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 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.
For those in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures are beginning to warm up indicating the coming of spring. This period in February, in which there can be a week of mild weather with birds chirping and plants blossoming followed by a deep freeze, is what climate scientists call “false spring.” Write a short story set in the interstices of seasons. For example, in the cold week at the end of summer signifying the coming of autumn, or just before spring. What tension can the setting of a story add to the conflict in a character?
As with this past weekend’s Super Bowl, singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the national anthem of the United States, before the start of sports events is a time-honored tradition. Poet Ada Limón has made that eventful moment the center of her poem “A New National Anthem,” which is included in her collection The Carrying (Milkweed Editions, 2018). “The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National / Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good / song,” writes Limón. “And what of the stanzas / we never sing, the third that mentions ‘no refuge / could save the hireling and the slave’? Perhaps, / the truth is, every song of this country / has an unsung third stanza.” Write a poem inspired by a country’s national anthem. What are your feelings about it? Is it a good song?
“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.
Boxes of chocolate, a bouquet of roses, candlelit dinners, greeting cards. As Valentine’s Day nears, the pressure to make a romantic gesture or celebrate the day looms with storefront decorations and advertisements. However, high expectations mixed with packed restaurants and a shortage of flowers can lead to disastrous and disappointing evenings. Write a story that takes place on Valentine’s Day, or the days leading up to it, in which a romantic evening goes awry. How can you amp up the stakes of the story early on to help build up the tension of the disappointing day?
“From narrow provinces / of fish and bread and tea, / home of the long tides / where the bay leaves the sea,” writes Elizabeth Bishop in her iconic poem “The Moose,” in which she writes about a bus ride through Nova Scotia, describing in detail both the natural landscape and the conversations happening inside the bus. The poem takes its title from the final scene, in which the bus stops in front of a moose in the middle of the road. Write a poem that takes place entirely within the stretch of a single journey. Be it by plane, bus, or car, how can you use the finite sense of a journey to your poem’s advantage?
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?
“I wanted to make a character who is sometimes good and sometimes bad, yet neither comicially nor tragically so. She’s just misguided, self-absorbed, and wrong,” writes Destiny O. Birdsong in her Craft Capsule essay “Ain’t We Got Enough Problems?” In the essay, Birdsong discusses her relationship with an unlikeable character in her forthcoming debut novel, Nobody’s Magic (Grand Central Publishing, 2022), and how she grew to love her. Inspired by Birdsong, write a story focused on an unlikable protagonist that reveals some of your worst fears about yourself. Show the character’s vulnerabilities as well as their misdeeds so the reader can go on the journey of understanding them.
In Lee Young-ju’s “A Girl and the Moon” from her collection Cold Candies (Black Ocean, 2021), translated from the Korean by Jae Kim, image and story are woven together into a spellbinding prose poem that maintains its steady rhythm through the consistent use of commas. “Mid-night, swinging upside down on a pull-up bar, the girl says, Mother, this bone growing on my back, white in the night, protruding out of my skin, long and endlessly this bone,” writes Young-ju. This week, write a poem that uses commas as its only punctuation. Does this formal constraint challenge your syntax and word choice?
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?
In Laura Gilpin’s popular poem “The Two-Headed Calf” from her award-winning collection, The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe (Doubleday, 1977), hope is briefly found in the doomed life of a calf. In this moving, two-stanza poem, the juxtaposition of suffering and hope is distilled into a final moment in which the young animal can see “twice as many stars as usual.” Write a short story in which the protagonist is inspired by a unique animal. Whether it’s a prizewinning pig or an albino alligator, how does your protagonist see themselves in this rare creature?
“We moved / into the next song without / stopping, two chests heaving / above a seven-league / stride,” writes Rita Dove in “American Smooth,” the title poem of her 2004 poetry collection, capturing the thoughts of a dancer and their partner as they achieve “flight, / that swift and serene / magnificence.” This week, inspired by Dove, write a poem that catalogues getting lost in the joy of dancing. Whether alone or with a partner, describe the moments between taking the first step and the music ending. Play with varied syntax and the senses to communicate the experience of the body.
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?
January 14 marked the fifty-ninth anniversary of the original publication of Sylvia Plath’s haunting novel, The Bell Jar, which was first published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” The novel, which wouldn’t receive its wide acclaim until 1971, two years after the death of Plath, opens with one of the most iconic first lines in contemporary literature: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” This week, write a story influenced by this powerful opening line. Set the tone of the story by situating the time and place into historical context, as Plath does. How can an event seemingly unrelated to the rest of your story carry the weight of the reader’s expectations?
“She is the speed of darkness— / witness her mystery, not her gown,” writes Christopher Gilbert in “Muriel Rukeyser as Energy” from his poetry collection Across the Mutual Landscape (Graywolf Press, 1984). The poem serves as a kind of ode to the influential poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose five-decade literary career is characterized by her involvement in political activism and mentorship. Through the anaphora of “she” and use of surreal imagery, Gilbert creates a mythological portrait that reaches beyond biography and reflects both Rukeyser’s influence and poetic character. Write a poem about a writer whose influence on you is significant. What imagery and syntax will you employ to properly reflect the character and impact of their work?
“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?
In an article for Oprah Daily, Maggie Shipstead chronicles the seven- year journey of writing and researching her latest novel, Great Circle (Knopf, 2021). After a solo trip around New Zealand, Shipstead encounters a bronze statue of Jean Batten, the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand, and is struck with the idea to write a book about a pilot. This week, inspired by Shipstead, consider a statue you’ve come across and write a story inspired by this encounter or the person commemorated. How will the statue come to bear significance in the story?
In John Keene’s poem “Phone Book,” from his poetry collection Punks: New and Selected Poems (Song Cave, 2021) and published on Literary Hub, the speaker flips alphabetically through a Rolodex remembering the lives of each person listed: “Yamil bending / ear to lips to read the laments, with care, tells me that Zachary, the Rolodex / Z, now gone, no longer fears those dark days. In any light, trust, the dead can see.” Mixing rhythm and narrative, Keene seamlessly threads together the names of contacts with their respective stories, never losing the threads of their often fleeting lives. This week, make a list of names from A-Z of people from your past and then weave them together in a loose abecedarian poem that tells their stories.
“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?
Edgar Gomez’s debut memoir, High-Risk Homosexual (Soft Skull Press, 2022), begins with a secret: “Moments after I was born at the Mount Sinai Medical Center of Greater Miami, my parents were handed a document, which I stumbled upon years later, curled and yellow at the edges, inside of a shoebox in a corner of my closet.” The book’s first sentence sets up the tension between the narrator and his family as Gomez recounts coming of age as a gay, Latinx man. Write a story that begins with a character finding a secret object—whether it be a hidden note, a photograph, or an unopened box. Who does the object belong to, and what feeling does this discovery conjure in your protagonist?
“i am running into a new year / and the old years blow back / like a wind,” writes Lucille Clifton in her poem “i am running into a new year,” which is included in The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser (BOA Editions, 2015). In this popular poem, Clifton writes about encountering her past as she moves into the future: “it will be hard to let go / of what i said to myself / about myself / when i was sixteen and / twenty-six and thirty-six.” Write a poem about the feeling you get when entering a new year. What are you taking with you, and what are you leaving behind? For further inspiration, read this Washington Post article by Stephanie Burt about the tradition of greeting a new year with poetry.
“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.
Go to the gym. Read more books. Save more money. Eat better. Wake up earlier. New Year’s resolutions begin as good intentions meant to introduce positive change in one’s life, but of course they can be difficult to sustain. Often characterized by vowing to continue healthy practices, change an undesired trait, or accomplish a new goal, resolutions bring with them hope but often turn to disappointment as these once-a-year aspirations fade with each passing day of the new year. Write a story about a character who is at a crossroads and makes an urgent resolution to change their ways. What are the circumstances that necessitate a need for change? How does your character go about accomplishing—or failing to meet—this pressing goal?
“You are a hundred wild centuries // And fifteen, bringing with you / In every breath and in every step // Everyone who has come before you,” writes Alberto Ríos in his poem “A House Called Tomorrow,” in which he challenges readers to consider their place in building a better world. In the poem, fitting for the new year, Ríos writes about the weight of the past, then sounds a hopeful note: “Look back only for as long as you must, / Then go forward into the history you will make.” Write a poem about your relationship to the past—your connection to the “wild centuries” of history as well as your own personal past, from early childhood to recent years marked by the private and public transformations of time. Try to include your own revelations along with the inspiration that propels you forward into a new tomorrow.
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?