The unofficial Smith College Historic Clothing Collection is home to three thousand dresses, suits, and accessories worn from the nineteenth century to today, showcasing a wide variety of women’s social uniforms across a diverse range of economic backgrounds. Search online for photos and advertisements of everyday work attire or casual wear from the last century or two, and write a personal essay that contemplates how the outfits differ from what you wear and see worn on others in the present day. What clues can you derive about the culture and its values—in terms of gender, workforce, or class—from the clothing worn back then? How does that carry through to what you wear today?
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.
“You don’t need to look up the specifics of some detail right that moment. You just don’t. So you get the state wrong when you’re writing the short story that was inspired by that Internet video of the black bear that broke into a house and played the piano in what you think was probably Colorado,” writes Camille T. Dungy in “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story inspired by a strange or humorous Internet video you watched a while ago. Don’t worry about rewatching it to make sure you get the details right. Allow the fallibility of your memory to take the story into a new and bolder direction.
Several years ago, journalist Geoffrey Gagnon observed that there were bowhead whales—who are among the world’s longest-living mammals with life spans of over two hundred years—still alive in the Arctic that were born long before Moby-Dick was written in 1851. This week, write a poem that imagines being in the presence of a creature that has been alive for over two centuries. What might this being have seen or experienced that you would ask about? What historical events pertinent to you have occurred over its lifetime? How does perspective shift over such a long period of time?
Can refrigerator contents lead to a love connection? Refrigerdating is an app that works with Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, a four thousand dollar appliance with a built-in camera and touchscreen door, and allows you to browse ice box contents of potential dates for compatibility. Write a personal essay that considers the contents of your own fridge, and compares it with what’s inside the fridge of a friend, family member, or foe. How are your personalities and habits apparent in your preserved food choices? What might be misconstrued or misrepresentative?
According to a recent study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, scientists found evidence in a cave in Texas that 1,500 years ago, someone ate a venomous snake whole. The discovery was made through analysis of coprolite, fossilized poop, which revealed a wealth of information about the ancient forager’s life and times. While there is no way to be certain, the archaeologists believe it’s possible that the snake was eaten for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes. Write a short story in which your main character finds a fossil in an unlikely place. How does this discovery steer your character into a mystery?
“‘When you finish the book, you close the pages and let your mind wander to the first thing you remember—the most vivid moment, a feeling, a character, a phrase, or even something in your own life experience that resonated and has been resurfaced by the story,’” says Ben Please in “The Bookshop Band” by Dana Isokawa in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The duo, comprised of Please and Beth Porter, composes and performs literary-themed music by a wide range of authors, oftentimes inspired by just one book. Try this exercise while composing a new poem: Select a book you read recently and let your mind’s wandering—and lingering on a word, phrase, or feeling—lead you to the starting point of a poem.
“I had surveyed thousands of miles of panoramic splendor, and I couldn’t believe I had come all that way just to get to Los Angeles,” Caity Weaver writes at the end of her New York Times essay “There Is no Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train. But I Did It Anyway.” In other words, sometimes the old adage applies: It’s about the journey, not the destination. Think back to a time in your life when you had to travel for a long period of time to get somewhere—by train, car, plane, bus, or on foot—and the memory of the trek itself now eclipses the destination. Write a personal essay about the experience and what made it so memorable: the people, the landscape, and the unexpected moments along the way.
For decades, phones shaped like Garfield—Jim Davis’s comic strip cat best known for being lazy and loving lasagna—kept washing up on the northwest coast of France seemingly out of the blue. The mystery was finally solved after a French environmental group discovered an abandoned shipping container filled with these feline phones lodged deep inside a nearby cave, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. This week, write a story about an enigmatic object that surfaces near a body of water. Concoct an explanation that is logical, fantastical, or somewhere in between—a statement on wastefulness and global pollution or about the magical interconnectedness of the world. For ideas and photographs of strange artifacts discovered underwater, including an ice cream truck and a giraffe, visit Underwater New York.
In the Paris Review’s advice column Poetry Rx, Sarah Kay recommends the poem “On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart” by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie to her heartbroken correspondent. “My heart has an iceberg with its name on it, I told / Titanic, so I need your advice. Tell me, did you see the / iceberg coming?” the poem’s narrator asks the sunken ship. Write a poem this week that addresses and personifies a historical object or place, drawing parallels with the speaker’s present-day problems and plea for wisdom. What advice can this relic offer your speaker?
“In the tiny little notebook I took tiny little notes…. I wrote for one minute eight times throughout the first day. Eight times on the second day.” In Camille T. Dungy’s essay “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the author writes about various writing routines, including one which consisted of writing for a small amount of time simply recording things that caught her attention. Try out this routine for several days—you might decide on one or two minutes throughout the day, or twenty—and note down sensory observations, and emotional and physical feelings. At the end of the experiment, write an essay inspired by a couple of your favorite observations.
Earlier this month, a woman in Taiwan who was clearing weeds from a gravestone as part of the Chinese Qingming Festival—a day for sweeping, tidying, and paying respects at ancestral tombs—felt a sudden pain in her left eye. Upon seeking medical attention, the source of the swollenness turned out to be four bees that had flown into her eye and were feeding on her tear ducts. Write a short horror story that starts with a seemingly innocuous irritation that turns out to be something more unsavory. Begin your story with a presumably everyday nuisance—sand in your eye, a pebble in your shoe, a paper cut on your finger—and then let the horror unfold bit by bit.
The first-ever picture of a black hole was revealed last week, an image from the Messier 87 galaxy taken by eight radio observatories on six mountains and four continents in 2017. Spend some time looking at the picture online, including a wider, zoomed-out view. The New York Times calls it a “doughnut of doom,” while Vice Motherboard says it looks like a SpaghettiO. What emotions does the image bring to the surface for you? Write a poem that captures the wondrous significance of the image, perhaps imbuing your verse with humor, terror, and a mixture of scientific vocabulary and figurative language.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Do you prefer a pastry and coffee, yogurt and fruit, cereal, or an egg sandwich? Perhaps you like something hearty to start the day like oatmeal porridge, fava bean stew, a rice dish, or noodle soup. Browse through photos of typical breakfast meals from around the world and write a personal essay about a favorite breakfast of your own. Think about specific memories associated with these meals, involving certain people or places. How have your breakfast foods and routines changed over the years?
In a study published last week in Scientific Reports journal, psychologists reported findings that cats are able to recognize and respond to their names. Dogs, however, have a definite advantage, having been domesticated twenty thousand years before cats by humans who intentionally bred them to be obedient. Write a story that has a temperamental cat in it, sometimes responsive and other times quite aloof. What purpose does the cat serve in the story? How can you depict the cat as more than just stereotypically mercurial?
“I remember what it did to me. I got up and I began to wave my hands above my head, alone in the dark,” writes Moeko Fujii in the New Yorker about watching the final scene of Claire Denis’s 1999 movie Beau Travail, in which the protagonist bursts into dance while alone at a nightclub—a captivating glimpse of a private exuberance rising momentarily to the surface. Think of a memorable scene from a favorite movie that has a character joyfully engaged in a physical activity—dancing, running, singing, cooking—that has made you feel something resonant, and perhaps inspired you to move your own body. Write a poem about this connection and the impact it had on you.
Poet Douglas Manuel reflects on his transformative experience teaching a workshop at a therapeutic residential and day school in California in a recent post for the Readings & Workshops Blog titled “If We Just Listen, We Can All Hear Ghosts.” Inspired by Kiki Petrosino’s poem “Ghosts,” one of his students writes about a deceased YouTube star who visits him in dreams and offers consoling words. This week, consider the ghosts in your life. Who do you dream about? Write a personal essay about one of the illusory figures that haunt your creative life, perhaps an ancestor, writer, historical figure, celebrity, or former friend. Explore how your ghost’s presence influences or inspires your writing life.
Chindogu, a Japanese term that literally translated means “weird tool,” was coined by Kenji Kawakami, former editor of a monthly magazine called Mail Order Life. As a prank, Kawakami published prototypes for his own bizarre inventions, that were intentionally useless and could not actually be purchased, in the magazine and later in a book titled 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu (Norton, 1995). Some of his popular inventions include the Eye Drop Funnel Glasses, the Dumbbell Telephone, and Duster Slippers for Cats. For this week’s fiction prompt, write a short story that envisions the backstory for one of these good-natured but impractical contraptions, or invent one yourself following one of the tenets of Chindogu: “You have to be able to hold it in your hand and think, ‘I can actually imagine someone using this. Almost.’”
TED Talks have been translated into over one hundred languages, and their translators are often challenged by peculiar turns of phrase. Inspired by this predicament, TED asked translators from around the world to share their favorite idioms along with baffling literal English translations such as “the thief has a burning hat,” a Russian phrase that means, “he has an uneasy conscience that betrays itself.” This week, write a poem that incorporates one or more of these eccentric sayings and create a world in which the literal interpretation holds water. Use the five senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch—to help illustrate these verbal expressions and your interpretation of them.
Leanne Shapton’s second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009), takes the form of a fictional auction catalogue. The objects being sold—everything from furniture to photographs—present a chronology of an invented couple’s entire love affair from start to finish. How might the wider meaning of spring-cleaning as a transformative purge present an opportunity to use your possessions to tell a story about your own life? Jot down a list of objects that hold significance from a past relationship. Perhaps you’ve thrown them out or even hidden them because of their unpleasant associations. Think of them as objectively as possible, as if viewed in an auction catalogue, and write a personal essay using impersonal descriptions to reveal a series of events in your past that combine to form a larger story about this relationship.
“A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge…. After this gingerbread you might sweat, swell, and suffer, shed limbs.” In Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel, Gingerbread, published in March by Riverhead Books, a mysteriously powerful homemade gingerbread wends its way like a spell through multiple generations of friendships and familial relationships. At times it plays an integral role in the alienating forces that drive characters painfully apart, and at other times it proves to be a tie that reinvigorates the complex bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as between friends. Taking inspiration from an ingredient, dish, or recipe that has meaning for your own family, write a short story that revolves around food and how the sharing of it can be both nurturing and disruptive. You might do some research into the larger cultural or geographical history of the food, or integrate elements of folklore or mythology.
“I’ve always been interested in a bigger form, one that doesn’t just rest quietly on the page,” Anne Waldman said in a 2017 Wire interview in which she talked about mixing forms and incorporating song and chant into her work. “Rather than reading quietly, I feel the physical need to do something bigger.” In a New York Times review of Waldman’s most recent collection, Trickster Feminism (Penguin, 2018), Daisy Fried wrote, “The metaphor that comes to mind is of a river, its great volume washing by,” noting Waldman’s coverage of matters “ancient and contemporary, local and global.” Try writing a dynamic poem that washes by like a loud river, flowing through a wide range of topics. Don’t be afraid to mix the public with the personal, the ancient with the contemporary, the magical or spiritual with the mundane or mechanical. Imbue your lines with a playfully performative quality; read them out loud for rhythm as you compose them.
“There is a model of translation that resembles a funnel—everything from the source language swirls toward a single opening, and it all comes out the same way,” says Jeremy Tiang in “The Art of Translation: Many Englishes, Many Chineses” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “The kitchen implement I prefer is the sieve—allowing as much as possible through, falling as it will, breaking up clumps to ease the flow.” Think about a favorite book of translated literature, and write a personal essay that reflects upon your feelings about the translation choices within it. Consider Tiang’s analogy: Does it feel like the words came from the source language through a funnel or a sieve? Were there rough patches, or did the work feel frictionless? Which do you prefer and why?
Does common sense go out the window when you go grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Last fall scientists published findings in Science Advances that even snails start making questionable food choices when they’ve gone too long without eating. Extreme hunger alters the brain’s perception of stimuli in a way that makes otherwise unappealing nourishment seem worthy of the risk, which explains why you might find yourself walking out of a grocery store with bizarre food combinations. Write a short story in which your main character makes an unusual choice while in the throes of hunger. Does it turn out to be merely a comic interlude or are there irreversible consequences?
Is your telephone number secretly a portal to mystic truths? In “This Mysterious Website Generates Weird Short Stories About Phone Numbers” published in Electric Literature, Kristen O’Neal writes about a website where the ten-digit number in its URL can be modified and repeatedly refreshed for countless iterations of mysterious and inscrutably poetic sentences in the comments section. Try typing your own phone number into the URL and select one or two sentences from the resulting page that seem particularly evocative. Write a poem inspired by the strange resonance of these words to your own experiences.
In his essay “Being John” published in the Morning News, John Sherman writes about his experiences sharing a first name with over five million other people in the United States. Sherman also considers the rise and fall in popularity of different names and the trend in valuing unique and individualistic names over traditional ones, musing on how our identities are formed by our names with all their attendant histories, politics, pleasures, and nuisances. Write a personal essay about your own name, perhaps diving into some Internet research to see how popular it has been over time, its origins, and touching upon possible namesakes. What are your feelings about sharing your name with others? Did you ever wish for another name, or have you ever changed your name? How has your perspective on your name changed over time?