“Is it the timbre of the voice, the poetry of the words?” writes Alessandra Lynch about becoming transfixed while watching Samuel Beckett’s play “That Time” in a piece for Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books. In the lyric essay, Lynch tracks the emotional experiences of reading the works of her favorite writers aloud, quoting and discussing passages from the texts. This week, list writers whose works make you want to read them out loud and reflect on what emotions their words bring up for you. Construct an essay inspired by their works and consider how their words “gather and hold” you.
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.
In an interview with Alison Bechdel by June Thomas for Slate, the author and cartoonist discusses the process behind her latest graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021). “This book was set up in such a way that it had to end at the end of my 59th year, because each chapter is about a decade of my life, beginning with my birth in 1960,” says Bechdel. “I didn’t actually get to the end of the drawing until November, until the throes of the election. I felt like I can’t end the book until I know what happens.” Inspired by Bechdel’s book, write an essay in which each section focuses on a decade or stretch of time in your life. How will the historic events of that period inform your point of view?
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?
“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.
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.
“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.
“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 at 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?
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?
“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?
“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.
“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?
“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.
“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?
“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?
“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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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?