“There is sort of a recurring character with different names, this extremely self-possessed, undereducated person. There’s absolutely an element of autobiography there,” says Emily St. John Mandel in a profile by Michael Bourne in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Bourne describes the different iterations of heroines that have surfaced again and again in each of Mandel’s novels: “The figure of the rootless young woman with few worldly possessions beyond a fierce intelligence and a certain relentlessness.” Think of a character from a short story you’ve written in the past who possesses certain personality traits based on your own, and resurrect this character for a new story. Which characteristics remain intact and which are more dispensable?
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 “‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out” in the New York Times, Winnie Hu reports on elements of urban architecture in New York City that are designed to enforce order and deter lingering, loitering, sleeping, skateboarding, and the homeless. This includes metal spikes, studs, teeth, bars, bolts, walls, and railings placed on resting surfaces like benches, ledges, and low walls in public plazas. This week, look around more closely at the architectural details you pass by and write a poem about an interesting feature or texture whose design functions in a specific way. Is it welcoming or hostile? Can you express the physical details by playing with sound, rhythm, and spacing?
In the New York Times Letter of Recommendation series, Durga Chew-Bose writes about the value of getting an assortment of things framed after moving to an apartment in Montreal. “Some of us are born a little mournful, and we spend our lives discovering new traditions for housing those ghosts we’ve long considered companions. Framing, I’d venture, is central to this urge. It gives memories a physique.” Think of a memory that continues to haunt you like a ghost. Write a personal essay that uses a frame technique—the telling of a story within a story—to give the narrative a fixed structure. Tell the story of your memory, framed at the beginning and end with your current state of mind. What is revealed by the juxtaposition of this story embedded within another?
In A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s latest film about an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight on behalf of the Nazis during World War II even while faced with execution for his defiance, the camera moves across landscapes as actors are kept in constant motion. Vulture film critic Bilge Ebiri reasons that this continuous movement of both camera and actor becomes a dance of sorts. Write a short story where you place emphasis on the movement of your characters’ bodies. Focus closely on their actions, how they relate to one another spatially, and try to keep your writerly eye on the move. Create a dance that becomes a narrative of its own. What emotional states do these movements reveal?
“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?
“Objects make love visible. They give us an archive, a timeline with clear milestones. They tell a story that would otherwise be almost impossible to see or even narrate,” Jenn Shapland writes in her Literary Hub essay “The Maggie Nelson Test for Lesbian Dating Success.” Shapland explores the value of shared and exchanged objects and artifacts between friends and lovers, with an emphasis on gifting books. Write an essay about a book that you gave or received from someone with whom you’ve had a significant relationship, perhaps at a particularly precarious turning point. Describe the book and set the scene, exploring what the exchange revealed about you and the state of the relationship.
“Infatuation is a solitary pursuit. Dante doesn’t want to be with Beatrice: he wants to be alone,” writes Anne Boyer in “The One and Only” in the journal Mal. “A real Beatrice stands with real desires on a real street in a real city in real shoes. This is inconvenient to any Dante.” Write a story in which your main character is in love with the idea of someone, perhaps a stranger in the neighborhood or an imagined being. What is it about not knowing the real or actual object of affection, and their mundane opinions and habits, that allows for fantasy to bloom? What are the consequences of keeping this sort of distance?
In the Cut, seventy-eight new emotions are introduced, inspired by a theory that emotions are not just objective, biologically measurable states but are constructed interpretations of sensations affected by our cultures, expectations, and language. Writers, including Greg Jackson, Sara Nović, and Bryan Washington, name and describe new emotions like jealoushy: “The feeling of being jealous of someone while also having a crush on them,” and heartbreak adrenaline: “The strange feats of strength that can be accomplished after a devastating breakup.” Write a poem that revolves around a newly named emotion of your own invention, perhaps involving love, lust, or heartbreak. How does giving new language to a feeling expand your perspective?
In artist John Baldessari’s “Eight Soups: Corn Soup,” he borrows an image of a Henri Matisse painting of goldfish and writes the words “corn” and “soup” underneath it, while another piece includes a photograph of himself standing beneath a palm tree with a caption that says, “wrong.” In Deborah Solomon’s New York Times piece on Baldessari, who died earlier last month, she writes of a postcard the artist once sent from the Cincinnati Zoo to a friend: “The message bore no discernible relation to the photograph of the tiger cubs. In this way, it resembled his work. Text plus image and many possible paths between them.” As you go about your week, keep an eye out for readymade images—a photograph, a painting, an advertisement—and jot down words that immediately come to mind. Write an essay that uncovers, or makes discernible, the paths between the image and what it conjures up for you.
In “The Machines Are Coming, and They Write Really Bad Poetry (But Don’t Tell Them We Said So)” on Lit Hub, Dennis Tang writes about the results of using GPT-2, an artificial intelligence language program, to generate poetry in the style of Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and Sylvia Plath. Phrases, snippets, and passages are submitted to the program, which then produces several lines of writing that attempt to mimic the original text’s style. Using the Talk to Transformer website, try feeding the program one or two sentences from a story you’ve written in the past and see what the machine generates. Then, go with the flow of AI and use its verse to continue the story in a new, unexpected direction.
Marshes, rivers, forest, mountains, butterfly wings, fungi, fruits, flowers, birds, leaves, foxes, bears, wolves, and whales. The Biodiversity Heritage Library, billed as the “world’s largest open access digital library,” is a free archive of over fifty-seven million pages of sketches, illustrations, diagrams, studies, and research of life on Earth from the fifteenth century to the present. Browse through their Flickr gallery and choose a group of images that you find particularly intriguing, striking, curious, or beautiful. Write a poem that considers the life forms and ecosystems depicted in the illustrations and how they affect your imagination today.
Can you imagine what the voice of a three-thousand-year-old mummy would sound like? Last week Scientific Reports published a study that describes engineering the voice of Nesyamun—an ancient Egyptian priest and scribe whose coffin’s hieroglyphs describe him as “true of voice”—by combining his 3D-printed mouth and throat with an artificial larynx and using speech synthesizing software. This week write a personal essay about the one long-ago sound you wish to hear, if you could engineer a way. Would you choose the voice of a loved one or important historical figure, the sounds of an extinct animal or bygone technology, or perhaps simply the everyday sounds of a different era?
“I have to learn that in presence, the rushed, the partial, is still a whole, an experiment in form. In collage, my snippets of repurposed texts, ideas, and observations are not connected seamlessly; I see their edges,” writes Celina Su on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog in “A Collage in Progress,” a piece about her experience of the fragmentation of time and attention alongside new parenthood. “This allows me to cite, attribute, give credit to those who have contributed to my thinking.” Write a short story that consists of snippets that do not fit together seamlessly and feel rushed or partial. How does this collection of fragmented things shape your narrative?
“Most time-keeping traditions track the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Others consider seasonal events,” writes Steph Yin in the New York Times in an article about the lunar new year and other time-keeping traditions and cycles found in cultures around the world. “Each calendar reveals something about how the people who created it relate to the world around them while also preserving rich cultural identities and memories.” Write a poem about the passing of time that uses a metric personal to you. Perhaps a tree growing in your yard or an iconic neighborhood establishment that has changed over the years. What does it say about how you relate to the world?
“Sometimes we feel ‘blocked’ because we started a story in the wrong place or ended in the wrong place,” writes Sarah Ruhl in “Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Find a draft of an unfinished essay or one you’re uncertain about or unsatisfied with, and try starting from a different place. How does this new beginning alter the tone of the piece? Does this shift give new meaning to the true core of the story?
Last week, scientists published a study in Science journal reporting findings that the impact of the dinosaur-killing asteroid from millions of years ago ended up nurturing the environment for the development of early mammal species. The ocean’s acidity levels were altered thereby tempering the global warming caused by concurrent volcanic eruptions that would have otherwise been harmful. Write a short story in which a catastrophe of high or low order has an unexpectedly positive side effect. How does your protagonist respond to both the larger conflict and the smaller benefit of this calamity?
Stonehenge, the Pantheon, a seventeenth-century tea pavilion, salons, and reading rooms. For T Magazine’s “The 25 Rooms That Influence the Way We Design,” a six-person jury of design and interior professionals put together a list of spaces that have changed the way we live and the way we see. Write a series of short poems about memorable rooms you have been inside of at different points in your life. Perhaps you know the space well or encountered it briefly. What kind of vocabulary or rhythm can you use to evoke each room’s atmosphere as recalled from memory? Have they changed your life?
“A person is not just one text but rather an infinite series of texts, none of which could be considered the original,” writes Alejandro Zambra in his Believer magazine essay “Translating a Person.” “A book is, in the best of cases, the text that a person once was or wanted to be, but of course it’s a multiple testament, ambiguous and full of nuances.” Think of someone you have been close to for a long time and the different phases you have known of this person’s life. Write a personal essay that attempts to “translate” this person by following one particular thread. Try using a numbered format as Zambra does in his essay to separate scenes or moments of this life.
“‘To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,’ said the girl who cried snowflakes,” begins Shelley Jackson’s “Snow,” an ephemeral project and “story in progress, weather permitting,” which is featured in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The story is written in the snow in Jackson’s Brooklyn neighborhood, one word at a time, and then photographed and shared on Instagram. Taking inspiration from the ephemerality intrinsic to this project’s format, write a flash fiction story in which each word is composed on a surface—perhaps drawn in dust, penciled on a piece of scrap paper, marked on a whiteboard, or spelled out with pebbles or twigs. How do form and function intertwine with the idea of impermanence in your story?
“The light / that points / the way // in the fog. / The light / in the fog // that thickens / and reveals / the fog’s // cold breath. / The fog / as well.” Jeffrey Thomson’s poem “What is Poetry? Part 2,” selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the New York Times, locates possibilities for poetry everywhere, from all angles, in all subjects. Think of an image from your memory and write a poem that finds resonance as you dig deeper into the details. What happens when you explore an unexpected perspective of this memory? What new facets can you uncover?
When a new year begins, we often think of new beginnings or about trying new things. But is there any value in doing the same thing over and over again? In “The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences” in the New York Times, Leah Fessler writes about the tendency for novelty to wear off and champions the pleasure that can be found in repeating the same experiences again and again. This week, when you’re tempted to try something new, make an effort to partake in an activity that you’ve already done before—perhaps eating a meal you’ve prepared before, rewatching a movie, walking in a familiar neighborhood, or looking at a favorite painting in a museum. Write an essay that explores what you discover the second (or third) time around.
Last month at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited an artwork titled “Comedian” that consisted of a ripe banana duct-taped to a wall. Three editions of the piece—certificates of authenticity for the concept with replacement installation instructions of the banana specified by the artist—were sold, each for over $100,000. Gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin eventually had to remove the work as it became a safety risk due to crowds, but said of the piece, “‘Comedian,’ with its simple composition, ultimately offered a complex reflection of ourselves.” Write a short story that relies on an absurdist or comedic ingredient as the linchpin for its unfolding. How does your story bring into question the very definition of art, fiction, or storytelling?
“Comics are a staccato medium, with evidently small elements adding up to bigger ones,” says cartoonist Jason Adam Katzenstein in “Graphic Narrative Workshops” by Elena Goukassian in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Comics panels feel like stanzas in a poem.” Find a favorite short comic strip and write a poem comprised of one stanza per panel. Study the comic to gather a sense of the theme and pacing, working backwards from the images to write a piece that reflects a bigger whole created out of smaller, distilled moments.
Charles Yu’s new novel, Interior Chinatown (Pantheon, 2020), is formatted as a screenplay—with typewriter font, second-person narration, and camera and scene directions—to reflect the narrative’s examination of the stereotypical roles that have historically been played by Asian American actors and how those roles bleed into lived experience. By writing in this style Yu blurs the lines between the performed character and the authentic self, raising questions about assimilation, artifice, and identity. Take inspiration from Yu’s use of this form and think of a past experience in which you felt required to perform or maintain a certain persona. Write a lyric essay that incorporates scenes written like a script or screenplay. How does the form create a sense of distance or defamiliarization? How might this angle provide you with a new perspective or insight?
In Lee Matalone’s debut novel, Home Making (Harper Perennial, 2020), a woman moves into an empty house by herself while her estranged husband is dying of cancer. Throughout the story she grapples with tearing down and building both real elements and psychological concepts of home, navigating the memories, people, and places that constitute shelter, stability, and familiarity. “Can you be too old to run away from home? Can a full-grown woman run away from home? Can she run away from a home that was forced upon her? She should be allowed to, if that’s what she wants,” she writes. As thoughts of new beginnings arise with the new year, write a short story in which your protagonist is going through a period of transition, reevaluating the definition of home, and embarking on a fresh start. How are ideas of home formed in childhood, and how do we reconcile them as adults?