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.


Last month, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey delivered the annual Windham-Campbell lecture “Why I Write” at Yale University. In considering the theme of the lecture, Trethewey recalls the familial, poetic, and cultural influences that inspired her to become a poet, weaving personal stories with reflections on history and literature. “I’ve needed to create the narrative of my life, its abiding metaphors, so that my story would not be determined for me,” says Trethewey. This week, ask yourself why you write and write a personal essay that searches for your response. What is the story you want to tell?


In “Oral History,” an essay published in Astra Magazine online, Yiyun Li recounts when she was invited by her child’s third grade class to share a story of what her life was like in the third grade. Instead of telling the true story of a teacher’s cruel punishment of a fellow student and the betrayal and ostracism she experienced as a result, she fabricates a story about the lantern festival she attended. Li writes: “How else could I have contributed to their education? Had I chosen to tell them a true story, I would have inflicted cruelty, too.” Inspired by Li’s decision, write a personal essay about a time you chose to conceal the truth to protect someone. What were the circumstances behind this decision, and what were you trying to protect them from?


Following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Twitter user @aardvarsk tweeted: “I am tired of being a part of a major historical event.” The tweet gained over 60,000 retweets and 263,000 likes, and like anything popular these days, eventually turned into a meme. The expression, and versions of it, have spread online over the past two years noting the fatigue of many living through this time of multiple pandemics, war, and political and economic instability. Write an essay that reflects on the exhaustion of living through major historical moments. Consider how people a century ago were feeling and what might be said of the 2020s in the future.


In “The Enduring Allure of Choose Your Own Adventure Books,” an essay published in the New Yorker this week, Leslie Jamison writes about her childhood obsession with Choose Your Own Adventure books and how they offered readers the chance to inhabit more daring versions of themselves. The essay is written like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, with the end of each section offering a choice to continue reading or to jump to another section. Inspired by Jamison’s essay, write a personal essay in the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure story. What choices will you allow your readers to make, and how will these choices affect the trajectory of what is revealed?


On August 29, 1952, American composer and music theorist John Cage premiered his most famous and controversial piece 4’33”, a three-movement piece written for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the score instructs silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. In an interview that appears in Richard Kostelanetz’s 1988 book Conversing With Cage, Cage says of the audience for this first performance: “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement.” Write an essay inspired by this iconic piece of music. Try listening to the natural and ambient sounds of your writing environment and explore the moments in your life in which silence has been meaningful.


In the anthology Nonwhite and Woman: 131 Micro Essays on Being in the World (Woodhall Press, 2022) edited by Darien Hsu Gee and Carla Crujido, which is featured in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, writers express the many facets of being a woman of color in poems and essays, all of which are three hundred words or less. The pieces navigate topics ranging from immigration, colorism, and financial struggles to family, food, and friendship. Inspired by these themes, write a micro essay that illustrates how your identity affects the way you move in the world. What creative approaches will you use to compress your thoughts into three hundred words or less?


In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsules series, Nuar Alsadir taps into her experience as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, arguing that “the most direct way for others to connect with your writing is by connecting with the emotion you feel in relation to the work.” Alsadir shares a lesson she learned while attending clown school as research for her book Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation (Graywolf Press, 2022). As a woman on stage described her love of eating chicken feet, the class laughed “because we could sense the enjoyment she felt as she imaginatively enacted the process on stage.” This week, write an essay in which you describe an activity that truly gives you pleasure. Allow the genuine emotion you experience to guide the language of the essay.


For many the end of summer brings forth memories of transition, as a new school year is set to begin. Every year, especially during the formative time of late childhood through adolescence, students return from their summer vacations changed, having used the freedom of the time away to explore changing friendships, interests, and core beliefs. What recollections do you have of the end of summer and the beginning of the school year? Catalogue as many back-to-school memories as possible, from kindergarten through high school, perhaps using old photographs to guide you. What patterns and transformations do you come across? Using this list as a structure, write an essay charting this time in your life.


“The confessional booth felt like every other confessional booth I’d ever been in. The wood of the bench was so dark and uniformly grained that it looked fake, and the once-plush cushion atop it was now dingy and flat,” writes Isaac Fitzgerald in his memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional (Bloomsbury, 2022), in which he recounts the experience of confessing his sins to a priest when he was twelve at a church in Boston. In the passage, Fitzgerald both describes the physicality of the experience—the breath of the priest filling the confessional, hearing his disembodied voice—and maintains the intimacy of the first-person perspective, making the memory itself read like a confession. This week write a personal essay in the form of a confession. Does writing in this perspective change your narrative voice?


In an article for Atlas Obscura, Eden Arielle Gordon writes about the work of dendrochronologists dating the oldest tree in the world. Jonathan Barichivich is a Chilean scientist and grandson of a park ranger who discovered the Alerce Milenario, a Patagonian cypress in Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park. Barichivich’s careful calculations estimate the Alerce Milenario to be 5,474 years old, which would mean the cypress lived through several of the world’s most transformative events, including the development of writing, clocks, and the hydrogen bomb. Write a personal essay inspired by the discovery of this ancient tree. What would it mean to be over 5,000 years old? How would you reflect on the ways the world has changed?


As heat waves strike around the globe, many flock to beaches and parks for refreshment and recreation with friends and family. Although being out in the hot weather requires sunblock and stamina, weekend excursions ultimately provide an opportunity to disconnect from work life, day-to-day duties, and the overall stress that comes with modern society. Think back to a time you visited a favorite place to relax on a weekend. Was it a quiet spot under the shade of a tree, a nearby body of water to dip your feet into, or a hiking trail with an incredible view? Write an essay that explores this experience at your favorite place. Try telling the backstory of what was happening in your life to color the essay with context and depth.


“There are two kinds of silence that trouble a translator: physical silence and metaphysical silence,” writes Anne Carson in her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” published in A Public Space. In the essay, Carson discusses various forms of silence—whether of torn ancient manuscripts, the untranslatable, or not being heard—through the works of British painter Francis Bacon and German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, weaving in and out of anecdotes and analyses that are punctuated by the author’s extensive experience as a translator of ancient Greek. Inspired by this thought-provoking essay, meditate on the many ways that silence has taken shape in your life. Then, write an essay that uses the works of others, or your own personal life, to illustrate your experience with silence.


In her lyric essay “Tsunami” published in the Margins, Juliet S. Kono uses the zuihitsu form to tell a layered story about how her family has survived through multiple tsunami attacks. The essay uses dates to introduce each section, beginning with her family emigrating from Japan to Hawai’i in the early 1900s, then jumping to the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan, and culminating in 1946 when she and her family survived a deadly tsunami in Hilo, Hawai’i. Inspired by Kono, write a lyric essay that explores a shared history between you and your ancestors. Try using dates to structure the essay, adding historical and emotional layers to the narrative as you write.


“My multiethnic existence is a protest against a racial hierarchy,” says Kali Fajardo-Anstine in “Keeping the Stories,” a profile by Rigoberto González published in the July/August 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “If you ask me about my identity, prepare to hear about a complicated ancestry. I am a Chicana of Indigenous and mixed ancestry, and the story of who I am is inextricably tied to this country.” Inspired by Fajardo-Anstine’s statement, write an essay about the experiences that influence how you identify yourself in the world. What are the many stories that make up who you are?


In the introduction to the anthology This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music (Hachette, 2022) edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson, which is featured in “The Anthologist” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, composer and guitarist Heather Leigh writes about how the authors of each essay acknowledge that “music somehow remains intangible” and how “we can try to explain and to rationalize it, but we’re seduced back by the song.” What music seduces and captures you? Using this question as a guide, write an essay that centers around the impact a certain song or musician has had on your life. Use tangible memories and details to add texture to the composition of your essay.


In a recent post on Instagram by the poet Mark Wunderlich, he shared an image of a greyish white book washed of its letters, peeled back of the paper’s layers, and frayed at the edges. The caption reads, in part, “Mary Ruefle keeps a decomposing book in her yard to remind herself of the fate of all literature, and how we write anyway because we must.” Write an essay inspired by Ruefle’s decomposing book that meditates on the “fate” of your own writing. What lasting impact would you like to make? Is this what drives you to write?


In “Blood: Twenty-Seven Love Stories,” which appears in The Crane Wife: A Memoir in Essays, forthcoming in July from Doubleday, CJ Hauser writes: “I want to learn from what went wrong in the past but sometimes it seems everything worth knowing has been redacted. As if ignorance is the only thing that allows each successive generation to tumble into love, however briefly, and spawn the next.” Hauser weaves together twenty-seven short sections that each tell the love stories, some sweet and others disquieting, of her parents and grandparents, as well as those of the author’s own life. The gripping narrative touches upon the themes of love, loss, fate, and sisterhood, as Hauser finds patterns in the way life’s love stories coincide with and contradict one another. Write an essay in sections connected by shared themes. Try, as Hauser does, to link distinct stories into a single narrative, tying the pieces together using common threads.


For the Paris Review Daily blog, Sloane Crosley, whose new novel, Cult Classic, was published this week by MCD, reflects on a journal entry she wrote about a time she and a friend boarded the wrong overnight train leaving Barcelona to Geneva during a twenty-day trip through Europe. Crosley considers how the diary entry of the experience includes the fight she recalls having with her friend but leaves out them making up and moving on with their trip. Think of a time when you were traveling on a trip and something went wrong—plans fell through, a friend got sick, a fight broke out. Write an essay about this experience including what you remember and might misremember.


Crown shyness, otherwise known as canopy disengagement, is a phenomenon observed in some tree species in which gaps form between the outermost branches. As for why these trees keep a distance from one another, one theory suggests that severe wind causes abrasion between the ends of trees, while another possibility is that the gaps allow for light to filter down for plants and animals to receive nutrients below. Write an essay inspired by crown shyness in which you trace the many unexpected ways you are connected to others even while physically distanced from them. For more inspiration, read this article on the social distancing of trees from the Natural History Museum in London’s website.


Over the past two years, an increasing number of books have been banned from school libraries and universities. In 2021, the American Library Association tracked over seven hundred attempts to remove library, school, and university materials, including over fifteen hundred books. Most of the banned books have themes of race and racism, and include LGBTQIA+ characters. These titles include Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson. Write an essay about a banned book that has made a lasting impression on you. How do you feel about these books being blocked from new readers?


“I was certain that writing should be more about breaking or lifting the reader’s heart than, say, mending my own heart. And then I lost somebody,” writes Ian Stansel in “How Deep This Grief: Wrestling With Writing As Therapy” in the September/October 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the essay, Stansel shares the V. S. Naipaul quote that helped guide him to write a novel after his sister’s sudden death honoring her love of horses and career as a riding trainer: “No one cares for your tragedy until you can sing about it.” This week, write an essay that makes the connection between a challenging time in your life and a writing credo that guides your work.


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.


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.