“I once thought I was / my own geometry, / my own geocentric planet,” writes Paul Tran in their poem “Copernicus,” one in a series of poems titled after inventors and scientific concepts. In many of the poems, the theory or invention is used as a metaphor for a given speaker’s emotional struggle, such as in “Hypothesis,” in which Tran writes: “I could survive knowing / that not everything has a reason” and in the first lines of “Galileo”: “I thought I could stop / time by taking apart / the clock.” This week, write a poem named after an inventor or theory. How can you personalize a scientific subject and cast it through a lyrical light?
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 James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, a book-length essay in which he recounts watching influential films and critiques racial politics through the lens of American cinema, he begins with an early memory of watching the 1931 film Dance, Fools, Dance: “Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train.” Baldwin continues with this recollection of when he was seven years old and how he became “fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea.” Write an essay that begins with an early, formative memory of watching a movie. Was there a specific scene or actor from the film that influenced your sensibilities?
“That woman who killed the fish unfortunately is me,” begins the title story of Clarice Lispector’s collection of children’s stories, The Woman Who Killed the Fish, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser in a new edition forthcoming from New Directions in July. “If It were my fault, I’d own up to you, since I don’t lie to boys and girls.” Taking inspiration from Lispector’s story, write a story that starts with a major confession from the narrator. How will the story progress after this shocking revelation?
Aracelis Girmay’s poem “Elegy,” from her second poetry collection, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions, 2011), begins with a question: “What to do with this knowledge that our living is not guaranteed?” The poem’s speaker finds hope in the natural world as a way of answering this existential question: “Perhaps one day you touch the young branch / of something beautiful. & it grows & grows.” Write a poem that seeks to answer what it means to be impermanent. What do you wish to leave behind?
In “Blood, Sweat, Turmeric,” an essay published in Guernica, Shilpi Suneja writes about getting her first period while on a train ride to visit her grandmother in Bombay and being shamed by her family for staying out in public during her “dirty days.” This story begins a personal and historical study of the myths behind cleanliness and dirtiness in Indian culture and the way these forces intersect with gender, culture, and class. “I must’ve copied the phrase ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ in my cursive-writing exercise books at least a thousand times as a child,” she writes. Write an essay about a family value that was imposed on you as a child. How did upholding this value affect you later as an adult?
In his iconic, postmodern short story “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges recounts living alongside a second version of himself, to whom he is slowly “giving over everything.” The story is known for its brevity—at about one page long—and its sense of compression, as Borges describes this struggle between self and persona. “I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor,” he writes. Write a story about the push and pull between the self you present to the world and the self you know. Is there conflict or cooperation?
“The name means ‘odd.’ / The name means ‘queer.’ / It can denote an ‘odd fish,’” writes Mark Wunderlich in his poem “Wunderlich.” The poem serves as an exploration of the poet’s last name, interlacing a historical overview of his family’s ancestry with suggestive definitions that compound and contradict. “The name means ‘electric organ maestro.’ / The name means ‘famous botanical illustrator.’” This week write a poem inspired by your last name. Allow yourself to get carried away with fact and fable, letting your imagination spin a new history for your family name.
“Traveling in this way, and trading in stories, is inevitably a journey of selection—it was not lost on me that for each voice I heard, many others would be left out,” writes Jordan Salama in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena (Catapult, 2021), an exhaustive travelogue in which the author follows the 950-mile length of the Magdalena River, from its source in the Andean highlands to the Caribbean coast, and recounts the legends and stories of the people he meets along the way. Write an essay about a river, or body of water, that is significant to you. How does its history intersect with your own?
In this week’s Craft Capsule essay, Julia Sanches discusses using Google Maps as a resource while translating books set in places far from her home in Providence, and how this research has opened up her exploration. “Working on these translations hasn’t exactly given me wings, as the cliché goes, though it has forced me to navigate the geographical makeup of real places I’d never laid eyes on before, whose streets I’d never felt beneath my feet,” she writes. This week, use Google Maps to explore a city or place you’re never physically visited, perhaps the setting from one of your favorite books. Write down details from your research as a starting point for a short story.
“It is December and we must be brave,” writes Natalie Diaz in “Manhattan is a Lenape Word,” a poem from her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). Diaz sets the scene by describing the sounds and colors of New York City: “The ambulance’s rose of light / blooming against the window.” Then she moves from the exterior to the interior: “I’m the only Native American / on the 8th floor of this hotel or any...” Inspired by Diaz, and the onset of winter, write a poem that starts with the line: “It is December and we must be brave.” Let this first line carry you into sensuous descriptions about the world outside, as well as inside.
In Marie Howe’s 2017 poetry collection, Magdalene, she engages with the perspective of Mary Magdalene through a variety of persona poems—some closely resemble the biblical story while others are more contemporary interpretations of the figure. Through poems such as “Before the Beginning,” in which the speaker asks, “Was I ever a virgin?” or in “On Men, Their Bodies,” in which the speaker explores sexual encounters one penis at a time, there is a link between the story of Magdalene and the lives of contemporary women. This week, write an essay about a historical, religious, or mythical figure that you feel a close connection to, whether it is their story or image that inspires you.
“Now you’re fourteen, standing in awesome slacks and looking at an ungainly body in the mirror,” writes Lana Bastašić in “Bread,” a short story translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published in Freeman’s issue on change. “In the mirror is a mutilated body, and inside that body is you.” The story follows a fourteen-year-old girl going through puberty and engages the reader through a second-person perspective in which the “you” makes the awkwardness of the prepubescent body more visceral. This week, write a story from the perspective of an adolescent in the second person. How will you build intimacy in this voice? What are some thoughts only the speaker knows?
“The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace,” writes Monica Youn in her poem “Portrait of a Hanged Woman” from her third collection, Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016). The poem begins with a reference to the etymology of the word “catastrophe,” which comes from two Greek words meaning “down” and “turning.” Youn uses this starting point to depict the emotional turmoil behind a time when one’s life unravels. This week, write a poem that begins by breaking down the etymological root of a word. Is there a contrast between what the word means to you and its origins? For further inspiration, watch a video of Youn reading this poem in a conversation with Robert Pinsky.
In an article for the Washington Post, Gillian Brockell writes about the recent uptick and intensity of debates surrounding banning books in schools and lists six occasions throughout history in which books were tragically burned. Dating back to the first recorded incident in 213 BCE China, the list includes Catholic colonizers burning Mayan sacred texts in the sixteenth century, Nazis burning books deemed “un-German” in the 1930s, and the U.S. military burning copies of the Bible translated into Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan in 2009. Write an essay about a favorite book of yours that has been banned, or choose from this list of recently banned books. What impact has this banning had on you and your writing?
“Growing up / we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon / and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles, / butter melting in small pools in the hearts / of Yorkshire puddings, butter better / than gravy,” writes Elizabeth Alexander in her timeless poem “Butter,” in which she depicts her family’s love for butter and the childhood memories attached to these meals. Write a story centered around a family dinner in which a significant conversation occurs. Savor the description of what is eaten and said between forkfuls.
Lebanese American writer and artist Etel Adnan died at the age of ninety-six this past Sunday on November 14 in Paris. One of the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American authors of her era, Adnan leaves behind decades of writing that interrogates war and the effects it has in displacing communities, as well as visual art inspired by landscapes in nature, which she called her “inner landscapes.” This week, inspired by Adnan’s bright and lucid landscape paintings, write an ekphrastic poem reflecting on one of her works. What natural landscapes did you grow up around, and how can you fuse them into the poem?
“That’s partly one of the things this book is about: discovering, again, and again, the inextricable relation between love and hate, which I certainly knew about conceptually, but have had to experience over and over again,” says Frank Bidart about his latest poetry collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), in an interview with John Maher at the Millions. Write an essay about experiencing love and hate—whether it be through heartbreak, the aftereffects of guilt, or a complicated relationship. Consider the difference between knowing and feeling these emotions.
“One night, while watching a friend’s dog, a thunderstorm came rolling over the city. He felt the change in the atmosphere; his tongue flopped out, eyes bulging,” writes Christopher Gonzalez in his Craft Capsule essay “Pet Sitting.” “With a belly brimming with bourbon, I Googled how to help a dog in crisis.” In the essay, Gonzalez recounts pet-sitting for friends and using the experience as inspiration for his short story “What You Missed While I Was Watching Your Cat.” Write a story in which the protagonist is watching a friend’s pet and things go horribly awry. What questions can you ask, as Gonzalez does, to help drive the narrative forward?
“Above my desk, whirring and self-important / (Though not much larger than a hummingbird), / In finely woven robes, school of Van Eyck / Hovers an evidently angelic visitor,” writes James Merrill in his poem “Angel.” The speaker in the poem is visited by an angel whose presence stirs up questions about the passive act of writing: “How can you sit there with your notebook? / What do you think you are doing?” This week, write a poem in which the speaker is visited by a watchful, otherworldly presence. Try, like Merrill, to be descriptive about the setting in order to set the mood.
The Oxford Languages word of the year for 2021 is vax. Every year, a team of expert lexicographers for the creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, debate candidates for word of the year and choose a winner “that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have a lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.” Browse through their Word of the Year archive and write an essay about one of the winning words. How does that word correlate with your experience of that year?
Day of the Dead is a two-day holiday that originated in Mexico, in which loved ones who have died are honored and celebrated. Consisting of a variety of traditions, including making ofrendas (altars with offerings for the deceased) and decorating the home with marigolds and skulls, this holiday allows for a time for the living and the dead to reunite through food, music, and dance. Write a story in which a character mourns and celebrates a loved one on Day of the Dead. Describe why their relationship is special and what memories bring them together.
“I love the I, / frail between its flitches, its hard ground / and hard sky, it soars between them / like the soul that rushes, back and forth, / between the mother and father.” In this line from her iconic poem “Take the I Out,” Sharon Olds describes both the physical shape of the letter and how it represents the self. This week write an ode to a letter of the alphabet. Whether it be the letter I, or a different one, how far can you go in describing this letter and locating the many ways it holds place in your life?
In “Hanging Out With Joan Didion: What I Learned About Writing From an American Master” published on Literary Hub, Sara Davidson writes about her decades-long friendship with Didion and lists ten techniques and practices she learned from the iconic author. These tips include the advantages of writing in the first person singular, keeping a writing schedule, and controlling the information one gives to a reader. This week make a list of the technical tricks behind your favorite writer’s work, then write an essay that discusses the impact and influence of their style on yours.
Jezebel’s annual Scary Story contest invites readers to submit true, terrifying tales, some of which are animated into short films. With titles such as “Look at Me,” “911 Calling,” and “Keeping a Secret,” the red-and-black stark videos are perfect to watch as Halloween approaches, if you’re looking for some haunting inspiration. Check out some of the videos and try your hand at writing a scary story based on a real-life experience. Consider how to sustain suspense and incite fear in your readers.
“Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower / and snowshoes, maple and seeds,” writes Ada Limón in her poem “The End of Poetry.” “Enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease, / I am asking you to touch me.” In this timely poem, Limón uses the repetition of “enough of” to list actions, objects, and experiences that might be considered poetic in order to emphasize what the speaker is willing to do away with for a moment of physical connection. Write a poem that articulates “the end of poetry” for you. What images and phrases would you consider poetic, and what would you want in return if you were to give it all away?