“Monastic firs, marginal, / conical, in brooding snoods / a finical sun unpacks, clerical // in scarlet fringe of Interstate scrub,” writes Lisa Russ Spaar in her hypnotic poem “Driving,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In the poem, Spaar shifts from the speaker’s present to the past, in a kind of daydream: “Sick days // in autumn, child on cot-raft, / chaste bedroom chary / with red smell of measles.” Write a poem that describes the feeling of driving long distances. Challenge yourself to begin with descriptions of the road and progress into the realm of memory and meditation. (If you don’t drive, do the same exercise with walking.)
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.
The final months of the year can provide a time to reflect on and list the many things for which we are grateful. Try using the generative form of the list essay to write about what you’re grateful for or what you’re looking forward to in the coming year. Written with or without numbers, the form has proved extremely effective in works such as Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay “My 1980s,” and Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017). Consider how writing such a list essay might allow you to step back and observe how gratitude and expectation are related or in opposition to each other.
The winter holidays have served as inspiration for writers across the ages, yielding stories such as “A Christmas Tree and a Wedding” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “One Christmas Eve” by Langston Hughes, and “Santa’s Children” by Italo Calvino. In Calvino’s story a father of three children is ordered by the company that employs him to dress up as Santa Claus and deliver gifts to a town of citizens unimpressed by his costume. The satirical story concludes in a critique of the materialistic nature of the holiday, as the company’s president and head of the “Society for the Implementation of Christmas Consumption” boosts a campaign to push for “the Destructive Gift,” such as matches and hammers. Write a story set during holiday festivities in which something unexpected occurs. Perhaps you might lean into elements of satire or the surreal to explore new dimensions of this familiar territory.
“Dear Mother, I have so many questions. What city were you born in? What was your American birthday? Your Chinese birthday? What did your mother do?” writes Victoria Chang in the first letter of her nonfiction book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, published in October by Milkweed Editions. In the book, Chang writes letters to family members, teachers, and writing colleagues—to silence, to the reader, to memory itself—interspersed with collages made from family documents, relics, and mementos, including a marriage license, photographs, and a visa petition, forming an immersive collection that reckons with memory and what it dredges from the past. Using Dear Memory as inspiration, write three poems in the form of letters: one addressed to a parent, another to a grandparent, and the third to an experience or emotion, such as regret or grief. Try using family photographs or keepsakes as a way of entering the poems.
“I’ve attended plenty of workshops and lectures with writers I admire, only to leave with vague and puzzling advice about listening to your story’s truth,” writes Blair Hurley in the latest Craft Capsule essay “Tiny Doable Things.” “I treasured, instead, the writers who admitted that their writing was not always inspired and that their drafts were not always successful on the first try.” In the essay, Hurley compares writers with specific technical advice to “woodworkers or glassblowers who must learn the practical needs of their medium.” Write a list of practical writing advice you have received over the years, and reflect upon which practices have stuck with you and why.
In an article for the Guardian, children’s book author Piers Torday writes about a recent study in the journal People and Nature conducted by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research which concluded that “animals are being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world.” Torday notes that although there are plenty of animals in children’s literature, there is a shortage of them in novels and concludes that, “perhaps it is time for fiction authors to educate ourselves, and learn how to radically and authentically represent the non-human voice on the page.” This week, write a story with a non-human protagonist. How will you render their voice urgently real?
“I come from the cracked hands of men who used / the smoldering ends of blunts to blow shotguns,” writes Reginald Dwayne Betts, recipient of a 2021 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, in his poem “Shahid Reads His Own Palm.” Betts uses anaphora to propel the narrative forward, describing the places that have shaped and haunted him with an incantatory rhythm: “I come from ‘Swann Road’ written in a child's / slanted block letters across a playground fence.” Write a poem about your origins that repeats the words, “I come from,” throughout it. Does the repetition conjure any surprising images?
Catapult’s column “How’s the Writing Going?” by Sari Botton features writers in conversation about their process and what they’re working on, offering insight and tips for writer’s block and other challenges. The column focuses on the one question “no writer wants to be asked—but which every writer wants to ask others.” Write an essay about how your writing is going. Consider the question at large and answer it in terms of how your writing process has evolved over time. What have you learned along the way?
In an interview for the VS podcast with hosts Franny Choi and Danez Smith, poet Cyrée Jarelle Johnson discusses the appeal of poetic forms and his relationship to breaking them. “If the form is broken, it’s broken for a reason,” says Johnson. Write a short story in which the form of a traditional narrative is somehow broken. Whether by choosing an unexpected point of view, or by defying the conventions of a particular character’s archetype, challenge the expectations of the reader and break the form, as Johnson says, “for a reason.”
In her poem “Taking Out the Trash,” the late poet Kamilah Aisha Moon, who died at the age of forty-eight last week, takes a seemingly mundane task and makes the activity profound. Through detailed, sensory descriptions of routine movements such as “I shimmy the large kitchen bag from / the steel canister, careful not to spill / what’s inside,” Moon walks the reader through the meditative, deliberate actions of her morning routine, bringing attention to the role her body has in everyday actions and the presence of one’s mortality throughout the day. Write a poem about a daily chore or everyday task that brings attention to your body. Try, as Moon does in her poem, to take time describing the movements of your body.
In an article for the New Republic’s Critical Mass, Jo Livingstone discusses artist Judy Chicago’s new memoir, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago (Thames & Hudson, 2021), and critics’ rejection of her overlooked body of work. Best known for her controversial piece “The Dinner Party,” Chicago includes in her book details of misogyny, racism, and other prejudices that affect the legacy of an artist. Write an essay inspired by a writer or artist whose body of work is often overlooked. What draws you to this artist and why do you think their work is not as recognized?
A rare townhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village that was once the home of several artists in its storied history, including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, cartoonist William Steig and his wife’s sister, anthropologist Margaret Mead, was recently featured in the New York Post. Often called the narrowest home in the city because it is less than ten feet wide, the space was originally an alleyway to a brewery in the 1840s. Write a story inspired by an historic piece of real estate in which your protagonist lives in the former home of a famous figure. How does this history influence your protagonist?
A garden-path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that can appear nonsensical because of its syntax and the way it forces the reader to discern its meaning. In essence, the reader is led down the garden path by the sentence. Examples include “The horse raced past the barn fell,” “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends,” and “The raft floated down the river sank.” Write a poem using a garden-path sentence. What grammatical trick will you use for an unexpected portrayal? Try using the title to your advantage.
“We hate embarrassing ourselves so much, we do all sorts of things to avoid embarrassment—and at all costs,” writes Vanessa Bohns about the constructs of politeness in an excerpt from her new book, You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters (Norton, 2021), published on Literary Hub. “Approximately 5,000 people die from choking every year in part because they stand up and leave the table—rather than ask their tablemates for help—out of a fear of, you got it, embarrassment.” Write an essay on politeness and your thoughts about social embarrassment. Has there been a time when you suffered consequences for your politeness?
“He said he wanted to set me on fire like a cigarette—he inhaled me with vigor, indulgence, and did so really, really carelessly,” writes Brontez Purnell in his short story “The Boyfriends,” in which titled sections include “Boyfriend 2.0 / The Firefighter,” “Boyfriend #33 / The Hairdresser,” and “Boyfriend #77 / The Chef.” The story, which is featured in Purnell’s collection 100 Boyfriends (MCD x FSG Originals, 2021), consists of quick scenes that have brief conclusions and convincing details, altogether creating a feeling for a particular time in the speaker’s life. Write a story consisting of brief scenes that recount time spent with either one or several lovers. What do these scenes reveal about your protagonist?
As the days get shorter and colder in mid-September, the autumnal equinox and the official end of summer approach. Many poets find inspiration in this in-between zone when seasonal plants transition and the duties of a school year begin again. “Three Songs at the End of Summer” by Jane Kenyon, “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney, and “Vespers” by Louise Glück are examples of poems that speak to late summer. Write a poem that celebrates this fleeting, yet evocative moment between seasons.
In Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay “Fear: A Crown,” included in his latest collection, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021), he borrows the form of a crown of sonnets to link vignettes—parts of the last line of each section act as the first line of the next. Use the crown form to link an essay in sections that discusses a central feeling or theme. As you echo the last line of a vignette into the next, allow the words to launch you into unexpected places.
“[Amy] Winehouse is so much more than the sum of her parts, isn’t she? The tower of hair. The broad wings of eyeliner. The coldness beneath the boldness, the shyness beneath the highness,” says Diane Seuss in an interview with Tony Leuzzi for the Brooklyn Rail discussing the title of her latest collection, frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press, 2021), a reference to three things: Frank O’Hara; the synonym for honest and direct; and Winehouse’s first album, Frank. Write a story in which the protagonist is based on a legendary singer. Use song lyrics as well as their biography as inspiration for a way to begin the story.
“My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name. / I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi,” writes Natasha Trethewey in her poem “Miscegenation,” which begins with the story of her parents traveling to Ohio to marry in 1965 when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi. The poem is a ghazal, a form that consists of couplets ending on the same word or phrase. Write a ghazal with your city of origin as the repeating word. Try, as Trethewey does, to weave together various subjects that speak to the time and place of your homeland.
“One of the big influences for me early on was Janet Frame,” says Alexander Chee in an interview with Lincoln Michel for his How-to series published in Fold magazine. “She would hand-write a draft of a novel entirely. Then typing it up was one revision. Then she would type it up again, and that was another revision. I decided to try it and actually really enjoyed it.” This week, pull out a notebook or legal pad and your favorite writing utensil to start an essay about a time you were influenced by another artist or writer. Was there a particular process or style that changed your writing?
“I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep,” writes Nicole Sealey in her poem “Medical History,” selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts to be published in the New York Times Magazine. In the poem, Sealey lists the speaker’s and their family’s medical history, creating a startling portrait of genealogy and the anxieties surrounding mortality that come with it. “Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit / by a car as if to disprove whatever theory / toward which I write. And, I understand, / the stars in the sky are already dead.” Write a short story in which the protagonist contends with their medical history. How does this fixation on their health affect the way they move through the world?
In her poem “Bestiary of Bad Kisses,” Ashley M. Jones compares bad kisses in the form of a catalog of animals with three sections titled: “The Frog,” “The Anteater,” and “The Bulldog.” The bestiary is a textual compendium of beasts, both real and imaginary, dating back to the Middle Ages that has seen a resurgence in contemporary literature. From Julio Cortázar to Donika Kelly, writers have sought ways to explore the metaphorical and literal resonances of cataloging animals. Write a poem in the form of a bestiary. How can you glean inspiration from myths and real-life stories? What is the relationship between your chosen animals?
“By calling an influence an ancestor rather than an influence, a relationship is made, a kinship,” says U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo speaking about her new memoir, Poet Warrior (Norton, 2021), in a Q&A by Laura Da’ featured in the September/October 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Some of these connections resonate and flower, while others challenge and force us to stand up.” This week, make a list of influential people in your life who have either helped you grow or challenged you. Write a series of linked essays that reflects on how these relationships are all connected.
“Consider this: I’ve spent nine months cradled in my mother’s body,” writes Nawaaz Ahmed in his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, published earlier this month by Counterpoint. “My world was small and safe and familiar, interrupted only occasionally by light and sounds from the outside. And even those arrived muted by my mother’s flesh and bone, the light tinted by her blood.” The novel, a saga involving an immigrant family’s secrets and betrayals, begins from the point of view of the protagonist’s child at the moment of his birth, infusing the novel’s prelude with disorienting descriptions recounting the experience of first encountering the world. Write a story that begins through the eyes of a newborn. Consider the reason for this beginning and try, as Ahmed does, to suffuse the scene with sensual imagery.
Rising global temperatures and natural disasters, such as the recent tropical storms and hurricanes in North America and the earthquake in Haiti, bring to mind the fragility of the environment and the effects of climate change. Over the years, poets have taken to their craft to raise awareness and humanize the climate crisis in works such as “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth” by Fatimah Asghar, “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now” by Matthew Olzmann. Write a poem about the environment that draws the reader in emotionally, whether it is by describing a changing landscape or reflecting on the issue. For further inspiration, browse these poems engaging with the climate crisis curated by the Academy of American Poets.