In the introduction to an issue of Ploughshares edited by the late poet Jean Valentine, who died in December, she says: “My dreams were very important to me right in the beginning. I had a teacher in college who said ‘You could write from your dreams’ and that was like being given a bag full of gold.” Inspired by Valentine and her award-winning first collection, Dream Barker, write a poem that begins with an image from one of your dreams. Allow the internal logic of dreams to guide your lines.
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 day that changed my life was like every other day before it, except that it changed my life.” Mateo Askaripour’s debut novel, Black Buck, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January, sets up anticipation in the first chapter by starting on the day when everything changed for the protagonist, Darren. Ordinary activities and smells are described, inviting the reader in while building suspense for the change to come. “The house smelled as it always did at 7 a.m.—like coffee. It made me want to puke.” Write an essay that walks the reader through a regular day in your life when you felt the circumstances of it change, whether big or small.
In Olivia Rutigliano’s essay “Thirty Years Later, Home Alone Has a Lot to Say About Adulthood” published in CrimeReads, she describes the appeal of the classic Christmas movie, likening its comedy to a cartoon: “Home Alone possesses the same slapsticky buoyancy and physical elasticity of Looney Toons; no matter how many anvils are dropped on the aggressors, they’ll still spring back up a few moments later and resume the pursuit at hand.” Write a flash fiction piece in which the actions are described in a hyperbolized, almost cartoonish way. How does this challenge your sense of description?
“Young walruses, we must all adapt!” begins Matthew Olzmann’s “Commencement Speech, Delivered to a Herd of Walrus Calves,” published in Four Way Review. In the poem, as the title reveals, a speaker offers advice to a herd of walruses on courage, evolution, and survival: “You need to train yourself to do what they won’t expect.” Write a poem in the form of a speech addressed to a group of animals or objects that offers advice and encouragement for challenges only the subject could encounter. Try to use the title, as Olzmann does, to set the scene and the tone for the poem.
Amy Key’s essay “A Bleed of Blue,” published this month in Granta, begins with a white lie: “I wasn’t in LA because of Joni Mitchell, but that was what I had told my Lyft driver and it felt good to have a story.” The essay meditates on Mitchell’s iconic 1971 album Blue, and reflects on Key’s memories listening to it as a teenager with her friend who had just begun experiencing menstruation: “In my memory of that night, the lava lamp was like the pain my friend was experiencing, the hot red pulse of it.” Song by song, Key recounts her memories of Los Angeles and her emotional connection to Mitchell’s songwriting. Choose a music album that’s meant a lot to you, then write an essay that reflects on how the experience of listening to each song transformed you.
“They listened to the news in the front room, their bodies as still as the mounted deer on the wall behind them.” In Idra Novey’s short story “Husband and Wife During the Nightly News,” a married couple go through their routine of watching the news, the husband commentating while expecting the wife to murmur in agreement, a sequence they stick to “as if the very beams of their house depended on it.” The setting of the living room adds meaning onto the ritual of their marriage, and still objects begin to take life, ending with the wife feeling as if she had “ripped off the doe’s furred skin with her teeth.” Write a story that features a character whose living area directly reflects the conflicts being faced. How can inanimate objects be used to express emotions?
“Mars Being Red” by the late poet Marvin Bell lyrically explores the color red as a state of being, likening it to a list of images that both physically resemble the color and provide memories, such as that of youth. In this compact, twelve-line poem, Bell begins what seems to be a portrait of the planet Mars and then delves into a series of digressions that find resolve in a meditation on the possibility of change: “You will not be this quick-to-redden / forever. You will be green again, again and again.” Inspired by Bell, write a poem that serves as a portrait of a color. Use physical descriptions to begin and then personal memories to develop a transformation in this study of hue.
New Year’s traditions range across cultures and families. Rolling empty suitcases around the block to increase one’s chances of traveling, pounding rice to make mochi for good fortune, eating lentils to herald prosperity, and enjoying twelve grapes for twelve wishes are just a few of the traditions whereby folks start anew and connect with their roots. Some of these practices, such as kissing at midnight for romantic luck and throwing pails of water out a window to chase away evil spirits, date back a century or more. What are some of your New Year’s traditions? How is the way you celebrate uniquely yours? Write an essay that describes your New Year’s traditions, traces their cultural lineages, and tells the story of how you learned them.
Jana Larson’s Reel Bay: A Cinematic Essay, forthcoming from Coffee House Press in January, straddles the line between memoir and fiction. Larson blends essay and screenplay to investigate and understand the mysterious death of a woman found in Minnesota who local police alleged was in search of the fictional ransom money seen buried in the snow in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film, Fargo. The ambitious premise and second-person narration places readers in the shoes of the investigator, not unlike the subjective perspective of certain movies. Considering how true stories are often stranger than fiction, write a short story based on a mysterious occurrence that you experienced yourself or that stuck with you after you learned about it. How will you draw in the reader? Try narrating the story in first or second person to give the illusion of truth.
“When we name things simply, with words preceding their meaning, a cosmic narration takes place. Does the discovery of origins remove the dust?” writes painter and poet Etel Adnan in Shifting the Silence (Nightboat Books, 2020). “It reminds me of a childhood of emptiness which seems to have taken me near the beginning of space and time.” Following her thoughts as they “drip, not unlike the faucet,” Adnan demonstrates the power in trusting clear language, without ornament, and in doing so she offers a testament to poetry as a space built by the self for illumination and inwardness. Spend some time in a space where you can observe nature and take note of your surroundings. With Adnan’s words in mind, write a poem that considers what you see without concentrating on its meaning, when you “remove the dust.” How does this exercise strip the poem’s voice to its essential parts?
Many might think of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci as naturally gifted, but Francesca Fiorani, author of The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020), points out in an excerpt published on Literary Hub that even the prolific virtuoso, at one point, did not know how to paint. It wasn’t until after a series of experiments with a candle did da Vinci learn how to realistically paint light, writing that “every shadow made by an opaque body smaller than the source of light casts derivative shadows tinged by the color of their original shadow.” Inspired by da Vinci, write about a time when a deep study helped you overcome an obstacle, whether in writing or life. What kind of focus was necessary to see a solution more clearly?
Crowd-sourced video hosting website YouTube has compiled over fifteen years of a variety of content, making it an accessible resource for historical footage. From early documentaries made in the 1990s, to remastered and colorized footage from the beginning of the twentieth century, including views of Tokyo streets in 1913, Market Street in San Francisco in 1906, and Tverskaya Street in Moscow in 1896, and footage of cities around the world in the 1890s. Using one of these videos, or one of your choosing, pick out a face and write a scene in the life of that person. What concerns are specific to this era, and which are still relevant today?
“Everybody’s got a song / they’ve gotta sing. / So they say. So they / think,” begins Rita Dove’s poem “The Spring Cricket’s Discourse on Critics,” published in the Believer this month. The deftly enjambed poem uses the perspective of a cricket and its ability to use its legs to chirp, known as stridulation, to discuss an artist’s defense against critics believing “they can / just… crank out the golden / tunes.” Use the perspective of an insect or an animal whose abilities come naturally to examine an aspect of being a poet. Try enjambment in your poem to emphasize particular words.
“You kissed the ones you loved and the ones you didn’t even like that much, sometimes even someone you hated, just so you wouldn’t seem shady. Too much garlic was never a problem, we kissed anyway. We kissed the living and the dying, knowing that the dying were part of the living and we wanted to keep them with us.” In this passage from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s nonfiction book The Freezer Door, forthcoming in December from Semiotext(e), she writes about the kiss greeting embedded in queer cultural norms she adopted while living in San Francisco in the early 1990s. What happens to gestures of intimacy during a pandemic at the time of year traditionally associated with family and friends, holiday festivities, and gatherings in close proximity? Write a personal or lyric essay that meditates on memories of intimacy from your past, perhaps also exploring how your perceptions or modes of intimacy have changed over the course of the past year.
“No room in Toronto is ever used in the way it was originally intended. That’s what happens in a city always trying to reinvent itself. Like it has an itch it can’t scratch. Like it has a commitment problem.” At the beginning of Catherine Hernandez’s second novel, Crosshairs, forthcoming in December from Atria Books, the protagonist narrates a missive to his lover from his hiding place in a friend’s dark basement. In Hernandez’s description of the setting—a dystopian version of Toronto where a fascist government regime has rounded up marginalized communities into labor camps—one can see the ways in which identity can be layered or transformed through time, whether applied to rooms or cities or gender roles. Write a short story in which a change that’s occurring for the main character is reflected in some way through the setting. How might an environment evolve or change shape as a person does? Conversely, how does a person’s behavior sometimes resemble the shifting characteristics of a physical space?
Humans may no longer have the nictitating membranes, tails, and vomeronasal organs possessed by birds, monkeys, or reptiles, but we do still have vestiges of them, whittled down to nonfunctioning parts of the body: the folds at the inside corners of the eyes, tailbones, and the tiny sac in the nasal cavity above the roof of the mouth. What use, then, can one imagine for nictitating membranes that no longer draw laterally across the eye, tails that no longer help maintain balance, or Jacobson’s organs that no longer detect moisture-borne odor particles? Write a poem that considers the beauty of a body part with no clear-cut function. How might the specificities of the body be appreciated in different ways given our contemporary circumstances? What is the value in imagining new functions for old forms?
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?
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,” in which 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 recounting 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, in which 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.