen families. Write a story set in such a place (real or imagined) that is similarly caught between modernity and the social and technological isolation of its landscape. What does living in this world do to alter the interactions and daily concerns of its inhabitants? Is there a generational shift or a longing for change?
“Whenever I find myself at a literary crossroads, I reach for my Tarot deck. In my regular life, I’m a staunch scientific materialist…but in my creative life, I’m an unqualified mystic,” writes Will Dowd in a 2017 installment of Writers Recommend. In fact, there are many writers who have found inspiration in the Tarot, including W. B. Yeats, Italo Calvino, and Charles Williams. Try your hand at choosing a card to guide you for this week’s poem. Conduct an online search for a card and allow the image to be your muse. Their names, such as Temperance, Wheel of Fortune, the Magician, and Death, may be enough to conjure up ideas.
In the essay “The Poet’s Table,” published by the Poetry Foundation, food writer Mayukh Sen pays tribute to the late Maya Angelou for her lesser-known literary feats: her cookbooks. Angelou published two cookbooks when she was in her seventies and eighties, which offer readers more than just lists of measured ingredients and directions. The pages are filled with anecdotes and deeply personal stories touching upon cultural narratives, racial divisions, juvenile traumas, and moments of joy. “I feel cooking is a natural extension to my autobiography,” Angelou told the Guardian in 2011 regarding her cookbooks. This week, think of a recipe that contains some of your personal history within it—childhood memory, exploration of heritage, sense of place, or simply a snapshot of life. Write about the dish in detailed prose, allowing instruction to blend with your reminiscence.
In “How to Write a Family Newsletter Your Friends Will Actually Read,” New York Times writer Anna Goldfarb offers suggestions for the dos and don’ts of penning a family holiday newsletter. Perhaps you receive these missives annually from a friend or relative with a curated list of their accomplishments that year, or you participate voluntarily or involuntarily in one. For this week’s exercise, write a fictionalized holiday dispatch—maybe from someone with mischievous and beloved pets, parents that detail each of their children’s achievements, or that pays tribute to a departed relative. For tone, take in consideration Goldfarb’s advice: “Figure out whether you want this piece of writing to be preserved for future generations—a keepsake—or if you want this to be a throwaway piece of mail—scan, chuckle and toss.”