“‘Now I can have a glass of orange juice in the morning and read the newspaper.’” In the New York Times essay “Philip Roth and the Whale,” Nathan Englander recalls Roth, who passed away last month, speaking lightheartedly about his free time upon retiring from writing fiction. If you had an abundance of free time, what are the small activities you would most look forward to enjoying? Write a personal essay about the simple, everyday things you wish you had more time to do, that are often sacrificed to a busy schedule. How are these activities enticing in a way that is different from the excitement of grander plans?
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.
Lexie Smith and Gideon Jacobs are currently writers-in-residence for a short story project at New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. Travelers who stop at the Landing Pages kiosk through the rest of this month can submit their flight number and Smith or Jacobs will write a custom story over the length of their flight and send the finished story to their phone upon landing. This week, write a series of short stories that take place in an airport or on a plane. Give yourself different amounts of time to complete each story, perhaps starting with fifteen minutes and building up to an hour. What conventional expectations of a story’s beginning, middle, and end are in place when thinking about air travel, and how might you subvert them?
Earlier this year, researchers published a study in the journal Scientific Reports about the discovery of an organ called the interstitium, which exists as a flexible, meshlike web of fluid-filled compartments forming a layer right beneath the skin and between other organs. Drawing inspiration from this and the word “interstice,” which refers to a small space between things or a break between events, write a poem about being in-between. You might write about when you’ve been between homes, jobs, or relationships, or about experiences between different phases of your life.
Essays can take the shape of a variety of forms, and experimenting with structure can often lead you into material that may have otherwise been left unexplored. In her essay “The Pain Scale,” for example, Eula Biss borrows the structure of the medical pain scale, which ranges from zero to ten, to divide her essay into eleven short sections. Each section reflects on the subject of pain from personal, philosophical, and scientific perspectives. This week, try writing your own essay using a scale as a structure. You could choose to invent your own scale or use a familiar one such as the pain scale, the Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale, the pH scale, or a musical notation scale.
How true is your fiction? In his novel 10:04 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), which is about a writer writing a novel, Ben Lerner blurs the boundary between fiction and nonfiction, or as he explains it in the book, his writing occurs on “the very edge of fiction.” This week, conduct your own experiment with this genre boundary. Write a short story in which you, or somebody who closely resembles you, are the main character. Incorporate autobiographical details into your narrative, and cross the line into fiction through acts of imagination that differ from your lived experience.
“To start with two lines then in black and white / and continue to see a way in them.” So begins Michael Joyce’s collection Biennial (BlazeVOX, 2015), which is comprised entirely of two-line poems. As Joyce explains in the introduction of his book, he decided to write one two-line poem per day, every day, for two years. This week, try writing your own two-line poems, one per day, and observe how they relate to each other. Perhaps the poems combine into a larger sequence or each stands alone. If this daily habit feels generative, keep going for a full month!
Swedish meatballs are Turkish? Last month Sweden posted on its official Twitter account that Swedish meatballs have their origins in Turkey, thereby unleashing a storm of chaos and confusion as Swedes and Swedophiles alike reconsidered the popular national dish, often enjoyed at Ikea furniture stores worldwide. Using this questioning and rethinking of possession, history, and identity as inspiration, write a personal essay about an idiosyncratic trait that seems inextricably tied to your identity. Do those around you associate you with this trait? How might you be perceived differently if one day this characteristic was no longer yours to claim?
False memory implants may seem the stuff of Philip K. Dick, but earlier this month, scientists published a report in the journal eNeuro that they successfully transferred a memory from one animal to another. In the experiment, RNA from the nervous system of trained snails was injected into untrained snails, which then behaved as if trained, seemingly accessing memories that had been implanted. Write a short story in which a character has a memory implant. Does she voluntarily sign up for the procedure in order to restore a lost memory that would be beneficial to her physically or emotionally, or are there more sinister forces at work? Does the false memory eventually cause unforeseen consequences?
In Samoan American poet William Alfred Nu’utupu Giles’s “Prescribed Fire,” the narrator compares his family to a group of towering redwood trees whose roots wrap around each other to create more stability. This week, write a poem that revolves around an extended metaphor for characteristics or experiences unique to your own family. Approach the metaphor from a variety of angles in order to understand or see different qualities of your family through this lens. Play around with unusual or unconventional comparisons that further the exploration of your family’s history and heritage.
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.
“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?