“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.
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.
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.
In an article for the Washington Post, Gillian Brockell writes about the recent uptick and intensity of debates surrounding banning books in schools and lists six occasions throughout history in which books were tragically burned. Dating back to the first recorded incident in 213 BCE China, the list includes Catholic colonizers burning Mayan sacred texts in the sixteenth century, Nazis burning books deemed “un-German” in the 1930s, and the U.S. military burning copies of the Bible translated into Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan in 2009. Write an essay about a favorite book of yours that has been banned, or choose from this list of recently banned books. What impact has this banning had on you and your writing?
“That’s partly one of the things this book is about: discovering, again, and again, the inextricable relation between love and hate, which I certainly knew about conceptually, but have had to experience over and over again,” says Frank Bidart about his latest poetry collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), in an interview with John Maher at the Millions. Write an essay about experiencing love and hate—whether it be through heartbreak, the aftereffects of guilt, or a complicated relationship. Consider the difference between knowing and feeling these emotions.
The Oxford Languages word of the year for 2021 is vax. Every year, a team of expert lexicographers for the creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, debate candidates for word of the year and choose a winner “that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have a lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.” Browse through their Word of the Year archive and write an essay about one of the winning words. How does that word correlate with your experience of that year?
In “Hanging Out With Joan Didion: What I Learned About Writing From an American Master” published on Literary Hub, Sara Davidson writes about her decades-long friendship with Didion and lists ten techniques and practices she learned from the iconic author. These tips include the advantages of writing in the first person singular, keeping a writing schedule, and controlling the information one gives to a reader. This week make a list of the technical tricks behind your favorite writer’s work, then write an essay that discusses the impact and influence of their style on yours.
“The personal computer’s radical reshaping of the revision process is likely another reason why writers sometimes struggle to understand revision,” writes Peter Ho Davies in the first chapter of The Art of Revision: The Last Word (Graywolf Press, 2021), an excerpt of which is published on our website. In this chapter titled “Black Box,” Davies discusses the elusive and often misunderstood nature of the revision process, and explores the reasons why it is often neglected as a subject in creative writing classrooms. Write an essay that recounts a particularly arduous time you had revising a piece of work. What did you learn in the time between your first and last draft?
The final months of the year can provide a time to reflect on and list the many things for which we are grateful. Try using the generative form of the list essay to write about what you’re grateful for or what you’re looking forward to in the coming year. Written with or without numbers, the form has proved extremely effective in works such as Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay “My 1980s,” and Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017). Consider how writing such a list essay might allow you to step back and observe how gratitude and expectation are related or in opposition to each other.
“I’ve attended plenty of workshops and lectures with writers I admire, only to leave with vague and puzzling advice about listening to your story’s truth,” writes Blair Hurley in the latest Craft Capsule essay “Tiny Doable Things.” “I treasured, instead, the writers who admitted that their writing was not always inspired and that their drafts were not always successful on the first try.” In the essay, Hurley compares writers with specific technical advice to “woodworkers or glassblowers who must learn the practical needs of their medium.” Write a list of practical writing advice you have received over the years, and reflect upon which practices have stuck with you and why.
Catapult’s column “How’s the Writing Going?” by Sari Botton features writers in conversation about their process and what they’re working on, offering insight and tips for writer’s block and other challenges. The column focuses on the one question “no writer wants to be asked—but which every writer wants to ask others.” Write an essay about how your writing is going. Consider the question at large and answer it in terms of how your writing process has evolved over time. What have you learned along the way?
In an article for the New Republic’s Critical Mass, Jo Livingstone discusses artist Judy Chicago’s new memoir, The Flowering: The Autobiography of Judy Chicago (Thames & Hudson, 2021), and critics’ rejection of her overlooked body of work. Best known for her controversial piece “The Dinner Party,” Chicago includes in her book details of misogyny, racism, and other prejudices that affect the legacy of an artist. Write an essay inspired by a writer or artist whose body of work is often overlooked. What draws you to this artist and why do you think their work is not as recognized?
“We hate embarrassing ourselves so much, we do all sorts of things to avoid embarrassment—and at all costs,” writes Vanessa Bohns about the constructs of politeness in an excerpt from her new book, You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters (Norton, 2021), published on Literary Hub. “Approximately 5,000 people die from choking every year in part because they stand up and leave the table—rather than ask their tablemates for help—out of a fear of, you got it, embarrassment.” Write an essay on politeness and your thoughts about social embarrassment. Has there been a time when you suffered consequences for your politeness?
In Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay “Fear: A Crown,” included in his latest collection, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House, 2021), he borrows the form of a crown of sonnets to link vignettes—parts of the last line of each section act as the first line of the next. Use the crown form to link an essay in sections that discusses a central feeling or theme. As you echo the last line of a vignette into the next, allow the words to launch you into unexpected places.
“One of the big influences for me early on was Janet Frame,” says Alexander Chee in an interview with Lincoln Michel for his How-to series published in Fold magazine. “She would hand-write a draft of a novel entirely. Then typing it up was one revision. Then she would type it up again, and that was another revision. I decided to try it and actually really enjoyed it.” This week, pull out a notebook or legal pad and your favorite writing utensil to start an essay about a time you were influenced by another artist or writer. Was there a particular process or style that changed your writing?
“By calling an influence an ancestor rather than an influence, a relationship is made, a kinship,” says U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo speaking about her new memoir, Poet Warrior (Norton, 2021), in a Q&A by Laura Da’ featured in the September/October 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Some of these connections resonate and flower, while others challenge and force us to stand up.” This week, make a list of influential people in your life who have either helped you grow or challenged you. Write a series of linked essays that reflects on how these relationships are all connected.
In 1950, German artist Josef Albers began creating his world-famous series known as Homage to the Square, which consisted of three or four differently colored squares, each inside the other in successively smaller sizes. The nonprofit arts organization Public Delivery explains on its website that Albers originally started the series to help students and other artists “approach and study color experimentally,” but it eventually led him to create more than a thousand square paintings until his death in 1976. Inspired by Albers, choose a word as simple or fundamental as a square, then write an essay—or a series of linked essays—about this word, studying its presence in your life along with its etymology. What connections can you draw from one word?
Summer marks the celebratory time of outdoor activities and vacations, as well as a popular season for moving. Families might find the summer holiday from school a good time to move, students graduate into dorm life on college campuses, and others find the need to relocate during warm weather. Moving has been ranked one of the most stressful life events one can experience, and yet it is something universally experienced. Write an essay about a stressful time you moved between living situations. What season was it, and why was it particularly stressful?
“It was a challenging but exhilarating time, and I’ve come away with a deeper understanding of what I’m capable of,” writes Anjali Enjeti in her last Craft Capsule essay “How to Be a Writer and an Organizer.” In the essay she discusses the importance of finding balance as a writer and how she spent most of last year revising and editing two books for publication, teaching at a low-residency MFA program, reporting for two news publications, and organizing for leadership councils during the presidential election. Write an essay about a time in which your endurance and capacity for work was tested. Whether it be political organizing, parenting, or working several jobs, what did you learn from the experience of trying to balance multiple tasks?
“I had been thinking about this story for probably seven years before I drafted it,” says Sterling HolyWhiteMountain in an interview for Guernica’s Back Draft series about writing his short story “Featherweight,” which was recently published in the New Yorker. HolyWhiteMountain offers a glimpse into the first draft of the story’s opening paragraph and the final draft, and discusses his revision process for his story revolving around the breakup of a relationship. Write an essay that uses revision as a theme. Perhaps you might revise a family story you’ve been told, or consider different points of view of a memorable event. What will you leave out, and what will you add?
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.
“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?