In an interview in the September/October 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jordan Pavlin, who was recently promoted to editor in chief at Knopf, speaks about how “there are often two essential people in the life of a passionate reader: a great local librarian and a brilliant, inspiring high school English teacher.” Did you have an English teacher who inspired you to become the writer you are today? Write an essay discussing the influence a teacher or mentor had on the books you read and the early stages of your writing.
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.
The first chapter of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), titled “Found Objects,” first published in 2007 in the New Yorker, explores the perspective of a woman reckoning with a dangerous habit of stealing from others while at a session with her therapist. The conversation between Sasha and her therapist creates moments to weave in and out of the present and past. Throughout the chapter, Sasha lies to her therapist, to others, and to herself, as she struggles to figure out the reason for her addiction. Inspired by Egan, write a story set during a therapy session. What is the protagonist contending with, and how does the setting allow for the story to weave in and out of the present?
“A language is a map of our failures,” writes Adrienne Rich in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” a poem that begins by reflecting on an incident involving children burning a book in a backyard. In the five-section poem, several forms and topics are discussed as the scope of the situation is widened to a global scale, then focused onto the intimacies of sexual relations, resulting in a capacious exploration of language and its failures. Write a poem that reflects upon your relationship to your first language and expands upon how communication can fail us.
“There’s a real cognitive dissonance as a person in the world,” says Katie Kitamura in an article by Brandon Yu for the New York Times on the inspiration for writing her new novel, Intimacies (Riverhead Books, 2021). “Your consciousness can only accommodate so much, and certainly it’s been incredible to me how I can simultaneously be very worried about the state of democracy and also thinking, has the turkey gone off?” The novel introduces readers to the mind of a language interpreter at The Hague confronting a moral ambivalence about a former president on trial for war crimes, while simultaneously grieving the loss of her father. Inspired by Kitamura’s character, write an essay in which you recount a time you faced moral ambivalence about a situation. What two seemingly disparate realities were you balancing at once?
“The forgetting of Afro-Chinese histories, and furthermore of Afro-Chinese women, is an example of what it means to be beyond the interest or comprehension of coloniality,” writes Tao Leigh Goffe in an excerpt from The Other Windrush: Legacies of Indenture in Britain’s Caribbean Empire (Pluto Press, 2021) published in gal-dem. Goffe discovers photographs of a previously unknown relative, her great aunt Hyacinth Lee who migrated to the U.K. from Jamaica, and traces her story. Write a story from the perspective of a family member, real or imagined, who you feel has been lost to history or whose story is still untold. Are there mysterious family photographs you’ve seen that might tell a story?
In an article for the New Statesman, Andrew McMillan writes about discovering the poetry of Thom Gunn after his death and the impact of his writing on male desire and the male body: “While for the Romantics the sublime might have been an engagement with the vastness and wildness of a landscape, Gunn locates it in encounters with lovers or strangers, a striving towards and never quite achieving transcendence of the self.” This week, write a poem that strives for transcendence through a desirous encounter with a lover or a stranger. For inspiration, browse Gunn’s poetry published on the Poetry Foundation website.
In an interview for the Rumpus, Musa Okwonga, author of In the End, It Was All About Love, (Rough Trade, 2021), discusses the use of magical realism to address the complicated history of his book’s setting, Berlin. “I wanted the readers to sink into a place that unmoored them somewhat, I wanted to untether them from reality and be like, this is deeply surreal but also entirely real,” says Okwonga. Choose a city you have a deep connection with and write an essay that contends with its history, both personal and global, through a mythical or surreal lens. Try experimenting with form to bring attention to the complexity of the city’s history.
In this week’s installment of Ten Questions, author Pajtim Statovci and translator David Hackston discuss the writing of Bolla (Pantheon, 2021), a novel with an unlikely love story set in Kosovo between two young men at the outbreak of a war. The novel’s title comes from the name of a demonic serpent that remains in a dark cave hidden from humans except for one day every year when it transforms into a dragon and is released, wreaking havoc and destruction. Through this legend, Statovci gives the love story a shape, as their conflict is refracted through the metamorphosis of this mythical dragon. Think of a fable from your childhood and consider ways you could use it as inspiration for your own story—as a template for your plotline, as a metaphor for your character’s conflict, or as a way to build the story’s setting.
The sonnet form dates back to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italy where it was popularized by the poet Petrarch, whose work was translated and introduced in the sixteenth century to English poets. A new type of sonnet with a different rhyme scheme was then developed and made famous through the work of William Shakespeare. Poets such as Wanda Coleman, Diane Seuss, and Terrance Hayes have given voice to the more contemporary “American” sonnet, demonstrating the flexibility of the fourteen-line form. This week, write your own sonnet—either a traditional sonnet or one inspired by a contemporary poet.
In a reading list published on Electric Literature, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, author of Mona at Sea (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021), recommends stories about struggling under capitalism, such as Temporary by Hilary Leichter, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, and And Then I Got Fired: One Transqueer’s Reflections on Grief, Unemployment & Inappropriate Jokes About Death by J Mase III. In introducing these books, Gonzalez James writes that “unemployment doesn’t actually make for great fiction” and that she is all the more impressed when writers express the experience well. Write an essay in which you discuss a time you struggled with employment. Peruse the list for ideas on how to do this in fresh and surprising ways.
In an article for Literary Hub, Angela Rose Brussel documents the protests of the summer of 2020, among which included protesters gathering and camping out for a month in front of City Hall in New York City in an effort to change the city’s budget. She describes how the demonstrations slowly became less about complaints, and more about celebration: “The summer of 2020 was a fusion of the two, making manifest not only the direct politics of rage, but of joy.” This week, inspired by the article and its photographs, write a story in which protests take place and infuse not only rage, but hope and joy into your characters.
Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Stephen Dunn died on his eighty-second birthday on June 24. Over the weekend many fans and readers shared memories and favorite poems on social media, collectively mourning the loss of this major literary figure. One such poem of Dunn’s is “The Routine Things Around the House,” which tackles the difficult subject of grieving a mother through a memory of when he was twelve and asked his mother if he could see her breasts. “She took me into her room / without embarrassment or coyness / and I stared at them, / afraid to ask for more,” writes Dunn. “This poem / is dedicated to where / we stopped, to the incompleteness / that was sufficient.” This week, write an elegy that focuses on a memory that would be considered uncommon or surprising. See where it takes you.
In an article published by the Millions, Louisa Ermelino, editor-at-large at Publishers Weekly, writes about Anthony Doerr’s highly anticipated forthcoming novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, 2021). Doerr says that the book is “a love letter to libraries and books” dedicated to librarians, and that through the novel, he wanted to dramatize the power of books. “Each character falls in love with this text as it moves through history, and each becomes a steward for the text,” he says. Write an essay about your relationship with a particular library and how it made an impact on you as a writer and reader.
“My first book was a memoir, so I wanted to write my second book about something outside myself completely—something universal. What was more universal than loneliness?” writes Kristen Radtke in “The Loneliness Project: My Journey Through American Loneliness,” an essay featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the essay, Radtke talks about the process and challenges in writing her graphic nonfiction book Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, forthcoming from Pantheon in July. Write a story in which a protagonist grapples with loneliness. How will you communicate this universal feeling in a specific way?
In many countries, Father’s Day was observed this past Sunday, an occasion in which fatherhood is celebrated and reflected upon. Over the centuries, poets have explored and honored their relationships with their fathers in poems such as “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “Yesterday” by W. S. Merwin, and “My Father. A Tree.” by Tina Chang. This week, write a poem dedicated to a father figure in your life. Try writing it from the perspective of a child as an added challenge.
“I went to Bolivia assuming I would have connections with Indigenous Bolivians because of our shared identity as Indigenous people,” writes Ursula Pike in the preface to her memoir, An Indian Among Los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir, published in March by Heyday Books, recounting the years she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. In the memoir, Pike, a member of the Karuk Tribe, questions her role as someone who experienced colonialism firsthand and follows “in the footsteps of Western colonizers and missionaries who had also claimed they were there to help.” Pike’s travel narrative upends the canon of white authors of the genre, helping the reader to examine the overlapping tensions of colonialism across cultures. Write an essay about a trip that helped you realize your complicity in a social issue. Think about the perspective of the spectator inherent to the travel narrative as you consider the conflict in the essay.
In Joss Lake’s debut novel, Future Feeling, published in June by Soft Skull Press, the absurd meets the epic in the story of Penfield R. Henderson, a former dog walker obsessed with the social media presence of Aiden Chase, a fellow trans man and influencer documenting his transition into picture-perfect masculinity. After resentfully attempting to hex Aiden, Penfield instead curses another young trans man named Blithe to “the Shadowlands,” an emotional landscape through which “every trans person must journey to achieve true self-actualization.” What follows is the journey Penfield and Aiden take to save Blithe and the lessons the three learn about the power of human connection and choosing your family. Taking inspiration from Lake’s epic tale, write a story that establishes how three strangers meet to achieve a common goal. How can you challenge yourself to imagine a plot that, like a puzzle, positions these three characters to save one another?
Black Earth: Selected Poems and Prose, a new collection of writing by Osip Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Peter France and forthcoming in July from New Directions, offers a fresh look at the celebrated work of the revered Russian poet who died in a Stalinist labor camp in 1938. Known for the electric and haunting poems written toward the end of his life, Mandelstam was also part of the symbolist movement, as evidenced in his poem “Notre-Dame,” which reimagines what the Parisian cathedral looked like when it was built in medieval France. “Here, where a Roman judge once judged an alien people, / stands a basilica, fresh minted, full of joy,” he writes, “as Adam long ago stood tall and flexed his sinews, / its muscles ripple through the light crisscrossing vaults.” Write a poem about an old building in your neighborhood that reimagines what it looked like when first constructed. Try to combine images of the structure with the history behind its survival.
“The poem, to me, is a conversation between people,” writes Alex Dimitrov in the latest Craft Capsule installment, in which he talks about his 2014 project Night Call involving reading drafts of poems from his second book, Together and by Ourselves (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), to strangers in their apartments in New York City. Through intimate conversations and exchanges, he is forever connected with these lives and places as the poem “keeps people’s voices and things right there, outside time.” Write an essay inspired by a conversation with a stranger you met in passing, whether at a grocery store, on a train, in a park, or elsewhere. Challenge yourself, as Dimitrov does, by including gestures or specific phrases you recall into the essay. How were you changed by this brief exchange?
Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, who the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt once stated made German literature richer with her “streams of language, word inventions, and associations,” died last Friday at age ninety-six. Acclaimed for her poetry, Mayröcker also wrote novels, memoirs, drama, radio plays, and children’s books. In each work, she created new ways for her language to flow freely, such as in her 1988 story “my heart my room my name,” which was written entirely without punctuation, and her book-length lament Requiem for Ernst Jandl, which exhibits a liberal use of capitalization. This week, inspired by Mayröcker, write a story with a protagonist whose perspective requires an associative, free-flowing use of language. How does pushing the limits of language produce a fresh perspective?
“I wrote a good omelet… and ate / a hot poem… after loving you,” writes Nikki Giovanni in her poem “I Wrote a Good Omelet.” The poet, whose seventy-eighth birthday was earlier this week, describes going about various common tasks in strange and humorous ways, replacing, for example, “car” for “coat” in the phrase “drove my coat home” and “bed” for “hair” in “turned down my hair.” Through these playful reversals, Giovanni mimics the dizzying feeling of falling in love, as if the speaker is unable to focus on anything after being with their beloved. Write a poem that expresses this giddy feeling of love by using unexpected combinations of phrases and words.
In an article published by Literary Hub, Emily Temple compiles statements by famous writers on what their most loved and hated punctuation marks are, including Donald Barthelme on hating the semicolon, R. L. Stine on loving the em-dash, and Toni Morrison fighting over commas. In each, there is a distinct preoccupation the writers have with the technical and emotional resonances the given punctuation mark has on their prose, often revealing how they compose their sentences. Write a statement for each punctuation mark listed in the article—the semicolon, the exclamation point, the em-dash, the comma, the hyphen, and the period—characterizing the effect they have on your work. Do you use one more than the other? What does this say about your writing?
Last week, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday was celebrated across the world and on social media, and many fans shared their favorite songs from his illustrious repertoire. The singer-songwriter has also inspired many famous writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, whose story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is dedicated to Dylan. This week, write a story inspired by a singer or a songwriter. Is there a particular song or are there lyrics you’re drawn to, or is it just the aura of the artist that inspires your story?
“Whatever comes to pass: you know your time, / my bird, you put on your veil / and fly through the mist to me,” writes Ingeborg Bachmann in her poem “My Bird,” translated from the German by Mark Anderson and published in the Summer 1984 issue of the Paris Review. In the poem, twilight passes into dawn as the narrator follows the owl through its many nightly transformations and their relationship is described by Bachmann in uncommon and evocative ways, such as “my nighttime ally,” “my ice-gray shoulder companion,” and “my weapon.” This week, write a poem about a bird that you think of as a companion. Try addressing the bird directly as Bachmann does in her poem.
On Elle.com’s books column Shelf Life, Ling Ma, author of Severance (Picador, 2019), answers a questionnaire about her favorite books, including the one that made her weep (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke), the one she would pass on to a kid (Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson), and the one she considers literary comfort food (Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, among others). This week, answer the questionnaire for yourself, then write an essay that focuses on one of these questions and the book you recommended. What was happening in your life when you read this book and why are you still so deeply connected to it?