John LeCarré’s novel A Perfect Spy begins by introducing the protagonist Magnus Pym and tracking his movements across “a south Devon coastal town” on his way to a Victorian boardinghouse, where he is addressed by an old woman who says, “Why Mr. Canterbury, it’s you.” In this deft use of dialogue, LeCarré illustrates the essence of the classic writing technique “show, don’t tell,” revealing that Pym has visited the boardinghouse before and is traveling under a pseudonym. Write a story in which a protagonist’s identity is hidden, and only revealed through subtle clues in dialogue and physical gestures.
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.
Rick Barot’s poem “The Wooden Overcoat,” published in the April 2012 issue of Poetry, begins: “It turns out there’s a difference between a detail / and an image.” Barot develops this train of thought and proceeds to engage in differentiating between the two, positing that a dandelion on the sidewalk is “mere detail,” but “the dandelion inked on a friend’s bicep / is an image because it moves when her body does.” Write a poem that sets up an argument in the first sentence and then proceed to test it through rhetorical devices and concrete imagery. How can you use a poem to prove a thesis?
“Safe to say none of the other Muslim kids on the eastside of Columbus got MTV or BET in their cribs & we do at my crib sometimes like after Pops got a promotion or after Grandma moved in,” writes Hanif Abdurraqib in the long, energetic first sentence of his new book, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021), which is featured in Page One in the March/April 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The book weaves together pieces that praise Black performance in America from Josephine Baker in mid-century Paris to the more intimate space of a living room in Columbus, Ohio. This week, inspired by Abdurraqib’s sharp reflections on culture, choose a moment in entertainment that has stuck in your mind and write an essay that praises and traces your connection to its legacy.
“Short short stories hold the obvious charge of compressing narrative in a rather extreme way, but what I initially loved about writing the form was the possibility to attend to reverberation,” writes Peter Kispert in a recent installment of Craft Capsules. “I noticed how a detail could echo out more apparent, and controlled, than in the longer works of fiction I had been drafting.” Kispert dives into his experience reading Amy Hempel’s “Going,” a three-page story from her collection Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985), and how the unconventional narrative blew “the world wide open in the best way.” Write a short short story of up to three pages that compresses a narrative through controlled, powerful details.
In the introduction to The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem: From Baudelaire to Anne Carson (Penguin Classics, 2018), editor Jeremy Noel-Tod asks, “How do you define a prose poem?” Literary critic Michael Rifaterre once characterized the prose poem as a “genre with an oxymoron for a name,” while Noel-Tod simply defines it as “a poem without line breaks.” This week, try writing a prose poem. As Noel-Tod says in the book, “Our habitual expectation when we see a passage of prose is that it will explain, not sing.” How can you make your prose poem sing more than traditional verse might? For inspiration, read exemplary poems from this anthology, such as “Borges and I” by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché, and “Deer Dancer” by Joy Harjo.
“First, the knees. They meet the gravel, the street, the blunt hips of curbs,” writes Melissa Febos in the prologue of her third book, Girlhood, published by Bloomsbury in March. The numbered essay titled “Scarification” includes detailed anecdotes ranging from childhood injuries with erasers to experiences with addiction. Febos captures “how these memories draw the constellation of your history” and turns the sentiment that “it is better to choose your pain than to let it choose you” into the final words of the essay: “You choose it, and it chooses you.” Write an essay that catalogues a history of your physical injuries and how you have confronted adversity. What similarities connect the various accounts, and what arc is there, if any, to this register?
Edward Carey’s illustrated novel The Swallowed Man, published in January by Riverhead Books, takes on the celebrated fable of Pinocchio, retelling it from the perspective of the living puppet’s father Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—beginning inside the belly of a whale. “I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten,” he writes. Though the novel does not occur entirely within this unconventional setting, it both foreshadows and establishes the stakes for the story that is about to unfold, gripping the reader from the very first sentence. Write a story that begins in an unusual setting but slowly unfurls and tells the reader how and why the protagonist is found there. Try using a first-person perspective so the narrative impulse is filled with determination and urgency, as in Carey’s novel: “Before the last candle dies, I’ll tell my tale.”
“You must accept the door is never shut. / You’re always free to leave at any time, / though the hostage will remain, no matter what,” writes Erin Belieu in “Instructions for the Hostage,” from her fifth poetry collection, Come-Hither Honeycomb, published in February by Copper Canyon Press. In this villanelle—a strict poetic form wherein the first and third lines of the poem are repeated throughout—the terms of the metaphorical hostage scenario underpinning the poem are recontextualized, their meaning deepened as the reader learns that the speaker is both captor and hostage. In this way, the hostage scenario could be applied to any number of situations in which one is complicit in a kind of self-entrapment. Think of a time when you stood in your own way of progress, then write a poem in which you offer instructions to show that the door was never shut.
“What I have been thinking about, lately, is bewilderment as a way of entering the day as much as the work. Bewilderment as a poetics and an ethics,” writes Fanny Howe in “Bewilderment,” excerpted from a talk and published in the online journal How2 in 1999. Howe uses bewilderment as a way of understanding how the poem expresses the ineffable, claiming that it is “more than an attitude—but an actual approach, a way—to resolve the unresolvable.” Write a series of scenes in a personal essay that illustrate a time in your life when you were bewildered. How can one learn from the feeling of being perplexed or confused?
“Is this a voice that I can sustain throughout this novel? Will it continue to be, and also most importantly, can it sustain my curiosity?” asks Chang-rae Lee when discussing how he developed the characters of his latest novel, My Year Abroad (Riverhead Books, 2021), in a virtual event for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “You don’t want a voice that’s absolutely the same throughout.” Write a story from the perspective of one speaker that shows the character changing through their voice. Focus on how your character sees the world in order to show their evolution.
In an essay published on Literary Hub, Urvi Kumbhat writes about the use of the mango in diasporic literature, asserting that it “rests uneasily between symbol and sumptuous fruit.” Kumbhat begins by exploring her memories of eating mango in Calcutta, and how “in the global South Asian cultural and literary lexicon, the fruit is a metonym for the home country,” but also discusses why she has avoided using the fruit in her writing for fear of “self-exoticization and unoriginality.” What serves as a metonym for the place you call home? Write a poem about your chosen symbol that embraces, as well as complicates, what it represents.
“The process of writing prose can intimidate even the most seasoned poets,” writes Khadijah Queen in the latest installment of Craft Capsules. “Using the zuihitsu form provided just the open space I needed.” In the essay, Queen argues that having a form as flexible as the zuihitsu, a Japanese form of hybrid poem-essay invented by Sei Shōnagon in the eleventh century, allows for lyricism to be maintained across a longer prose piece, in which patterns of image and sound can keep a narrative going. Write an essay inspired by the zuihitsu form, beginning with a simple observation and building that image with textures of rich poetic fragments.
The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019) by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, opens poignantly with the main conceit of this dystopian novel—that commonplace objects begin to disappear. “I sometimes wonder what was disappeared first—among all the things that have vanished from the island.” From the use of the passive voice in “was disappeared” to the intimacy behind the doubt in the first person narrator’s memories, Ogawa provides tension, a setting, and tone from this first sentence. Write the first five hundred words for your own Orwellian story or novel that establishes the new rules for an alternate reality, in which things are not as they appear.
In Mary Ruefle’s poem “Snow” from her book The Most of It (Wave Books, 2007), she starts with a simple sentiment: “Every time it starts to snow, I would like to have sex.” From that line, the reader is welcomed into a series of meditations on sex, devotion, birds, and love. The poem takes the form of a column with several enjambed lines as if the prose text were confined into a narrow space the way one may feel while stuck inside on a snow day. Write a poem in a conversational manner that describes how you are affected by certain types of weather. What is the first thing that comes to mind when you look out the window?
In an excerpt published on Literary Hub of a narrated essay by Tristan McConnell for the Emergence Magazine podcast, he writes about visiting the shrinking mountain forests surrounding Mount Kenya with Joseph Mbaya, who along with other foragers seeks to restore the ancient medicinal knowledge behind various species of plants and roots. Among “cedar and yellowwood, rosewood and water-berry,” Myaba “finds treatments for arthritis, prostate cancer, toothaches, ear infections, upset stomach, indigestion, and even pungent wind,” writes McConnell. Write an essay about a time you communed with nature and found knowledge in that encounter. Did the experience affect how you view your relationship with nature?
From 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke short story, to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, artificial intelligence is as much an evolving science as it is a powerful pop culture presence, inspiring countless works of literature pondering what the future might look like. In the introduction to Michael Woodridge’s A Brief History of Artificial Intelligence: What It Is, Where We Are, and Where We Are Going, out this month from Flatiron Books, the author reveals that he is “writing a popular science introduction to artificial intelligence,” in order to “tell you what AI is—and, perhaps more important, what it is not.” Write a story with an AI character in a significant role. How will its presence inspire the trajectory of your story’s characters?
Published by BuzzFeed News, Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s “Buen Esqueleto” reimagines the popular poem “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith through the perspective of an immigrant mother. Using the original structure of the poem—and replacing “my children” in the original with “mis hijas”—an urgent narrative is imposed as Scenters-Zapico writes, “It’s not my job to sell / them the world, but to keep them safe / in case I get deported.” This week, choose a poem you love and write your own version of it, following the original structure and adding a new perspective.
In “The World of Wrestling,” an essay published in Mythologies by Roland Barthes, he examines the allure and extravagant nature of wrestling, writing that “wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.” Throughout the essay, Barthes constructs a philosophical argument that underpins the theatrical pathos behind the staged sport, elevating something that may be seen as common with an artistic analysis. Choose a form of entertainment that is often considered ordinary and write an essay arguing that there is more than meets the eye.
Douglas A. Martin’s Branwell: A Novel of the Brontë Brother, reissued last year by Soft Skull Press, explores the life of the only son in the Brontë family and the brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, who wrote the literary classics Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey. Eclipsed by his early death from alcohol and opium abuse, the genre-bending novel uncovers Branwell’s failed relationships, talent, and possible homosexuality, as well as conjures the moody landscape and milieu of the era through arresting language. Write a story that steps into the life of an overlooked character from fiction or literary history. What do you imagine as their true personality? Does it differ from what has been previously known?
“A title has the capacity to do an immense amount of heavy lifting,” writes torrin a. greathouse in the January/February 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “It is what calls a reader into the work; it can construct an entire world before they enter it and is the first frame of reference for it once they have left it.” This week, choose an abandoned draft of a poem and revise it by changing its title. How is the tension raised by creating a new way for the reader to enter the poem? How has the poem stopped being stagnant and lifted off?
Frank O’Hara’s tongue-in-cheek manifesto “Personism,” published in the magazine Yugen in 1959, argues against using abstraction in poetry and advocates for a movement, “which nobody knows about,” that puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, comparing the act of writing a poem to picking up a telephone to speak to a loved one. If you were to write a manifesto describing your preferences when it comes to writing an essay, what would you call it? Write a short manifesto that explains how you came to your writing style and includes a metaphor that best describes your intentions as an essayist. Are your essays like hard candy or perhaps like peeling an onion?
“The Lit Hub Author Questionnaire” is a monthly interview in which five authors with new books are asked the same seven questions, one of which is, “If you could choose a career besides writing (irrespective of schooling requirements and/or talent) what would it be?” Answer this question yourself and then write a story where you imagine a character having this profession. Does your character live out a childhood dream of yours? How does a profession influence the way a character interacts with their surroundings?
“One day Juan Felipe Herrera said to me, ‘Abandon the left margin.’ It was a new liberation to my practice and process,” says Anthony Cody in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine about his debut collection, Borderland Apocrypha (Omnidawn, 2020). Consider breaking away from the traditional mold of a poem and write one that feels free from expectations. Try using center-alignment or footnotes, or redacting a text the way Cody does in his poem “In the Redaction of the Fake 45th.”
In Randon Billings Noble’s Literary Hub essay “How to Render Epiphanies in Nonfiction Without Getting Didactic,” she writes about resisting the need to prove a thesis in a work of nonfiction. “An essay can also muse, warn, wonder, wander, teach, play, lilt, explore, or, in the words of Jane Alison, meander, spiral, explode.” Write an essay that resists reaching a conclusion or a lesson and instead reflects on the details of an experience. How can the details of a seemingly simple scene provide readers as much of an impact as a more traditional conclusion?
New Year’s Day is often a time in novels in which tensions erupt or a new life is envisioned for a character facing a transformation, such as in Middlemarch by George Eliot, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Write a short story, or a scene in a longer work, in which the protagonist reflects on the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. What new life do they embark on? What changes, or doesn’t change, for them and their desires?