Every year Oxford Languages picks a word of the year, which in the past has included “climate emergency” in 2019, “toxic” in 2018, and “youthquake” in 2017. However, this year in lieu of choosing one word, a sixteen-page language report was released with sections on COVID-19, remote work, social movements, and the environment, highlighting words of the year which include “social distancing,” “pods,” “Blursday,” “allyship,” and “bushfire.” Write an essay that reflects on the personal experiences of this complex year using some of these featured words. In what ways have you witnessed the evolution of language in your attempt to describe new experiences?
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.
Visual art can be a source of inspiration for all writers by providing what philosopher Walter Benjamin describes as an aura that one can only experience in the presence of that art piece. Although many are not presently able to visit a museum or physically stand in front of a work of art, inspired by Sharon Dolin’s installment of Writers Recommend, try a virtual visit by using Google’s Art and Culture museum page to choose a work of art from a museum that is new to you. Write a scene or story from the perspective of a subject or object in the painting, using its aura in order to build the story’s conflict or tone.
Hannah Sullivan’s T. S. Eliot Prize-winning collection, Three Poems (Faber & Faber, 2018), begins with “You, Very Young in New York,” where she recounts experiences living in New York with details akin to the intimacy found in some of Frank O’Hara’s poems: “Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground. ‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’” In a poem that sprawls across twenty-three pages, Sullivan covers a wide range of registers and tones, ranging from the high lyric, philosophical musings on youth, to the comical and familiar recountings on what cocktail or dessert is in fashion. Write a poem divided into three sections that captures the quick-paced and unceremonious experiences of youth. Try to include specific scenes to avoid using grand gestures or falling into nostalgia.
In a 2018 Boston Review interview, Avni Sejpal asks Arundhati Roy about the narrative differences between her two novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, elaborating on how the former is “written in a style often described as lyrical realism,” while the latter is “more urgent, fragmented, and bleak.” Arundhati’s response pushes back on the word “bleak” as she explains that “most of the characters, after all, are ordinary folks who refuse to surrender to the bleakness that is all around them, who insist on all kinds of fragile love and humor and vulgarity, which all thrive stubbornly in the most unexpected places.” Write about a time when you chose to push against despair and bleakness. How did love, humor, and hope persist despite dire circumstances?
Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 suspense novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, recently adapted into a television series for Showtime, centers around a character who has set the bar for the literary archetype of “the grifter.” In a T Magazine essay, Megan O’Grady writes that Tom Ripley embodies self-authorship, which is “all about creating a convincing character within the narrative structure of one’s own aspirational thinking.” O’Grady argues that Highsmith’s novel has foretold our era of self-invention: “con artists and ‘visionaries,’ the gurus and hucksters, schemers and dreamers, the online dating scammers—all of our 21st-century buccaneers of society, politics, and commerce.” Write a story with a grifter as its protagonist, one with a self-invented identity that drifts into high society in search of prestige.
“Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?” begins Margaret Atwood’s poem “Ghost Cat” from Dearly (Ecco Press, 2020), her first collection of poetry in over a decade. The poem centers on a cat with dementia who wanders the house at night nibbling on bits of food: “from a tomato here, a ripe peach there, / a crumpet, a softening pear. / Is this what I’m supposed to eat?” Cats have been at the center of literature for centuries, ranging from Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century poem “Jubilate Agno,” which begins “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita and Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore. Write a poem inspired by a cat. As an added challenge, try writing from the perspective of a cat, instead of from a human watching one.
“A farmer lived, but not well. If she planted grain, it would not sprout. If she grew rice, it would rot. If she tried to raise livestock, they would gasp and choke and die before they’d seen a second dawn,” begins The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott, a GalleyCrush pick forthcoming from FSG Originals in February. These straightforward conditional sentences help to quickly synthesize information and set the tone for conflict in the story. This week write an essay that begins with a conditional phrase expressing a conflict in your life. Start the first sentence with an “if this, then that” scenario to produce tension and set the stage for what will unfold.
“When words elude us as adults, music can soothe or stir the mind. When sight fails, music can clarify our emotional perceptions,” writes Jenny Bhatt in a recent installment of Craft Capsules, where she describes how music became the gateway to writing her short story collection, Each Of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). “Before writing a story’s first draft, I would pick out a song that had the imagery, mood, and lyrics that resonated with my early vision for the story’s themes and narrative style.” Pick a draft of a story you’ve had trouble getting off the ground and find a song that captures the themes and emotions you aim to present. Use the dynamics in music to help revise and reimagine the story in a new direction.
In his years as a teacher, John Ashbery used Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” for a translation exercise in which students sounded out the German words and wrote down English words resembling those sounds, such as interpreting “sich hält und glänzt” as “sick halt and glance.” The exercise relied less on meaning and subject and more on sound and rhythm, despite the final product sounding silly. Pick a poem in a language unfamiliar to you and phonetically translate the poem into English. What surprising combination of words come together? Once the translation is finished, try to find a sense of logic in the words to produce an original poem.
“Craft is not simply technical. If we take our craft seriously, or even if we want to play, we must realize that what we bring to craft is the world that crafted us,” writes Joy Priest in an installment of Craft Capsules published in July. “The way we work, our technique, holds all of our subconscious anxieties and desires.” What was the world like that shaped you, and how does it manifest in your writing? Write an essay describing how your childhood shaped the way you think and the choices you make as a writer. Consider the questions that Priest poses throughout her essay, such as, “What are you avoiding? What are you leaving out? What is uninterrogated?”
“When Franz Kafka says that Gregory Samsa woke up one morning transformed into a gigantic insect, it doesn’t strike me as a symbol of anything,” writes Gabriel Garcia Márquez in a 1981 article for Madrid’s El País, which was recently republished for Literary Hub. In support of taking writers at their word, Márquez discusses how the rooster in his novel No Ones Writes to the Colonel has been interpreted by literature teachers and that his own son was tasked with answering a question on an entrance exam purporting the meaning of the rooster. Write a story inspired by magical realism where a fantastical element or creature is introduced that does not represent any theme or conflict. After all, sometimes a rooster is just a rooster.
Self-portraits are often associated with visual artists, but poets have also experimented with this art form. In Gregory Pardlo’s “Written by Himself” he writes, “I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet / whispering my name.” Pardlo uses the anaphora, “I was born,” throughout the poem to include the lives that made his life possible. In “Self-Portrait,” Adam Zagajewski employs declarative statements, “I like deep sleep, when I cease to exist,” to invite the reader to learn more about his life. Inspired by these two poems, write a self-portrait poem that seeks to tell the story of how you came to be. Try starting with a list of the things you like and love as a way to enter the poem.
In Wesley Morris’s essay “My Mustache, My Self,” published in the New York Times earlier this month, he explores how growing a mustache during quarantine led him to deeply consider his identity as a Black man. After a friend describes him as looking like “a lawyer for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund,” Morris meditates on how this friend “had identified a mighty American tradition and placed [his] face within it.” Either recently or in your past, has a subtle or dramatic stylistic choice in your presentation affected the way you see yourself? Write an essay that considers how a new look can alter how you view yourself, or how others perceive you.
“I dreamed a short story last night, even down to its name, which was ‘Sun and Moon,’” writes Katherine Mansfield on February 10, 1918, in her book Letters and Journals, about having dreamt one of her widely anthologized stories. “I got up at 6:30 and wrote a note or two because I knew it would fade.” The story, which features two children hanging around their house while a party is being prepared, reads without a set structure and follows modernist conventions using several narrative shifts. Inspired by Mansfield’s experience, keep a dream journal for the week, whether the dreams are your own or from friends. Use images, lines of dialogue, or narrative swerves from the dream to write a short story. How does mining the surrealism of dreams change the conventional ways we tend to tell stories?
In “Racial Markers and Being Marked” by Will Harris, a Craft Capsule essay published in September, he writes about racial markers in poetry and walking the fine line between rendering your own experience and risking fetishization. Harris presents Monica Youn’s poem “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” and discusses how she frames an argument about race through two mythical figures. Youn writes about her own experience as a poet while examining what it feels like to include her “Asianness” in the poem: “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.” Choose a myth you identify with and write a poem where a part of you is revealed through the story or characters of the tale.
Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz edited by Lisa Darms and David O'Neill collects the recorded diaries of the artist, activist, and writer from 1981 through 1989 examining his life, art, and dreams. The cassettes hold a string of different modes of speaking through ideas in real time—going from stream of consciousness, to searing argument, to meditations on death, to divagations between poems and phone calls—producing a record of a singular artist’s mind in a crucial moment in history. Record yourself for two minutes each day this week and untether your thoughts in real time. How do your ideas unfold without the stop-and-go of composing the right sentence? At the end of the week, transcribe and arrange your recordings into an essay of fragments surrounding a theme.
In The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Graywolf Books, 2007), Charles Baxter writes about the recurring theme in fictional works of disappointment even after satisfying a great achievement, stating examples such as Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where, for example, Lady Macbeth becomes unhappy and more paranoid after having been crowned queen. Baxter asks, “What if wishes and fantasies turn out in some cases to be more powerful than their real-life satisfactions?” Write a story where your character is driven by a single desire, but is unsatisfied and more conflicted after achieving their goal.
In Airea D. Matthews’s “etymology,” she writes to explore the meaning of her name and its pronunciation. Published by the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day in 2019, Matthews explains the origin for the poem and how she would use a nickname during open mics to make it easier for hosts to pronounce her name: “I realize now it was one of the many ways I’d learned to make myself smaller in space, less pronounced.” What is the personal history of your name? How has it been encountered in different spaces? Write a poem that seeks to trace the etymology and personal history of your name.
Sabrina Orah Mark’s Paris Review column Happily features essays inspired by fairy tales and motherhood, including “It’s Time to Pay the Piper,” which reimagines our current reality through the children’s story “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Through incantatory sentences and the framing of our reality through a fantastical lens, it asks whether the reason for the pandemic, corrupt leaders, and environmental collapse has a link to the story of the piper, who collects payment by robbing the village of its children. Pick a fairy tale you are familiar or enchanted with and write an essay that uses the structure of that story to explain an event in your life. How do well-known characters and themes help add meaning to the subject matter?
“[Dad] pronounced the word ‘nudity’ as though a fruit fly had just flown into his mouth—he spat as he said it. The word mainly made me think of the potatoes whose jackets my mother peeled off every evening before she dropped them into the water,” writes Marieke Lucas Rijneveld in her debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison, which won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The observations of the young narrator couple a unique perspective, one that actively accrues knowledge, with the power of setting the tone for and foreshadowing the novel’s eventual tragedy, threading through it a wire of tension and grief. As a character study, write a chapter through the eyes of a child. What is most urgent to this young mind, and how can the reader sense through the subtext what is to come?
In Ten Meter Tower, a short film by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson featured in the New York Times, participants climb a ladder to a ten-meter-high diving board at a public pool, calculating their risks and fears before they decide to jump into the water or head back down to safety. The tight shot of the diving board, the self-motivating monologues, and the slow-motion recordings of the jumps are captivating. “Our objective in making this film was something of a psychology experiment: We sought to capture people facing a difficult situation, to make a portrait of humans in doubt,” say the filmmakers. Write a poem that imagines what thoughts and feelings would run through your head (and body) before and after a leap from the board into the water.
“The cold seemed to have come on all at once, just after lunch, as the teacher and his wife were tranquilly talking over their plans to return to the capital the next day, the second of September, a little later than usual.” At the beginning of Marie NDiaye’s novel That Time of Year (Two Lines Press, 2020), translated from the French by Jordan Stump, a teacher’s wife and son disappear on the day before they are all to return to Paris after spending the summer in a countryside village. The unsettling events and confrontations that follow, as the teacher searches for answers, are a reminder that boundaries are everywhere, between summer and autumn, vacation life and regular life, between those with power and those without. Write a personal essay about an uncertain time in your life when a dramatic event caused a shift. Did you lean into the in-between and search for answers or try to ground yourself and move on?
“These, I believe, go hand in hand: destruction and the thrum of collective
singing,” writes Joshua Whitehead in the introduction to Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in September. “Hence, utopias are what we have to build, and build now, in order to find some type of sanctuary in which we and all others can live—there is no plan or planet B for us to turn to.” Taking inspiration from this call to shift from destruction and the dystopian to the utopian, consider current events, situations, or systems in society that lend themselves to dystopic thinking, and then jot down ideas of how you might transform collapse into creation. Write a short story that begins with a seemingly apocalyptic premise that you then transform into a story of finding intimacy and joy in community. What healing is possible in the process of formation?
“I can’t afford to think like Whitman / that whomever I shall meet on the road I shall love / and whoever beholds me shall love me,” writes Tyree Daye in “Field Notes on Leaving,” the first poem in Cardinal, out today from Copper Canyon Press. The collection includes blurred photos of Daye’s family and childhood and an epigraph from the Green Book, the mid-1900s guidebook that provided Black Americans with advice on safe places to eat and sleep as they traveled in the United States. Write a short series of poems that acts as a kind of family album, providing a record of journeying within a community through adolescence and adulthood. In each poem allow yourself to explore themes of home and travel, in both literal and figurative ways, including interactions with local people or other travelers, signposts or navigational tools, baggage brought along, and the things or places left behind.
In the title essay of landscape photographer Robert Adams’s collection Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values (Aperture, 1981), he goes about the impossible task of defining beauty, a position he acknowledges is “unprovable.” Through a variety of mediums, including fiction and poetry as well as photographs, Adams goes about discussing beauty’s relevance to society, its unavoidability in an artistic practice, and whether it is the goal of art. In his essay, Adams posits that beauty is “a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life.” Using the catalog of your own experiences and knowledge, write an essay searching to answer what beauty is to you. What life events does the word conjure?