In an interview in the September/October 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jordan Pavlin, who was recently promoted to editor in chief at Knopf, speaks about how “there are often two essential people in the life of a passionate reader: a great local librarian and a brilliant, inspiring high school English teacher.” Did you have an English teacher who inspired you to become the writer you are today? Write an essay discussing the influence a teacher or mentor had on the books you read and the early stages of your writing.
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.
“There’s a real cognitive dissonance as a person in the world,” says Katie Kitamura in an article by Brandon Yu for the New York Times on the inspiration for writing her new novel, Intimacies (Riverhead Books, 2021). “Your consciousness can only accommodate so much, and certainly it’s been incredible to me how I can simultaneously be very worried about the state of democracy and also thinking, has the turkey gone off?” The novel introduces readers to the mind of a language interpreter at The Hague confronting a moral ambivalence about a former president on trial for war crimes, while simultaneously grieving the loss of her father. Inspired by Kitamura’s character, write an essay in which you recount a time you faced moral ambivalence about a situation. What two seemingly disparate realities were you balancing at once?
In an interview for the Rumpus, Musa Okwonga, author of In the End, It Was All About Love, (Rough Trade, 2021), discusses the use of magical realism to address the complicated history of his book’s setting, Berlin. “I wanted the readers to sink into a place that unmoored them somewhat, I wanted to untether them from reality and be like, this is deeply surreal but also entirely real,” says Okwonga. Choose a city you have a deep connection with and write an essay that contends with its history, both personal and global, through a mythical or surreal lens. Try experimenting with form to bring attention to the complexity of the city’s history.
In a reading list published on Electric Literature, Elizabeth Gonzalez James, author of Mona at Sea (Santa Fe Writers Project, 2021), recommends stories about struggling under capitalism, such as Temporary by Hilary Leichter, The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein, and And Then I Got Fired: One Transqueer’s Reflections on Grief, Unemployment & Inappropriate Jokes About Death by J Mase III. In introducing these books, Gonzalez James writes that “unemployment doesn’t actually make for great fiction” and that she is all the more impressed when writers express the experience well. Write an essay in which you discuss a time you struggled with employment. Peruse the list for ideas on how to do this in fresh and surprising ways.
In an article published by the Millions, Louisa Ermelino, editor-at-large at Publishers Weekly, writes about Anthony Doerr’s highly anticipated forthcoming novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land (Scribner, 2021). Doerr says that the book is “a love letter to libraries and books” dedicated to librarians, and that through the novel, he wanted to dramatize the power of books. “Each character falls in love with this text as it moves through history, and each becomes a steward for the text,” he says. Write an essay about your relationship with a particular library and how it made an impact on you as a writer and reader.
“I went to Bolivia assuming I would have connections with Indigenous Bolivians because of our shared identity as Indigenous people,” writes Ursula Pike in the preface to her memoir, An Indian Among Los Indígenas: A Native Travel Memoir, published in March by Heyday Books, recounting the years she served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. In the memoir, Pike, a member of the Karuk Tribe, questions her role as someone who experienced colonialism firsthand and follows “in the footsteps of Western colonizers and missionaries who had also claimed they were there to help.” Pike’s travel narrative upends the canon of white authors of the genre, helping the reader to examine the overlapping tensions of colonialism across cultures. Write an essay about a trip that helped you realize your complicity in a social issue. Think about the perspective of the spectator inherent to the travel narrative as you consider the conflict in the essay.
“The poem, to me, is a conversation between people,” writes Alex Dimitrov in the latest Craft Capsule installment, in which he talks about his 2014 project Night Call involving reading drafts of poems from his second book, Together and by Ourselves (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), to strangers in their apartments in New York City. Through intimate conversations and exchanges, he is forever connected with these lives and places as the poem “keeps people’s voices and things right there, outside time.” Write an essay inspired by a conversation with a stranger you met in passing, whether at a grocery store, on a train, in a park, or elsewhere. Challenge yourself, as Dimitrov does, by including gestures or specific phrases you recall into the essay. How were you changed by this brief exchange?
In an article published by Literary Hub, Emily Temple compiles statements by famous writers on what their most loved and hated punctuation marks are, including Donald Barthelme on hating the semicolon, R. L. Stine on loving the em-dash, and Toni Morrison fighting over commas. In each, there is a distinct preoccupation the writers have with the technical and emotional resonances the given punctuation mark has on their prose, often revealing how they compose their sentences. Write a statement for each punctuation mark listed in the article—the semicolon, the exclamation point, the em-dash, the comma, the hyphen, and the period—characterizing the effect they have on your work. Do you use one more than the other? What does this say about your writing?
On Elle.com’s books column Shelf Life, Ling Ma, author of Severance (Picador, 2019), answers a questionnaire about her favorite books, including the one that made her weep (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke), the one she would pass on to a kid (Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson), and the one she considers literary comfort food (Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, among others). This week, answer the questionnaire for yourself, then write an essay that focuses on one of these questions and the book you recommended. What was happening in your life when you read this book and why are you still so deeply connected to it?
In his essay “What My Korean Father Taught Me About Defending Myself in America,” published in GQ, Alexander Chee writes about his father’s adventurous life as a tae kwon do champion and community organizer in Maine, looking back on his father’s life as a way of learning how to protect himself and speak out about racism, and in particular, attacks against Asian Americans. “My father’s advice, about fighting being the last resort, has given me another lesson: You turn yourself into the weapon when you strike someone else—in the end, another way to erase yourself—and so you do that last.” Write an essay about a skill you learned as a child from which you can glean lessons as an adult.
“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.
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 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?
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.