“Consider this: I’ve spent nine months cradled in my mother’s body,” writes Nawaaz Ahmed in his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, published earlier this month by Counterpoint. “My world was small and safe and familiar, interrupted only occasionally by light and sounds from the outside. And even those arrived muted by my mother’s flesh and bone, the light tinted by her blood.” The novel, a saga involving an immigrant family’s secrets and betrayals, begins from the point of view of the protagonist’s child at the moment of his birth, infusing the novel’s prelude with disorienting descriptions recounting the experience of first encountering the world. Write a story that begins through the eyes of a newborn. Consider the reason for this beginning and try, as Ahmed does, to suffuse the scene with sensual imagery.
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.
Rising global temperatures and natural disasters, such as the recent tropical storms and hurricanes in North America and the earthquake in Haiti, bring to mind the fragility of the environment and the effects of climate change. Over the years, poets have taken to their craft to raise awareness and humanize the climate crisis in works such as “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth” by Fatimah Asghar, “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now” by Matthew Olzmann. Write a poem about the environment that draws the reader in emotionally, whether it is by describing a changing landscape or reflecting on the issue. For further inspiration, browse these poems engaging with the climate crisis curated by the Academy of American Poets.
In 1950, German artist Josef Albers began creating his world-famous series known as Homage to the Square, which consisted of three or four differently colored squares, each inside the other in successively smaller sizes. The nonprofit arts organization Public Delivery explains on its website that Albers originally started the series to help students and other artists “approach and study color experimentally,” but it eventually led him to create more than a thousand square paintings until his death in 1976. Inspired by Albers, choose a word as simple or fundamental as a square, then write an essay—or a series of linked essays—about this word, studying its presence in your life along with its etymology. What connections can you draw from one word?
“My story starts decades before my birth. In my father’s earliest memory, he is four years old, shooting a toy gun at nearby birds as he skips to the town square,” writes Qian Julie Wang in Beautiful Country, her memoir about coming of age as an undocumented child in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1990s, published in September by Doubleday. Wang begins by telling the story of her family decades before, during China’s Cultural Revolution, shedding light on the lives her parents led as professors before working in sweatshops and sushi factories in America and relying on their young daughter for help with their daily lives. Write a series of character studies about your protagonist and their parents. Consider how a drastic change in culture can shift the roles in a family. How does this inform the reasons for your character’s actions as well as their values and preoccupations?
In a preface to “After Cecilia Vicuña,” a poem from the collection Villainy, published in September by Nightboat Books, Andrea Abi-Karam includes a note on the Chilean poet and visual artist Cecilia Vicuña, who condemned General Augusto Pinochet and spoke out about how “the lies (the words, the language) of the Chilean dictatorship murdered & tortured thousands of people.” In the poem, Abi-Karam asks questions about the power of words and how to provoke change through a medium such as poetry that at times can feel devoid of consequence. “i ask questions like / … how to weaponize the poem words as weapons / give the poem teeth.” What questions would you ask yourself about the power of your own words? Write a poem that contemplates the impact you wish to make as a writer—the reasons, hesitations, desires, and conflicts that arise when you create.
Summer marks the celebratory time of outdoor activities and vacations, as well as a popular season for moving. Families might find the summer holiday from school a good time to move, students graduate into dorm life on college campuses, and others find the need to relocate during warm weather. Moving has been ranked one of the most stressful life events one can experience, and yet it is something universally experienced. Write an essay about a stressful time you moved between living situations. What season was it, and why was it particularly stressful?
This past Sunday marked the end of the 2020 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, an international, multi-sport event that celebrates the tenacity of the human body and the achievements of athletes at the top of their field. Historically the Olympics have also caused controversy, such as holding the 1936 Berlin Games amid the rise of Nazism, the 1968 Mexico City Games preceding the Tlatelolco Massacre, and the 2008 Beijing Games in which migrant workers were denied proper wages and protections during construction. Write a story that takes place during the Olympic Games in which a dramatic event separate from the athletic competition occurs. For more on controversial Olympic incidents, read this list curated by Teen Vogue.
In Paul Tran’s “Progress Report,” published on Literary Hub and featured in their forthcoming debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Poets, 2022), the poem catalogues the speaker’s life while filling out a form: “Photograph of the ’93 Mazda MPV he reportedly turned into an ice cream truck. / I marked Humor. / Holes where the nails had been in the wall. / I marked Self-harm.” The poem, made up of single end-stopped lines, uses a call-and-response technique to reveal new information as it progresses. Write a poem in which the speaker is filling out a form—perhaps a progress report, an immigration document, or a demographic survey. How can you use the poem’s form as a way of highlighting an important event?
“It was a challenging but exhilarating time, and I’ve come away with a deeper understanding of what I’m capable of,” writes Anjali Enjeti in her last Craft Capsule essay “How to Be a Writer and an Organizer.” In the essay she discusses the importance of finding balance as a writer and how she spent most of last year revising and editing two books for publication, teaching at a low-residency MFA program, reporting for two news publications, and organizing for leadership councils during the presidential election. Write an essay about a time in which your endurance and capacity for work was tested. Whether it be political organizing, parenting, or working several jobs, what did you learn from the experience of trying to balance multiple tasks?
In a profile of Alexandra Kleeman for the New York Times, she discusses her relationship to the speculative and the setting of a post-apocalyptic California in her latest novel, Something New Under the Sun, out this week from Hogarth. In the novel, only the wealthy have access to temperature-controlled interiors and real water. “Things that we’ve always needed, like land, a place to live, resources, become privatized and turned into possessions, when they weren’t to start with,” says Kleeman. Write a story with a speculative setting in which a necessary resource is privatized. Ask yourself “what if” when considering this altered version of reality.
In C. K. Williams’s poem “Marina,” published in the New Yorker in 2005, the speaker is reading essays by Marina Tsvetaeva as a bug makes its way across the table. As the poem progresses, lines from Tsvetaeva’s essays are interlaced with descriptions of the bug dragging its transparent wings behind it, and the bug becomes a metaphor for her difficult life. “‘The soul is our capacity for pain.’ // When I breathe across it, / the bug squats, quakes, finally flies. / And couldn’t she have flown again, / again have been flown?” Write a poem involving lines from a writer you admire. Try, as Williams does, to elucidate or challenge the featured lines.
“I had been thinking about this story for probably seven years before I drafted it,” says Sterling HolyWhiteMountain in an interview for Guernica’s Back Draft series about writing his short story “Featherweight,” which was recently published in the New Yorker. HolyWhiteMountain offers a glimpse into the first draft of the story’s opening paragraph and the final draft, and discusses his revision process for his story revolving around the breakup of a relationship. Write an essay that uses revision as a theme. Perhaps you might revise a family story you’ve been told, or consider different points of view of a memorable event. What will you leave out, and what will you add?
In an interview for the Creative Independent, Jackie Ess discusses how an Instagram account with nature photos started by her partner inspired the titular character of her debut novel, Darryl (Clash Books, 2021). “I started a Twitter account for Darryl,” she says. “I would do these little monologues as Darryl, and I think you see that the chapters are a little bit like Twitter threads.” This week, write a story with a protagonist inspired by a social media presence. Whether it be an influencer or somebody’s dad, how will their virtual mask fold into the conflict of the story?
“I will tell you all. I will conceal nothing,” writes Muriel Rukeyser in her poem “Effort at Speech Between Two People,” in which two disembodied voices confess, speak, and exchange information about their lives. In the poem, the voices are both individual and collective, and the use of caesuras serve as a visual cue for silence in a conversation. Write a poem in which two people speak without relying on the use of traditional dialogue tags. How can you focus on the sounds of the language and the potential for slippage between voices to add texture to the poem? For more inspiration, watch Carl Phillips read Rukeyser’s poem in the Poets & Writers Theater.
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 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.