What happens when a flower blooms before its pollinator emerges? As global warming transforms the earth’s climate, spring has begun to arrive earlier in certain places. In turn, some plants and animals whose behavioral patterns, such as migratory and reproductive cycles, are triggered by seasonal changes are falling out of step with each other. Think of a time in your life when you have felt out of step with the world around you, perhaps just slightly behind or a little too far ahead. When did you first notice the misalignment and how did you break free of it? Did you need to make an effort to adapt yourself? Reflect on your emotional state during this time, and how the people around you might have helped you through this phase.
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.
“It wasn’t the twists and turns that kept me reading, although there are some of those. It was the language of daily life,” writes Leesa Cross-Smith in “Some Room to Breathe: In Praise of Quiet Books” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the essay, Cross-Smith describes her favorite reading experiences with books that offer up calmness, quietude, and stillness. Write a short story that lowers the stakes, in volume, pace, and drama. What is the value in allowing your characters the time and space to slowly observe and reflect upon their surroundings, to dwell on sensorial details? How does your writing change when you focus on the smaller and deeper explorations of truth?
Would you describe the smell of an herb as simply “musty” or “like old rainwater in the hollow stems of bamboo?” In a study published earlier this year in Current Biology, linguists compared a group of indigenous Malay hunter-gatherers with a neighboring group that depends on trade and agriculture, and tested their ability to name odors. The researchers found that the hunter-gatherers were much more adept at articulating the subtle qualities of different odors because of their direct reliance on the forest’s animals and plants for survival. This week, write a poem that explores the contrasts between scents in natural outdoor spaces versus cultivated environments. Instead of circular or synonymous descriptions, focus on inventing specific and colorful phrases.
“Sometimes my mouth opens up and my mother’s laugh jumps out, a parlor trick.” Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e), 2017) is a meditation on memory and grief that takes the form of fragments, lyric essay, poetry, memoir, reflections, and criticism. At the book’s core is the death of Zambreno’s mother and the author’s piecing together of their relationship and its bearing on her childhood and identity. In the Creative Independent, Zambreno writes about working on the book over the course of thirteen years: “As for what sustained me to keep going with it, I think it was just that itch—to not only figure out why I wanted to write about my mother, but also why I couldn’t.” Think of an inherited trait or a specific aspect of a relationship you have with a parent or guardian figure that seems difficult or impossible to explain. Write a personal essay that attempts to explore this subject by drawing in references to art and literature, old photographs, memories, and other fragmentary materials.
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic 1953 dystopian novel about a future in which books are outlawed and burned by firemen, has recently been adapted into a feature film. The book, which was written during the McCarthy era, has often been interpreted as a warning against state-based censorship and the dangers of illiteracy and conformity in a society where people are obsessed with technology and mass media. Write a short story in which a totalitarian government has enforced a ban on some aspect or invention of society that has long been considered integral for human expression. How does the government justify its stance and exercise control? Are the people both victims of suppression and somehow complicit in its enforcement? What type of characters might reside in the liminal gray area between hero and villain?
In her fourth poetry collection, Oceanic, published by Copper Canyon Press in April, Aimee Nezhukumatathil explores themes of love, discovery, family, motherhood, and home, often through a lens of connectedness with the natural world, focusing on the wonders of the ocean and the shapes, movements, and behaviors of flora and fauna. In “Penguin Valentine,” a penguin waits for his partner, and the speaker asks, “During those days of no sun, does he / remember the particular bend / of his mate’s neck, that hint of yellow / near her ears?” As spring transitions into summer, look to the flora and fauna in your local neighborhood, at the park or the beach, or on a vacation or a trip, for inspiration. Write a love poem that uses animal or plant behavior as a lesson about how we interact as humans. How might tendencies or characteristics of nature resonate with your own relationships?
Temperatures in the thirties, driving rain, and headwinds gusting at thirty miles per hour are not ideal weather conditions for a marathon. And yet, approximately thirty thousand people participated in this year’s Boston Marathon slogging through these treacherous conditions. In Matthew Futterman’s essay “What It Was Like to Run the Boston Marathon in a Freezing Deluge” in the New York Times, he writes about the glory of getting to tell the story of this miserable yet epic experience. Write a personal essay about an event from your past in which circumstances beyond your control transformed what would have been a more standard situation into something decidedly more dramatic.
Lightning never strikes the same place twice, is how the saying goes, but for some it strikes more than twice. Over the course of three years, twenty-year-old outdoorsman Dylan McWilliams beat 893 quadrillion-to-one odds to experience being bitten by a shark, being attacked by a bear, and then being bitten by a rattlesnake. Write a story in which a character endures a slew of bad luck in the form of several unfortunate incidents within a short span of time. Though the events may seem unrelated, are there larger forces at work? How does your character’s response to this streak of bad luck reveal her personality or foreshadow future consequences within the narrative?
In “The Love of Labor, the Labor of Love,” Rigoberto González’s interview with Carmen Giménez Smith in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, she talks about the experimentation in her new book, Cruel Futures (City Lights Books, 2018). Smith discusses releasing her writing from her usual “taut lyric voice” and allowing herself to “fly without punctuation...employing more cloudiness, maybe more impressionism.” This week, make an effort to let go of your own poetic safety blanket, and do away with the most clearly defined aspects of your lyric voice. Dispel with punctuation, wreak havoc with line breaks and syntax, and write a hazy series of impressionistic, cloudy poems.
Hobbies and activities often inspire and become an important part of a writer’s life. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, 2008), Haruki Murakami recounts his personal history with running, and draws parallels between his passions for marathons and novels. More recently, in her essay collection, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater (Flatiron Books, 2018), Alanna Okun explores her practices of knitting and crafting, and how they interact with her writing life and overall well-being. This week, try writing an essay about an interest of your own that runs parallel to, or perhaps even informs, your identity as a writer.
In Denis Johnson’s classic short story collection Jesus’ Son (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992), the protagonist is morally compromised: he does bad things, ranging from little lies to large acts of theft and violence. Part of what makes the book compelling is the way Johnson handles the protagonist’s inner life and his reactions to his own misdeeds. This week, try writing a short story from the perspective of a character who does something bad and gets away with it. How is this character affected? Is there rationalization, shame, fear? The plot could be as innocuous as a child stealing a candy bar, or something more sinister.
Zachary Schomburg’s poetry collection Fjords Vol. 1 (Black Ocean, 2012) was inspired by his desire to write poems based on the dreams his friends had shared with him. In an interview for the Pleistocene, he explained that part of his process was “e-mailing my friends or having a beer and talking to them about their most interesting dreams or their most recent dreams, and trying to make poems out of them.” The resulting poems have the odd clarity of dream logic. This week, reach out to some friends and ask them to share their most vivid dreams with you. Then try turning that material into a poem: include both the surreal and the concrete.
“Is it possible to tell a story about getting better that is as compelling as a story of falling apart?” asks Leslie Jamison, speaking about her new memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (Little, Brown, 2018), in “The Infinite World” by Michele Filgate in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a personal essay on a topic or event in your life related to dysfunction or a low point in which you experienced a recovery. Use inspiration from Jamison’s own challenge of narrative structure and focus on a way to use “rigorous, specific, fresh language” to write about recovery.
Rubber ducks were first patented as floating rubber toys in the mid-twentieth century by sculptor Peter Ganine, thereafter becoming an iconic children’s bath toy and inspiring Ernie’s signature song on Sesame Street. Write a short story that revolves around the re-emergence of a long-lost childhood toy. What does this discovery bring to the surface for your character, perhaps something hidden or repressed? In addition to possible feelings of comfort and familiarity, are there other unexpected emotions that are dredged up?
Makeshift bridges, highway bridges, living root bridges, suspension bridges, viaducts. Across the earth, there are a variety of bridges we use, often without giving their significance much thought. Write a poem about a bridge you’ve encountered, perhaps one you pass over frequently or one you once stood on while traveling. Consider what emotions or memories you associate with the bridge, and if there are unexpected metaphors to unearth. What does the bridge cross over? How can you manipulate the structure, shape, or rhythm of the poem to reflect your themes?
Edward Albee burst onto the theater scene with his first play, The Zoo Story, a one-act play about two strangers on a bench in New York City’s Central Park. In 2004, nearly fifty years later, Albee added a first act to the play titled Homelife and the two plays are now performed together, as a diptych. Although The Zoo Story was complete in its own right and widely considered a success, Homelife served to deepen the characters and complicate the meaning of the narrative. This week, try writing a prequel to an essay you have already written, and possibly published, even if it was years ago. Is there a first act to add that fleshes out the narrator or a narrative that has more to say now?
The British television series Black Mirror depicts versions of the future in which technological advances have unexpected (and often dark) consequences. Episodes have tackled topics such as mind uploading, dating apps, and social rating systems. These stories, surreal yet connected to real-life issues, reflect and comment on the world we live in. This week, try writing your own story based on a technological change. If a routine process like texting, online shopping, or posting on social media is disrupted, how would this affect your character’s ability to comfortably function? How does this shift alter your character’s interactions with others, and what reflections on society will you include as commentary?
“Spring is like a perhaps hand / (which comes carefully / out of Nowhere)arranging / a window,into which people look,” writes e. e. cummings, using the image of a hand and its actions to describe the nature of spring. His musings go on in the poem to make various imaginative leaps, but its twists and turns are held together by the shared exploration of a specific subject. This week, as spring comes on, try writing your own poem that begins with, “Spring is like…” and explores the season through simile.
“One Life: Sylvia Plath,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., features a selection of the poet’s manuscripts, journals, clothing, and other personal objects, including a typewriter and even a lock of her hair, as well as numerous pieces of Plath’s artwork: collages, drawings, self-portraits, and photographs. The museum also incorporates other types of art and interdisciplinary projects into its Plath programming, such as “I Am Vertical,” a dance performed in December in the museum’s courtyard, created by choreographer-in-residence Dana Tai Soon Burgess and named after one of Plath’s poems. Envision how your own life and work as a writer might be presented in an art museum, and write a lyric essay about this hypothetical exhibit. What objects would be on display? Which e-mails or photographs would help tell your stories? Consider using different forms and conventions, such as lists and fragments.
Authors such as Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Carmen Maria Machado have drawn inspiration for their stories from well-known fairy tale tropes and styles, and other writers have adapted classic fairy tales for their own usage, like Anne Sexton’s Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1971) and Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (Riverhead Books, 2014). My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (Penguin Books, 2010), an anthology of fairy tale–inspired writing edited by Kate Bernheimer, includes stories such as Joy Williams’s “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child” and Kevin Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin.” Write your own interpretation of a fairy tale, imagining well-known characters in the present or future, and incorporating relevant issues of contemporary society revolving around class, poverty, crime, race, war, or gender. How might you incorporate new technology, politics, or communication habits while maintaining the emotions, relationships, mood, and themes at the core of the tale’s plot?
Manipulating the shape of a poem on the page has a long history, from George Herbert’s seventeenth-century religious verse “Easter Wings,” which was printed sideways, its outlines resembling angel wings, to the “concrete poetry” of the 1950s in which the outline of poems depict recognizable shapes. More recently, Montana Ray’s gun-shaped poems in (guns & butter), published by Argos Books in 2015, explore themes of race, motherhood, and gun violence, and Myriam Gurba uses a shaped poem in Mean (Coffee House Press, 2017) to probe acts and cycles of assault on and abuse of women’s bodies. Write a series of concrete poems, perhaps first jotting down a list of resonant images, subjects, or motifs that already recur frequently in your work. How can you subvert or complicate the reader’s initial response to the shape of the poem? How does your word choice shift when you’re confined to predetermined shapes and line breaks?
The “missed connections” section of the classified advertisements website Craigslist has long been a virtual bulletin board to share a memory (i.e. I smiled at you on the train and you smiled back) in hopes that someone would answer back. Write a personal essay recalling a situation in which you may have missed an opportunity to connect with someone, whether a romantic or professional prospect, or a potentially significant person who may have slipped through your fingers. Explore ideas of fate and chance, persistence, lost opportunities, and assertiveness. How have your approaches to meeting new people evolved over time? Are there any missed connections from your past that might be picked up again now, years later?
Earlier this month, a man in southeast Georgia photographed what appeared to be the remains of a mysterious sea creature on the shore of a wildlife refuge beach. The photographs were sent to several media outlets and analyzed by marine scientists who were unable to verify the identity of the animal. Some surmised that it might be a hoax, possibly created to perpetuate the local legend of the Altamaha-ha, a hissing, serpentlike river monster. Write a short story featuring a legendary creature of your own making, perhaps one that is enshrouded in regional folklore. What happens when a character discovers evidence of its existence and tries to prove that it’s real? What do your characters’ attitudes and responses to the sighting reveal about their personalities?
The candy manufacturer Just Born has been producing their popular Peep confections since 1953. Over the years, these seasonal sugarcoated marshmallow chicks have expanded into a year-round line of different animals, colors, and flavors, and spawned a Washington Post diorama contest, countless creative recipe ideas, eating competitions, and other offbeat uses. This week, write a Peep-inspired poem, perhaps exploring themes of springtime, holiday consumerism, kitsch, iconic candy design, or childhood nostalgia.
Have you ever smelled something so sweet it made you smile? The sense of smell, in contrast to vision, sound, and touch, is connected to areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion making it a powerful agent at triggering memories and feelings. Think of a scent, such as an ingredient for a meal, a perfume, or perhaps something from the outdoors or nature, that you associate with a person who has played an integral role in your life. Write a personal essay that explores the intertwining of smell and the resonant memories and emotions you associate with this person.