“A person is not just one text but rather an infinite series of texts, none of which could be considered the original,” writes Alejandro Zambra in his Believer magazine essay “Translating a Person.” “A book is, in the best of cases, the text that a person once was or wanted to be, but of course it’s a multiple testament, ambiguous and full of nuances.” Think of someone you have been close to for a long time and the different phases you have known of this person’s life. Write a personal essay that attempts to “translate” this person by following one particular thread. Try using a numbered format as Zambra does in his essay to separate scenes or moments of this life.
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.
“‘To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,’ said the girl who cried snowflakes,” begins Shelley Jackson’s “Snow,” an ephemeral project and “story in progress, weather permitting,” which is featured in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The story is written in the snow in Jackson’s Brooklyn neighborhood, one word at a time, and then photographed and shared on Instagram. Taking inspiration from the ephemerality intrinsic to this project’s format, write a flash fiction story in which each word is composed on a surface—perhaps drawn in dust, penciled on a piece of scrap paper, marked on a whiteboard, or spelled out with pebbles or twigs. How do form and function intertwine with the idea of impermanence in your story?
“The light / that points / the way // in the fog. / The light / in the fog // that thickens / and reveals / the fog’s // cold breath. / The fog / as well.” Jeffrey Thomson’s poem “What is Poetry? Part 2,” selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the New York Times, locates possibilities for poetry everywhere, from all angles, in all subjects. Think of an image from your memory and write a poem that finds resonance as you dig deeper into the details. What happens when you explore an unexpected perspective of this memory? What new facets can you uncover?
When a new year begins, we often think of new beginnings or about trying new things. But is there any value in doing the same thing over and over again? In “The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences” in the New York Times, Leah Fessler writes about the tendency for novelty to wear off and champions the pleasure that can be found in repeating the same experiences again and again. This week, when you’re tempted to try something new, make an effort to partake in an activity that you’ve already done before—perhaps eating a meal you’ve prepared before, rewatching a movie, walking in a familiar neighborhood, or looking at a favorite painting in a museum. Write an essay that explores what you discover the second (or third) time around.
Last month at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited an artwork titled “Comedian” that consisted of a ripe banana duct-taped to a wall. Three editions of the piece—certificates of authenticity for the concept with replacement installation instructions of the banana specified by the artist—were sold, each for over $100,000. Gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin eventually had to remove the work as it became a safety risk due to crowds, but said of the piece, “‘Comedian,’ with its simple composition, ultimately offered a complex reflection of ourselves.” Write a short story that relies on an absurdist or comedic ingredient as the linchpin for its unfolding. How does your story bring into question the very definition of art, fiction, or storytelling?
“Comics are a staccato medium, with evidently small elements adding up to bigger ones,” says cartoonist Jason Adam Katzenstein in “Graphic Narrative Workshops” by Elena Goukassian in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Comics panels feel like stanzas in a poem.” Find a favorite short comic strip and write a poem comprised of one stanza per panel. Study the comic to gather a sense of the theme and pacing, working backwards from the images to write a piece that reflects a bigger whole created out of smaller, distilled moments.
Charles Yu’s new novel, Interior Chinatown (Pantheon, 2020), is formatted as a screenplay—with typewriter font, second-person narration, and camera and scene directions—to reflect the narrative’s examination of the stereotypical roles that have historically been played by Asian American actors and how those roles bleed into lived experience. By writing in this style Yu blurs the lines between the performed character and the authentic self, raising questions about assimilation, artifice, and identity. Take inspiration from Yu’s use of this form and think of a past experience in which you felt required to perform or maintain a certain persona. Write a lyric essay that incorporates scenes written like a script or screenplay. How does the form create a sense of distance or defamiliarization? How might this angle provide you with a new perspective or insight?
In Lee Matalone’s debut novel, Home Making (Harper Perennial, 2020), a woman moves into an empty house by herself while her estranged husband is dying of cancer. Throughout the story she grapples with tearing down and building both real elements and psychological concepts of home, navigating the memories, people, and places that constitute shelter, stability, and familiarity. “Can you be too old to run away from home? Can a full-grown woman run away from home? Can she run away from a home that was forced upon her? She should be allowed to, if that’s what she wants,” she writes. As thoughts of new beginnings arise with the new year, write a short story in which your protagonist is going through a period of transition, reevaluating the definition of home, and embarking on a fresh start. How are ideas of home formed in childhood, and how do we reconcile them as adults?
“I had a dream, which was not all a dream. / The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air,” wrote Lord Byron in “Darkness,” a poem composed in the summer of 1816, when unusually frigid temperatures, ominous thunderstorms, and incessant rains forced Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley to hole up inside a Swiss villa. While there they initiated the famous ghost story contest that launched Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and inspired Byron and Percy Shelley to create work filled with foreboding elements of the natural environment. Write a poem inspired by extreme weather phenomena, perhaps invoking elements of an environment in crisis and apocalyptic climate change. How can you manipulate imagery, syntax, and meter to make meteorological conditions fearsome and lyrical, to make something natural seem supernatural?
Man Repeller is a lifestyle website that “explores the expansive constellation of things women care about” with “the conviction that an interest in fashion doesn’t minimize one’s intellect.” Drawing inspiration from their Outfit Anatomy series, where staff members answer questions about how and why they chose their ensemble on a given day, write a personal essay about what you’re wearing for the day. Study each article of clothing, as well as any accessories, and revisit the myriad of thoughts you had in the process of getting dressed. What do these items communicate about you, and what do they hide? Do your clothes reveal a deeper emotional state?
French photographer Thomas Jorion spent a decade taking shots of abandoned eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Italian mansions for his series Veduta. “At first I photographed them to keep a trace of the places before they disappeared,” says Jorion in an interview for My Modern Met. “And then I realized that there was a beauty, an aesthetic, that emerges with shapes, colors, and lights. I do not necessarily look for abandonment, but rather the patina of time.” Write a short story where your main character encounters a now forgotten, but once majestic, building. Explore the feelings that are stirred as a result of encountering this crumbling beauty. Is there a certain, sustained charm to be found in this remnant of the past, or is it overshadowed by the ephemeral aspect of this man-made structure?
Honey Boy, a semiautobiographical film written by and starring Shia LaBeouf, offers an honest and complex portrait of his childhood and relationship with his father. LaBeouf plays a version of his father in this drama, delving into the character’s particular psychology, speech, and mannerisms. Write a persona poem where you take on the identity of a family member. Step inside this person’s skin and consider what thoughts occupy their mind, what tone and vernacular they might possess on the page. As an additional step, try including pieces of dialogue you can recall having with this person.
“I really like the idea of continuing. I don’t like the idea of a dance starting and just being really short,” says choreographer Molissa Fenley in a 2018 interview for BOMB when asked about the heavy dose of endurance required for her pieces. “I find, physically, that the metabolic change that takes place in moving for a long time is really interesting. It opens your brain in different ways.” Write an essay where you consider a time when you continued onward with an act, whether physical, mental, or emotional, to the point of exhilaration or exhaustion. How did pushing onward for an extreme amount of time affect you? Score out the experience from beginning to eventual end.
In anticipation of Zadie Smith’s first short story collection, Grand Union (Penguin Press, 2019), an interview with the author was published in September in Marie Claire. When asked about whether living in the United States and England affects her writing, Smith responded, “I think of myself as somebody not at home, I suppose. Not at home anywhere, not at home ever. But I think of that as a definition of a writer: somebody not at home, not comfortable in themselves in their supposed lives.” Write the opening line of a short story from the perspective of a character who is experiencing a feeling of not belonging. How do you convey this sentiment in one sentence? If this first sentence inspires more, continue on with the story.
In the New York Times Anatomy of a Scene video series, a director talks through one scene of their film and speaks to all the behind-the-camera action, planning, and unexpected occurrences that allowed for this sequence to take shape. Write a voice-driven poem where you narrate a scene from any film that moves you emotionally and creatively. Perhaps this scene is connected to a memory or experience of your own, or you notice something subtle in an actor’s performance. What is brimming beneath the surface of this visual? What can you share about this moment in the film that another viewer may not catch?
After the death of a close relative, Itaru Sasaki installed a phone booth in his backyard garden in the coastal town of Otsuchi, a glass enclosure where he could speak into a disconnected rotary phone as a way of processing his grief. After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Sasaki opened his kaze no denwa, roughly translated into “wind phone,” to other community members mourning loved ones. Write a personal essay in the form of a letter or communication to someone no longer in your life. What would you choose to share about your own life and current updates? What feelings, emotions, or sentiments would you want to reiterate to the other person, whether for the hundredth time or for the first time?
In the December 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine, photographer Corey Arnold writes about an expedition last winter to change the batteries in the radio collar of a black bear in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park that he assumed would be hibernating. The bear turned out to be awake, which made the adventure more adventurous than expected. Write a short story in which your main character is operating under the assumption that an upcoming activity will be safe, but at a crucial moment discovers that danger is lurking. How do you ramp up the sense of anxiety and tension? Does your protagonist respond calmly or with panic when confronted with a sudden terror?
“Often discussions of persona poetry focus on its potential for cultivating empathy, inhabiting another’s perspective, but I have always felt that, inevitably, one circles back upon oneself,” writes Jennifer S. Cheng in Literary Hub about her second collection, Moon: Letters, Maps, Poems (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2018). “Persona poetry is often compared to wearing a mask, but to me it is like speaking into a shell.” In her book, Cheng writes a series of persona poems in the voice of Chang’E, the woman who floats up to the moon in Chinese folktales. Think of a mythical figure or other fictionalized character who resonates with you, and write a short series of poems that explores this person’s inner self. Allow your own voice to intermingle and draw you toward imagining where your identities might overlap.
“We need to grab the words that have possibility in them and begin using them anew,” writes John Freeman in the prologue to Dictionary of the Undoing (MCD x FSG Originals, 2019). Freeman selects terms from A to Z, from “Agitate,” “Body,” “Citizen,” and “Decency” all the way to “You” and “Zygote,” and writes entries that reclaim, redefine, and expand the definitions of the words to “build a lexicon of engagement and meaning.” Write a lyric essay that borrows this idea, selecting words related to current events of particular importance to you and providing personalized definitions in the form of brief exploratory passages. Reflect on your own experiences, the community around you, and what the future may hold.
If you’re looking for a change in perspective, why not try from the mind of a tiny animal? In a New York Times By the Book interview, when asked what subjects she wants more authors to write about, actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, “I wish more people would write from the point of view of tiny, witty animals.” Write a story from a diminutive, bright critter’s point of view. Consider whether this animal observes a larger story enacted by human beings, or if the story’s universe is comprised solely of tiny animals. Try incorporating humor in the voice of this quick-witted creature while still retaining its animal-like nature in unexpected ways.
“Take notes regularly. This will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability,” writes Lydia Davis in “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits” in Essays One (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019). This week jot down several lists of different types of observations, such as your feelings, the weather, and your own reactions to the mundane behavior of others as you go about your day. Pay special attention to the facial expressions and small habits or routine movements of people you notice on your commute or while running errands. Write a poem inspired by one or two of these small observations.
This autumn, as you travel to see family, engage in outdoor activities, or plan gifts and meals, pay special attention to the sounds of the season. In “Seeking Silence on a California Road Trip,” National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George W. Stone writes about tracking the sounds he encounters on a summer journey made by airplanes, birds and insects, air conditioners, sand dunes, and crashing waves. “I set out on a 500-mile sound quest that took me from the drumbeat of civilization to nearly noiseless realms. I did not turn on the radio, though occasionally I sang a song that came to mind. I barely spoke; instead I tried to hear whatever came my way.” Jot down notes as you go about your day, then write a personal essay that explores the season’s soundscape. What harmonies do you find between the moments of sound—or noise—and silence?
The manipulation of memory has been a point of inspiration for a number of literary works, resulting in iconic fictional elements such as the memory implants in Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the mind-wiping in Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity (Bantam, 1980), and the memory downloads and uploads in George Saunders’s 1992 story “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” In Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019), translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, the authoritarian government of an unnamed island eradicates commonplace objects—hats, ribbons, birds, roses—and subsequently attempts to erase all memories associated with the objects. Write a short story that imagines a world in which memories can be manipulated by choice or by force, by individuals or by powerful governments. What are the rules? How are the emotional trajectories of your characters disrupted when certain memories are altered?
“I received a sign in my dream that you would vanish from me,” Naja Marie Aidt writes in When Death Takes Something From You Give It Back (Coffee House Press, 2019). “But images and signs cannot be interpreted before they’re played out in concrete events. You only understand them in retrospect.” In her memoir, translated from the Danish by Denise Newman, Aidt explores the dreams she had about her son, which in hindsight seem portentous of his accidental death in 2015. Think about dreams you’ve had in the past that still linger, or search through old writing to dig up images that are repeated. Write a poem that attempts to find meaning or a connection within these visual artifacts. How can you interpret their significance now?
Earlier this month, art critic Jason Farago wrote a New York Times article advocating for the removal and relocation of the Mona Lisa painting from its place in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Farago argues that the overwhelming popularity and crowding make for untenable viewing conditions, and that the painting itself is perhaps not worth the trouble. Write a personal essay that explores a piece of art—a book, painting, song, film, or live performance—you’ve experienced that left you with a feeling of disappointment. Describe the encounter, and then use the experience as an opportunity to reflect on a comparable work of art that’s underappreciated and deserves more widespread acclaim. How does your emotional response to the artwork affect your preferences?