In an attempt to escape the “constellation of grief” that shrouded him in his early thirties, visual artist and writer Ben Shattuck set out on a series of journeys around New England that became the basis of his book, Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau (Tin House, 2022). The book is featured in “The Written Image” in the May/June 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine along with a sample of Shattuck’s drawings from his excursions, which import a visual and emotional landscape to each individual place. This week, inspired by Shattuck’s process, take three walks outdoors throughout the week and write down as many observations as possible. Then, write an essay using these notes to create distinct sections elaborating on each outing.
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
How did you celebrate May the Fourth? Did you know it isn’t just for Star Wars fans but also for the birds? In 1894, Charles Almanzo Babcock, a school superintendent from Pennsylvania, launched the first Bird Day “in a bid to create awareness and promote the conservation of all bird species.” This week peruse the National Audubon Society’s Guide to North American Birds, which features the habitats, calls, feeding behaviors, and migration patterns of over eight hundred species of birds. Then, pick five feathered friends that stand out to you and write a section of an essay dedicated to each one. As you write, discover links beyond the germane aspects of your chosen species.
“Can authors avoid the downward post-book spiral? Some depression may be inevitable. There’s an inevitable loss that comes with sending a book into the world,” writes Jessica Berger Gross, author of the memoir, Estranged: Leaving Family and Finding Home (Scribner, 2017), in “I Just Published a Book: Why Am I Depressed?” published on the Poets & Writers website in 2019. In the essay, Gross discusses the feeling of loss she experienced after publishing her memoir and speaks to other writers with “post-publication malaise.” This week, think back to a time when you finished a significant task, whether it was a manuscript, an essay, or moving out of an apartment, then write an essay about the spectrum of feelings you experienced throughout the process. Gross writes that the cure for post book depression is to “start writing something new.” What was your cure?
Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection of essays, Translating Myself and Others, forthcoming in May by Princeton University Press, catalogues the Pulitzer Prize–winning author’s identity as a writer and translator of books in English and Italian. In the first essay, “Why Italian?” Lahiri explores her reason for beginning to write books in Italian. “Some people ask me, Why Italian instead of an Indian language, a closer language, more like you?” she writes. Inspired by the works of Italian authors such as Lalla Romano and Elena Ferrante, Lahiri continues to answer the question with three metaphors: the dual nature of a door, limited eyesight and blindness, and the multiple meanings of the word graft. Think back to a time when you first learned a skill or a new language, then choose a metaphor that captures the stages of that journey. Write an essay using the metaphor to flesh out the feelings and themes that arise from your exploration.
“I’m interested in [Leilani’s] sentences for their expressive, controlled looseness and flexibility; for the way that syntax blurs into scene; for the sense, always, that their shapes are responsive to the psychology of her narrator,” writes Garth Greenwell in “On a Sentence by Raven Leilani,” an essay diving into the particulars of the novelist’s sentences, which was published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Sewanee Review. “As I pour my attention into them, they seem to deepen and expand, inexhaustible.” Whose sentences do you admire most? Inspired by Greenwell’s thorough and passionate analysis, write an essay about your favorite writer’s sentences. Try to break down the root of your fascination by quoting specific sections from your favorite works.
“My problem isn’t writer’s block—it’s writer’s doubt,” writes Diana Marie Delgado in an installment of Writers Recommend in which she explains how a hypnotic and emotionally swelling piece of music helps inspire her writing. “If I feel overwhelmed, I listen to William Basinski’s ‘dlp 1.1’ from The Disintegration Loops,” she writes. This week, write about a piece of music that helps you enter the headspace for writing. What’s the story behind the music, and what about it, specifically, helps you write?
In “The Romans in Films,” an essay from his 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes analyzes Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1953 film Julius Caesar by focusing on the presence of fringes in the hair of the characters. “Some have them curly, some straggly, some tufted, some oily, all have them well combed, and the bald are not admitted, although there are plenty to be found in Roman history,” he writes. “What then is associated with these insistent fringes? Quite simply the label of Roman-ness.” Inspired by Barthes’s cheeky analysis of the believability of this ancient Roman period film, write an essay about a film you have criticized. Describe scenes of the film using unique details to illustrate what inspires your argument.
“Yes, I’m from rural Michigan. My people are those of TV dinners and bad luck. My landscape, silos, pissed-off cows, and the Elks Lodge Friday Fish Fry sign lighting up the night instead of the moon,” writes Diane Seuss in her commencement address to the Bennington Writing Seminars earlier this year, which was published on Literary Hub. “I invented myself, or a version of myself that could resurrect out of a cow pasture and become a poet. Unlikely, unlikely that I am here at all, and that you, indeed, are there,” she writes. Write an essay about your own “resurrection” into becoming a writer. What is the landscape you associate with home, and how does it influence your writing style?
Last week, International Women’s Day was celebrated around the world, bringing attention to the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women as well as a call to action for gender equality. This year’s theme is “Break the Bias,” which aims to imagine a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination, and encourages daily practice in one’s actions and thoughts. Inspired by this globally celebrated day, write an essay meditating on the women in your life who’ve helped you make personal strides. When cataloged, what are some patterns you notice?
In Elisa Gabbert’s essay “A Poem (and a Painting) About the Suffering That Hides in Plain Sight,” published for the Close Read series, a digital initiative on the New York Times website, W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” is analyzed in conjunction with paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, as conclusions are drawn about what the two famed artists had to say about a world on the verge of war. The poem slyly uses rhyme and ekphrasis to reveal how suffering occurs simultaneously while “someone is eating or opening a window / or just walking dully along,” however, Gabbert points out that this is not to be used as an excuse. “Moral absolution is available, the poem seems to say,” she writes. “That doesn’t mean we deserve it.” Inspired by Gabbert, write an essay using historical research and personal anecdotes about a work of literature or visual art that speaks to a troubling period in your life.
In a Q&A from the September/October 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, poet Claire Schwartz asks Kaveh Akbar, author most recently of Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021), about the relationship between creating art and living a socially meaningful life. Akbar speaks about Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad and her 1962 film The House Is Black, a documentary about a leprosarium in northern Iran, as an example of the ideal. The film catalyzed Iranian new wave cinema and funds flowed into the leprosarium for renovations: “Farrokhzad’s film did exactly what one might hope for their art to do: It improved the material conditions of her subjects and expanded the aesthetic possibilities of the field,” says Akbar. Write an essay that explores the ideal impact you want your work to have, using an artist as a role model to illustrate your vision.
For as long as writers have put pen to paper, springtime has been a fertile subject—mulled over, praised, longed for, and even forsaken. From Vladimir Nabokov’s 1926 novel, Mary, in which he writes that the feeling of “nostalgia in reverse” grows stronger in spring, to Angela Carter’s 1966 novel, Shadow Dance, in which she writes that “spring hurts depressives,” the season often symbolizes hope and anticipation, a climbing out of darkness. When the lingering coldness of winter remains, however, it is sometimes difficult to transition alongside the blossoms and sprouts. Taking inspiration from this fulcrum between seasons, write an essay about a period when you had trouble accepting the onset of spring. Spend time tracing the connection between the world outside and changing seasons of your emotional life.
Last week’s Ten Questions series featured Sarah Manguso, whose first novel, Very Cold People (Hogarth, 2022), chronicles the coming of age of a young girl named Ruthie in a small town in Massachusetts. The series highlights the writing process of authors and how their books come together. Asked about writing impediments, Manguso replies: “At the risk of sounding coy, I’ll say that the biggest impediment to my writing life was recently removed from my life. I currently feel unimpeded.” Inspired by Manguso’s response, make a list of impediments to your writing life. Try to avoid superficial answers. Then, write an essay about how you see yourself overcoming these obstacles.
“The best thing to come out of all of this is that my perception of the novel’s failures really awakened a new awareness in me,” says Jonathan Evison in a conversation with Caroline Leavitt from the March/April 2018 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, in which they discuss their failed novels and what went wrong. “So much of writing fiction is persuasion. But a subtle persuasion.” This week, write an essay that reflects on a piece of writing that you think has failed. Try to parse the technical and emotional issues that occur when something isn’t working.
Whether it’s sledding outside or staying cozy inside, a snowstorm can offer an occasion to get together and enjoy the scenic weather phenomenon unfold. Soft and pillowy at first, then sludgy and slippery the next day, the window to enjoy the snowfall is brief, which makes it a polarizing aspect of the winter season. Inspired by the recent blizzards hitting the Northeast region of the United States, write an essay about your memories of snow. Have you lived through a snowstorm or have you only experienced the magic of snow through movies and stories?
Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest (University of Texas Press, 2019) chronicles the founding, legacy, and dissolution of the iconic rap group A Tribe Called Quest and their influence on countless fans. In the essays, Abdurraqib incorporates historical facts and anecdotes to tell a gripping story of the rap music industry in the nineties while emphasizing the personal connections he has with each member of the group. In a key section of the book, Abdurraqib uses the epistolary form to address each member resulting in an intimate, one-way conversation. This week, use the epistolary form to directly address the members of an influential music group. What place did their music have in your life, and how do their struggles align with your own?
During the pandemic, people have been forced to change their habits. Some have found peace in picking up new skills while others have valued the chance to return to old ones. Perhaps some readers have finally had time to finish their “to-read” pile of books or turned to new genres to enjoy. How have your reading habits changed during the pandemic? Have you read more than you used to, or are you having trouble getting through a book? Write an essay about your relationship to reading during difficult times. Are there certain books you gravitate towards or avoid?
“I did not want to die without being married to her, for forty-nine or seventy-nine or preferably a thousand and ninety-nine years. Deathbeds, sickrooms, a smudge of ashes on her brow: I would wait forever,” writes Kathryn Schulz in “How I Proposed to My Girlfriend,” published in the New Yorker and excerpted from her memoir, Lost & Found (Random House, 2022). The heartwarming essay tells the story of Schulz wanting to propose to her girlfriend while reflecting on the history of the wedding ring that once belonged to her late father. “He was seventy-four when she took it off. Life had grown on it, grown into it; for as long as I could remember, the grooves of the pattern had been charcoal, the surface a flat deep bronze.” Write an essay about a prized possession with a storied history to it. How did you come to acquire it, and what new life does it breathe?
“I have formed new strategies to prevent burnout by consistently creating achievable goals and, more important, celebrating when I reach them,” writes Crystal Hana Kim in “How to Keep Going,” featured in the January/February 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. To get through the frustration and disappointment sometimes felt during the writing process, Kim emphasizes recognizing the small moments of joy, which for her include “a lit candle, a cocktail with friends, a bag of candy that will rot my teeth, a new book to read.” Write an essay inspired by a time you felt burned out from writing. What factors caused this slump and how did you find your way out?
“The future is the land of our expectations, hopes, fantasies, and projections, which is to say the future is a fiction,” writes Siri Hustvedt in “The Future of Literature,” an essay from her book Mothers, Fathers, and Others, published in December by Simon & Schuster. “In truth, the only certainty we have about the future is that it holds the secret to our mortality.” In her essay Hustvedt argues that our brains have evolved for prediction and references scientific studies, novels, and philosophy to create her own portrait of the future of literature. Write an essay that contemplates the role storytelling has had in your life. Consider how storytelling has changed for you as the years have passed, and try to reckon, as Hustvedt does, with the complicated nature of envisioning what is to come.
In American movies like the 1983 classic A Christmas Story, the children are sent off to bed on Christmas Eve with everything leading up to the magic of the morning of the twenty-fifth when the family wakes up to open presents under the tree. On the other hand, the Feast of the Seven Fishes and Nochebuena are celebrated on December 24 with families enjoying copious feasts, music, dancing, and cocktails. Write an essay inspired by a memorable Christmas Eve, whether it was quiet or festive. Was there merriment or anticipation in the air?
In James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, a book-length essay in which he recounts watching influential films and critiques racial politics through the lens of American cinema, he begins with an early memory of watching the 1931 film Dance, Fools, Dance: “Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train.” Baldwin continues with this recollection of when he was seven years old and how he became “fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea.” Write an essay that begins with an early, formative memory of watching a movie. Was there a specific scene or actor from the film that influenced your sensibilities?
In “Blood, Sweat, Turmeric,” an essay published in Guernica, Shilpi Suneja writes about getting her first period while on a train ride to visit her grandmother in Bombay and being shamed by her family for staying out in public during her “dirty days.” This story begins a personal and historical study of the myths behind cleanliness and dirtiness in Indian culture and the way these forces intersect with gender, culture, and class. “I must’ve copied the phrase ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ in my cursive-writing exercise books at least a thousand times as a child,” she writes. Write an essay about a family value that was imposed on you as a child. How did upholding this value affect you later as an adult?
“Traveling in this way, and trading in stories, is inevitably a journey of selection—it was not lost on me that for each voice I heard, many others would be left out,” writes Jordan Salama in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena (Catapult, 2021), an exhaustive travelogue in which the author follows the 950-mile length of the Magdalena River, from its source in the Andean highlands to the Caribbean coast, and recounts the legends and stories of the people he meets along the way. Write an essay about a river, or body of water, that is significant to you. How does its history intersect with your own?
In Marie Howe’s 2017 poetry collection, Magdalene, she engages with the perspective of Mary Magdalene through a variety of persona poems—some closely resemble the biblical story while others are more contemporary interpretations of the figure. Through poems such as “Before the Beginning,” in which the speaker asks, “Was I ever a virgin?” or in “On Men, Their Bodies,” in which the speaker explores sexual encounters one penis at a time, there is a link between the story of Magdalene and the lives of contemporary women. This week, write an essay about a historical, religious, or mythical figure that you feel a close connection to, whether it is their story or image that inspires you.