A mission to launch a spicy, crispy fried chicken sandwich into orbit is scheduled to begin this week, as a joint venture between KFC and space tech company World View. The historic flight is partly a publicity stunt to celebrate the fast food chain’s launch of the Zinger sandwich in the United States, but will also explore what can be sent or accessed in the stratosphere. From the first human in space and then on the moon, to the first Mars landing, and the first space tourist, there have been innumerable milestones in space exploration since the mid-twentieth century. Choose one key moment that is especially iconic to you and write an essay about that memory. What was happening at that point in your life and how did the idea of exploring the unknown make you feel about your own potential?
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.
Throughout his life, Henry James maintained friendships with and was influenced by painters such as John Singer Sargent and James McNeill Whistler. In his 1884 essay, “The Art of Fiction,” he wrote: “The analogy between the art of the painter and the art of the novelist is, so far as I am able to see, complete. Their inspiration is the same.... They may learn from each other, they may explain and sustain each other. Their cause is the same, and the honour of one is the honour of another.” Write a short story that pays homage to a painting you particularly like. Perhaps there is a scene depicted or a statement made that sparks a narrative. Imagine the inspiration or cause for the painting, and then experiment with mirroring that to drive the writing forward.
“Palettes of mud, pillowcases of doorknobs, bags of ice…. Softest polyester stuffing spills out from black armor. It’s a leather jacket thrown over a bubble bath. This could describe a few people I know,” writes artist and author Leanne Shapton in a New York Times Magazine essay about the clothing designed by Rei Kawakubo. Taking inspiration from Kawakubo’s peculiarly surreal fashion designs, write a poem that starts with one of Shapton’s descriptive phrases, such as “a babble of valves and blisters,” “a reptile of lint,” “gobs of cheesecloth,” “potato-like clumps stuck to a neck,” or “exploded metallic popcorn kernel.” From there, let your imagination take over using these textures and shapes to portray an unexpected subject or feeling.
“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?” Some of the first and most influential relationships in our lives are with those in our biological or chosen family. Yet, it is not always easy to tell our loved ones what we are feeling in the moment. Write an epistolary, lyric essay that is addressed to a particular family member and that reflects on your relationship with that person. For inspiration, read more from “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read” by Ocean Vuong.
Beneath the streets of San Francisco lay the remains of dozens of old ships left over from the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. The ships transported prospectors hurrying to California, but eventually most were abandoned and buried under landfill as the city grew. Write a short story in which something monumental, such as abandoned vessels, secret documents, or mysterious remains, lies beneath the streets of the city. Which character becomes privy to this once hidden information? How can you be experimental or playful with the evocative image of a city built on top of layers of history?
Write a poem inspired by a natural park, area, or cultural monument in your region. Search through the National Park Service’s system of sites by state, or browse through photos of the parks for inspiration. The National Park Service, which celebrated its one hundredth anniversary last summer, may be most known for its large national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, but also oversees hundreds of smaller outdoor monuments, scenic areas, and scientifically important sites that span the entire United States. Imagine the textures and sounds present in your chosen spot or site, and incorporate them into your poem’s rhythm and imagery.
Only sixty-nine copies of a book are published by Icelandic micro press Tunglið, and only on the night of a full moon. Any copies not sold that same night are then burned by founders Dagur Hjartarson and Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson. In the spirit of the poetic logic behind the press (named after the Icelandic word for the moon), think of something in your life that feels particularly ephemeral and write a letter to yourself exploring your perspective on its fleeting nature. What makes it feel impermanent? In contrast, what elements—relationships, objects, emotional truths—feel everlasting to you?
The life-size blue whale model displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City—nearly one hundred feet long and over twenty thousand pounds—recently had its annual cleaning. Write a short story with a scene in the museum during this two-day long process, perhaps describing some of the images taken of the huge animal model being vacuumed by the exhibition maintenance manager in a cherry picker. Does this scene act as a backdrop to the main drama of the story, or have metaphorical significance? Are your characters directly impacted or involved with the unusual cleaning process?
Something beginning with the letter D. Something metallic. Something green. Something winding. Write a poem inspired by I Spy, the guessing game popular with kids during car rides and other long periods of downtime, in which the spy offers descriptive clues that hint at a visible object for other players to guess. Use this as an exercise to expand your vocabulary and the way you observe and perceive an emotion, person, situation or an object.
“Of course, everyone’s parents are embarrassing. It goes with the territory,” Neil Gaiman wrote in Anansi Boys (William Morrow, 2005), a novel about two brothers who are brought together after the death of their father. Think back to an embarrassing parent-child event from your past in which you were either the child or the parent or guardian figure. Write a personal essay that uses this incident as a pivotal point from which to explore the “territory” of your relationship during that particular time. Did this incident have further repercussions? Does the point of view you’ve chosen allow you to sympathize with or find humor in the innocence of youth or the wisdom of age? What does the situation reveal about your specific parent-child relationship and about parent-child relationships more generally?
One of the elements that makes David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks, which returns with a third season this spring, so unusual is its dreamlike combination of melodrama, horror, humor, and cast of idiosyncratic characters. Its surrealism is emphasized by the repeated appearance of mundane yet mysterious visuals—cherry pie, coffee, logs, and owls—which take on motif-like significance in the series. In literature, authors such as Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño have also mixed the odd with the everyday to similar hallucinatory effect in their books. Jot down a list of objects that have had some sort of resonance in your life, even if they may seem like unexceptional items. Write a short story in which you insert these images throughout the text. Is there an intuitive dream logic that can help guide their placement? Do they have metaphorical potential?
“Renga for Obama” is an ongoing project edited by Major Jackson and published by the Harvard Review in which each linked segment is written by a pair of poets, creating a chain of verse meditating on Barack Obama’s presidency. Renga, a traditional Japanese collaborative form, consists of alternating three- and two-line stanzas: a haiku (5-7-5 syllables) followed by a couplet, each line of which consists of seven syllables, that responds to the haiku. This pattern can be repeated up to a few dozen or even hundreds of lines. Choose a current theme that you are interested in probing further with words and imagery—it could be political, aesthetic, domestic, environmental, or pop culture–related. Spend some time discussing, sharing reflections, and expressing gratitude or feelings about the topic with a friend, family member, or colleague. Write a renga together, and pass it on to others with an invitation to contribute to the chain, thereby initiating a continuing exploration.
What do Ancient Rome, Western Civilization, the History of China, Early Middle Ages, the Civil Rights Movement, U.S. Constitutional History, and Dolly Parton have in common? They’re all the subjects of courses offered this past year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “Dolly Parton’s America: From Sevierville to the World” is a history class that uses Parton’s life as a lens through which to view pop culture in the twentieth century, cultural politics, and the history of the Appalachian region. Choose a local celebrity from your city, region, or state, and write a personal essay that explores the intersection of the pop icon’s cultural context and your own memories of time spent in this locale.
In Fijian legend, a young girl falls in love with a boy from a neighboring village to the disapproval of her parents, and her tears of despair transform into red and white flowers. The hanging clusters of the elusive tagimoucia blossoms—only found regularly on one specific mountain ridge on the island of Taveuni—are the subject of a number of local Taveuni stories, several of which involve young women whose tears turn into the petals of the flower. Write a short story that revolves around an imaginary legend or folk tale about local flora. How does the story gain significance as it’s transmitted among peers and between generations? What sort of unexpected ramifications does the legend have on your characters? Who falls under its spell, and who remains immune to its powers?
“’It wasn’t a rhyme time,’” said Gwendolyn Brooks in 1968, as quoted in Major Jackson’s essay “Anatomy of a Pulitzer Prize Letter” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Brooks was speaking about her decision to move away from the sonnet and other traditional verse forms in favor of allying more closely to the Black community and politically conscious poetry. Do you consider the contemporary moment a “rhyme time?” Why or why not? How might you transform the style and/or meter of your poetry to reflect your own evolving creative interests, priorities, and influences? Write a poem that marks some sort of departure from your typical work, in spirit and purpose.
Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations. Write a lyric essay in which you explore the connections between literature, landscape, and your own memories. For inspiration, look at Montreal-based artist Guy Laramée’s newly released collection of sculptures, in which the artist creates landscapes from old books.
The Met Gala is an annual fundraiser held in May to celebrate the opening of the Costume Institute’s fashion exhibit. The Gala is known for the elaborate attire of its guests, like the 2017 looks from pop icons Rihanna and Zendaya. Write a story that includes a scene in which a character briefly wears an elaborate outfit or costume. How might the clothing change the way they understand themselves? How might it change the way other characters view them?
“May my dead be patient with the way my memories fade. / My apologies to time for all the world I overlook each second. / My apologies to past loves for thinking that the latest is the first.” Taking inspiration from Wislawa Szymborska’s “Under One Small Star,” write a poem that plays with apology or an apologetic tone. What may you have taken for granted in the past? To whom might you offer your apologies, and for what are you sorry? What are you grateful for now?
“My whole life I’ve been interested in trying to rewrite both war and girl myth,” says Lidia Yuknavitch about her new novel, The Book of Joan (Harper, 2017). “I’m trying to open up an old story so we can look it over again. I believe anything that can be storied can be de-storied and re-storied, and it’s one of the only ways we can retain hope.” In “The Other Side of Burning” by Amy Gall in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Yuknavitch discusses what it was like to reimagine the story of Joan of Arc for the new novel. Think of a myth or a heroine whose story has resonated with you, or that connects to a certain aspect of your identity. Write an essay that actively works to de-story and then re-story, and incorporates a discovery in your own life—perhaps resulting in a new version of an old truth.
One of the oldest trees in the United States—a white oak in a church cemetery in New Jersey estimated to be six hundred years old—was cut down last month after it began failing and was ultimately declared dead. According to local stories, George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette met and picnicked under the tree during the American Revolution. Write a short story that revolves around a series of imagined encounters that took place under this tree. You might experiment by combining fictional moments with historical events, or write from the point of view of the tree to provide a fresh perspective.
“I was young when you came to me. / Each thing rings its turn…” begins Meena Alexander’s poem “Muse.” Write a poem of direct address to a muse—any specific object, memory, person, moment, or idea that invokes wonder and reflection. Read the rest of Alexander’s poem for inspiration derived from sensory pleasures, multiple languages, and the associations between words and images.
As self-driving cars get closer and closer to becoming a reality, the social interaction of driver and passenger may become a thing of the past. Think back to a significant memory you have as the driver or passenger in a motor vehicle. Perhaps it was an adventurous road trip, a taxi ride on a faraway vacation, or in a bus with classmates on your way to a field trip. Write an essay about this event and your role in it. Were you directing the way and in control, or staring dreamily out the window? Was there an argument or a memorable conversation on the journey?
What kind of secret should be taken to the grave? How might a secret act as proof of intimacy? For the debut of Sophie Calle’s most recent art installation, the artist spent two afternoons receiving and transcribing visitors’ secrets, and then depositing them into a monumental obelisk installed in Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery. In Calle’s instructive text about the project, she writes of one previously divulged secret, “At the very moment he was depriving me of his love, this man offered me, through his confession, the ultimate proof of our intimacy.” Write a short story in which you imagine the ending to that story. What is the secret that this man confesses to Calle as they are breaking up? Why does he share it with her in their last moments together?
While a crocodile’s ankles might be something you’ve never thought much about, a recent discovery of fossils shows that an early relative of dinosaurs had “crocodylian-like ankle morphology”—or crocodile ankles—an important factor in placing the carnivore within the evolutionary timeline. Write a poem inspired by an unusual phrase or terminology for an animal’s (or human’s) physicality, such as purlicue, perhaps finding humor or playfulness in its sound, sense, and associated imagery.
Three current Monopoly board game tokens—the boot, the thimble, and the wheelbarrow—will be cycled out this fall and replaced with a penguin, a rubber ducky, and a T-Rex. Classic board games often get continually updated with new features, and brand new games are constantly created, but most of us have favorites and personal memories of playing board games in the past. Write an essay that focuses on an old board game you’ve held onto, or explores memories of playing, arguing, and competing with friends and family during game nights.