In a profile of Tracy K. Smith by Renée H. Shea, published in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet discusses the “shifting subjectivities” she discovered while writing her memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015), in which she includes stories from her childhood. “Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” says Smith. Consider two identities that you hold, then write a poem from one of these perspectives. What is left out, and what is let in?
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.
“My problem isn’t writer’s block—it’s writer’s doubt,” writes Diana Marie Delgado in an installment of Writers Recommend in which she explains how a hypnotic and emotionally swelling piece of music helps inspire her writing. “If I feel overwhelmed, I listen to William Basinski’s ‘dlp 1.1’ from The Disintegration Loops,” she writes. This week, write about a piece of music that helps you enter the headspace for writing. What’s the story behind the music, and what about it, specifically, helps you write?
From New York socialite con artist Anna Delvey to Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the fraudulent health technology company Theranos, to Simon Leviev, who allegedly conned millions of dollars from women through the dating app Tinder, these actors of true crime have dominated the subject of several television shows, documentaries, and movies. Inspired by these dangerous tricksters, write a story with a con artist as the protagonist. What do they think and sound like? Do they have an unrecognizable accent or use popular social media platforms to connect with their victims?
“[Nashville] is hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle / chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame-colored spice / for white people,” writes Tiana Clark in her poem “Nashville,” published in the New Yorker in 2017. The poem interlaces personal experience and anecdotes with a historical overview of the Southern city’s development. “I-40 bisected the black community / like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits. / 120 businesses closed,” writes Clark. Write a poem about a city you’ve lived in. How does your time there intersect with the history of the town? Use research to find significant events that take your poem to a deeper place beyond your own life.
In “The Romans in Films,” an essay from his 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes analyzes Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 film Julius Caesar by focusing on the presence of fringes in the hair of the characters. “Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history,” he writes. “What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply the label of Roman-ness.” Inspired by Barthes’s cheeky analysis of the believability of this ancient Roman period film, write an essay about a film you have criticized. Describe scenes of the film using unique details to illustrate what inspires your argument.
“When I think about the writers and books I have worked with, it’s the dialogue about shape that I most remember. A draft of a story in which a kind of sonic boom goes off at the beginning demands an answering boom at the end,” writes Rebecca Saletan, vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books, in “A Thing Meant to Be: The Work of a Book Editor” published as online exclusive for Poets & Writers in 2018. “Rather than trying to launch six complicated characters at the outset, how about introducing them one by one, like a juggler putting balls into the air?” This week find an old draft of a story and reshape its structure. How does this exercise force a new perspective on the story’s elements?
From the Czech word litost—a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery—to the German word schadenfreude—the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others—to the French word dépaysement—the restlessness that comes with being away from your country of origin—untranslatable words have continued to be a source of inspiration for writers across languages. Each word reflects the culture from which it comes as well as illustrates the inability for language to fully capture the human experience. Write a poem using an untranslatable word as a jumping-off point. For inspiration, read Barbara Hamby’s poem “Toska” included in her book On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).
“Yes, I’m from rural Michigan. My people are those of TV dinners and bad luck. My landscape, silos, pissed-off cows, and the Elks Lodge Friday Fish Fry sign lighting up the night instead of the moon,” writes Diane Seuss in her commencement address to the Bennington Writing Seminars earlier this year, which was published on Literary Hub. “I invented myself, or a version of myself that could resurrect out of a cow pasture and become a poet. Unlikely, unlikely that I am here at all, and that you, indeed, are there,” she writes. Write an essay about your own “resurrection” into becoming a writer. What is the landscape you associate with home, and how does it influence your writing style?
In “The Art of Reading Philip Roth: Turning Sentences Around,” published in the September/October 2006 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Andrew Furman provides an analysis of the prolific writer’s work and legacy. “[Roth] seemed to know early on that to be a thoughtful Jewish writer in the twentieth century was to pose a series of ‘What if’ questions,” writes Furman. “What if Kafka survived tuberculosis, and then the Nazi death camps?” or “What if Anne Frank survived typhus in Bergen-Belsen?” This week, write a short story based on a “What if” question. Whether through a historical figure or your own life, what alternate reality can you see through to fruition?
“They say a poet / can never write a purely happy poem about a dog / greeting the sun and what it has done to rain,” writes Analicia Sotelo in her poem “Grace Among the Ferns” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. “I don’t know about that.” The poem is inspired by Sotelo’s dog Grace, who nuzzles her body through ferns on a sunny day, and how she seems to effortlessly enjoy the pleasures of springtime. Inspired by Sotelo’s poem, challenge yourself to write a joyful poem. Will your poem include a beloved pet?
Last week, International Women’s Day was celebrated around the world, bringing attention to the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women as well as a call to action for gender equality. This year’s theme is “Break the Bias,” which aims to imagine a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, and encourages daily practice in one’s actions and thoughts. Inspired by this globally celebrated day, write an essay meditating on the women in your life who’ve helped you make personal strides. When cataloged, what are some patterns you notice?
“Under the wonderful influence of the painkillers coursing through me, I felt, in my iron-framed bed, like a balloonist floating weightless amidst the mountainous clouds towering on every side,” writes W. G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn, reprinted by New Directions in 2016 and translated from the German by Michael Hulse, in which an unnamed narrator speaks from a hospital bed about a trip he took walking across the landscape of Suffolk in England a year before. In the novel, Sebald’s narrator ruminates on a variety of subjects, including Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the skull of seventeenth-century physician Thomas Browne, French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s relationship to sand, and the sudden death of his friend. Write a story in which the protagonist never physically moves, but mentally travels through a variety of seemingly disparate subjects. Be it art, world history, geography, or music, how do the anecdotes connect to your subject’s personal conflict?
“I don’t know about you, but for me, the last two years have put a strain on language,” says Ada Limón in an episode of The Slowdown, a podcast hosted by the poet featuring a curated poem. “For me, and maybe for many of us, the way we say I love you, is just by showing up. By being there, sometimes quietly, wordlessly, but there, in person, nonetheless,” she says while introducing the featured poem “Don’t Say Love Just Signal” by Tyree Daye. This week, write a poem about the ways love can be expressed physically, without words. When words aren’t enough, how does the body say more?
In Elisa Gabbert’s essay “A Poem (and a Painting) About the Suffering That Hides in Plain Sight,” published for the Close Read series, a digital initiative on the New York Times website, W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” is analyzed in conjunction with paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as conclusions are drawn about what the two famed artists had to say about a world on the verge of war. The poem slyly uses rhyme and ekphrasis to reveal how suffering occurs simultaneously while “someone is eating or opening a window / or just walking dully along,” however, Gabbert points out that this is not to be used as an excuse. “Moral absolution is available, the poem seems to say,” she writes. “That doesn’t mean we deserve it.” Inspired by Gabbert, write an essay using historical research and personal anecdotes about a work of literature or visual art that speaks to a troubling period in your life.
The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz, premiered at the top of the box office this past weekend adding to the popularity of neo-noir films over the past decade. Coined in the 1970s, the term “neo-noir” refers to the expansion of the classic film noir genre of the 1920s and explores many of the same themes: a dilapidated city overrun by crime and corruption, a brooding antihero, a femme fatale, and the looming specter of the protagonist’s inner demons. Recent examples of neo-noir films include Nightmare Alley, Looper, Drive, and Nightcrawler. Write a short story using the conventions of a neo-noir film. What inspiration can you draw from this genre as well as real-world events for your dramatically lit and brooding story?
“Poets are supposed to avoid clichés—bits of language so hackneyed as to seem drained of meaning—but I’m fascinated by what hyper-familiar turns of phrase can reveal and conceal,” writes Hannah Aizenman about her poem “As a Father of Daughters,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. The poem uses the phrase in the title as a jumping-off point for a seemingly associative list that hinges on the levity of rhyme and continues to reveal more about the original phrase. “As a failure of rathers / As a faithful support / As we gather together / As a fear of disorder,” writes Aizenman. Write a poem inspired by a common phrase or idiom that challenges its meaning. What will be revealed or concealed?
In a Q&A from the September/October 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, poet Claire Schwartz asks Kaveh Akbar, author most recently of Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021), about the relationship between creating art and living a socially meaningful life. Akbar speaks about Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad and her 1962 film The House Is Black, a documentary about a leprosarium in northern Iran, as an example of the ideal. The film catalyzed Iranian new wave cinema and funds flowed into the leprosarium for renovations: “Farrokhzad’s film did exactly what one might hope for their art to do: It improved the material conditions of her subjects and expanded the aesthetic possibilities of the field,” says Akbar. Write an essay that explores the ideal impact you want your work to have, using an artist as a role model to illustrate your vision.
In the latest installment of Craft Capsules, Allegra Hyde, author of Eleutheria, forthcoming from Vintage in March, writes about “face pareidolia,” a scientific term for the phenomenon of humans seeing faces in inanimate objects. Hyde finds evidence of this behavior used as a literary technique in a range of works from Homer’s The Odyssey to Alexandra Kleeman’s novel Something New Under the Sun (Hogarth, 2021), in which water is given “a human-like motive, which heightens the drama of the overall description.” This week, write a story that employs the personification, either literal or metaphorical, of an inanimate object. Whether it’s the clouds in the sky or a desk lamp, how does this human impulse to see ourselves help us better understand the world?
As many turn to gardening in warmer temperatures, so come the unwanted but sturdy weeds, popping up regardless of how often they’re removed. Louise Glück’s poem “Witchgrass” explores this perspective from an anthropomorphized incarnation of witchgrass, a common summer annual weed of field crops and small fruit. The result is a testament to the sheer force of nature, as well as a critique of humanity’s obsession with weeding out the seemingly unnecessary: “I don’t need your praise / to survive. I was here first, / before you were here, before / you ever planted a garden.” Write a poem from the perspective of a pesky, unwanted plant or animal. What strength can you find in the underdog?
For as long as writers have put pen to paper, springtime has been a fertile subject—mulled over, praised, longed for, and even forsaken. From Vladimir Nabokov’s 1926 novel, Mary, in which he writes that the feeling of “nostalgia in reverse” grows stronger in spring, to Angela Carter’s 1966 novel, Shadow Dance, in which she writes that “spring hurts depressives,” the season often symbolizes hope and anticipation, a climbing out of darkness. When the lingering coldness of winter remains, however, it is sometimes difficult to transition alongside the blossoms and sprouts. Taking inspiration from this fulcrum between seasons, write an essay about a period when you had trouble accepting the onset of spring. Spend time tracing the connection between the world outside and changing seasons of your emotional life.
Angel Dominguez’s Desgraciado (the collected letters), published in February by Nightboat Books, comprises a series of letters addressed to Diego de Landa, a Spanish friar who attempted to destroy the written Mayan language in Maní Yucatán in the sixteenth century. This hybrid epistolary collection navigates the shared trauma and history of colonization while creating an intimate correspondence that returns agency to the descendant of a people de Landa tried to extinguish. “Dear Diego, I write to you because there’s nothing else to do; nothing to be done, and yet we must go on. Go on living, go on writing,” Dominguez writes. Draft a story in which a character corresponds with a figure from history. Whether through letters, dreams, or ghostly visitations, what would your protagonist ask this historical figure, and what would drive this quest for answers?
“My materialist mind, I can’t / shake it,” writes Solmaz Sharif in her poem “Now What” from her second collection, Customs, forthcoming in March by Graywolf Press. The speaker of the poem sits in a hotel in Ohio eating takeout and meditating on the origins of the meal, tracing connections back into history and the people whose hands made this food possible: “Within a perfect / little tub of garlic / butter // a relief of workers, of sickles / fields of soy.” Write a poem that meditates on the origins of a favorite condiment, seasoning, or meal. Try to establish a time and place in the poem by beginning in the present, then leap into the anecdotal or historical stories that come to you.
Last week’s Ten Questions series featured Sarah Manguso, whose first novel, Very Cold People (Hogarth, 2022), chronicles the coming of age of a young girl named Ruthie in a small town in Massachusetts. The series highlights the writing process of authors and how their books come together. Asked about writing impediments, Manguso replies: “At the risk of sounding coy, I’ll say that the biggest impediment to my writing life was recently removed from my life. I currently feel unimpeded.” Inspired by Manguso’s response, make a list of impediments to your writing life. Try to avoid superficial answers. Then, write an essay about how you see yourself overcoming these obstacles.
For those in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures are beginning to warm up indicating the coming of spring. This period in February, in which there can be a week of mild weather with birds chirping and plants blossoming followed by a deep freeze, is what climate scientists call “false spring.” Write a short story set in the interstices of seasons. For example, in the cold week at the end of summer signifying the coming of autumn, or just before spring. What tension can the setting of a story add to the conflict in a character?
As with this past weekend’s Super Bowl, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States, before the start of sports events is a time-honored tradition. Poet Ada Limón has made that eventful moment the center of her poem “A New National Anthem,” which is included in her collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018). “The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National / Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good / song,” writes Limón. “And what of the stanzas / we never sing, the third that mentions ‘no refuge / could save the hireling and the slave’? Perhaps, / the truth is, every song of this country / has an unsung third stanza.” Write a poem inspired by a country’s national anthem. What are your feelings about it? Is it a good song?