Mary Ruefle’s essay “My Search Among the Birds” takes the form of short diary entries, all relating to birds. The entries each begin with a date and range from simple descriptions (“I saw a bird in the bushes near Dairy Queen. It looked thin to me.”) to more inward reflections (“Although all poets aspire to be birds, no bird aspires to be a poet.”). This week, try taking daily notes on a specific subject that will allow you to observe and be introspective. It could be anything: cellphones, airplanes, mice, socks. See where this act of sustained attention leads you, and craft your entries into an essay.
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.
February 26 is National Tell a Fairy Tale Day. To honor the occasion, try writing your own fairy tale with a contemporary twist. If you need some inspiration, examples abound of stories influenced by the magical logic and archetypes of fairy tales. In Robert Coover’s “The Frog Prince,” for example, a woman marries a frog and kissing him offers her a hallucinogenic experience. The anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books, 2010), edited by Kate Bernheimer with Carmen Giménez Smith, is filled with diverse approaches to the retelling of classic fairy tales. What elements of modern life or progressive point of view will you incorporate into your tale?
Many cultures have expressions to describe the phenomenon of sunshowers. In Japan, a sunshower is said to mean that foxes are getting married; in Iran, that a wolf is giving birth; and in the United States, that the devil is beating his wife. In her poem “Sunshower,” Natalie Shapero uses this American expression as a refrain and twists it in a way that critiques both the saying and the culture it represents. Using Shapero’s poem as a model, try taking one of the many cultural expressions for a sunshower and use it as a refrain for a poem. Begin with the words: “Some people say…”
Adam Sternbergh’s essay “Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation” in the New York Times discusses the concept of the “subway read” as a book that seems especially suitable for reading on a subway train, in the vein of “beach reads,” “airplane reads,” or “cabin reads.” Write a personal essay about the ideal setting for your own writing to be read. Where do you want to take a reader emotionally or mentally, and what might be a desirable physical environment for that interplay? Perhaps it’s a space that aligns comfortably with elements of your writing, or one that provides striking contrasts.
While roses, chocolates, cards, jewelry, and romantic dinners are some of the conventionally popular gifts exchanged on Valentine’s Day, for the past several years, the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City has promoted an enticing alternative: the Name-a-Roach fundraiser. Donors are given the honor of naming one of the Bronx Zoo’s Madagascar hissing cockroaches after a special someone of their choice. This week, write a story in which a character receives an unusual token of affection. Is the gift a hit or a miss? How does the gesture, whether humorous, grotesque, or ill-conceived, affect this relationship?
In one of the most famous cat poems published, “Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry],” eighteenth century English poet Christopher Smart uses anaphora (each sentence in the poem begins with the word, “for”) to thoroughly meditate upon his cat, Jeoffry. More recently, the poet Chen Chen borrowed this form for his own poem “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey.” This week, try joining the tradition by writing a poem with the same form that begins with the words: “For I will consider.” Use the form to explore the behaviors and characteristics of a beloved person or pet in your life.
In his memoir Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Random House, 2007), Rob Sheffield centers each chapter around a mix tape from his own life and uses the songs to narrate and explore the love and loss of his wife. This week, try assembling a mix tape of your own. Write down the names of songs that were important to you at a particular time in your life, and build outwards from there to begin an essay. Reflect on that moment when you first heard these songs: Was it on the radio in a car, or on your headphones, or did someone share them with you? Is it the music or the lyrics that stay with you?
In 1994, Microsoft asked composer Brian Eno to create the start-up music for their Windows 95 operating system, a six-second piece that became iconic. In an interview for the San Francisco Chronicle, Eno reflected on the process: “It’s like making a tiny little jewel…. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work.” This week, try writing tiny stories: perhaps a single paragraph, or even a single sentence. Experiment by using as few words as possible to tell a memorable tale.
Ted Berrigan, a prominent figure in the second generation of the New York School of Poets, is best known for his book The Sonnets (Lorenz and Ellen Gude, 1964). Berrigan’s sonnets were assembled using collage techniques. For instance, many of the lines are found text from outside sources, and many of the individual lines are recycled throughout the book; two of the sonnets even use the exact same fourteen lines, presented in different orders. This week, try writing your own Berrigan-style sonnet (free verse or rhyming, as you please). Create a bank of individual lines—these could be original lines that you write, found text, or some combination—and then assemble these lines into a sonnet. Allow the poem to be nonlinear, if that is what the process calls for, and travel down unexpected trains of thought.
Recently, the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejected the White House’s request to loan Vincent van Gogh’s “Landscape With Snow” painting, instead offering to lend Maurizio Cattelan’s functional, solid gold toilet sculpture titled “America.” If you could borrow any work of art from a museum or collection in the world, what would you choose? Write a personal essay describing the piece and your emotional connection to it. Where would you choose to display it and how would its presence feel in your space? Is your choice related to a personal statement or a strictly aesthetic reason?
“Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.” Steve Almond’s essay “The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine examines off-putting characters throughout literature and the issues that surround readers’ responses to them: gender, reader sensibility, morality, the role of literature, the publishing industry. Write a short story that showcases a main character’s repellent or abrasive behavior. In what way does complicating the character to make the reader uncomfortable and unsympathetic express an understanding of how struggles with failure and darkness are an integral part of the human experience?
Swiss photographer Steeve Iuncker has photographed Yakutsk, Siberia (coldest city in the world); Tokyo, Japan (most populous city in the world); and Ahwaz, Iran (most polluted city in the world) for a photo series project focusing on different record-holding locations. Write a poem about a record-holding city, using a real or humorously obscure record of your invention. You might find inspiration in a city you’ve lived in, loved, have never been to, or that only exists in your imagination. How are the geography, culture, and inhabitants affected by the extreme conditions? What kind of behavior and interaction unique to this place will you explore?
In 2014, the oldest eel in the world passed away. Ale the eel was 155 years old and had been living in a well in a small fishing town in Sweden, thrown in the well by a young boy when eels were used to keep a house’s water supply clean from insects. That statement may sound like the premise of a fable, or perhaps the beginning of a joke, but in fact it is a true story. Reality abounds with such surprises. This week, seek out a bizarre fact from the news or a historical document and try using it as the starting point for an essay.
Something Something Soup Something is a video game, or “interactive thought experiment,” created by Dr. Stefano Gualeni, a philosopher and video game designer at the University of Malta. In the game, you are presented with an image and a list of ingredients, and are simply asked to decide “Soup” or “Not Soup.” For example: “Rocks with flies and a candy cane served in a hat with a fork.” Taking this question as inspiration, try writing a scene that begins with a bowl of soup. Perhaps the scene focuses on the senses involved in creating and tasting the soup, or an absurd bit of dialogue debating the definition of soup. Let the strangeness of this thought experiment guide your story out of the ordinary.
Celebrities are often used as subjects in contemporary poetry, from movie stars to athletes, to singers and reality TV stars. In his poem “Marilyn Monroe,” Frank Bidart considers Monroe through a symbolic, almost metaphysical lens. In her poem “Beyoncé in Third Person,” Morgan Parker presents Beyoncé as a point of contrast for reflecting upon her own life. This week, try zeroing in on a celebrity that fascinates you. Start with a few notes on why this celebrity is iconic and build upon these points for your own poem.
Cultures around the world have always developed rituals and traditions to act as guides through all types and stages of interpersonal relationships. Taking inspiration from “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” the title story from the 2001 collection by Alice Munro, choose one of these words and think of a personal habit, routine, or ritual you have developed or participated in as part of a relationship. You might think about or research historical or modern friendship rituals involving bracelets and necklaces, or secret passwords and handshakes. You might find inspiration in considering romance and courtship traditions involving chastity belts, love potions, gentlemen callers—even arranged marriages. Write a short personal essay that delves deep into your experiences and memories, exploring the social conventions and restrictions involved in your navigation of that relationship.
Many traditional symbols of the winter holiday season bring with them associations of playfulness, innocence, togetherness, and celebration. Jo Nesbø’s crime novel The Snowman, however, turns one such symbol on its head, following a detective as he tracks a serial killer whose victims are always found after winter’s first snowfall, with a snowman nearby. Many other authors have experimented with the ominous side of holiday symbolism, such as Terry Pratchett in his fantasy novel Hogfather (a twist on Father Christmas); Christopher Moore in the satirical The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror; and Nick Hornby in his darkly humorous A Long Way Down, in which four strangers coincidentally decide to jump off the roof of the same high-rise building on New Year’s Eve. Write a short story in which you subvert an expectation that arises with a holiday of your choice, imbuing one of the symbols surrounding the occasion with a new layer of meaning. Why might holiday cheer and sentimentality inspire stories of the opposite?
Plaid flannel shirt, leather pants, polo shirt, hoodie, Levi’s 501 jeans, fanny pack, Dr. Martens, red lipstick. The exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” organized by Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher, curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, explores 111 iconic clothing pieces that have transformed fashion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, interweaving research and responses from designers and engineers on politics, cultural identity, labor, technology, aesthetics, and economics. Many contemporary poems that revolve around clothing also focus on basic and iconic items, such as Ruth Fainlight’s “Handbag,” Lynda Hull’s “Red Velvet Jacket,” Michael Longley’s “The Pattern,” “Harryette Mullen’s “Black Nikes,” and Sean O’Brien’s “Cousin Coat,” and investigate the intimacies of creation, nostalgia, transformation, and appearance. Write a poem that excavates the memories associated with one of your favorite everyday clothing items, then move on to provide a personal point of view of the item’s wider historical and functional roles.
“Yet where else besides windows can we perceive the thin boundaries between our inner and outer realities?” Justin Hocking’s essay “Diving Through Windows” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine is a series of vignettes, quotations, anecdotes, and observations that all revolve literally or metaphorically around windows. Hocking discusses windows in the context of creative perspective, architecture, literature, politics, linguistics, and nature. Choose a symbolic object, perhaps an architectural element, and write an essay comprised of short vignettes that explore a variety of topics currently on your mind.
Of the nearly seventy thousand passenger elevators in New York City, there are likely less than a hundred left that are holdovers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manually run by full-time elevator operators. This week, write a scene for a short story that takes place in a manually operated elevator. Do the passengers feel a sense of wonder, anxiety, or accustomed indifference in the old-fashioned space with its noisy and rickety movements? What kind of conversation or other interaction might take place between passengers and the operator?
“The happiest places incubate happiness for their people,” writes Dan Buettner in National Geographic about findings from the annual World Happiness Report that revealed that three-quarters of human happiness is driven by six factors. These include: strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, trust, and freedom to live the life that’s right for you. Write a poem that examines how your personal happiness is connected to your location and environment. How does living in your home, neighborhood, city, state, or country affect your general feelings of contentment or joy? Think of specific memories of happiness, and explore how a particular location might have contributed in direct or indirect ways to your feelings.
As writers, we tend to put up a wall between our creative writing (poems, stories, essays) and our more ordinary writing (to-do lists, e-mails). This week, try poking a hole in that wall. Think back and reflect upon an e-mail you received recently that startled you, that brought you unexpected happiness or unexpected pain. Or reflect on a recent to-do list you’ve written for yourself. Write an essay that feels as immediate as these messages or lists. Think about where you were physically and emotionally when you read or wrote these words. What does this say about you in this moment in time?
In her new photography series titled “Home,” Gohar Dashti explores the interiors of houses in her native Iran that have been abandoned and reclaimed by nature. The images create an ambiguous effect; an old bedroom overrun with wildflowers is lovely in one sense, but also hints at a darker history. What happened in these houses and why did the people who once lived in them leave? This week, imagine what it would look, sound, and smell like, and how it would feel to have your childhood home overtaken by nature. Try using this eerie space as the setting for a short story.
In 1996, David Lehman gave himself the task of writing a poem a day and continued for the next two years. The best of these resulting poems became his collection The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry. In the introduction, Lehman says of his writing process: “Inspiration was not something you needed to sit and wait for. It was something that came when you invited it.” This week, instead of waiting for inspiration, try to simply reach your hand out and gather some. Write down a list of observations each day from scraps of dialogue you overhear, images you encounter, and thoughts that cross your mind. Shape your daily observations into a poem and title each one with the date until you have seven for the week.
Poets Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon founded the CDC Poetry Project in response to a Washington Post report that the Trump administration had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using seven words in their official documents for the 2018 budget. The project invites poets to submit poems that use all of the banned words, which include “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “evidence-based.” This week, choose two or more of these words as inspiration for a series of flash essays. Use the immediate energy of short prose to express what comes to mind when you hear these words.