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.

5.26.22

Over the past two years, an increasing number of books have been banned from school libraries and universities. In 2021, the American Library Association tracked over seven hundred attempts to remove library, school, and university materials, including over fifteen hundred books. Most of the banned books have themes of race and racism, and include LGBTQIA+ characters. These titles include Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson. Write an essay about a banned book that has made a lasting impression on you. How do you feel about these books being blocked from new readers?

5.25.22

Allegra Hyde’s climate fiction novel, Eleutheria (Vintage, 2022), takes place in the near future, bringing readers into a familiar dystopian world. In a recent interview on Late Night With Seth Myers, Hyde explains why she chose this time period: “By having it in the near future, I could think through what’s going to happen, and more importantly, how we might problem solve, how we might mobilize.” This week, write a story set in a time not too distant from today with familiar details that slowly stray from reality.

5.24.22

Teachers play a vital role in the lives of children, making a lasting impression and providing memories carried into adulthood. It makes sense then that there are many poems written about teaching and lessons learned, such as “Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in School” by Christopher Bursk, “The Floral Apron” by Marilyn Chin, and “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School, Detroit 1942” by Philip Levine. Write a poem about a beloved teacher of yours. Whether from a favorite class in school, a sports team, or your community, what was unique about this teacher? How has this mentor impacted your life decades later?

5.19.22

“I was certain that writing should be more about breaking or lifting the reader’s heart than, say, mending my own heart. And then I lost somebody,” writes Ian Stansel in “How Deep This Grief: Wrestling With Writing As Therapy” in the September/October 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the essay, Stansel shares the V. S. Naipaul quote that helped guide him to write a novel after his sister’s sudden death honoring her love of horses and career as a riding trainer: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” This week, write an essay that makes the connection between a challenging time in your life and a writing credo that guides your work.

5.18.22

In a profile of Emma Straub for the Cut by Kate Dwyer, the author and bookstore owner discusses her new novel, This Time Tomorrow (Riverhead Books, 2022), which follows a woman who, on her fortieth birthday, unexpectedly travels back to 1996 and relives her sixteenth birthday. This week write a short story that uses time travel to explore a character’s youth. Why does your protagonist end up in that specific time period, and how will this experience shed light on their present-day life?

5.17.22

Last week scientists unveiled the first image of Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy, the culmination of a decades-long astronomical quest. Located 27,000 light-years away, it is relatively small and constantly changing from minute to minute, appearing as a glowing donut-shaped ring in images. Consider this historic scientific achievement and write a poem inspired by the mysteries of black holes. For an idea on how to create a metaphor out of celestial phenomenon, read the poem “After Reading That the Milky Way Is Devouring the Galaxy of Sagittarius” by Erin Belieu.

5.12.22

In an attempt to escape the “constellation of grief” that shrouded him in his early thirties, visual artist and writer Ben Shattuck set out on a series of journeys around New England that became the basis of his book, Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau (Tin House, 2022). The book is featured in “The Written Image” in the May/June 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine along with a sample of Shattuck’s drawings from his excursions, which import a visual and emotional landscape to each individual place. This week, inspired by Shattuck’s process, take three walks outdoors throughout the week and write down as many observations as possible. Then, write an essay using these notes to create distinct sections elaborating on each outing.

5.11.22

In “Can Motherhood Be a Mode of Rebellion?” an essay published in the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes about Essential Labor: Mothering as Social Change (Harper Wave, 2022) by Angela Garbes, a book analyzing the state of caregiving in America, and reflects on the experience of hiring a nanny for “a job so crucial and difficult that it seems objectively holy.” This week think of a job that is often unappreciated or unacknowledged and write a story from the perspective of a character who works this job. How can you render their perspective through detailed observations of the world around them?

5.10.22

In Ada Limón’s poem “The Raincoat,” published in her collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018), the speaker reflects on the experience of comfort and protection parents can offer through simple gestures like taking off a raincoat in a storm to wrap around their child or making time to drive and accompany them to doctor’s appointments. Write a poem about a time a parental figure of yours made a loving sacrifice. Think of a memory that makes you feel the way Limón does at the end of her poem: “My god, / I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her / raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel / that I never got wet.”

5.5.22

How did you celebrate May the Fourth? Did you know it isn’t just for Star Wars fans but also for the birds? In 1894, Charles Almanzo Babcock, a school superintendent from Pennsylvania, launched the first Bird Day “in a bid to create awareness and promote the conservation of all bird species.” This week peruse the National Audubon Society’s Guide to North American Birds, which features the habitats, calls, feeding behaviors, and migration patterns of over eight hundred species of birds. Then, pick five feathered friends that stand out to you and write a section of an essay dedicated to each one. As you write, discover links beyond the germane aspects of your chosen species.

5.4.22

With cool spring weather comes allergy season, the time of year many become suffused with itchy eyes, runny noses, and relentless sneezing. This common ailment is exasperated by the rainy season and blowing winds that spread pollen, and global warming is creating an even longer pollen season, according to many published studies. Write a story in which a protagonist struggles with allergies in springtime. How will this detail carry importance in the plot’s development? For inspiration, read Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Death of a Government Clerk,” which begins with the protagonist sneezing.

5.3.22

In a recent installment of Ten Questions, poet Dana Levin recalls the earliest memory associated with her new book, Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon Press, 2022): “Pacing around my sublet in Saint Louis, Fall 2015, saying out loud the words ‘No,’ ‘Yes,’ and ‘Stop’ over and over: to feel how they felt in my mouth, my throat, my chest.” Included in Levin’s collection are three poems—“No,” “Maybe,” and “Into the Next Eden”—that seek to answer the question posed by the book’s title. This week, consider a question to ask yourself and write three poems with different responses. Do your answers surprise you?

4.28.22

“Can authors avoid the downward post-book spiral? Some depression may be inevitable. There’s an inevitable loss that comes with sending a book into the world,” writes Jessica Berger Gross, author of the memoir, Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home (Scribner, 2017), in “I Just Published a Book: Why Am I Depressed?” published on the Poets & Writers website in 2019. In the essay, Gross discusses the feeling of loss she experienced after publishing her memoir and speaks to other writers with “post-publication malaise.” This week, think back to a time when you finished a significant task, whether it was a manuscript, an essay, or moving out of an apartment, then write an essay about the spectrum of feelings you experienced throughout the process. Gross writes that the cure for post book depression is to “start writing something new.” What was your cure?

4.27.22

In an excerpt of Noor Naga’s new novel, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English (Graywolf Press, 2022), published on Literary Hub, one of the main characters, an Egyptian American woman who moves to Cairo to teach English, discusses her relationship with her mother through a question and answer structure of vignettes. Rather than straightforward queries with direct replies, the questions are specific and personal—for example, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?” and “Is it arrogant to return to a place you’ve never been?”—setting up a tension that elevates the stakes for the character’s emotional arc. Taking inspiration from Naga’s novel, think of three questions that relate to your protagonist’s conflict, then answer these questions through first-person vignettes. How does this exercise help you understand your character, as well as challenge the traditional structure of a story?

4.26.22

“I am five, / Wading out into deep / Sunny grass,” writes Yusef Komunyakaa in his poem “Venus’s-Flytraps.” The young speaker in this poem delivers a collage-like monologue that lays out the various characters, images, and places from his life along with a sense of wonder and danger carefully balanced in striking lines, creating a tapestry that portrays a very real and complex childhood. “I know things / I don’t supposed to know. / I could start walking / & never stop. / These yellow flowers / Go on forever,” writes Komunyakaa. Write a poem from the perspective of a curious child, which, like Komunyakaa’s poem, illustrates even the most devastating things with a sense of wonder.

4.21.22

Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others, forthcoming in May by Princeton University Press, catalogues the Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s identity as a writer and translator of books in English and Italian. In the first essay, “Why Italian?” Lahiri explores her reason for beginning to write books in Italian. “Some people ask me, Why Italian instead of an Indian language, a closer language, more like you?” she writes. Inspired by the works of Italian authors such as Lalla Romano and Elena Ferrante, Lahiri continues to answer the question with three metaphors: the dual nature of a door, limited eyesight and blindness, and the multiple meanings of the word graft. Think back to a time when you first learned a skill or a new language, then choose a metaphor that captures the stages of that journey. Write an essay using the metaphor to flesh out the feelings and themes that arise from your exploration.

4.20.22

Crocuses, daffodils, irises, tulips, bloodroot: Spring is the time when blooming flowers arrive to symbolize, if only briefly, the rebirth of the natural world and the chance for new beginnings. The English bluebell, for example, blooms in April and May, flashing wild indigo before dying when the temperature rises. Crocuses are known for their sudden blooming, with no prior signal, sometimes peeking up through snow before lasting only about three weeks. Taking inspiration from the relatively brief life of flowers, write a story in which a protagonist finds a new direction for living, sparked by the presence of spring blooms. How will your protagonist grow out of the long winter? What can we learn about your character using the yearly persistence of blossoming flowers as a guiding metaphor?

4.19.22

“After killing your god, hotbox the gun smoke,” writes Kemi Alabi in “How to Fornicate,” the opening poem of their debut collection, Against Heaven, winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award, published by Graywolf Press in April. Alabi’s poem enumerates a set of instructions that lyrically lay out the relationship the speaker has with sex and sexuality, using imperatives to speak directly to the reader. These intimate instructions transform throughout the poem, ranging from clear actions to more unexpected uses of nouns that have been repurposed as verbs: “Choir everything. Tenor the roses. / Alto the mulch. Mezzo the flies.” Write a poem in which each sentence begins with an imperative. Try, as Alabi does in the poem, to use a range of words and lexicons to challenge traditional instructional language.

4.14.22

“I’m interested in [Leilani’s] sentences for their expressive, controlled looseness and flexibility; for the way that syntax blurs into scene; for the sense, always, that their shapes are responsive to the psychology of her narrator,” writes Garth Greenwell in “On a Sentence by Raven Leilani,” an essay diving into the particulars of the novelist’s sentences, which was published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Sewanee Review. “As I pour my attention into them, they seem to deepen and expand, inexhaustible.” Whose sentences do you admire most? Inspired by Greenwell’s thorough and passionate analysis, write an essay about your favorite writer’s sentences. Try to break down the root of your fascination by quoting specific sections from your favorite works.

4.13.22

“What is revealed by the early manuscripts of classic novels?” asks Hephzibah Anderson in an article published on BBC Culture, in which first drafts of famous novelists like Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are examined. Woolf’s manuscripts reveal a writer radically rethinking the end of her iconic novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while Proust’s drafts show liberally crossed-out and annotated sections as well as a key rethinking of a central image: the madeleine, which originally began as a slice of toast and a cup of tea. This week try a different strategy for a first draft and write a story out of order. Jot down three crucial scenes from a story you’ve been wanting to begin. Then, at random, pick one and write a draft of that scene. How does this help relieve the pressure of drafting a whole new story from beginning to end?

4.12.22

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?

4.7.22

“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?

4.6.22

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?

4.5.22

“[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.

3.31.22

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.

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