Street art, family and friends, selfies, concerts, a painting in a museum, funny signage. Many of us use our cell phones to capture photos and videos depicting everything from special occasions to the random striking visual encountered on a daily commute. Look through the photos on your cell phone and decide on a common theme, mood, or sentiment you’d like to convey in a poem. Are there photos you took by accident or ones you didn’t even know existed until browsing through? Write a poem consisting solely of descriptions of a selection of your photos. Which everyday objects, places, activities, or resonating visuals can you use to communicate a message?
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.
Burgers, hot dogs, barbecue ribs, mac and cheese, apple pie…. What immediately comes to mind when you think: American food? Whether you’re influenced by pop culture and media, regional specialties, or your own family and cultural traditions, write a personal essay inspired by one or two of your favorite American dishes. Recount some of your favorite memories associated with this food. What about the dish makes it distinctly American?
In the 1982 comedy film Fast Times at Ridgemont High—based on Cameron Crowe’s 1981 nonfiction book of the same name—several of the main characters are depicted working summer jobs at various fast food joints in a Southern California mall. Write a short story that revolves around a high school student’s first summer job. What kind of unfamiliar characters or unexpected situations does she encounter? Does her inexperience lead to humorous or embarrassing misunderstandings? Use this new working experience and environment to explore a transformation in your character.
“Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart / somehow or other still carried away by America,” writes Alicia Ostriker in “Ghazal: America the Beautiful.” This Fourth of July, begin a poem with the title “America the Beautiful” and let this phrase guide your piece, allowing your mind freedom to reflect on the things you find beautiful (or not so beautiful) about the nation. Read through some other Independence Day poetry by writers such as Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Claude McKay, and Rachel Eliza Griffiths for further inspiration.
Earlier this month, professional climber Alex Honnold completed a free-solo climb of the nearly three thousand-feet-high El Capitan cliff in Yosemite National Park in less than four hours. The accomplishment, done alone and without any safety gear, is considered almost impossible. J. B. MacKinnon writes in the New Yorker, “After twelve years of regularly climbing ropeless, he seems able to simply turn off his body’s fear response.” Write an essay about what you would dream of accomplishing if you could turn off your body’s fear response. What have you been afraid of in the past and been able to overcome? What do you consider possible and impossible in your future, and how might Honnold’s feat change your thinking?
Our willingness to forgive can be challenged by hurt feelings, guilt, and sometimes, our egos. It is not an easy task but in writing, we can explore different perspectives and outcomes. Write a story in which a character is trying to forgive someone. What are the circumstances that bring your character to this point of forgiveness? Is there an expectation that this act of forgiving will change their relationship for the better? To hear stories of people struggling to forgive others and themselves, listen to this episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour.
Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs mixes multiple languages and uses a variety of musical influences in the poems from her debut collection, TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Drawing inspiration from Nevada Diggs, write a poem where you incorporate words and phrases from two or more languages or dialects that are significant to you, whether they are fictional languages like Klingon or spoken languages like Cajun French.
A mission to launch a spicy, crispy fried chicken sandwich into orbit is scheduled to begin this week, as a joint venture between KFC and space tech company World View. The historic flight is partly a publicity stunt to celebrate the fast food chain’s launch of the Zinger sandwich in the United States, but will also explore what can be sent or accessed in the stratosphere. From the first human in space and then on the moon, to the first Mars landing, and the first space tourist, there have been innumerable milestones in space exploration since the mid-twentieth century. Choose one key moment that is especially iconic to you and write an essay about that memory. What was happening at that point in your life and how did the idea of exploring the unknown make you feel about your own potential?
Throughout his life, Henry James maintained friendships with and was influenced by painters such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. In his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction,” he wrote: “The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same.... They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another.” Write a short story that pays homage to a painting you particularly like. Perhaps there is a scene depicted or a statement made that sparks a narrative. Imagine the inspiration or cause for the painting, and then experiment with mirroring that to drive the writing forward.
“Palettes of mud, pillowcases of doorknobs, bags of ice…. Softest polyester stuffing spills out from black armor. It’s a leather jacket thrown over a bubble bath. This could describe a few people I know,” writes artist and author Leanne Shapton in a New York Times Magazine essay about the clothing designed by Rei Kawakubo. Taking inspiration from Kawakubo’s peculiarly surreal fashion designs, write a poem that starts with one of Shapton’s descriptive phrases, such as “a babble of valves and blisters,” “a reptile of lint,” “gobs of cheesecloth,” “potato-like clumps stuck to a neck,” or “exploded metallic popcorn kernel.” From there, let your imagination take over using these textures and shapes to portray an unexpected subject or feeling.
“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?” Some of the first and most influential relationships in our lives are with those in our biological or chosen family. Yet, it is not always easy to tell our loved ones what we are feeling in the moment. Write an epistolary, lyric essay that is addressed to a particular family member and that reflects on your relationship with that person. For inspiration, read more from “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read” by Ocean Vuong.
Beneath the streets of San Francisco lay the remains of dozens of old ships left over from the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. The ships transported prospectors hurrying to California, but eventually most were abandoned and buried under landfill as the city grew. Write a short story in which something monumental, such as abandoned vessels, secret documents, or mysterious remains, lies beneath the streets of the city. Which character becomes privy to this once hidden information? How can you be experimental or playful with the evocative image of a city built on top of layers of history?
Write a poem inspired by a natural park, area, or cultural monument in your region. Search through the National Park Service’s system of sites by state, or browse through photos of the parks for inspiration. The National Park Service, which celebrated its one hundredth anniversary last summer, may be most known for its large national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but also oversees hundreds of smaller outdoor monuments, scenic areas, and scientifically important sites that span the entire United States. Imagine the textures and sounds present in your chosen spot or site, and incorporate them into your poem’s rhythm and imagery.
Only sixty-nine copies of a book are published by Icelandic micro press Tunglið, and only on the night of a full moon. Any copies not sold that same night are then burned by founders Dagur Hjartarson and Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson. In the spirit of the poetic logic behind the press (named after the Icelandic word for the moon), think of something in your life that feels particularly ephemeral and write a letter to yourself exploring your perspective on its fleeting nature. What makes it feel impermanent? In contrast, what elements—relationships, objects, emotional truths—feel everlasting to you?
The life-size blue whale model displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—nearly one hundred feet long and over twenty thousand pounds—recently had its annual cleaning. Write a short story with a scene in the museum during this two-day long process, perhaps describing some of the images taken of the huge animal model being vacuumed by the exhibition maintenance manager in a cherry picker. Does this scene act as a backdrop to the main drama of the story, or have metaphorical significance? Are your characters directly impacted or involved with the unusual cleaning process?
Something beginning with the letter D. Something metallic. Something green. Something winding. Write a poem inspired by I Spy, the guessing game popular with kids during car rides and other long periods of downtime, in which the spy offers descriptive clues that hint at a visible object for other players to guess. Use this as an exercise to expand your vocabulary and the way you observe and perceive an emotion, person, situation or an object.
“Of course, everyone’s parents are embarrassing. It goes with the territory,” Neil Gaiman wrote in Anansi Boys (William Morrow, 2005), a novel about two brothers who are brought together after the death of their father. Think back to an embarrassing parent-child event from your past in which you were either the child or the parent or guardian figure. Write a personal essay that uses this incident as a pivotal point from which to explore the “territory” of your relationship during that particular time. Did this incident have further repercussions? Does the point of view you’ve chosen allow you to sympathize with or find humor in the innocence of youth or the wisdom of age? What does the situation reveal about your specific parent-child relationship and about parent-child relationships more generally?
One of the elements that makes David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks, which returns with a third season this spring, so unusual is its dreamlike combination of melodrama, horror, humor, and cast of idiosyncratic characters. Its surrealism is emphasized by the repeated appearance of mundane yet mysterious visuals—cherry pie, coffee, logs, and owls—which take on motif-like significance in the series. In literature, authors such as Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño have also mixed the odd with the everyday to similar hallucinatory effect in their books. Jot down a list of objects that have had some sort of resonance in your life, even if they may seem like unexceptional items. Write a short story in which you insert these images throughout the text. Is there an intuitive dream logic that can help guide their placement? Do they have metaphorical potential?
“Renga for Obama” is an ongoing project edited by Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review in which each linked segment is written by a pair of poets, creating a chain of verse meditating on Barack Obama’s presidency. Renga, a traditional Japanese collaborative form, consists of alternating three- and two-line stanzas: a haiku (5-7-5 syllables) followed by a couplet, each line of which consists of seven syllables, that responds to the haiku. This pattern can be repeated up to a few dozen or even hundreds of lines. Choose a current theme that you are interested in probing further with words and imagery—it could be political, aesthetic, domestic, environmental, or pop culture–related. Spend some time discussing, sharing reflections, and expressing gratitude or feelings about the topic with a friend, family member, or colleague. Write a renga together, and pass it on to others with an invitation to contribute to the chain, thereby initiating a continuing exploration.
What do Ancient Rome, Western Civilization, the History of China, Early Middle Ages, the Civil Rights Movement, U.S. Constitutional History, and Dolly Parton have in common? They’re all the subjects of courses offered this past year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “Dolly Parton’s America: From Sevierville to the World” is a history class that uses Parton’s life as a lens through which to view pop culture in the twentieth century, cultural politics, and the history of the Appalachian region. Choose a local celebrity from your city, region, or state, and write a personal essay that explores the intersection of the pop icon’s cultural context and your own memories of time spent in this locale.
In Fijian legend, a young girl falls in love with a boy from a neighboring village to the disapproval of her parents, and her tears of despair transform into red and white flowers. The hanging clusters of the elusive tagimoucia blossoms—only found regularly on one specific mountain ridge on the island of Taveuni—are the subject of a number of local Taveuni stories, several of which involve young women whose tears turn into the petals of the flower. Write a short story that revolves around an imaginary legend or folk tale about local flora. How does the story gain significance as it’s transmitted among peers and between generations? What sort of unexpected ramifications does the legend have on your characters? Who falls under its spell, and who remains immune to its powers?
“’It wasn’t a rhyme time,’” said Gwendolyn Brooks in 1968, as quoted in Major Jackson’s essay “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Brooks was speaking about her decision to move away from the sonnet and other traditional verse forms in favor of allying more closely to the black community and politically conscious poetry. Do you consider the contemporary moment a “rhyme time”? Why or why not? How might you transform the style and/or meter of your poetry to reflect your own evolving creative interests, priorities, and influences? Write a poem that marks some sort of departure from your typical work, in spirit and purpose.
Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations. Write a lyric essay in which you explore the connections between literature, landscape, and your own memories. For inspiration, look at Montreal-based artist Guy Laramée’s newly released collection of sculptures, in which the artist creates landscapes from old books.
The Met Gala is an annual fundraiser held in May to celebrate the opening of the Costume Institute’s fashion exhibit. The Gala is known for the elaborate attire of its guests, like the 2017 looks from pop icons Rihanna and Zendaya. Write a story that includes a scene in which a character briefly wears an elaborate outfit or costume. How might the clothing change the way they understand themselves? How might it change the way other characters view them?
“May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. / My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. / My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.” Taking inspiration from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under One Small Star,” write a poem that plays with apology or an apologetic tone. What may you have taken for granted in the past? To whom might you offer your apologies, and for what are you sorry? What are you grateful for now?