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.
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.
“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.
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.