In an article published by Literary Hub, Emily Temple compiles statements by famous writers on what their most loved and hated punctuation marks are, including Donald Barthelme on hating the semicolon, R. L. Stine on loving the em-dash, and Toni Morrison fighting over commas. In each, there is a distinct preoccupation the writers have with the technical and emotional resonances the given punctuation mark has on their prose, often revealing how they compose their sentences. Write a statement for each punctuation mark listed in the article—the semicolon, the exclamation point, the em-dash, the comma, the hyphen, and the period—characterizing the effect they have on your work. Do you use one more than the other? What does this say about your writing?
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 week, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday was celebrated across the world and on social media, and many fans shared their favorite songs from his illustrious repertoire. The singer-songwriter has also inspired many famous writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, whose story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is dedicated to Dylan. This week, write a story inspired by a singer or a songwriter. Is there a particular song or are there lyrics you’re drawn to, or is it just the aura of the artist that inspires your story?
“Whatever comes to pass: you know your time, / my bird, you put on your veil / and fly through the mist to me,” writes Ingeborg Bachmann in her poem “My Bird,” translated from the German by Mark Anderson and published in the Summer 1984 issue of the Paris Review. In the poem, twilight passes into dawn as the narrator follows the owl through its many nightly transformations and their relationship is described by Bachmann in uncommon and evocative ways, such as “my nighttime ally,” “my ice-gray shoulder companion,” and “my weapon.” This week, write a poem about a bird that you think of as a companion. Try addressing the bird directly as Bachmann does in her poem.
On Elle.com’s books column Shelf Life, Ling Ma, author of Severance (Picador, 2019), answers a questionnaire about her favorite books, including the one that made her weep (A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke), the one she would pass on to a kid (Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson), and the one she considers literary comfort food (Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, among others). This week, answer the questionnaire for yourself, then write an essay that focuses on one of these questions and the book you recommended. What was happening in your life when you read this book and why are you still so deeply connected to it?
“It seems to me that people undertake pilgrimages because they’re stuck; they’re in some kind of situation in their life, or their mind, where they don’t want to be the person they are, and they don’t know how to change that unless they change everything,” says Anne Carson in this conversation with her partner and collaborator Robert Currie and poet Sara Elkamel on the poetry and prose of pilgrimage and stasis that was recently published on Literary Hub. “Oddly enough, it’s a kind of freedom that is also a sort of bondage, because when you undertake a pilgrimage, you’re bound to everything about the road.” Write a story with a character who seeks change and undertakes a pilgrimage. How will the protagonist be challenged by the landscape surrounding them?
The months of May and June mark the time when most schools and universities celebrate graduations, and poetry is oftentimes relied upon for commencement speeches and congratulatory messages to express feelings of hope and possibility. From Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to Langston Hughes’s “Dreams,” poets offer timeless, thoughtful, and even funny responses applicable to this unique transition in a person’s life. Write a poem for a graduate that expresses your advice or some words of wisdom. For inspiration, browse the poems for graduation resource page from the Academy of American Poets.
In his essay “What My Korean Father Taught Me About Defending Myself in America,” published in GQ, Alexander Chee writes about his father’s adventurous life as a tae kwon do champion and community organizer in Maine, looking back on his father’s life as a way of learning how to protect himself and speak out about racism, and in particular, attacks against Asian Americans. “My father’s advice, about fighting being the last resort, has given me another lesson: You turn yourself into the weapon when you strike someone else—in the end, another way to erase yourself—and so you do that last.” Write an essay about a skill you learned as a child from which you can glean lessons as an adult.
“So, what comes after irony? For me, it’s wonder and horror, magic and sorrow,” writes Brenda Peynado in her essay “Is Fabulism the New Sincerity?” published on Literary Hub. In the essay, Peynado describes how she grew up in an era when irony and sarcasm were default ways to express oneself and how her writing turned to fabulism, a change prompted by a desire to “save realities from erasure” and inspired by writers such as Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison, as well as more contemporary writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Nana Kwame Adjei Brenyah, and Te-Ping Chen. Write a short story inspired by fabulism that relies on “wild conceits” to express a truth and offer social critique, such as Peynado’s short story which includes angels appearing after a school shooting.
“She seems a part of me, / and then she seems entirely like what she is: / a white dog, / less white suddenly, against the snow,” writes Carl Phillips, recipient of the 2021 Jackson Poetry Prize, in his poem “White Dog” from his collection The Rest of Love (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004). In the poem, the speaker recounts walking their dog during the first snow of the year and realizing through their relationship the limits of love and loss. Inspired by Phillips, write a poem featuring a beloved pet of yours or an animal you’ve befriended in which you learn something new.
“Is it the timbre of the voice, the poetry of the words?” writes Alessandra Lynch about becoming transfixed while watching Samuel Beckett’s play “That Time” in a piece for Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books. In the lyric essay, Lynch tracks the emotional experiences of reading the works of her favorite writers aloud, quoting and discussing passages from the texts. This week, list writers whose works make you want to read them out loud and reflect on what emotions their words bring up for you. Construct an essay inspired by their works and consider how their words “gather and hold” you.
In an article for the Guardian featuring six poets and their reflections on the past year, Kae Tempest writes about the process for their short, four-line poem “2020.” Tempest mentions that the poem was longer, and then they realized the poem only needed four lines: “Sometimes it takes writing the thing to know what it is you are trying to write.” Inspired by Tempest’s process, choose an abandoned draft of a story and rewrite it as a concentrated version of itself. Does this exercise help you get closer to what’s essential about the narrative?
“The only way to know tenderness is to dismantle it,” writes Diane Seuss in “White violet, not so much an image” from her 2015 poetry collection Four-Legged Girl about how the flower is “not so much an image of tenderness as an image of a memory of tenderness.” In the poem, she dissects the flower petal-by-petal, trying to capture its fragility, and associating between the metaphors and memories this act conjures. This week, write a poem about the memories a particular flower conjures for you. Like Seuss, let yourself associate as freely as possible considering all the senses and try to go beyond the traditional portrait of a flower.
In an interview with Alison Bechdel by June Thomas for Slate, the author and cartoonist discusses the process behind her latest graphic memoir, The Secret to Superhuman Strength (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021). “This book was set up in such a way that it had to end at the end of my 59th year, because each chapter is about a decade of my life, beginning with my birth in 1960,” says Bechdel. “I didn’t actually get to the end of the drawing until November, until the throes of the election. I felt like I can’t end the book until I know what happens.” Inspired by Bechdel’s book, write an essay in which each section focuses on a decade or stretch of time in your life. How will the historic events of that period inform your point of view?
“If something is forgivable, and we forgive, is that really worth that much?” says Viet Thanh Nguyen about his latest novel, The Committed (Grove Press, 2021), and how the narrator wrestles with his unforgivable deeds in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for an episode of the podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing, excerpted on Literary Hub. “While whatever constitutes the unforgivable is very subjective for each of us,” he continues, “if we cannot forgive the unforgivable, then maybe we’re not really truly capable of forgiveness.” Write a story in which a character is contending with something “unforgivable.” How will the protagonist deal with this unconscionable deed?
Forrest Gander’s poem “Pastoral,” published last month in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, begins with a scene of a couple gazing out a window that is interrupted by a stanza with a parenthetical meditation on the act of looking before the last lines complete the description of the scenery outside. The middle stanza in parentheses questions the language used in the first stanza’s description and moves away from the physical into the interiority of the speaker’s mind. Inspired by the poem’s form, write a poem about the act of looking. How can you subvert the expectations of the reader by leaving the scene to go into the interior of your mind?
The ninety-third Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, took place in Los Angeles this past Sunday, a celebration of the artistic and technical merits of this past year’s films. Known for its many snubs, scandals, and dramatic speeches, the annual awards ceremony is viewed by millions of people around the world and often features some of the most iconic pop culture moments in history. Write an essay that features an iconic moment from an awards ceremony that has stayed with you. What was happening in your life during that time, and what relationship do you have to that pop culture memory?
“How can I repackage the initial premise of a joke in more colorful wrapping and offer it up to the reader as something brand-new?” writes Kristen Arnett in her first Craft Capsule essay on humor in fiction. In the essay she remembers a scene in Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex (Viking, 2020), in which the unexpected delivery of a mattress alters the activities of a dinner party. Arnett reflects on the use of the mattress in the scene and concludes that “when considering how humor can sit inside fiction, perhaps imagine it as the same strange and unexpected body wearing different disguises to a costume event.” Write a story in which an unexpected object inserts mischief and humor into the otherwise mundane lives of the protagonists.
“In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again whom we love,” writes Frank O’Hara in his poem “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” in which the Beat poet writes an ode to his favorite movie stars and the magic of movies. Listing thirty actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood in relationship to one another, O’Hara describes, with humor, their personalities and appeal on the movie screen. “Mae West in a furry sled, / her bordello radiance and bland remarks, Rudolph Valentino of the moon, / its crushing passions, and moonlike, too, the gentle Norma Shearer,” he writes. Write an ode to your favorite movie or movie star. How can you employ techniques often seen on the screen through the language of the poem?
“I love italics. They make me feel as if the author is whispering tremulous secrets to me,” writes Susan Stinson in her Craft Capsule essay “In Praise of Italics.” In the spirited and humorous essay, Stinson writes about all the different kinds of italics used in literature—from descriptions in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to epigraphs to the poetry of Adrienne Rich—arguing that the queerness of italics “is both in the way it looks—that tilt—and in how it brings attention to that which gets set aside.” Write an essay that explores your favorite aspect of the written word. Whether it be specific punctuation, a particular syntactical structure, or a grammatical mood, write about what excites you and why.
“First, grant me my sense of history,” writes Agha Shahid Ali in his poem “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’” in which he reimagines the classic fairy tale from the perspective of the story’s villain. “And then grant me my generous sense of plot: / Couldn't I have gobbled her up / right there in the jungle?” The poem offers a complicated portrait of the “Big Bad Wolf,” including disturbing confessions and provocative questions that reexamine this allegory and consider the power of perspective in storytelling. Write a story that explores the perspective of a villain in a children’s story you know well. What new information will you include about this character? What, perhaps, was left out of the story?
Kayleb Rae Candrilli’s poem “Ghazal Connected as Though Cargo Freights,” winner of Winning Writers’ Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest for traditional verse, uses the Persian poetic form as a way of capturing the landscape in which the speaker grew up as a trans child while balancing the taut music of the line with a narrative propulsion that grounds the story. The ghazal, which originated in seventh-century Arabia, consists of at least five couplets that are structurally autonomous—the first stanza ending both lines with the same word and each stanza that follows repeating the same word at the end of the second line. This week, write a ghazal that explores your childhood. For more guidance on the history of the form and to read examples, visit the Poetry Foundation’s glossary entry on the ghazal.
Last summer a ten-minute video released by ElderFox Documentaries, a YouTube channel devoted to space exploration, went viral as users responded to its remastered and stitched-together images of the planet Mars, rendered in 4K resolution and captured by NASA’s high-tech rovers. What has been described as “the most lifelike experience of being on Mars” includes clear panoramas of the planet’s landscape—including the Gale crater, Cape Verde, the Santa Maria crater, and the entrance to the Marathon Valley, all named by NASA for their distinctive spaces, color schemes, and geological properties—as well as evidence pointing to possible signs of life. Using the landscape of Mars as inspiration, write an essay exploring uncharted territory from your past. Consider writing short vignettes that mimic the cut-and-paste techniques employed in the video.
Amy Gerstler’s book of poems Index of Women, published last week by Penguin Books, depicts experiences of womanhood through a number of forms and perspectives, including a dramatic monologue from an aging opera singer, an ode to a head of lettuce, and prose poems recounting personal memories. The second poem in the collection, “Virginity,” builds an atmosphere around the experience of having sex for the first time, without ever naming the act itself. Through subtle details that hark back to adolescence—“passing notes rather than speaking” and “reading secret magazines a cousin stuffed / into the bottom of his sleeping bag”—Gerstler avoids cliché and develops the speaker’s voice using the oft-mythologized moment of losing one’s virginity, offering instead a sense of the speaker’s life that isn’t defined by sex. Write a series of scenes that study a character experiencing a key life moment without ever explicitly naming the experience itself. What is revealed or emphasized by gesturing to details that surround the experience?
In an afterword to The Essential June Jordan, edited by Jan Heller Levi and Christoph Keller and forthcoming in May by Copper Canyon Press, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Jericho Brown writes about how the legacy of June Jordan, who died in 2002, “allows another opportunity to think not only about what poems are, but also what poems can do.” In this definitive volume the celebrated poet’s voice shines as she explores difficult subject matter, such as racist police brutality and violence against women, with a commitment to global solidarity and radical kindness. She dedicates many of her poems to lovers and friends, along with historical and pop culture figures, including “1977: Poem for Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer,” “Poem for Mark,” and “Poem on the Death of Princess Diana.” Taking inspiration from Jordan, write a poem that is dedicated to a single person. Consider using your new poem’s title to help frame a complicated subject.
“I was enamored with the notion that all I had to do to drive the sadness away, to have something to look forward to, was open a can of meadows,” writes Kathy Davis in her essay “There’s No Simple Way to Make it OK,” published in Guernica, in which she meditates on cultivating a meadow of wildflowers after the death of her parents. “But as the blooms started to fade, nothing I’d planted could ward off the midsummer takeover of weeds and wiregrass,” writes Davis. “Gardening, I was learning, is not easy. Like grief, it’s a process.” Write an essay about an activity, like gardening, that helped you come to terms with a difficult time in your life.