“Is it the timbre of the voice, the poetry of the words?” writes Alessandra Lynch about becoming transfixed while watching Samuel Beckett’s play “That Time” in a piece for Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books. In the lyric essay, Lynch tracks the emotional experiences of reading the works of her favorite writers aloud, quoting and discussing passages from the texts. This week, list writers whose works make you want to read them out loud and reflect on what emotions their words bring up for you. Construct an essay inspired by their works and consider how their words “gather and hold” you.
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.
In an article for the Guardian featuring six poets and their reflections on the past year, Kae Tempest writes about the process for their short, four-line poem “2020.” Tempest mentions that the poem was longer, and then they realized the poem only needed four lines: “Sometimes it takes writing the thing to know what it is you are trying to write.” Inspired by Tempest’s process, choose an abandoned draft of a story and rewrite it as a concentrated version of itself. Does this exercise help you get closer to what’s essential about the narrative?
“The only way to know tenderness is to dismantle it,” writes Diane Seuss in “White violet, not so much an image” from her 2015 poetry collection Four-Legged Girl about how the flower is “not so much an image of tenderness as an image of a memory of tenderness.” In the poem, she dissects the flower petal-by-petal, trying to capture its fragility, and associating between the metaphors and memories this act conjures. This week, write a poem about the memories a particular flower conjures for you. Like Seuss, let yourself associate as freely as possible considering all the senses and try to go beyond the traditional portrait of a flower.
In an interview with Alison Bechdel by June Thomas for Slate, the author and cartoonist discusses the process behind her latest graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021). “This book was set up in such a way that it had to end at the end of my 59th year, because each chapter is about a decade of my life, beginning with my birth in 1960,” says Bechdel. “I didn’t actually get to the end of the drawing until November, until the throes of the election. I felt like I can’t end the book until I know what happens.” Inspired by Bechdel’s book, write an essay in which each section focuses on a decade or stretch of time in your life. How will the historic events of that period inform your point of view?
“If something is forgivable, and we forgive, is that really worth that much?” says Viet Thanh Nguyen about his latest novel, The Committed (Grove Press, 2021), and how the narrator wrestles with his unforgivable deeds in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for an episode of the podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing, excerpted on Literary Hub. “While whatever constitutes the unforgivable is very subjective for each of us,” he continues, “if we cannot forgive the unforgivable, then maybe we’re not really truly capable of forgiveness.” Write a story in which a character is contending with something “unforgivable.” How will the protagonist deal with this unconscionable deed?
Forrest Gander’s poem “Pastoral,” published last month in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, begins with a scene of a couple gazing out a window that is interrupted by a stanza with a parenthetical meditation on the act of looking before the last lines complete the description of the scenery outside. The middle stanza in parentheses questions the language used in the first stanza’s description and moves away from the physical into the interiority of the speaker’s mind. Inspired by the poem’s form, write a poem about the act of looking. How can you subvert the expectations of the reader by leaving the scene to go into the interior of your mind?
The ninety-third Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, took place in Los Angeles this past Sunday, a celebration of the artistic and technical merits of this past year’s films. Known for its many snubs, scandals, and dramatic speeches, the annual awards ceremony is viewed by millions of people around the world and often features some of the most iconic pop culture moments in history. Write an essay that features an iconic moment from an awards ceremony that has stayed with you. What was happening in your life during that time, and what relationship do you have to that pop culture memory?
“How can I repackage the initial premise of a joke in more colorful wrapping and offer it up to the reader as something brand-new?” writes Kristen Arnett in her first Craft Capsule essay on humor in fiction. In the essay she remembers a scene in Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex (Viking, 2020), in which the unexpected delivery of a mattress alters the activities of a dinner party. Arnett reflects on the use of the mattress in the scene and concludes that “when considering how humor can sit inside fiction, perhaps imagine it as the same strange and unexpected body wearing different disguises to a costume event.” Write a story in which an unexpected object inserts mischief and humor into the otherwise mundane lives of the protagonists.
“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the Beat poet writes an ode to his favorite movie stars and the magic of movies. Listing thirty actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood in relationship to one another, O’Hara describes, with humor, their personalities and appeal on the movie screen. “Mae West in a furry sled, / her bordello radiance and bland remarks, Rudolph Valentino of the moon, / its crushing passions, and moonlike, too, the gentle Norma Shearer,” he writes. Write an ode to your favorite movie or movie star. How can you employ techniques often seen on the screen through the language of the poem?
“I love italics. They make me feel as if the author is whispering tremulous secrets to me,” writes Susan Stinson in her Craft Capsule essay “In Praise of Italics.” In the spirited and humorous essay, Stinson writes about all the different kinds of italics used in literature—from descriptions in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to epigraphs to the poetry of Adrienne Rich—arguing that the queerness of italics “is both in the way it looks—that tilt—and in how it brings attention to that which gets set aside.” Write an essay that explores your favorite aspect of the written word. Whether it be specific punctuation, a particular syntactical structure, or a grammatical mood, write about what excites you and why.
“First, grant me my sense of history,” writes Agha Shahid Ali in his poem “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’” in which he reimagines the classic fairy tale from the perspective of the story’s villain. “And then grant me my generous sense of plot: / Couldn't I have gobbled her up / right there in the jungle?” The poem offers a complicated portrait of the “Big Bad Wolf,” including disturbing confessions and provocative questions that reexamine this allegory and consider the power of perspective in storytelling. Write a story that explores the perspective of a villain in a children’s story you know well. What new information will you include about this character? What, perhaps, was left out of the story?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s poem “Ghazal Connected as Though Cargo Freights,” winner of Winning Writers’ Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for traditional verse, uses the Persian poetic form as a way of capturing the landscape in which the speaker grew up as a trans child while balancing the taut music of the line with a narrative propulsion that grounds the story. The ghazal, which originated in seventh-century Arabia, consists of at least five couplets that are structurally autonomous—the first stanza ending both lines with the same word and each stanza that follows repeating the same word at the end of the second line. This week, write a ghazal that explores your childhood. For more guidance on the history of the form and to read examples, visit the Poetry Foundation’s glossary entry on the ghazal.
Last summer a ten-minute video released by ElderFox Documentaries, a YouTube channel devoted to space exploration, went viral as users responded to its remastered and stitched-together images of the planet Mars, rendered in 4K resolution and captured by NASA’s high-tech rovers. What has been described as “the most lifelike experience of being on Mars” includes clear panoramas of the planet’s landscape—including the Gale crater, Cape Verde, the Santa Maria crater, and the entrance to the Marathon Valley, all named by NASA for their distinctive spaces, color schemes, and geological properties—as well as evidence pointing to possible signs of life. Using the landscape of Mars as inspiration, write an essay exploring uncharted territory from your past. Consider writing short vignettes that mimic the cut-and-paste techniques employed in the video.
Amy Gerstler’s book of poems Index of Women, published last week by Penguin Books, depicts experiences of womanhood through a number of forms and perspectives, including a dramatic monologue from an aging opera singer, an ode to a head of lettuce, and prose poems recounting personal memories. The second poem in the collection, “Virginity,” builds an atmosphere around the experience of having sex for the first time, without ever naming the act itself. Through subtle details that hark back to adolescence—“passing notes rather than speaking” and “reading secret magazines a cousin stuffed / into the bottom of his sleeping bag”—Gerstler avoids cliché and develops the speaker’s voice using the oft-mythologized moment of losing one’s virginity, offering instead a sense of the speaker’s life that isn’t defined by sex. Write a series of scenes that study a character experiencing a key life moment without ever explicitly naming the experience itself. What is revealed or emphasized by gesturing to details that surround the experience?
In an afterword to The Essential June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller and forthcoming in May by Copper Canyon Press, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Jericho Brown writes about how the legacy of June Jordan, who died in 2002, “allows another opportunity to think not only about what poems are, but also what poems can do.” In this definitive volume the celebrated poet’s voice shines as she explores difficult subject matter, such as racist police brutality and violence against women, with a commitment to global solidarity and radical kindness. She dedicates many of her poems to lovers and friends, along with historical and pop culture figures, including “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer,” “Poem for Mark,” and “Poem on the Death of Princess Diana.” Taking inspiration from Jordan, write a poem that is dedicated to a single person. Consider using your new poem’s title to help frame a complicated subject.
“I was enamored with the notion that all I had to do to drive the sadness away, to have something to look forward to, was open a can of meadows,” writes Kathy Davis in her essay “There’s No Simple Way to Make it OK,” published in Guernica, in which she meditates on cultivating a meadow of wildflowers after the death of her parents. “But as the blooms started to fade, nothing I’d planted could ward off the midsummer takeover of weeds and wiregrass,” writes Davis. “Gardening, I was learning, is not easy. Like grief, it’s a process.” Write an essay about an activity, like gardening, that helped you come to terms with a difficult time in your life.
Amy Hempel’s short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” begins with a conversation between two best friends in which the narrator keeps her ill friend company in the hospital by telling her random facts. “Make it useless stuff or skip it,” requests the friend. The story then hooks the reader with a series of tall tales and jokes that entertain both the sick friend and the reader alike, serving as context for their close relationship and a unique introduction for the heart-wrenching story. Write a short story that begins with, or uses throughout, trivia or jokes as a way of developing the relationship between two key characters.
In Tomas Tranströmer’s lyrical autobiography Memories Look at Me (New Directions, 2011), translated from the Swedish by Robin Fulton, he describes his high school experience of reading the work of Horace out loud in the original Latin and instantaneously translating it into English. “This alternation between the trivial and decrepit on the one hand and the buoyant and sublime on the other taught me a lot,” writes Tranströmer. “It had to do with the conditions of poetry and life. That through form something could be raised to another level.” Write a poem with a central moment or image that risks being ridiculous. How can form be used to tether that moment to a more sublime mission? For inspiration, read “Old Man Leaves Party” by Mark Strand and “The Indoors Is Endless” by Tranströmer.
“In a flash I realized: I had to tell the story the way that my grandmother told hers.” In an excerpt from Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature (Simon & Schuster, 2021), published at Literary Hub, Angus Fletcher writes about this realization Gabriel Garcia Márquez had before writing One Hundred Years of Solitude. Fletcher likens Márquez’s realization to Nicolaus Copernicus discovering the heliocentric model, in which by relearning the old star tables fashioned by Arab astronomers, he saw the same coordinates from a new perspective, thus ushering in “a new world.” Write an essay telling a personal anecdote in the way a beloved family member would tell it. Can you trace back to when you first fell in love with a good story?
At the Millions, Emily Layden writes about how campus novels offer “a portrait of a community, not just in cast but in geography, and tell us the story of the relationship between a place and its people—how they shape one another, imprint on each other, leave the other forever changed.” Layden compiles a list of the “best campus novels,” which includes The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, and My Education by Susan Choi, and discusses how each novel captures the intimacy of youth through the evocative and tense setting of the academic campus. Write a story set on an educational campus. Use the hierarchies inherent to the school setting—principals, teachers, counselors, seniors, freshmen—to set up the story’s conflict.
In an interview with Paisley Rekdal curated by Victoria Chang for Tupelo Quarterly, the poet discusses how she always writes in pursuit of a form. “Once I have an idea (really, more of a feeling than a subject), I’m always trying to find a way to shape the material of that feeling,” says Rekdal. As an example, Rekdal talks about her poem “Philomela,” from her book Nightingale (Copper Canyon Press, 2019), and how identifying what dissatisfied her about the poem allowed her to find a form for it. This week, find an unfinished poem that you’ve been dissatisfied with and try to express why in a brief sentence. Next, write a new poem that directly addresses this dissatisfaction. Does this exercise help you discover new forms?
Bhanu Kapil’s “Notes Toward a Race Riot Scene” from her collection Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015) portrays—through a flurry of fragments, brief descriptions, anaphora, flashbacks, and flash-forwards—a moment in the speaker’s life before a race riot breaks out in London in 1979. Kapil captures the unease forming in the air before the riot breaks out with the second line: “It’s about a girl walking home from school at the exact moment that her neighbor laces up his Doc Martens, tight.” Write a brief essay that depicts the surrounding atmosphere before a significant event breaks out. How can descriptions of the landscape offer context for the event?
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019), begins as a letter: “Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” The letter unearths the family history of the narrator, from Vietnam to their lives in Connecticut as immigrants, capturing the deep love between a single mother and her son while asking questions that explore race, class, and masculinity. The novel is gripping from the first sentence with the inherent intimacy of the epistolary form bridging the distance between the speaker and the reader. Write a story in the form of a letter that speaks to a cherished guardian figure. Why is the letter the perfect form for what your protagonist wants to say?
Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, who died on March 21 at the age of seventy-five, was known for his intermingling of, as he once put it in an interview, the “historic world with the cosmic world that is static, or rather moves in a totally different rhythm.” The title of his poem “Mysticism for Beginners,” translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh, is taken from a book cover the speaker notices and then uses as an opportunity to describe his surroundings with a mystical sense of praise: “Suddenly I understood that the swallows / patrolling the streets of Montepulciano / with their shrill whistles” and “the white herons standing…like nuns in fields of rice” are only “mysticism for beginners, / the elementary course, prelude / to a test that’s been / postponed.” Write a poem “for beginners” about a concept that is explored through concrete, physical descriptions. Take a note from Zagajewski’s poem and start by writing down a list of images.
“Writing for me is no different than playing basketball, it’s my body moving among and pushing up against and being moved by other bodies of language and the energy of language,” says Natalie Diaz in an interview with Brandon Stosuy in the Creative Independent, in which she talks about the physicality of writing and how her experience as a professional athlete and her Mojave culture affect how she writes. “I don’t only feel with my body, I think with it. Even text is a physical space for me.” This week, write a short essay describing what your writing process feels like. How does articulating the way you write help focus your process?