“Each poem or song has a genealogy of sorts. When I speak with singers from our ceremonial ground about a song, they tell you who taught you the song, where the song came from, who has the authority to sing/speak it,” writes former U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo in her Blaney Lecture “Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets” delivered in 2015 at Poets Forum in New York City. “The meanings make a map that sometimes connect you to a lonely serviceman in Japan, or to the journey over the Trail of Tears, from what is now known as Alabama to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma.” Inspired by Harjo’s words, write a poem that traces the genealogy of your poetry. Try starting with a list or a family tree to uncover the storytellers who have inspired you.
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?
What can we learn from a single conversation? In Richard Bausch’s short story “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” the protagonist Ballinger speaks to his daughter Melanie over the phone. The conversation, which increases in stakes and tension as it progresses, centers around both parties needing to share life-altering news: Melanie is pregnant and planning to marry an older man while Ballinger and his wife are planning to separate. The story is told with very little narration and is almost entirely written in dialogue. This week try writing a story that takes place over the course of a phone call. Consider what is said and unsaid in the dialogue and how this creates tension between your characters.
In Derrick Austin’s poem “Jesus Year,” he creates a portrait of his life on the occasion of his thirty-third birthday. Instead of leaning toward the more familiar images of birthday cakes or candles, Austin begins by describing his immediate surroundings: “My clogged sink coughs up foul water. / My skeletal philodendron,” he writes. The poem then offers more about his life; family members, a cerulean sweater worn through a winter without work, memories of the last time he smoked a cigarette. Taking inspiration from Austin, write a poem that paints a portrait of your life. Try to color the poem with unexpected images to offer a complete picture.
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?
In a recent episode of the science podcast Ologies, host Alie Ward speaks with Cole Imperi, founder of the School of American Thanatology and a leading expert on death, dying, and grief. Ward talks about her experience with her father’s death and asks Imperi about the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Imperi discusses the common misconception that these stages are experienced by all in a linear order, and that in fact, many may not experience all the stages and some may switch from one stage to another and return to one again. This week, write a story in which a character grieves over the loss of something or someone. Use the Kübler-Ross model as inspiration to plot out your character’s development.
In Ross Gay’s poem “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” neighbors gather around “the canopy / of a fig its / arms pulling the / September sun to it” and relish in the riches of the tree’s bounty, an uncommon occurrence for a typical city street corner. Gay writes, “soon there were / eight or nine / people gathered beneath / the tree looking into / it like a / constellation pointing / do you see it.” This week, inspired by autumn as the season of the harvest, write a poem in which you describe a joyful scene centered around a fruit-bearing plant or tree. How does this experience serve as an escape from the worries of your daily life?
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 an essay featured in the September/October 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Evison writes about the banning of his 2018 novel, Lawn Boy, and the morning he found out that parents were protesting the inclusion of his novel in a Texas high school library. Evison awoke to several threatening messages on his social media accounts which included one that read: “There’s a special place in hell for people like you. I hope you burn.” This week, write a story from the perspective of a writer whose book is banned and targeted by a group of parents and local politicians. In what unexpected way is your protagonist’s life changed by this sudden fame?
In her poem “The Quiet,” which appears in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Jorie Graham disrupts traditional expectations of a poem by aligning the text to the right of the page. Graham creates an atmosphere of tension by describing a metaphysical storm, and later in the poem, a literal one. She writes: “as wind comes up and we feel our soul turn frantic / in us, craning this way and that, yes the soul can twist, can winch itself into knots, / why not, there is light but no warmth.” This week, write a poem that creates visual tension by aligning the text to the right. Is there a storm in your life that could serve as inspiration?
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?
The Venice International Film Festival in Italy is the world’s oldest film festival and is a marker for the year’s most celebrated accomplishments in cinema. There is always glitz and glamour on the red carpet, but this year the media focused on rumors of tension between the costars of the film Don’t Worry Darling, harkening back to old Hollywood and the gossip and alleged rivalry between stars such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe. This week write a short story in which gossip creates tension between your characters. How will your characters react once they become the talk of the town?
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsule series, Gregory Orr writes about the use of sounds and sound patterns in poems to produce a textural sonic experience. The essay begins by discussing four lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem “Root Cellar,” which Orr uses to exemplify how sound can “create a dense composition that is the sonic equivalent of intense odors and textures.” This week write a poem that illustrates through sound the smells, noises, and tactile experiences of a place from your childhood. Follow Orr’s advice to find what brings you pleasure in the music of words and use it in your poem.
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.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention, in which natural and cultural sites around the world are considered and added to a list to protect and preserve their heritage. There are currently over one thousand legally protected sites, which include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, Canaima National Park in Venezuela, and Victoria Falls in Zambia. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage list and write a story that takes place at one of these protected sites. Read through the site’s history for ideas on how to weave this setting into your story.
“Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again,” writes John Murillo in his poem “Variations on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop,” which appears in his collection Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020), in which he directly quotes from and expands upon Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Using his own perspective, Murillo explores the theme of loss and uses intimate life details to make each event feel distinct, sometimes measuring one against the other as Bishop does in her poem. He writes: “Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s / crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass.” This week, write a poem that directly responds to a favorite poem of yours. Try writing a variation of a line or directly quoting from the poem to get started.
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 a recent thread on Twitter, author Rebecca Makkai begins a discussion on words that make prose awkward in fiction, starting with the use of “as” in a sentence such as: “‘Hey there,’ I said as I got up as I turned on the lights.’” Other awkward words Makkai lists include “temporal hinge words” like “after” and “while,” the overuse of “that” in a sentence, and the use of gerunds, especially as dialogue modifiers. The last tip Makkai offers is a useful one: “I promise you, if you control + F through your work just on the words ‘as’ and ‘that’ and take out 90% of them, you’ll be so happy.” Try using this advice to revise a draft of a short story you’re working on. Remove some of the narrative devices listed in Makkai’s tweets and see how the rhythm of your story’s language changes.
“Up late scrolling / for distraction, love, hope, / I discovered skew dice. // In the promotional video / you see only a mathematician’s hands, / like the hands of god,” writes Catherine Barnett in “2020,” a poem published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. As a way of illustrating the loneliness felt during the early days of the pandemic, the poem focuses on the central image of skew dice, a set of irregularly shaped dice that are mirror images of each other. Write a poem that revolves around one central object. Try to be detailed about its uses and origins. Let the poem guide what the image of this object represents for you.
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.
In an essay published in our September/October 2022 issue, Valeria Luiselli writes about her selection process as guest editor of The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, the latest installment of the anthology series. Luiselli speaks about the significance of the prize changing the “American author” rule to accepting all English-language writers appearing in North American publications regardless of citizenship, as well as work in translation, and how this opens up “the unknowable, the unpredictable, and the strange” within these short stories. She writes: “That is precisely what good stories feel like: Within the setting of complete familiarity, the flowering of the extraneous.” Inspired by this description, write a short story that follows an unpredictable path. Try, as Luiselli describes, to draw out extraneous outcomes from familiar circumstances.
In a world run by technology, now more than ever, it can be rewarding to unplug, go outside, and look to the natural scenery around you. In Louise Glück’s poem “Sunrise,” the narrator reflects on the still, beautiful landscape in the hills and the ways in which nature is always there, persisting, even through life’s ups and downs. “And if you missed a day, there was always the next, / and if you missed a year, it didn’t matter, / the hills weren’t going anywhere, / the thyme and rosemary kept coming back, / the sun kept rising, the bushes kept bearing fruit,” writes Glück. Write a poem inspired by the beauty and perpetuity of the natural world that surrounds you. Think about the simplicity of a blade of grass or a flower petal, and how every detail is a life of its own.
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 beginning of the fall season is marked in late September by the autumnal equinox, which signals the shortening of days and lengthening of nights, and by the harvest moon. Although dependence on the moon has waned in modern society, farmers once looked to the bright, early moonlight to help harvest their summer crops. In many East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the harvest moon is still honored through annual celebrations that include moon gazing, eating moon-shaped desserts, and lighting lanterns. Inspired by this rich history, write a story in which a protagonist relies on the harvest moon. How will you build the stakes for a story that depends on a lunar phenomenon?
In Jenny Xie’s poem “Memory Soldier,” which appears in her second collection, The Rupture Tense (Graywolf Press, 2022), the poet chronicles the life of Li Zhensheng, a photojournalist who documented the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In the eight-page poem, Xie weaves back and forth from biographical information to spare descriptions of Zhensheng’s stark photographs, creating a rich reading experience that honors the life and work of the unflinching artist. “Li’s camera can capture distance in a face,” writes Xie. “It can materialize a person’s doubt, so transparent is his lens.” Write a poem in sections that considers the life and impact of an artist you admire. Whether through an essayistic prose form or lineated stanzas, how does the technique of accruing language inform your understanding of the chosen subject?