“Lyrical essays are more like jazz than a concerto. The idea that lyrical essays are more poetic than logical has allowed authors to play fast and loose with the truth,” writes GD Dess in his Los Angeles Review of Books review of Elisa Gabbert’s essay collection The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018). Think of a current conflict or issue in your personal life that remains unresolved—perhaps you are uncertain where exactly the truth of the matter lies. Write a lyric essay that engages with the seemingly solid facts of the topic, but allow yourself the freedom to veer into stream of consciousness and follow a “more poetic” logic.
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.
“Experiencing gives you a ‘first’ person perspective. You see others while you act. Watching gives you a ‘third’ person perspective. You learn something about how others see you,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine professor who studies memory, in Julia Cho’s New York Times piece on how watching a recording of an event can alter one’s initial memory of the experience. Write a scene in which your character attends or participates in a performance, party, or special occasion. Explore how her initial memory of the experience changes once she watches a video of the event. What stands out from the recording that hadn’t been noticed before? How does this reshape her memory?
Created by former Disney Imagineer David Hanson, Sophia is one of the world’s most expressive robots. She can mirror people’s postures, discern emotions from tone and expression, and react with her own realistic facial movements. National Geographic photographer Giulio Di Sturco says about their first meeting, “She started to look at me and smile, and I looked at her, and at that point for me, she was not human, but there was kind of a connection.” Write a poem about an imagined encounter with Sophia. How do you envision an emotional connection with a lifelike robot? What kind of language would you use?
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life—and theirs,” Kio Stark says in her 2016 TED Talk “Why You Should Talk to Strangers.” As children, we are often cautioned against talking to strangers, but as adults, this warning becomes nearly impossible to heed. Whether online or in person, many of our daily interactions are with people we may never see or speak to again. Once in a while, this anonymity can lead to a level of intimacy and honesty that is surprising and unparalleled even with close friends or family. Think about a time in your life when an unexpected moment with a stranger had a profound effect on you. Write an essay about this exchange, the circumstances surrounding it, and what it meant to you.
What does it mean to be crowned the ugliest in the village? Every year, thousands gather in Piobbico, Italy to attend the Festival of the Ugly and vote for the president of the World Association of Ugly People, known by locals as Club dei Brutti. In the Paris Review, Rebecca Brill writes of the festival and attendees: “Centuries of hard work have destigmatized ugliness to the point that Piobbicans declare their ugliness cavalierly, as if the categorization were no more charged than that of having say, brown hair or blue eyes.” This week, write a story in which characters vie for a prize or title that would be generally considered undesirable. Describe the history of the competition and what this unusual accolade means to your characters.
Sandra Simonds’s essay “Riot Girl,” published by the Poetry Foundation, praises the work of Chelsey Minnis and her “unladylike poetry.” Of a Minnis poem titled “Anti Vitae,” Simonds notes how it is organized as “a humorous, self-reported catalog of failures in the form of a faux CV.” For this week’s prompt, choose a form that is not inherently inspiring—a tax form, visa application, or cover letter—and borrow from its prescriptive language and structure to format your own poem. Let the form constrict your writing as much (or as little) as you’d like—perhaps writing an “anti” poem like Minnis’s or embracing the form faithfully for effect.
Anna Wintour’s office, the United Nations’ Security Council Consultations Room, David Zwirner’s office, an IKEA design lab, a Fox News studio. Brent Murray’s New York Times piece “The Rooms Where It Happens” showcases photographs of these rarely seen spaces where powerful decision-making occurs. Write a personal essay about a room that has played an important role in your life. Describe the furniture, lighting, and paraphernalia, and consider the actions, behaviors, and thinking you’ve done in this room. Are there expected and unexpected correlations between the objects and actions?
This spring, a six-ton potato structure, formerly used as a traveling advertisement by the Idaho Potato Commission, will be available for guests to rent through Airbnb. The Big Idaho Potato Hotel includes amenities such as air conditioning and heating, a bathroom, an indoor fireplace, and an antler chandelier. Located on four hundred acres of farmland about twenty-five miles southeast of Boise, the one-bedroom potato can accommodate two people. Write a story that revolves around a character’s stay in the potato. Does the unconventional setting lead to weird, scary, or humorous occurrences?
Scientists have discovered new evidence that perception of odors can have extremely significant variations from person to person. According to a recent study published in the science journal PNAS, depending on different genetic codes, one person might find the scent of a compound in men’s sweat intensely disgusting, while someone else might find it similar to the scent of vanilla, or might not be able to smell it at all. Write a poem that begins with a scent that you find intense. Then consider the idiosyncrasies of sensory perceptions: Can these experiences be both personal and universal?
Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February, was originally released serially in a Japanese monthly, from 1978 to 1979, to correspond with the book’s twelve sections, which span a single year. Throughout the text, certain observations mark transformations in physical surroundings: the length and temperature of the days, the changing light and shadows, a daughter’s birthday. Other shifts have more interior significance: interactions with various neighbors, the behavior of the daughter at school. Write a personal essay consisting of one section per month, covering the events of the past year. Focus on one situation or incident each month, and allow this event to associatively lead you to other memories or ruminations about relationships in your life. Bring in specific and timely details about the environment, setting, or special occasions that inspire you to reflect on the passage of time.
“Each of us came with a past attached, like a wagon or a bindle or a hump.” In Kathryn Davis’s eighth novel, The Silk Road (Graywolf Press, 2019), the recollection of this inescapable past is a means by which the main characters—eight siblings with names such as the Astronomer, the Botanist, the Cook, and the Geographer—examine their memories of childhood and is integral to how their futures will unfold. Each character’s journey meanders and doubles back onto itself like a labyrinth, sometimes intertwining with another’s, and as the story progresses, the gradual recombining and layering of past memories sheds light on the shifting and ephemeral nature of all trajectories. Write a story that revolves around a small group of characters whose pasts are connected. How does the weight of each person’s past eventually prove to have immense bearing on the present and future of everyone in the group?
Although late spring and early summer are typically associated with the bloom of brightly colored flowers and warming sunshine, “June Gloom” is a very real phenomenon on the southern California coast. May and June constitute the cloudiest months of the year in SoCal, with particularly cool, overcast, and drizzly days marking a gloomy turn not only in the sky, but also in the hearts of regional sunseekers. Does “unseasonable” weather strike you as irritatingly misaligned or unexpectedly refreshing? Write a series of four poems—one for each season—that plays with paradoxical imagery such as a spring snowstorm or an autumn heat wave. Does the unseasonable weather cause unseasonable emotions? How might this be expressed in the manipulation of rhythm, diction, line breaks, punctuation, and spacing in your poems?
The unofficial Smith College Historic Clothing Collection is home to three thousand dresses, suits, and accessories worn from the nineteenth century to today, showcasing a wide variety of women’s social uniforms across a diverse range of economic backgrounds. Search online for photos and advertisements of everyday work attire or casual wear from the last century or two, and write a personal essay that contemplates how the outfits differ from what you wear and see worn on others in the present day. What clues can you derive about the culture and its values—in terms of gender, workforce, or class—from the clothing worn back then? How does that carry through to what you wear today?
“You don’t need to look up the specifics of some detail right that moment. You just don’t. So you get the state wrong when you’re writing the short story that was inspired by that Internet video of the black bear that broke into a house and played the piano in what you think was probably Colorado,” writes Camille T. Dungy in “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story inspired by a strange or humorous Internet video you watched a while ago. Don’t worry about rewatching it to make sure you get the details right. Allow the fallibility of your memory to take the story into a new and bolder direction.
Several years ago, journalist Geoffrey Gagnon observed that there were bowhead whales—who are among the world’s longest-living mammals with life spans of over two hundred years—still alive in the Arctic that were born long before Moby-Dick was written in 1851. This week, write a poem that imagines being in the presence of a creature that has been alive for over two centuries. What might this being have seen or experienced that you would ask about? What historical events pertinent to you have occurred over its lifetime? How does perspective shift over such a long period of time?
Can refrigerator contents lead to a love connection? Refrigerdating is an app that works with Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, a four thousand dollar appliance with a built-in camera and touchscreen door, and allows you to browse ice box contents of potential dates for compatibility. Write a personal essay that considers the contents of your own fridge, and compares it with what’s inside the fridge of a friend, family member, or foe. How are your personalities and habits apparent in your preserved food choices? What might be misconstrued or misrepresentative?
According to a recent study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, scientists found evidence in a cave in Texas that 1,500 years ago, someone ate a venomous snake whole. The discovery was made through analysis of coprolite, fossilized poop, which revealed a wealth of information about the ancient forager’s life and times. While there is no way to be certain, the archaeologists believe it’s possible that the snake was eaten for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes. Write a short story in which your main character finds a fossil in an unlikely place. How does this discovery steer your character into a mystery?
“‘When you finish the book, you close the pages and let your mind wander to the first thing you remember—the most vivid moment, a feeling, a character, a phrase, or even something in your own life experience that resonated and has been resurfaced by the story,’” says Ben Please in “The Bookshop Band” by Dana Isokawa in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The duo, comprised of Please and Beth Porter, composes and performs literary-themed music by a wide range of authors, oftentimes inspired by just one book. Try this exercise while composing a new poem: Select a book you read recently and let your mind’s wandering—and lingering on a word, phrase, or feeling—lead you to the starting point of a poem.
“I had surveyed thousands of miles of panoramic splendor, and I couldn’t believe I had come all that way just to get to Los Angeles,” Caity Weaver writes at the end of her New York Times essay “There Is no Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train. But I Did It Anyway.” In other words, sometimes the old adage applies: It’s about the journey, not the destination. Think back to a time in your life when you had to travel for a long period of time to get somewhere—by train, car, plane, bus, or on foot—and the memory of the trek itself now eclipses the destination. Write a personal essay about the experience and what made it so memorable: the people, the landscape, and the unexpected moments along the way.
For decades, phones shaped like Garfield—Jim Davis’s comic strip cat best known for being lazy and loving lasagna—kept washing up on the northwest coast of France seemingly out of the blue. The mystery was finally solved after a French environmental group discovered an abandoned shipping container filled with these feline phones lodged deep inside a nearby cave, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. This week, write a story about an enigmatic object that surfaces near a body of water. Concoct an explanation that is logical, fantastical, or somewhere in between—a statement on wastefulness and global pollution or about the magical interconnectedness of the world. For ideas and photographs of strange artifacts discovered underwater, including an ice cream truck and a giraffe, visit Underwater New York.
In the Paris Review’s advice column Poetry Rx, Sarah Kay recommends the poem “On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart” by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie to her heartbroken correspondent. “My heart has an iceberg with its name on it, I told / Titanic, so I need your advice. Tell me, did you see the / iceberg coming?” the poem’s narrator asks the sunken ship. Write a poem this week that addresses and personifies a historical object or place, drawing parallels with the speaker’s present-day problems and plea for wisdom. What advice can this relic offer your speaker?
“In the tiny little notebook I took tiny little notes…. I wrote for one minute eight times throughout the first day. Eight times on the second day.” In Camille T. Dungy’s essay “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the author writes about various writing routines, including one which consisted of writing for a small amount of time simply recording things that caught her attention. Try out this routine for several days—you might decide on one or two minutes throughout the day, or twenty—and note down sensory observations, and emotional and physical feelings. At the end of the experiment, write an essay inspired by a couple of your favorite observations.
Earlier this month, a woman in Taiwan who was clearing weeds from a gravestone as part of the Chinese Qingming Festival—a day for sweeping, tidying, and paying respects at ancestral tombs—felt a sudden pain in her left eye. Upon seeking medical attention, the source of the swollenness turned out to be four bees that had flown into her eye and were feeding on her tear ducts. Write a short horror story that starts with a seemingly innocuous irritation that turns out to be something more unsavory. Begin your story with a presumably everyday nuisance—sand in your eye, a pebble in your shoe, a paper cut on your finger—and then let the horror unfold bit by bit.
The first-ever picture of a black hole was revealed last week, an image from the Messier 87 galaxy taken by eight radio observatories on six mountains and four continents in 2017. Spend some time looking at the picture online, including a wider, zoomed-out view. The New York Times calls it a “doughnut of doom,” while Vice Motherboard says it looks like a SpaghettiO. What emotions does the image bring to the surface for you? Write a poem that captures the wondrous significance of the image, perhaps imbuing your verse with humor, terror, and a mixture of scientific vocabulary and figurative language.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Do you prefer a pastry and coffee, yogurt and fruit, cereal, or an egg sandwich? Perhaps you like something hearty to start the day like oatmeal porridge, fava bean stew, a rice dish, or noodle soup. Browse through photos of typical breakfast meals from around the world and write a personal essay about a favorite breakfast of your own. Think about specific memories associated with these meals, involving certain people or places. How have your breakfast foods and routines changed over the years?