“Cats suffer from dementia too. Did you know that?” begins Margaret Atwood’s poem “Ghost Cat” from Dearly (Ecco Press, 2020), her first collection of poetry in over a decade. The poem centers on a cat with dementia who wanders the house at night nibbling on bits of food: “from a tomato here, a ripe peach there, / a crumpet, a softening pear. / Is this what I’m supposed to eat?” Cats have been at the center of literature for centuries, ranging from Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century poem “Jubilate Agno,” which begins “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita and Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore. Write a poem inspired by a cat. As an added challenge, try writing from the perspective of a cat, instead of from a human watching one.
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.
“A farmer lived, but not well. If she planted grain, it would not sprout. If she grew rice, it would rot. If she tried to raise livestock, they would gasp and choke and die before they’d seen a second dawn,” begins The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott, a GalleyCrush pick forthcoming from FSG Originals in February. These straightforward conditional sentences help to quickly synthesize information and set the tone for conflict in the story. This week write an essay that begins with a conditional phrase expressing a conflict in your life. Start the first sentence with an “if this, then that” scenario to produce tension and set the stage for what will unfold.
“When words elude us as adults, music can soothe or stir the mind. When sight fails, music can clarify our emotional perceptions,” writes Jenny Bhatt in a recent installment of Craft Capsules, in which she describes how music became the gateway to writing her short story collection, Each Of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). “Before writing a story’s first draft, I would pick out a song that had the imagery, mood, and lyrics that resonated with my early vision for the story’s themes and narrative style.” Pick a draft of a story you’ve had trouble getting off the ground and find a song that captures the themes and emotions you aim to present. Use the dynamics in music to help revise and reimagine the story in a new direction.
In his years as a teacher, John Ashbery used Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” for a translation exercise in which students sounded out the German words and wrote down English words resembling those sounds, such as interpreting “sich hält und glänzt” as “sick halt and glance.” The exercise relied less on meaning and subject and more on sound and rhythm, despite the final product sounding silly. Pick a poem in a language unfamiliar to you and phonetically translate the poem into English. What surprising combination of words come together? Once the translation is finished, try to find a sense of logic in the words to produce an original poem.
“Craft is not simply technical. If we take our craft seriously, or even if we want to play, we must realize that what we bring to craft is the world that crafted us,” writes Joy Priest in an installment of Craft Capsules published in July. “The way we work, our technique, holds all of our subconscious anxieties and desires.” What was the world like that shaped you, and how does it manifest in your writing? Write an essay describing how your childhood shaped the way you think and the choices you make as a writer. Consider the questions that Priest poses throughout her essay, such as, “What are you avoiding? What are you leaving out? What is uninterrogated?”
“When Franz Kafka says that Gregory Samsa woke up one morning transformed into a gigantic insect, it doesn’t strike me as a symbol of anything,” writes Gabriel Garcia Márquez in a 1981 article for Madrid’s El País, which was recently republished on Literary Hub. In support of taking writers at their word, Márquez discusses how the rooster in his novel No Ones Writes to the Colonel has been interpreted by literature teachers and that his own son was tasked with answering a question on an entrance exam purporting the meaning of the rooster. Write a story inspired by magical realism in which a fantastical element or creature is introduced that does not represent any theme or conflict. After all, sometimes a rooster is just a rooster.
Self-portraits are often associated with visual artists, but poets have also experimented with this art form. In Gregory Pardlo’s “Written by Himself” he writes, “I was born in minutes in a roadside kitchen a skillet / whispering my name.” Pardlo uses the anaphora, “I was born,” throughout the poem to include the lives that made his life possible. In “Self-Portrait,” Adam Zagajewski employs declarative statements, “I like deep sleep, when I cease to exist,” to invite the reader to learn more about his life. Inspired by these two poems, write a self-portrait poem that seeks to tell the story of how you came to be. Try starting with a list of the things you like and love as a way to enter the poem.
In Wesley Morris’s essay “My Mustache, My Self,” published in the New York Times earlier this month, he explores how growing a mustache during quarantine led him to deeply consider his identity as a Black man. After a friend describes him as looking like “a lawyer for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund,” Morris meditates on how this friend “had identified a mighty American tradition and placed [his] face within it.” Either recently or in your past, has a subtle or dramatic stylistic choice in your presentation affected the way you see yourself? Write an essay that considers how a new look can alter how you view yourself, or how others perceive you.
“I dreamed a short story last night, even down to its name, which was ‘Sun and Moon,’” writes Katherine Mansfield on February 10, 1918, in her book Letters and Journals, about having dreamt one of her widely anthologized stories. “I got up at 6:30 and wrote a note or two because I knew it would fade.” The story, which features two children hanging around their house while a party is being prepared, reads without a set structure and follows modernist conventions using several narrative shifts. Inspired by Mansfield’s experience, keep a dream journal for the week, whether the dreams are your own or from friends. Use images, lines of dialogue, or narrative swerves from the dream to write a short story. How does mining the surrealism of dreams change the conventional ways we tend to tell stories?
In “Racial Markers and Being Marked” by Will Harris, a Craft Capsule essay published in September, he writes about racial markers in poetry and walking the fine line between rendering your own experience and risking fetishization. Harris presents Monica Youn’s poem “Study of Two Figures (Pasiphaë/Sado)” and discusses how she frames an argument about race through two mythical figures. Youn writes about her own experience as a poet while examining what it feels like to include her “Asianness” in the poem: “Revealing a racial marker in a poem is like revealing a gun in a story or like revealing a nipple in a dance.” Choose a myth you identify with and write a poem in which a part of you is revealed through the story or characters of the tale.
Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz edited by Lisa Darms and David O'Neill collects the recorded diaries of the artist, activist, and writer from 1981 through 1989 examining his life, art, and dreams. The cassettes hold a string of different modes of speaking through ideas in real time—going from stream of consciousness, to searing argument, to meditations on death, to divagations between poems and phone calls—producing a record of a singular artist’s mind in a crucial moment in history. Record yourself for two minutes each day this week and untether your thoughts in real time. How do your ideas unfold without the stop-and-go of composing the right sentence? At the end of the week, transcribe and arrange your recordings into an essay of fragments surrounding a theme.
In The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Graywolf Books, 2007), Charles Baxter writes about the recurring theme in fictional works of disappointment even after satisfying a great achievement, stating examples such as Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where, for example, Lady Macbeth becomes unhappy and more paranoid after having been crowned queen. Baxter asks, “What if wishes and fantasies turn out in some cases to be more powerful than their real-life satisfactions?” Write a story in which your character is driven by a single desire, but is unsatisfied and more conflicted after achieving their goal.
In Airea D. Matthews’s “etymology,” she writes to explore the meaning of her name and its pronunciation. Published by the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day in 2019, Matthews explains the origin for the poem and how she would use a nickname during open mics to make it easier for hosts to pronounce her name: “I realize now it was one of the many ways I’d learned to make myself smaller in space, less pronounced.” What is the personal history of your name? How has it been encountered in different spaces? Write a poem that seeks to trace the etymology and personal history of your name.
Sabrina Orah Mark’s Paris Review column Happily features essays inspired by fairy tales and motherhood, including “It’s Time to Pay the Piper,” which reimagines our current reality through the children’s story “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Through incantatory sentences and the framing of our reality through a fantastical lens, it asks whether the reason for the pandemic, corrupt leaders, and environmental collapse has a link to the story of the piper, who collects payment by robbing the village of its children. Pick a fairy tale you are familiar or enchanted with and write an essay that uses the structure of that story to explain an event in your life. How do well-known characters and themes help add meaning to the subject matter?
“[Dad] pronounced the word ‘nudity’ as though a fruit fly had just flown into his mouth—he spat as he said it. The word mainly made me think of the potatoes whose jackets my mother peeled off every evening before she dropped them into the water,” writes Marieke Lucas Rijneveld in her debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening, translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison, which won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The observations of the young narrator couple a unique perspective, one that actively accrues knowledge, with the power of setting the tone for and foreshadowing the novel’s eventual tragedy, threading through it a wire of tension and grief. As a character study, write a chapter through the eyes of a child. What is most urgent to this young mind, and how can the reader sense through the subtext what is to come?
In Ten Meter Tower, a short film by Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson featured in the New York Times, participants climb a ladder to a ten-meter-high diving board at a public pool, calculating their risks and fears before they decide to jump into the water or head back down to safety. The tight shot of the diving board, the self-motivating monologues, and the slow-motion recordings of the jumps are captivating. “Our objective in making this film was something of a psychology experiment: We sought to capture people facing a difficult situation, to make a portrait of humans in doubt,” say the filmmakers. Write a poem that imagines what thoughts and feelings would run through your head (and body) before and after a leap from the board into the water.
“The cold seemed to have come on all at once, just after lunch, as the teacher and his wife were tranquilly talking over their plans to return to the capital the next day, the second of September, a little later than usual.” At the beginning of Marie NDiaye’s novel That Time of Year (Two Lines Press, 2020), translated from the French by Jordan Stump, a teacher’s wife and son disappear on the day before they are all to return to Paris after spending the summer in a countryside village. The unsettling events and confrontations that follow, as the teacher searches for answers, are a reminder that boundaries are everywhere, between summer and autumn, vacation life and regular life, between those with power and those without. Write a personal essay about an uncertain time in your life when a dramatic event caused a shift. Did you lean into the in-between and search for answers or try to ground yourself and move on?
“These, I believe, go hand in hand: destruction and the thrum of collective
singing,” writes Joshua Whitehead in the introduction to Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in September. “Hence, utopias are what we have to build, and build now, in order to find some type of sanctuary in which we and all others can live—there is no plan or planet B for us to turn to.” Taking inspiration from this call to shift from destruction and the dystopian to the utopian, consider current events, situations, or systems in society that lend themselves to dystopic thinking, and then jot down ideas of how you might transform collapse into creation. Write a short story that begins with a seemingly apocalyptic premise that you then transform into a story of finding intimacy and joy in community. What healing is possible in the process of formation?
“I can’t afford to think like Whitman / that whomever I shall meet on the road I shall love / and whoever beholds me shall love me,” writes Tyree Daye in “Field Notes on Leaving,” the first poem in Cardinal, out today from Copper Canyon Press. The collection includes blurred photos of Daye’s family and childhood and an epigraph from the Green Book, the mid-1900s guidebook that provided Black Americans with advice on safe places to eat and sleep as they traveled in the United States. Write a short series of poems that acts as a kind of family album, providing a record of journeying within a community through adolescence and adulthood. In each poem allow yourself to explore themes of home and travel, in both literal and figurative ways, including interactions with local people or other travelers, signposts or navigational tools, baggage brought along, and the things or places left behind.
In the title essay of landscape photographer Robert Adams’s collection Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values (Aperture, 1981), he goes about the impossible task of defining beauty, a position he acknowledges is “unprovable.” Through a variety of mediums, including fiction and poetry as well as photographs, Adams goes about discussing beauty’s relevance to society, its unavoidability in an artistic practice, and whether it is the goal of art. In his essay, Adams posits that beauty is “a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life.” Using the catalog of your own experiences and knowledge, write an essay searching to answer what beauty is to you. What life events does the word conjure?
Virginia Woolf’s modernist 1931 novel The Waves weaves together the voices of six protagonists across various stages of their lives from infancy to maturity. The first chapter begins with a swirl of dialogue that avoids narration and the chapters that follow use individual monologues to explore the internal lives and desires of each character. Create a group of characters that are joined by a particular relationship. Then, without external narration, write individual monologues for each character that distinguish their voices, desires, and conflicts. How do your characters develop both as individuals and as a group? What do they reveal and what do they hide in these interior conversations?
In Natasha Trethewey’s “Repentance,” included in her retrospective poetry collection Monument (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), she describes the term pentimento as: “the word for a painter’s change of heart revision / on canvas.” Trethewey uses this painting practice as a metaphor for contending with the memory of a quarrel with her father: “a moment so / far back there’s still time to take the glass from your hand / or mine.” What memory would you want to revise or repent, as if you could paint over it? Inspired by painting, write a poem that uses detailed imagery to imagine the possibility of a new past.
Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books, 2016) is an essay collection that experiments with memory. Each single-subject essay—on topics such as foot washing, dossiers, house-sitting, and Br’er Rabbit—is based on what the author has read and remembers (or misremembers) and was written without the internet or any kind of research. The book ends with “Corrections,” which fact-checks the claims in the essays, cataloguing Blanchfield’s errors and what his memory has altered. Write a series of flash essays on a variety of subjects that relies exclusively on your memory, then write a catalogue of corrections that fact-checks your claims. How does the experience of relying on your memory change your relationship to fact and truth?
In Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” the short story starts with the protagonist Anders, an ill-tempered and cynical book critic, caught in the middle of a bank heist interacting with fellow customers and the robbers. In the second half of the story, Anders is shot by one of the bank robbers and the story suddenly swerves into a retelling of his memories and private desires, leaving the linear plot of the story and allowing readers in on some of his backstory. Write a short story that is affected by a major event and causes a shift in the direction of the narrative. How can you dig further into a character’s inner life after a momentous event?
In Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Anodyne,” he writes an ode to his body and its survival, and catalogues the parts of his body that make it his own with lines such as: “I love my crooked feet / shaped by vanity & work” and “The white moons / on my fingernails.” As the poem progresses, the images transform and expand to mythological proportions: “this spleen floating / like a compass needle inside / nighttime, always divining / West Africa’s dusty horizon.” Write an ode to your body that starts with the crooked parts and continues by going past the physical into the mythological.