The abacus: a time-tested tool or outdated artifact? A recent New York Times article showcased an annual abacus tournament in Kyoto with competitors ranging in age from eight to sixty-nine years old. Children across Japan were taught proficiency in using the tool for calculations until the early 1970s, but since then instruction has been cut down to a couple of hours of basic use during elementary school, though advocates are pushing for reinstatement. Think of an object, tool, or method that you currently use that might be considered old-fashioned. Write an essay that reflects on why you continue to use this method. What are its drawbacks and advantages?
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.
A study published last week in the journal Science detailed findings that the North American bird population has dropped by three billion since 1970, a decline of twenty-nine percent in less than fifty years. Write a story that revolves around how an imminent extinction of all birds affects one specific character. Is there a moment of realization when this decimation impacts your character’s life? How does the disappearance of these creatures change the human relationships in your story?
The “Don’t have a bookmark?” meme began as a brand marketing tool on Twitter showing photos of objects—including Chex Mix, Oreo cookies and milk, and Vitaminwater—poured into the pages of books to use as bookmarks, which quickly ignited a storm of retorts. In one response, a librarian posted a photo depicting a soft taco that had actually been flattened into the pages of an edition of Edward Lear’s 1871 book, Nonsense Songs and Stories, found at her library in Indiana. This week write a poem inspired by this literal mash-up of food and words. How can you play with diction, line breaks, spacing, and typography to express humor, dissonance, and a mix of themes?
The summer season is always ripe for trends that pair with warm weather like beaded necklaces, tie-dye T-shirts, and the bright orange Aperol Spritz cocktail. Some might revel in what’s in vogue, and others might scoff at the buzz. Now that the fall equinox is just around the corner, reflect on what’s been all the rage and pen a humorous essay declaring a controversial opinion about something trivial but trendy. Consider the reasons behind the proliferation of the fad of your choosing—Cronuts, standing desks, axe throwing bars—and then discuss why you find the craze overrated, absurd, or downright dangerous while interjecting personal history and experiences.
“It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie.” In the New York Times, Tina Jordan writes about mystery author Agatha Christie’s unexplained eleven-day disappearance in the winter of 1926. Jordan’s article unfolds through a series of excerpts and news clippings detailing the incident. This week write a short story that similarly uses fragments from news reports or photographs to slowly reveal information over a period of time.
“I focused on myself all this time because that’s what I thought poetry was—personal narrative,” says poet Jake Skeets in an interview about his debut collection, Eyes Bottle Dark With a Mouthful of Flowers (Milkweed Editions, 2019), in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It was during his time with mentors at Santa Fe’s Institute for American Indian Arts that Sheets began to see the intersections between his personal life and broader explorations of the New Mexico reservation where he grew up. Jot down a short list of seemingly disparate topics you’ve written about in different pieces or projects, and write a poem that combines two or more of these themes. Consider both the natural intersections you land on initially, and perhaps some distant connections that require more of an imaginative stretch.
In Marguerite Duras’s 1985 essay, “Reading on the Train,” from the collection Me & Other Writing (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2019), translated from the French by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan, Duras writes about reading the first half of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace while on a train and feeling that in speeding through the story, she’d sacrificed a more intense, less narrative-driven understanding of the book. “I had realized that day and forever after that a book was contained between two layers superimposed with writing, the legible layer that I had read that day as I traveled and the other, inaccessible.” Write an essay about a beloved piece of literature in which you discuss both the legible layer and attempt to decipher or articulate a deeper resonance of the writing. What can you glimpse—in the story and in yourself—when you delve beyond the literal reading?
“When you’re in boarding school you imagine how grand and fine the world is, and when you leave you’d sometimes like to hear the sound of the school bell again.” In Fleur Jaeggy’s 1989 novel, Sweet Days of Discipline, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks and recently rereleased by New Directions, the adult narrator recounts her experiences as a fourteen-year-old boarding school student in postwar Switzerland, a time of conflicting desires and emotions, repetitive routines, and confusing power dynamics. Write a story that takes place in a school, inspired by memories of your own school days. Aside from the knowledge gained from textbooks, what were some of the lessons you learned about relationships and social dynamics? You might choose to integrate narration from an older, more removed character with scenes from an adolescent’s perspective.
In “Sisters,” from Brian Evenson’s story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World (Coffee House Press, 2019), the narrator recounts her sister’s observations of an unfamiliar holiday: Halloween. “The carving of pumpkins into the shapes of those rejected by both heaven and hell, the donning of costumes (by which she meant a sort of substitute skin affixed over the real skin, though in this locale they used an artificial rather than, as we were prone to do, an actual skin), and the ‘doorstep challenge.’” For the family of ghosts new to the neighborhood, the contemporary customs of scary costumes and trick-or-treating are defamiliarized, and the reader is presented with parallels between humans wearing costumes—“artificial” skins—and the ghosts’ tendency to inhabit real human bodies, or “actual” skin. Write a poem in the first person that explores the idea of slipping into another’s skin. Invoke both horror and humor as you consider what might become unfamiliar once you experience the world through someone else’s eyes.
“I saw the book as another kind of house. How did I want the reader to pass through it? What room would they enter first, and how should that room feel?” writes Sarah M. Broom about the structure of her debut memoir, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019), in “The New Nonfiction 2019” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a memoiristic piece, or revisit one already in progress, and work on constructing it like a house that the reader must pass through. Plan out the points of entry and exit, and organize different sections or vignettes to be experienced as rooms visited one after another.
How does the atmosphere of a cathedral change when a carnival slide is installed inside of it? A recent New York Times article reported that in an attempt to engage people into visiting and attending their services, a number of ancient churches and cathedrals in England have incorporated installations such as a four-story-tall winding carnival slide, a space-themed exhibit with a reproduction of the moon’s surface, and a mini golf course. Write a story that takes place in a cathedral that has incorporated some untraditional elements. Does the incongruity offer a different perspective of the space? Are the new features considered a disruption or are they welcomed?
How many people does it take to make a community? At Station Nord, a Danish military outpost and research facility located in Greenland just over five hundred miles from the North Pole, only six people and two dogs live there year-round. Even with such a limited population, isolated locale, and frigid temperatures, inhabitants establish a convivial sense of home and community with shared meals, silly rules, pig roasts, and game nights. Write a poem about a group of people that has provided you with a warm sense of community. What small, perhaps mundane, moments do you recall that have helped create a sense of belonging, support, and bonding?
What would motivate you to walk thousands of miles? Last month, researchers released data that tracked an arctic fox that had made a trek of over two thousand miles across the frozen Arctic Ocean from Norway to Canada over the course of seventy-six days, most likely prompted by a search for food or a new habitat. Write a personal essay about a time that you traveled a long way—traversing a great physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual distance—to achieve something that was of utmost importance to you. What motivated you along the way? How did the trials of the journey compare with the end result?
“What is the difference between the truth and what the characters are telling themselves? If I can figure that out, then things really start to crack open,” says Téa Obreht in a profile by Amy Gall in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine about a question she poses to herself during the writing process. Keep this question in mind as you try writing a short story that revolves around a main character whose version of the truth—about another character, herself, or an event that has happened—differs drastically from a more objective reality. How does the storytelling perspective demonstrate this discrepancy to the reader? What is hidden underneath this version of the story?
“Autumn nibbles its leaf from my hand. / We are friends. // We shell time from the nuts and teach them to walk. / Time returns into its shell.” In an essay on Lit Hub, Sara Martin writes about compulsively reciting Paul Celan’s poem “Corona” on first dates as a “beautiful but impersonal” way to expedite intimacy. This week, write a poem you can imagine reciting to a new romantic prospect or lover, one that doesn’t necessarily dwell on traditional images or vocabulary of seduction but strives for a subtle sense of hope and urgency. What kind of language do you use to invoke an immediate intimacy?
“Glamour Shots was once the coolest store in every mall,” writes Mark Dent in the New York Times article “The Last Five Glamour Shots Locations in the United States.” In the mid-nineties, there were more than three hundred and fifty of these stores—part salon, part photography studio—around the world. Customers were treated to makeovers, and camera filters smoothed out any wrinkles or blemishes, a task that smartphones can now easily accomplish. For this week’s prompt, write a story that takes place in a chain store that has outlived its glory days. Who are the regulars that frequent this space and what ties them together?
For many of us, the elevation in temperature and invitation to spend more time outdoors during the summer can usher in a flurry of changes—both atmospheric and emotional. As Nina MacLaughlin writes in her Paris Review summer solstice series: “In summer we tend skyward. It invites us out and up…. We can stand outside when it’s dark and lift our faces to the sky and get spun back to childhood or swung into the swishing infinity above.” Write a poem that embodies this transformation. What smells, sounds, and sensations do you associate with the season? For more examples of warm weather poetry, see the Poetry Foundation’s collection of summer poems.
One hundred years from now, what physical objects from your life would you want preserved that express your work as a writer? In the New York Times, Thessaly La Force asks, “What should an artist save?” while examining the eclectic archives left behind by artists, including boxes of fabric in Louise Bourgeois’s basement, a rejection letter addressed to Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz’s “magic box.” Jot down a list of objects, physical spaces, and writings that you would consider integral to understanding the intersections of your life and work. Write a lyric essay composed of reflections on each of these items and how they are connected to your personal creative intentions or beliefs.
Earlier this month, Seamus Blackley, a physicist and the cocreator of the Xbox, baked a loaf of sourdough bread using yeast extracted from 4,500-year-old Egyptian ceramic vessels with the help of an Egyptologist and microbiologist at Harvard. This experiment provoked some to jokingly—or not—wonder if this might unleash the wrath of an Egyptian pharaoh’s curse. Write a short story that considers what kind of consequences, mundane or fantastic, could result from bringing back to life organisms from thousands of years ago. Do problems arise when your characters unleash their creation?
How’s the view from above? This week, browse through these aerial photographs from National Geographic of animals, including flamingos, sharks, elk, whales, camels, hippos, and salmon, to discover beautiful shapes, colors, and patterns in nature. How can a different perspective provide new insights, emotions, and modes of thought? Write a poem that considers a familiar subject—perhaps one you’ve written about before—from a bird’s-eye view. Consider what the tops of things look like and what you see from a wider range.
Earlier this year, quantum physicists succeeded in un-ageing a single, simulated particle, essentially moving it backward through time for one millionth of a second. The feat required so much manipulation and was considered so impossible for nature to replicate that scientists present it as reinforcement of the irreversibility of time. But what if the reversal of a single moment in time was possible? Write a personal essay that reflects on one moment in your life that you would do over, if you could. What actually happened, and what do you perceive as the long-term consequences if things changed?
Catacombs decorated with bones in Rome, an underground reservoir in Istanbul from the sixth century, a former subterranean city in northern France with hundreds of rooms, chapels, town squares, and a bakery. In a recent National Geographic article, nine different historic sites around Europe that are located underground are rediscovered. Consider what strange activities might be unfolding at any given moment right under your feet. Write a story that takes place in an underground location. Have historical sites been repurposed for an entirely new function, or has something new been built? Is the atmosphere lively and bustling, or cool and foreboding?
“I wanted to leave behind speakers who succumbed to paranoia, emaciation, and sleep. More and more, there arose in me speakers who would self-emancipate, lurk and leap, bite and fight, and consume ravenously,” writes Justin Phillip Reed on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog about the poems that came after finishing his book, Indecency (Coffee House Press, 2018). In his essay, Reed considers the figure of the monster in mythology—as a metaphor and an agent of dehumanization— and its relation to anti-Black constructions, and finds a revitalizing sense of urgency in confronting these ideas. Think of a current topic or personal situation that has been troubling and exhausting you for some time. Write a poem that combats succumbing to this conflict, one that lurks and leaps, bites and fights.
How much do you trust the Internet, and its users, to guide your life? For the last three years, data engineer and programmer Tyler Wood has set up a system online where thousands of subscribers watch a livestream of a plant and vote on whether or not it should be watered. Write a personal essay about an instance when you have trusted the knowledge or opinions of Internet strangers to provide information about something such as where to eat, what to buy, how to fix something, or how to navigate a place or situation. Did you have feelings of hesitation or did you trust the advice implicitly?
Earlier this month, a New York City resident formerly from California posted on social media about his mysterious and shocking discovery of a perfectly intact burger from the West Coast fast food chain In-N-Out Burger lying in the middle of the street in Queens. Write a short story that revolves around a character stumbling upon an inexplicable, mirage-like object on the street, perhaps one that evokes particular nostalgia or poignant longing. Why does it resonate so deeply with your character? Does the discovery result in wild speculation and conjecture when attempting to explain the mystery?