With cool spring weather comes allergy season, the time of year many become suffused with itchy eyes, runny noses, and relentless sneezing. This common ailment is exasperated by the rainy season and blowing winds that spread pollen, and global warming is creating an even longer pollen season, according to many published studies. Write a story in which a protagonist struggles with allergies in springtime. How will this detail carry importance in the plot’s development? For inspiration, read Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Death of a Government Clerk,” which begins with the protagonist sneezing.
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 a recent installment of Ten Questions, poet Dana Levin recalls the earliest memory associated with her new book, Now Do You Know Where You Are (Copper Canyon Press, 2022): “Pacing around my sublet in Saint Louis, Fall 2015, saying out loud the words ‘No,’ ‘Yes,’ and ‘Stop’ over and over: to feel how they felt in my mouth, my throat, my chest.” Included in Levin’s collection are three poems—“No,” “Maybe,” and “Into the Next Eden”—that seek to answer the question posed by the book’s title. This week, consider a question to ask yourself and write three poems with different responses. Do your answers surprise you?
“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?
In an excerpt of Noor Naga’s new novel, If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English (Graywolf Press, 2022), published on Literary Hub, one of the main characters, an Egyptian American woman who moves to Cairo to teach English, discusses her relationship with her mother through a question and answer structure of vignettes. Rather than straightforward queries with direct replies, the questions are specific and personal—for example, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?” and “Is it arrogant to return to a place you’ve never been?”—setting up a tension that elevates the stakes for the character’s emotional arc. Taking inspiration from Naga’s novel, think of three questions that relate to your protagonist’s conflict, then answer these questions through first-person vignettes. How does this exercise help you understand your character, as well as challenge the traditional structure of a story?
“I am five, / Wading out into deep / Sunny grass,” writes Yusef Komunyakaa in his poem “Venus’s-Flytraps.” The young speaker in this poem delivers a collage-like monologue that lays out the various characters, images, and places from his life along with a sense of wonder and danger carefully balanced in striking lines, creating a tapestry that portrays a very real and complex childhood. “I know things / I don’t supposed to know. / I could start walking / & never stop. / These yellow flowers / Go on forever,” writes Komunyakaa. Write a poem from the perspective of a curious child, which, like Komunyakaa’s poem, illustrates even the most devastating things with a sense of wonder.
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.
Crocuses, daffodils, irises, tulips, bloodroot: Spring is the time when blooming flowers arrive to symbolize, if only briefly, the rebirth of the natural world and the chance for new beginnings. The English bluebell, for example, blooms in April and May, flashing wild indigo before dying when the temperature rises. Crocuses are known for their sudden blooming, with no prior signal, sometimes peeking up through snow before lasting only about three weeks. Taking inspiration from the relatively brief life of flowers, write a story in which a protagonist finds a new direction for living, sparked by the presence of spring blooms. How will your protagonist grow out of the long winter? What can we learn about your character using the yearly persistence of blossoming flowers as a guiding metaphor?
“After killing your god, hotbox the gun smoke,” writes Kemi Alabi in “How to Fornicate,” the opening poem of their debut collection, Against Heaven, winner of the 2021 Academy of American Poets First Book Award, published by Graywolf Press in April. Alabi’s poem enumerates a set of instructions that lyrically lay out the relationship the speaker has with sex and sexuality, using imperatives to speak directly to the reader. These intimate instructions transform throughout the poem, ranging from clear actions to more unexpected uses of nouns that have been repurposed as verbs: “Choir everything. Tenor the roses. / Alto the mulch. Mezzo the flies.” Write a poem in which each sentence begins with an imperative. Try, as Alabi does in the poem, to use a range of words and lexicons to challenge traditional instructional language.
“I’m interested in [Leilani’s] sentences for their expressive, controlled looseness and flexibility; for the way that syntax blurs into scene; for the sense, always, that their shapes are responsive to the psychology of her narrator,” writes Garth Greenwell in “On a Sentence by Raven Leilani,” an essay diving into the particulars of the novelist’s sentences, which was published in the Spring 2022 issue of the Sewanee Review. “As I pour my attention into them, they seem to deepen and expand, inexhaustible.” Whose sentences do you admire most? Inspired by Greenwell’s thorough and passionate analysis, write an essay about your favorite writer’s sentences. Try to break down the root of your fascination by quoting specific sections from your favorite works.
“What is revealed by the early manuscripts of classic novels?” asks Hephzibah Anderson in an article published on BBC Culture, in which first drafts of famous novelists like Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are examined. Woolf’s manuscripts reveal a writer radically rethinking the end of her iconic novel, Mrs. Dalloway, while Proust’s drafts show liberally crossed-out and annotated sections as well as a key rethinking of a central image: the madeleine, which originally began as a slice of toast and a cup of tea. This week try a different strategy for a first draft and write a story out of order. Jot down three crucial scenes from a story you’ve been wanting to begin. Then, at random, pick one and write a draft of that scene. How does this help relieve the pressure of drafting a whole new story from beginning to end?
In a profile of Tracy K. Smith by Renée H. Shea, published in the March/April 2015 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet discusses the “shifting subjectivities” she discovered while writing her memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015), in which she includes stories from her childhood. “Tracy the citizen was allowed to engage with these private stories, just as Tracy the mother was allowed in at times,” says Smith. Consider two identities that you hold, then write a poem from one of these perspectives. What is left out, and what is let in?
“My problem isn’t writer’s block—it’s writer’s doubt,” writes Diana Marie Delgado in an installment of Writers Recommend in which she explains how a hypnotic and emotionally swelling piece of music helps inspire her writing. “If I feel overwhelmed, I listen to William Basinski’s ‘dlp 1.1’ from The Disintegration Loops,” she writes. This week, write about a piece of music that helps you enter the headspace for writing. What’s the story behind the music, and what about it, specifically, helps you write?
From New York socialite con artist Anna Delvey to Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of the fraudulent health technology company Theranos, to Simon Leviev, who allegedly conned millions of dollars from women through the dating app Tinder, these actors of true crime have dominated the subject of several television shows, documentaries, and movies. Inspired by these dangerous tricksters, write a story with a con artist as the protagonist. What do they think and sound like? Do they have an unrecognizable accent or use popular social media platforms to connect with their victims?
“[Nashville] is hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle / chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame-colored spice / for white people,” writes Tiana Clark in her poem “Nashville,” published in the New Yorker in 2017. The poem interlaces personal experience and anecdotes with a historical overview of the Southern city’s development. “I-40 bisected the black community / like a tourniquet of concrete. There were no highway exits. / 120 businesses closed,” writes Clark. Write a poem about a city you’ve lived in. How does your time there intersect with the history of the town? Use research to find significant events that take your poem to a deeper place beyond your own life.
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.
“When I think about the writers and books I have worked with, it’s the dialogue about shape that I most remember. A draft of a story in which a kind of sonic boom goes off at the beginning demands an answering boom at the end,” writes Rebecca Saletan, vice president and editorial director of Riverhead Books, in “A Thing Meant to Be: The Work of a Book Editor” published as online exclusive for Poets & Writers in 2018. “Rather than trying to launch six complicated characters at the outset, how about introducing them one by one, like a juggler putting balls into the air?” This week find an old draft of a story and reshape its structure. How does this exercise force a new perspective on the story’s elements?
From the Czech word litost—a state of torment created by the sudden sight of one’s own misery—to the German word schadenfreude—the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others—to the French word dépaysement—the restlessness that comes with being away from your country of origin—untranslatable words have continued to be a source of inspiration for writers across languages. Each word reflects the culture from which it comes as well as illustrates the inability for language to fully capture the human experience. Write a poem using an untranslatable word as a jumping-off point. For inspiration, read Barbara Hamby’s poem “Toska” included in her book On the Street of Divine Love: New and Selected Poems (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).
“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?
In “The Art of Reading Philip Roth: Turning Sentences Around,” published in the September/October 2006 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Andrew Furman provides an analysis of the prolific writer’s work and legacy. “[Roth] seemed to know early on that to be a thoughtful Jewish writer in the twentieth century was to pose a series of ‘What if’ questions,” writes Furman. “What if Kafka survived tuberculosis, and then the Nazi death camps?” or “What if Anne Frank survived typhus in Bergen-Belsen?” This week, write a short story based on a “What if” question. Whether through a historical figure or your own life, what alternate reality can you see through to fruition?
“They say a poet / can never write a purely happy poem about a dog / greeting the sun and what it has done to rain,” writes Analicia Sotelo in her poem “Grace Among the Ferns” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. “I don’t know about that.” The poem is inspired by Sotelo’s dog Grace, who nuzzles her body through ferns on a sunny day, and how she seems to effortlessly enjoy the pleasures of springtime. Inspired by Sotelo’s poem, challenge yourself to write a joyful poem. Will your poem include a beloved pet?
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?
“Under the wonderful influence of the painkillers coursing through me, I felt, in my iron-framed bed, like a balloonist floating weightless amidst the mountainous clouds towering on every side,” writes W. G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn, reprinted by New Directions in 2016 and translated from the German by Michael Hulse, in which an unnamed narrator speaks from a hospital bed about a trip he took walking across the landscape of Suffolk in England a year before. In the novel, Sebald’s narrator ruminates on a variety of subjects, including Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the skull of seventeenth-century physician Thomas Browne, French novelist Gustave Flaubert’s relationship to sand, and the sudden death of his friend. Write a story in which the protagonist never physically moves, but mentally travels through a variety of seemingly disparate subjects. Be it art, world history, geography, or music, how do the anecdotes connect to your subject’s personal conflict?
“I don’t know about you, but for me, the last two years have put a strain on language,” says Ada Limón in an episode of The Slowdown, a podcast hosted by the poet featuring a curated poem. “For me, and maybe for many of us, the way we say I love you, is just by showing up. By being there, sometimes quietly, wordlessly, but there, in person, nonetheless,” she says while introducing the featured poem “Don’t Say Love Just Signal” by Tyree Daye. This week, write a poem about the ways love can be expressed physically, without words. When words aren’t enough, how does the body say more?
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.
The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson and Zoë Kravitz, premiered at the top of the box office this past weekend adding to the popularity of neo-noir films over the past decade. Coined in the 1970s, the term “neo-noir” refers to the expansion of the classic film noir genre of the 1920s and explores many of the same themes: a dilapidated city overrun by crime and corruption, a brooding antihero, a femme fatale, and the looming specter of the protagonist’s inner demons. Recent examples of neo-noir films include Nightmare Alley, Looper, Drive, and Nightcrawler. Write a short story using the conventions of a neo-noir film. What inspiration can you draw from this genre as well as real-world events for your dramatically lit and brooding story?