Every year on February 2, thousands of spectators visit Punxsutawney, a small town in Pennsylvania, to watch whether a groundhog sees his shadow or not. The first Groundhog Day celebration at Gobbler’s Knob was held in 1887 and the tradition predicts how long the winter season will last. Similar superstitious traditions connected with animals include the ancient Greek art of ornithomancy, the practice of reading omens from the actions of birds, and the Woollybear Festival in Ohio, in which fuzzy woolly bear caterpillars predict the winter forecast. Do you participate in any superstitious traditions? Write an essay that reflects on your relationship to any rituals or superstitions you believe 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.
“On stage, bodies in motion paired with words deliver both language and emotion. I have that same hope for the novel I’m struggling to write,” writes Kathryn Ma in a recent installment of our Writers Recommend series about the impact watching live theater has on her writing. “Dialogue travels, reaching me in the dark. I’m not taking down notes, but my ear is. If I’m open and lucky, the magic might follow me home.” This week write a story in which your character is moved by watching a live theatrical performance. What is the play about? How does the performance taking place on stage mirror the struggles your character is enduring?
In Rachel Mannheimer’s debut book, Earth Room (Changes Press, 2022), the book-length narrative takes the reader to places such as Los Angeles, Berlin, the Hudson Valley, and Mars. Some of the settings are used in a straightforward and narrative way, but others act as a sort of emotional backdrop against which intimate relationships and observations on sculpture, performance art, and land art can be examined. Inspired by Mannheimer’s original use of place, write a poem titled after a city. Try to challenge yourself by exploring the emotional and psychological undertones you associate with that place.
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2023 is the year of the rabbit, which symbolizes longevity, peace, and prosperity. The zodiac is a repeating cycle of twelve years, and each year is represented by a different animal with symbolic traits. Next year will be the year of the dragon, which represents strength and independence; followed by the year of the snake, which represents curiosity and wisdom. Write an essay that reflects on the animal associated with your birth year and how it relates to your personality. Can you find any similarities? As an added challenge, consider the animals associated with your family members and whether these signs hold true to their qualities.
Noah Baumbach’s film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Sam Esmail’s forthcoming film adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—novels with apocalyptic themes are appearing on screen more and more. Whether through satire or stark realism, this suspenseful setting allows writers to explore profound themes of survival, friendship, trust, hope, and resiliency. Inspired by apocalypse novels, write a short story that imagines the end of a modern civilization. Will you lean more toward satire, realism, or another form of expression entirely?
In a recent installment of our Agents & Editors Recommend series, Kristina Marie Darling, editor in chief of Tupelo Press, suggests taking risks with form in order to stand out from other poetry manuscripts. “Do something interesting with the space of the page,” writes Darling. “Be creative with how language is laid out on the page. Take risks with typography. Use white space as a unit of composition.” This week approach the page like a canvas. Let the visual element of your poem help tell the story and expand your language.
In a recent installment of our Writers Recommend series, Janine Joseph, author of Decade of the Brain (Alice James Books, 2023), writes about finding solace in computer scientist Neal Agarwal’s the Deep Sea website. Scrolling down the website, Joseph discovers animals and plant life at varying depths of the ocean, including the wolf eel, the chain catshark, and the terrible claw lobster. In the ocean’s midnight zone, where “creatures survive by their own light,” she finds inspiration in “what can and might exist at those disappearing depths.” Write an essay that meditates on the mysteries and profundities of the ocean. Does its depth inspire awe and wonder as it does for Joseph, or does it strike fear in you?
It’s awards show season for the film and television industry, but behind the camera are all the hardworking folks that make these shows happen. From florists arranging dramatic centerpieces, to chauffeurs driving celebrities from venue to venue, to the graphic designers of the envelopes holding the winners’ names—each individual helps make these one-night-only events possible. Consider what happens behind the scenes at one of these massive events and write a story from the perspective of someone working for an awards show. Imagine the mounting pressure throughout the night, the unexpected responsibilities that may arise, and the difficult celebrities one might encounter for the details in your story.
Award-winning and former U.S. poet laureate Charles Simic, who died last week at the age of eighty-four, was best known for his surrealist and often devastatingly funny poems. His poem “The Voice at 3 A.M.” reads in its entirety: “Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?” In “Eyes Fastened With Pins,” Simic depicts a scene in which death is looking for “Someone with a bad cough, / But the address is somehow wrong, / Even death can’t figure it out.” Inspired by Simic, write a poem that mixes dark humor with a serious subject matter. How does integrating humor help balance and enliven the voice in your poem?
In a Q&A with Kaveh Akbar by Claire Schwartz, published in the September/October 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the poet reflects on the image of a salad spinner in his long poem “The Palace.” He writes: “I have a salad spinner in my kitchen, and we use it. Every time I see it, I’m like, ‘What a ghoulish thing to have—this thing that spins lettuce.’ I can’t think of anything more useless, a more damning indictment of our relative comfort.” What central everyday objects remind you of your relative comfort, or lack thereof? Write an essay that uses concrete images to reflect on the pleasures of your daily life. Do you ever feel shame about these pleasures?
The multitude of popular astrology apps—such as Co–Star, the Pattern, and Time Passages—exemplifies how the ancient study of celestial bodies predicting what happens on Earth is still very relevant. Many rely on astrological readings for career and dating advice, financial decisions, spiritual guidance, and even for what books to read. Write a short story in which a character relies on astrology to make a major life decision. How does their relationship to this divinatory practice change once things are set in motion?
In David Kirby’s poem “The Hours,” published in the latest issue of the Bennington Review, the poet reflects on a subject that feels more significant at the start of a new year: the presence of time. “I’m going to rely on you hours to lead me, / to open one door after another and beckon / me through. Look it’s time to make lunch. / Look, it’s time to go back to work. Look, / it’s time to rub cat Patsy’s belly again,” he writes. This week, write a poem that ruminates on the presence of time in your life. How does your perception of the passing minutes change from season to season?
“I needed to be lonely, it turns out, more than belonging, more than home, more than love. There was no plot of land, no village, town, city, country, in which I belonged,” writes Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Diane Seuss in her essay “On Not Belonging,” published in the inaugural issue of Through Lines Magazine. In the essay, Seuss explores what she learned from the moments in her life when she didn’t feel like she belonged, weaving in and out of topics such as an experience at an artists’ colony, her kinship with writer James Baldwin, and grieving the death of her father. Inspired by Seuss’s relatable and lyrical essay, write an essay that traces your history with belonging. When has not belonging sharpened your creative intuition?
In the intricately imagined novel Sula, Toni Morrison tells the story of Sula Peace and Nel Wright, who meet as children in the Bottom, a Black neighborhood in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The two characters embody the rich and complicated textures of a lifelong friendship as they move through their lives with dark secrets to keep, resentments, betrayal, and ultimately, forgiveness. This week, write a short story that captures the beginning and end of a friendship. Try to incorporate a strong setting that symbolizes and evolves with this relationship.
In his poem “The Wellfleet Whale,” Stanley Kunitz elegizes the majestic presence of a finback whale beached and dying on the shores of Cape Cod. The narrator of the poem, which is written in five sections, speaks to the whale in second person and recounts the last moments of its life. “You have your language, too, / an eerie medley of clicks / and hoots and trills, / location-notes and love calls,” writes Kunitz in the first lines. The rare sight is then celebrated through the awe of the spectators: “We cheered at the sign of your greatness / when the black barrel of your head / erupted, ramming the water, and you flowered for us / in the jet of your spouting.” This week write a poem that celebrates an animal of your choice. Whether through elegy or ode, which animal speaks to your senses?
The days leading up to a new year commencing often bring mixed feelings of reflection to the surface making it difficult to want to write at all. In “Twelve Reasons You Should Keep Writing,” which appears in the January/February 2023 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Sarah Ruhl writes: “Sometimes I forget why I should keep writing. I hope you make a list of your own.” Ruhl then lists brief, evocative, and personal reasons to persist with writing, which include, “Write for your daughter. Write for your son. If they don’t exist, write for the dream of them,” “Write to thank the books you love,” and “Write for God. The cave. The envelope.” Inspired by Ruhl, write a list essay of your own that considers all the reasons that keep you writing.
In the Catholic tradition, December 28 is known as Holy Innocents’ Day or Childermas, and it is celebrated differently from country to country. In Trinidad and Tobago, children’s toys are blessed while in Spain, it is a day to play pranks on friends and family. No matter how it is celebrated, the day commemorates the jovial and happy-go-lucky nature of children. This week, write a story in which the cast of characters consists solely of children. How will you adapt the dialogue to meet the energetic and irreverent personalities of kids?
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet James Merrill’s “Christmas Tree” is a wonderful example of a concrete poem, in which graphic patterns of words, letters, and symbols create a visual impact. Written in the shape of a Christmas tree and from its point of view, the poem captures the brief life of an iconic holiday decoration. “To be / Brought down at last / From the cold sighing mountain / Where I and the others / Had been fed, looked after, kept still, / Meant, I knew—of course I knew— / That there was nothing more to do,” writes Merrill. Taking inspiration from Merrill, write a poem from the perspective of a short-lived and celebrated object. If ambitious, try to incorporate a graphic element for more impact.
In his article “Why Did Borges Hate Soccer?” published in the New Republic in 2014, Shaj Mathew uncovers the reasons the iconic Argentinean writer hated soccer so much that he even scheduled a lecture to conflict with Argentina’s first game of the 1978 World Cup. Mathew observes that what Borges was troubled with was the link from soccer fan culture to “the kind of blind popular support that propped up the leaders of the twentieth century’s most horrifying political movements.” Taking into consideration this year’s controversial FIFA World Cup in Qatar, write an essay that examines your relationship to a popular sport. Is there an element of fandom that unsettles you?
In 2018, Chilean author Isabel Allende became the first Spanish-language author to receive the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. In her acceptance speech, Allende spoke of how her writing comes from “nostalgia, loss, and separation, from an incurable desire to belong in a place.” Lightheartedly and hilariously, she continued by noting that she not only writes in Spanish but cooks, dreams, and makes love in Spanish. “It would be ridiculous panting in English. My lover doesn’t speak a word of Spanish,” said Allende. This week, write a story in which two people from vastly different backgrounds connect through an unexpected similarity. How do they bond through their own language?
“This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun. // Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to / celebrate the terrible victory.” In her seminal poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” Joy Harjo explores the shared history of humanity through the image of a kitchen table. “We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here. // At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks,” writes Harjo. Write a poem that explores the joyful and sorrowful history of a past or present family home. What stories do the rooms, tables, and walls of your home tell you?
“Writers often talk about stakes, and they mostly mean the stakes within the piece: what’s at stake for the protagonist, whether fictional or not. Yet for me, the stakes that matter most—the stakes that shape the work profoundly—are those the author faces while writing,” writes Joy Castro, founding editor of the Machete series published by Ohio State University Press, in a recent installment of our Agents & Editors Recommend series. Castro encourages writers to take “bold, huge, scary risks” and “trust that your readers are as intelligent and soulful as you are.” Inspired by Castro’s advice, write an essay that considers your relationship to risk in life and your creative work. Do you take leaps or keep your feet on the ground?
In the preface to Whorephobia: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life, an anthology of essays and interviews published by Seven Stories Press, editor Lizzie Borden writes about her experiences as a young filmmaker in the late 1970s and early 1980s in downtown New York when she worked at a brothel to support her art. Borden writes: “My way of justifying working at the brothel was to tell myself it was part of what I considered my ‘real work’ of writing and directing, so I always went to work armed with a tape recorder.” Years later Borden would run into old friends on the street who worked with her at the brothel and exchange coded looks that, as she writes, were a result of their “internalized societal whorephobia.” Write a story in which tensions rise when two characters decide to keep a secret. Try to paint a picture of the before and after of these characters’ lives and how the secret forever connects them.
“I first started writing poetry (and still write it) because the world, its people, and their ideas are wrong, insane, immoral, flawed, or unimaginably terrible. I write because I feel wrong, sad, crazy, disappointed, disappointing, and unimaginably terrible,” writes Rachel Zucker in “The Poetics of Wrongness, an Unapologia,” the first in a series of lectures delivered for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series in 2016 and collected in The Poetics of Wrongness, forthcoming in February from Wave Books. In the form of an unapologia, a reversal of the traditional apologia form that typically consists of a defense of one’s own opinions and actions, Zucker posits that “wrongness” is intrinsic to writing poetry and that poetry asserts “with its most defining formal device—the line break—that the margins of prose are wrong, or—with its attention to diction—that the ways in which we’ve come to understand and use words [is] wrong.” Write a poem in the form of an unapologia. Identify when you have been wrong in the past, and try not to defend yourself. Instead, speak through your feelings of wrongness.
Each year Oxford Languages names a Word of the Year that reflects the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months” based on thorough analysis of statistics and data, but for the first time this year’s choice was open to a public vote. More than 300,000 people cast their vote and the overwhelming winner is “goblin mode,” a slang term defined as “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” Write an essay about a time you have gone into “goblin mode.” Was the period of unapologetic behavior necessary for you to recharge?