As November ends and December begins, decorations make their appearance on storefronts, front lawns, stoops, and avenues while classic tunes play over loudspeakers marking the start of the holiday season. While some get into the holiday spirit early, others start lamenting the packed department stores, crowded city streets, and nonstop cheer. Inspired by the “most wonderful time of the year,” write a story in which a character is tormented by the start of the holiday season. Do all the twinkling lights and festivities bring about bitter memories?
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
“And some time make the time to drive out west / Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore, / In September or October,” writes Seamus Heaney in his poem “Postscript,” which describes in detail an Irish county that the speaker recommends the addressee visit. The poem uses deep observation to create an all-encompassing description of this craggy coastline’s geographic features and fauna along the Wild Atlantic Way. “The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit / By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,” writes Heaney. This week, think back to a natural landscape that has made a lasting impression on you and write a poem addressed to a loved one that describes this unique terrain’s lasting beauty.
In “Ten Ways of Being in the Weeds With Your Novel, and Ten Ways Out,” the latest installment of our Craft Capsule series, Blake Sanz writes the essay in second-person, addressing the many struggles and frustrations one can encounter when drafting a piece of writing. “You’ve pulled out a minor character and decided that the whole story should be told from her point of view. You’ve begun to write it that way, only to discover that this idea doesn’t work either,” he writes. Inspired by Sanz’s journey, write an essay that takes the reader through the challenges you faced in drafting a work of your own. What discoveries did you make, small and large, as you moved through versions of this piece?
November is National Novel Writing Month, and as many continue to draft their novels, some may be looking for inspiration to make it through these final days. Throughout the month, the nonprofit NaNoWriMo has been sharing videos from AuthorTubers with helpful tips including a video from Rachel of Rachel Writes offering ways to help overcome perfectionism during writing sessions. This week, as a writing exercise, take a cue from these tips and try a series of short writing sprints. Over the course of a week, set a timer for five-minute sessions. Try to see if each session builds upon the last one in hopes of completing a short story or a chapter of your novel.
“I write for my people. I write because we children of the lash-scarred, rope-choked, bullet-ridden, desecrated are still here standing. I write for the field holler, the shout, the growl, the singer, the signer, and the signified,” says Imani Perry in her moving acceptance speech for the 2022 National Book Award in nonfiction for her book South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation (Ecco, 2022). In her powerful message, Perry repeats the refrain “I write” as she lists the many reasons that lead her to the page. Inspired by Perry’s acceptance speech, write a poem that lists what drives you to write, including the people, languages, and beliefs that move you.
In the opening pages of Hilton Als’s memoir My Pinup: A Paean to Prince (New Directions, 2022), the Pulitzer Prize–winning author reflects upon a confessional joke in Jamie Foxx’s 2002 stand-up special, I Might Need Security, in which the comic meets the iconic musician Prince for the first time and is so overcome that he can’t look him in the eye. “Being enthralled—or, more accurately, frightened and turned on by Prince and what his various looks said about an aspect of black male sexuality—was that something only comedians could talk about?” writes Als. Inspired by this reflection, write a personal essay about an encounter with an icon who shifted something within yourself. What excited or frightened you?
I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry, Finding Me by Viola Davis, and Surrender by Bono are just a few recent high-profile celebrity memoirs on many must-read lists. For some celebrities, writing a memoir is one way to reclaim their story and separate themselves from their public persona. This week, write a short story in the voice of a famous person who feels the need to write a memoir. What secrets are they willing to share, and which do they keep for themselves?
“Where are you from / is a question I field too much. Once / I said Vietnam and the white man said I fought there. / I loved the country. I love their people. / That’s the day I started to lie / about my birth,” writes Kien Lam in his poem “Lunar Mansions,” published in the May/June 2018 issue of the American Poetry Review, in which he recounts the apocryphal story of his birth. Lam weaves in the story of the birth of Jesus, often conflating it with his own: “In the stable / the horses kicked me from their wombs,” he writes. Write a poem that tells the apocryphal story of your birth incorporating, as Lam does, a fantastical tone.
“How to choose // persimmons. This is precision. / Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted. / Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one / will be fragrant. How to eat: / put the knife away, lay down newspaper. / Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat,” writes Li-Young Lee in his evocative poem “Persimmons,” in which he uses the autumnal fruit as a way to speak on a number of personal subjects, such as his memories of a sixth grade teacher, his relationship with his wife, and his father’s blindness. Inspired by Lee’s poem, write a lyric essay about a favorite fruit that conjures sensorial memories. Let yourself be surprised by the direction of your associations.
Over the weekend, many of us, perhaps reluctantly, turned our clocks back an hour, ending Daylight Saving Time for the year. Dating back to World War I when countries needed a way to preserve power and fuel, the yearly change begins in the spring with clocks being pushed forward an hour to conserve daylight leading to longer days and shorter nights, then in the fall pushed back for longer nights and shorter days. Write a story that takes place during the end of Daylight Saving Time. How does the lengthening of darkness affect the mindset of your character?
“I think one of the civic responsibilities of poets in America today is to continue to encourage a sense of civility among us and a sense of curiosity about one another’s lives,” says Naomi Shihab Nye in a conversation with Juan Felipe Herrera and Jane Hirshfield at the 2015 National Book Festival captured on video by the Academy of American Poets. What do you feel is one of your responsibilities as a writer? Write a poem that answers this question by considering timely issues—whether global or personal—that fuel your passion for writing.
The Day of the Dead holiday is traditionally celebrated on the first two days of November, a time for families to remember and honor their dearly departed. The festivities have increasingly become more global but date back to the eleventh century and hold great significance for Mexico’s Indigenous communities. Public places and homes are filled with altars and offerings to commemorate loved ones with their favorite things, including traditional dishes and treats as well as elaborate decorations. Inspired by the celebratory spirit of the Day of the Dead, write an essay that explores how you remember your ancestors. Does this holiday reframe your understanding of grief and loss?
In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, autumn means catching the colorful, vibrant, and fleeting fall foliage, prompting many to take in the majestic display. Resources like the Smoky Mountain National Park’s Fall Foliage Prediction Map can help travelers locate areas in the United States where leaves are starting to change color, are at their peak, or past peak. Using this map as research, write a story in which your protagonist ventures out to a region where the leaves have changed their color. How does this bright, dramatic scenery affect your character’s mood and choices?
In his poem “Magritte Dancing,” Gerald Stern captures the frustration of struggling to fall asleep while paying close attention to the rhythms of his body and passing thoughts. Stern builds the scene by beginning with the mundane: “Every night I have to go to bed twice, / once by myself, suddenly tired and angry.” Then he turns to the passionate intensity of memory and the surreal: “I look at the morning with relief, with something close / to pleasure that I still have one more day, / and I dance the dance of brotherliness and courtliness.” Inspired by the award-winning poet, who died last Thursday at the age of ninety-seven, write a poem about falling asleep. Try to combine reality with the surreal as you toe the line between waking and dreaming.
“Once you know what a book contains, why read it again? Because literature is not information. It’s an atmosphere, a location, a space, a landscape you can enter, with its own weather and light that can be found nowhere else,” writes Sofia Samatar in a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series. Samatar argues for rereading favorite books and discovering in the experience why readers continue to return. She writes: “Every piece of writing calls a particular world into being, an environment through which a reader moves.” Pick a favorite text, whether a single essay or a whole book, and take notes on your feelings as you reread it. Then write an essay using these notes that reflects on this experience of rediscovery.
Over the past few weeks, some climate activists have taken up controversial methods of protest by pelting iconic paintings, such as Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Claude Monet’s “Haystacks,” with mashed potatoes and tomato soup. The protests were recorded and posted on social media by activists in Germany and the United Kingdom to help draw attention to concerns of the ongoing climate catastrophe and its effects on future generations. This week, write a story from the perspective of someone who plans and performs a public protest inside a museum. What work of art helps represent their message?
Is it possible to achieve mastery of an art form? In Carl Phillips’s essay “What We Are Carrying: Meditations on a Writing Practice,” excerpted from his book My Trade Is Mystery: Seven Meditations From a Life in Writing (Yale University Press, 2022) and published in the November/December 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, he argues that “the relationship—between two people, between art and maker—is symbiotic and organic, ever changing, on both sides” therefore it is the commitment to writing that outweighs any idea of mastering it. Drawing from various practices such as learning to speak Italian and playing the clarinet, Phillips writes about the importance of “useful mistakes” and how revision reveals the ways in which a poem is a map, “not a way of getting somewhere, but a record of having been lost.” Keeping Phillips’s essay in mind, write a poem with the intention of getting lost in the writing process. Let your imagination guide you toward surprise.
In his essay “How to Pass the Time on a Holiday Commemorating the Destruction of Your Ancestors,” published by Literary Hub in 2015, Indigenous poet Tommy Pico confronts the reality of the history of Thanksgiving and what it means for him: “You’re maybe only a little bit aware of it for a small part of today, in between the family or the baking or the turkey. It might be a twinge. But that twinge is where I live.” In the conclusion of the essay, Pico offers a summary of how he spends the holiday—making pie with his friends, writing poems, and drinking dirty martinis—and provides readers a chance to reflect on what it means to ask how a Native American celebrates Thanksgiving. Inspired by the duality in Pico’s essay, write a personal essay about how the history of Thanksgiving affects the way you experience the holiday today.
The traditional tarot deck can be divided into two sections: the minor and major arcana. The former focuses on quotidian details, while the latter reveals the bigger picture of one’s life. Composed of twenty-two cards, the major arcana tells the story of life’s endless cycles, beginning with the first card of the Fool, symbolizing naivety and new beginnings, and ending with the last card of the World, representing all of life’s major achievements and stages. As we move closer to ushering in a new year, write a short story that begins with the end of one cycle in your character’s life and concludes with the beginning of a new one. What does the journey between these two life stages look like? Explore the inner life of your protagonist as they find their way toward a new path.
In his essay “The Medium of the English Language,” published in Poetry magazine in 2014, the poet and critic James Longenbach, who died in July at the age of sixty-two, wrote about the ways in which the English language was his medium, the way that “the medium of Giorgione’s Tempest is ‘oil on canvas.’” Longenbach wrote: “How can art be something made of words, the same words used for newspapers and parking tickets? Unlike the media most commonly associated with visual and sonic artistry, words are harnessed by most people during almost every waking moment of their lives.” Taking inspiration from Longenbach’s essay, write a poem that reflects on how your everyday language becomes the medium for your poetry. Do you see a link between how you use language to communicate in your daily life and how you use it to communicate in a poem?
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 was awarded to French author Annie Ernaux for what the Nobel Committee calls “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.” This skill is exemplified in her book The Years as she tells her life story spanning over sixty years in an unconventional manner, using the choral “we” and sometimes shifting into the third person. Reflecting on the voice of her book, Ernaux writes: “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we,’ as if now it were her time to tell the story of the time-before.” Write an essay in the third person that focuses on a span of time in your life. How does this formal choice affect how you consider writing personally and collectively?
Have you ever tried to tell a story in reverse order? In the latest installment of our Ten Questions series, E. M. Tran discusses the challenges she faced while writing her debut novel, Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 2022), which moves backward in time. “I had to shift my mindset,” says Tran. “Tension and narrative movement can still accumulate when you go backward. It just looked different, and I had to really get comfortable with that when I was writing.” This week, write a story that moves backward in time. Start with the ending and guide the reader back to the origins of your character’s journey.
“Each poem or song has a genealogy of sorts. When I speak with singers from our ceremonial ground about a song, they tell you who taught you the song, where the song came from, who has the authority to sing/speak it,” writes former U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo in her Blaney Lecture “Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets” delivered in 2015 at Poets Forum in New York City. “The meanings make a map that sometimes connect you to a lonely serviceman in Japan, or to the journey over the Trail of Tears, from what is now known as Alabama to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma.” Inspired by Harjo’s words, write a poem that traces the genealogy of your poetry. Try starting with a list or a family tree to uncover the storytellers who have inspired you.
Last month, former U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey delivered the annual Windham-Campbell lecture “Why I Write” at Yale University. In considering the theme of the lecture, Trethewey recalls the familial, poetic, and cultural influences that inspired her to become a poet, weaving personal stories with reflections on history and literature. “I’ve needed to create the narrative of my life, its abiding metaphors, so that my story would not be determined for me,” says Trethewey. This week, ask yourself why you write and write a personal essay that searches for your response. What is the story you want to tell?
What can we learn from a single conversation? In Richard Bausch’s short story “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” the protagonist Ballinger speaks to his daughter Melanie over the phone. The conversation, which increases in stakes and tension as it progresses, centers around both parties needing to share life-altering news: Melanie is pregnant and planning to marry an older man while Ballinger and his wife are planning to separate. The story is told with very little narration and is almost entirely written in dialogue. This week try writing a story that takes place over the course of a phone call. Consider what is said and unsaid in the dialogue and how this creates tension between your characters.