In an interview for the VS podcast with hosts Franny Choi and Danez Smith, poet Cyrée Jarelle Johnson discusses the appeal of poetic forms and his relationship to breaking them. “If the form is broken, it’s broken for a reason,” says Johnson. Write a short story in which the form of a traditional narrative is somehow broken. Whether by choosing an unexpected point of view, or by defying the conventions of a particular character’s archetype, challenge the expectations of the reader and break the form, as Johnson says, “for a reason.”
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 her poem “Taking Out the Trash,” the late poet Kamilah Aisha Moon, who died at the age of forty-eight last week, takes a seemingly mundane task and makes the activity profound. Through detailed, sensory descriptions of routine movements such as “I shimmy the large kitchen bag from / the steel canister, careful not to spill / what’s inside,” Moon walks the reader through the meditative, deliberate actions of her morning routine, bringing attention to the role her body has in everyday actions and the presence of one’s mortality throughout the day. Write a poem about a daily chore or everyday task that brings attention to your body. Try, as Moon does in her poem, to take time describing the movements of your body.
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?
A rare townhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village that was once the home of several artists in its storied history, including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, cartoonist William Steig and his wife’s sister, anthropologist Margaret Mead, was recently featured in the New York Post. Often called the narrowest home in the city because it is less than ten feet wide, the space was originally an alleyway to a brewery in the 1840s. Write a story inspired by an historic piece of real estate in which your protagonist lives in the former home of a famous figure. How does this history influence your protagonist?
A garden-path sentence is a grammatically correct sentence that can appear nonsensical because of its syntax and the way it forces the reader to discern its meaning. In essence, the reader is led down the garden path by the sentence. Examples include “The horse raced past the barn fell,” “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends,” and “The raft floated down the river sank.” Write a poem using a garden-path sentence. What grammatical trick will you use for an unexpected portrayal? Try using the title to your advantage.
“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?
“He said he wanted to set me on fire like a cigarette—he inhaled me with vigor, indulgence, and did so really, really carelessly,” writes Brontez Purnell in his short story “The Boyfriends,” in which titled sections include “Boyfriend 2.0 / The Firefighter,” “Boyfriend #33 / The Hairdresser,” and “Boyfriend #77 / The Chef.” The story, which is featured in Purnell’s collection 100 Boyfriends (MCD x FSG Originals, 2021), consists of quick scenes that have brief conclusions and convincing details, altogether creating a feeling for a particular time in the speaker’s life. Write a story consisting of brief scenes that recount time spent with either one or several lovers. What do these scenes reveal about your protagonist?
As the days get shorter and colder in mid-September, the autumnal equinox and the official end of summer approach. Many poets find inspiration in this in-between zone when seasonal plants transition and the duties of a school year begin again. “Three Songs at the End of Summer” by Jane Kenyon, “Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney, and “Vespers” by Louise Glück are examples of poems that speak to late summer. Write a poem that celebrates this fleeting, yet evocative moment between seasons.
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.
“[Amy] Winehouse is so much more than the sum of her parts, isn’t she? The tower of hair. The broad wings of eyeliner. The coldness beneath the boldness, the shyness beneath the highness,” says Diane Seuss in an interview with Tony Leuzzi for the Brooklyn Rail discussing the title of her latest collection, frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press, 2021), a reference to three things: Frank O’Hara; the synonym for honest and direct; and Winehouse’s first album, Frank. Write a story in which the protagonist is based on a legendary singer. Use song lyrics as well as their biography as inspiration for a way to begin the story.
“My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name. / I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi,” writes Natasha Trethewey in her poem “Miscegenation,” which begins with the story of her parents traveling to Ohio to marry in 1965 when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi. The poem is a ghazal, a form that consists of couplets ending on the same word or phrase. Write a ghazal with your city of origin as the repeating word. Try, as Trethewey does, to weave together various subjects that speak to the time and place of your homeland.
“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?
“I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep,” writes Nicole Sealey in her poem “Medical History,” selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts to be published in the New York Times Magazine. In the poem, Sealey lists the speaker’s and their family’s medical history, creating a startling portrait of genealogy and the anxieties surrounding mortality that come with it. “Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit / by a car as if to disprove whatever theory / toward which I write. And, I understand, / the stars in the sky are already dead.” Write a short story in which the protagonist contends with their medical history. How does this fixation on their health affect the way they move through the world?
In her poem “Bestiary of Bad Kisses,” Ashley M. Jones compares bad kisses in the form of a catalog of animals with three sections titled: “The Frog,” “The Anteater,” and “The Bulldog.” The bestiary is a textual compendium of beasts, both real and imaginary, dating back to the Middle Ages that has seen a resurgence in contemporary literature. From Julio Cortázar to Donika Kelly, writers have sought ways to explore the metaphorical and literal resonances of cataloging animals. Write a poem in the form of a bestiary. How can you glean inspiration from myths and real-life stories? What is the relationship between your chosen animals?
“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.
“Consider this: I’ve spent nine months cradled in my mother’s body,” writes Nawaaz Ahmed in his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, published earlier this month by Counterpoint. “My world was small and safe and familiar, interrupted only occasionally by light and sounds from the outside. And even those arrived muted by my mother’s flesh and bone, the light tinted by her blood.” The novel, a saga involving an immigrant family’s secrets and betrayals, begins from the point of view of the protagonist’s child at the moment of his birth, infusing the novel’s prelude with disorienting descriptions recounting the experience of first encountering the world. Write a story that begins through the eyes of a newborn. Consider the reason for this beginning and try, as Ahmed does, to suffuse the scene with sensual imagery.
Rising global temperatures and natural disasters, such as the recent tropical storms and hurricanes in North America and the earthquake in Haiti, bring to mind the fragility of the environment and the effects of climate change. Over the years, poets have taken to their craft to raise awareness and humanize the climate crisis in works such as “I Don’t Know What Will Kill Us First: The Race War or What We’ve Done to the Earth” by Fatimah Asghar, “Let Them Not Say” by Jane Hirshfield, “Letter to Someone Living Fifty Years from Now” by Matthew Olzmann. Write a poem about the environment that draws the reader in emotionally, whether it is by describing a changing landscape or reflecting on the issue. For further inspiration, browse these poems engaging with the climate crisis curated by the Academy of American Poets.
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?
“My story starts decades before my birth. In my father’s earliest memory, he is four years old, shooting a toy gun at nearby birds as he skips to the town square,” writes Qian Julie Wang in Beautiful Country, her memoir about coming of age as an undocumented child in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1990s, published in September by Doubleday. Wang begins by telling the story of her family decades before, during China’s Cultural Revolution, shedding light on the lives her parents led as professors before working in sweatshops and sushi factories in America and relying on their young daughter for help with their daily lives. Write a series of character studies about your protagonist and their parents. Consider how a drastic change in culture can shift the roles in a family. How does this inform the reasons for your character’s actions as well as their values and preoccupations?
In a preface to “After Cecilia Vicuña,” a poem from the collection Villainy, published in September by Nightboat Books, Andrea Abi-Karam includes a note on the Chilean poet and visual artist Cecilia Vicuña, who condemned General Augusto Pinochet and spoke out about how “the lies (the words, the language) of the Chilean dictatorship murdered & tortured thousands of people.” In the poem, Abi-Karam asks questions about the power of words and how to provoke change through a medium such as poetry that at times can feel devoid of consequence. “i ask questions like / … how to weaponize the poem words as weapons / give the poem teeth.” What questions would you ask yourself about the power of your own words? Write a poem that contemplates the impact you wish to make as a writer—the reasons, hesitations, desires, and conflicts that arise when you create.
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?
This past Sunday marked the end of the 2020 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, an international, multi-sport event that celebrates the tenacity of the human body and the achievements of athletes at the top of their field. Historically the Olympics have also caused controversy, such as holding the 1936 Berlin Games amid the rise of Nazism, the 1968 Mexico City Games preceding the Tlatelolco Massacre, and the 2008 Beijing Games in which migrant workers were denied proper wages and protections during construction. Write a story that takes place during the Olympic Games in which a dramatic event separate from the athletic competition occurs. For more on controversial Olympic incidents, read this list curated by Teen Vogue.
In Paul Tran’s “Progress Report,” published on Literary Hub and featured in their forthcoming debut poetry collection, All the Flowers Kneeling (Penguin Poets, 2022), the poem catalogues the speaker’s life while filling out a form: “Photograph of the ’93 Mazda MPV he reportedly turned into an ice cream truck. / I marked Humor. / Holes where the nails had been in the wall. / I marked Self-harm.” The poem, made up of single end-stopped lines, uses a call-and-response technique to reveal new information as it progresses. Write a poem in which the speaker is filling out a form—perhaps a progress report, an immigration document, or a demographic survey. How can you use the poem’s form as a way of highlighting an important event?
“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?
In a profile of Alexandra Kleeman for the New York Times, she discusses her relationship to the speculative and the setting of a post-apocalyptic California in her latest novel, Something New Under the Sun, out this week from Hogarth. In the novel, only the wealthy have access to temperature-controlled interiors and real water. “Things that we’ve always needed, like land, a place to live, resources, become privatized and turned into possessions, when they weren’t to start with,” says Kleeman. Write a story with a speculative setting in which a necessary resource is privatized. Ask yourself “what if” when considering this altered version of reality.