“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.
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.
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?
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.