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?
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.
“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 on 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?
“My name is Arturo and the first time I saw an airport was in 1968. It was November or December, maybe the end of October,” writes Roberto Bolaño in Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas (Penguin Press, 2021), translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, an excerpt of which was published on Literary Hub. This pivotal scene finds the young narrator in an airport before he and his family are called forth by a voice over a loudspeaker and later escorted by two Interpol agents to somewhere unknown. The story then divagates as Arturo launches into memories of his mother, airports, poetry, and his horse Ruckus. Write a story set at a pivotal moment in your character’s life that begins in an airport. Will your protagonist make the flight, or decide otherwise?
Springtime, the season between the barrenness of winter and the exuberant heat of summer for those in the northern hemisphere, has always been a source of inspiration for poets as it signals new life and change. From T. S. Eliot’s famous first line in “The Waste Land” (“April is the cruellest month”), to contemporary poems such as “Instructions on Not Giving Up” by Ada Limón, “Lilacs” by Amy Lowell, and “Crisscross” by Arthur Sze, spring can bring to mind themes of rebirth and transformation. This week, write a poem inspired by spring. Challenge yourself by writing about how springtime is personally significant to you.
“We lived in the imperative,” writes Donika Kelly at the start of her poem “Ars Empathica” from her collection The Renunciations, forthcoming in May from Graywolf Press. The collection maps resilience in the face of childhood trauma and a failing marriage, charting memories through myth-like poems that call back to the book’s epigraph by Anne Carson: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.” Poems such as “Portrait of My Father as a Winged Boar,” “Self-Portrait in Labyrinth,” and a selection involving the figure of “the oracle” mix the intensity of real life with the self-mythologizing one must do in order to survive. Write an essay that explores what it means to “live past the end of your myth” by recounting what occurred after a personal catastrophe. How does one’s sense of self begin to shift in the wake of a new life?
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the title of Donika Kelly’s forthcoming collection is The Imperatives.
In an interview in the Rumpus, Melissa Broder speaks with Greg Mania about how the writing process for her latest novel, Milk Fed (Scribner, 2021), hasn’t changed since her first book. Broder describes how she dictates the first draft into her phone and doesn’t “stop or proofread or think about it or change anything until the whole mass of clay has been thrown down.” This week, inspired by Broder’s writing process to “encourage your own messiness,” dictate the first draft of a story without stopping to make any changes, even misspellings. How will this freedom of a first draft encourage new ways of writing and break apart your process?
“In this city / each door I cross / in search of your room / grows darker / than the sky,” writes Aldo Amparán in “Aubade at the City of Change,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In The Essential Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch, an aubade is defined as a poem or song for the dawn expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak that dates back to Europe at the end of the twelfth century. In Amparán’s poem, he uses the form to meditate on the mourning of a loved one and conjures images of light to illustrate how loss can leave one feeling “suspended in time” even as the world continues to shift and change. This week, write an aubade. Use the dawn as an image to illustrate the theme of change in the poem.
“I most remember reading Chelsea Girls in the dark, in bars around San Francisco in the nineties—beneath the staircase in the backroom at Dalva, in a booth at Blondie's or the Uptown,” writes Michelle Tea in her Los Angeles Review of Books essay on reading the 1994 autobiographical novel by Eileen Myles, which influenced her as a writer, as well as a generation of queer writers. “What it was like to be female with that permeable body, to be a lesbian, to be working class or flat broke, to be a poet, a drunk,” writes Tea. “This is Chelsea Girls.” This week, write an essay about a book that was a formative influence on you as a writer. What was it about this book that helped you see yourself?