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The Time Is Now

The most important and underrated factor in a writer’s success is discipline. Talent and luck always help, but having a consistent writing practice is often the difference between aspiring writers and published writers.

The advice we hear from agents, editors, and authors alike is always the same: Focus on the writing. However, finding the time and inspiration to write is not always easy. That’s where creative writing prompts and exercises can help. Writing prompts provide writers with a starting place, an entry point into their writing practice. Sometimes creative writing prompts and exercises result in a workable draft of a story or poem. Other times, they may lead to what can seem like a dead end. But having to generate ideas, being pushed in a direction where you wouldn't normally go in your writing, and just plain putting pen to paper is often enough to provide that crucial dose of inspiration.

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.

Creative Nonfiction Prompts

Writing exercises to help you generate well-crafted narratives.

In Awe

posted 5.26.16

Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard has been celebrated for her ability to use natural events as doorways into spiritual contemplation, as in her essay “Total Eclipse.” Write an essay about the most impressive natural event you’ve witnessed. It could be grand, like a tornado skirting the edge of a midwestern town, or more humble, though no less impactful, like a spider approaching prey caught on its web. What questions and realizations did this event spur in your mind? Why has it remained in your memory? What does it say about your relationship to nature?

En Route

posted 5.19.16

Last month, a team of field research scientists discovered a new desert line drawing, or geoglyph, of “an animal sticking out the tongue” in the Nazca region of Peru, believed to be located on an ancient pilgrimage path to a ceremonial center. Think about the markers that guide you on your own often-traveled routes: physical signposts that you pass on the way to a favorite restaurant, a loved one’s home, place of worship, or perhaps a natural lookout or meditation spot. Write a personal essay exploring how these markers may be a significant element of the journey to your destinations.

What's in a Name?

posted 5.12.16

In a recent public poll, over 120,000 online voters suggested “Boaty McBoatface” as the name for a British polar research ship only to be disappointed when the Science Ministry in Britain decided to name the vessel instead after naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Write an essay about a name you’ve bestowed upon a person, a car, a stuffed animal, a plant, a kitchen appliance, or anything else. Recount the story behind the naming, and think about how it reflects your own sensibilities.

An Open Sea

posted 5.5.16

Many people were overjoyed to learn several weeks ago that Inky, an octopus at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, had escaped from his tank, wiggling through a drainpipe in the floor that eventually led him out into the ocean. NPR reporter Scott Simon commented, “it's hard not to note that Inky chose to bolt from surroundings in which he was safe, secure, and hand fed, for the dangers of an open sea that teems sharks, seals, and whales that might eat him. Inky chose liberty over security.” Write a personal essay about a time when you chose freedom, whether via a daring escape or by bravely walking away, from a lifestyle you weren’t satisfied with that may have seemed like a safer, more stable route. Were there risky obstacles to overcome? What are your thoughts about your decision in hindsight?

A Matter of Taste

posted 4.28.16

Think of a work of art—a film, book, painting, or song—that has received significant critical acclaim, but that you cannot stand. That you might, in fact, hate. Write an essay exploring why this work grates against your aesthetic sensibilities. Approach this not as a hatchet job, but an honest, probing examination of the work and why you believe it falls short. Consider what your distaste may reveal about your own sense of art and what the critical praise reveals more generally about our arts culture.

A New Look

posted 4.21.16

In “Recovering the Classics” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Vatner reports on the project by San Francisco companies DailyLit and Creative Action Network, along with other community partners, to revitalize interest in classic novels by creating new, eye-catching cover designs. Choose a classic novel you’ve read in the past with a book cover you find particularly memorable. Write a short essay examining the features that make the design striking, drawing upon the relationship between the artistic style of the cover and the novel’s contents. Does the design resonate with your own aesthetic sensibilities?

Micro Prose

posted 4.14.16

To celebrate the presentation of the Paris Review’s lifetime achievement award to Lydia Davis, her twenty-word story, “Spring Spleen,” was printed on the label of bottles of mouthwash. Write a few very short pieces of creative nonfiction totaling no more than twenty words that could each fit onto a small bottle label. Taking a cue from Davis’s story, incorporate elements of both nature and social behavior.

Shakespeare Memories

posted 4.7.16

April 2016 marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. Write a personal essay that reflects on your first or most memorable encounter with Shakespeare’s work, whether reading or watching a film adaptation of one of his plays, or hearing a recitation of one of his sonnets. For inspiration, visit Folger Shakespeare Library’s website where others have shared their favorite Shakespeare stories.

The Face of Industry

posted 3.31.16

Industry is one of the greatest factors contributing to the unique character of a place. Deep coal mines and narrow hollers made much of Appalachia feel like an isolated labyrinth. Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills, with their raging blast furnaces and endless soot, created a real-life inferno. The logging industry turned the Pacific Northwest into a land ruled by mist, danger, and falling giants. What industries have shaped the people and landscape of your home? In an essay, explore the philosophical implications an industry can have on towns and the character and psyche of its inhabitants. 

Digging Deeper

posted 3.24.16

Several years ago, after searching for more than two decades, Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz and his team found what is likely the San Nicolas Island cave, which had been inhabited by the Native American woman who inspired the popular 1960 novel by Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Choose a favorite book that is inspired by, or references, factual events and write an essay about what draws you to the topic. Include any further historical digging—whether at an archaeological site or in a library—that you might find particularly engaging. What is it about the specific subject matter that resonates with your personal interests or your own life experiences?

Spring Forward

posted 3.17.16

As we fall into the rhythm of daylight savings time with its additional hour of sunlight in the evenings, think about what it means to you to have a longer day. Is the extra hour of light a reminder of the unstoppable passage of time, or does it fill you with eager anticipation of springtime activities? Do you find yourself immediately motivated to begin new projects or spend more time outdoors? Write a personal essay meditating on how the yearly cycles of sunlight and seasons affect how you view the passage of time, and what large or subtle changes these patterns bring to your lifestyle and emotional state.

Listen Up

posted 3.10.16

In an essay published in the New Yorker in 2011, Jhumpa Lahiri wrote, "Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'" Jot down a list of several personal beliefs, contemporary topics, or ideas that you feel an especially strong need to express volubly—from the personal to the political, the spectacular to the mundane, the all-encompassing to the minute. Write a personal essay about one of these issues, reflecting on how you arrived at your opinions by first discussing the idea with other people and listening to what they had to say, and then making your own, more specific conclusions. Provide anecdotes from conversations, events, situations, or words you have read or overheard. Make sure that your unique personality and voice are showcased in what you've decided is worthy of being shouted from the rooftops.

Residential Library

posted 3.3.16

“A Book Sanctuary in the Rockies” by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine details the project of Jeff Lee and Ann Martin to create a network of three residential libraries, which will be home to tens of thousands of books and will host writers- and artists-in-residence. The libraries will be located in the Rocky Mountain region in and around Denver, Colorado with many of the books, projects, and community partners focused on land, environment, and the West. Write an essay about what your vision of a residential library would be if you were to create one. What might your theme or focus be, and your inspiration? What rural, urban, or suburban space would you want to offer to writers-in-residence at your library?

Report Card

posted 2.25.16

What was your worst subject in school? Write an essay about that subject and why you found it so difficult. Does the experience still influence the way you process information? Have you developed a passion for what you once couldn’t crack? Use this prompt to study your own approaches to learning, and how your mind and personality may have changed over time.

The Hidden Voice

posted 2.18.16

Go outside, with only yourself. Find an isolated bench. Or stay near and settle into a chair at home. Or climb the rungs to the roof and take your place above the city. Sit. No phone, no laptop. Nothing but you and you. For about thirty minutes or so, sit and do nothing. And when you’ve been there long enough to settle into yourself, to feel the voice that’s deepest inside you, the one that only you know, the one that only you hear, go and take up the page or turn on the screen. Listen. Start an essay from that hidden voice. 

This week’s creative nonfiction prompt comes from Jill Talbot, author of The Way We Weren’t (Soft Skull Press, 2015). Read Talbot’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.

Creating Space

posted 2.11.16

Fatimah Asghar says, “I write for the people who come before me and the people who might come after me, so that I can honor them and create space for what is to come.” Write a personal essay about who, or what, you write for. Is there a specific audience or philosophical goal that you aim to reach? What space do you hope to see created in the literary world for future writers and yourself?

State of the...

posted 2.4.16

The State of the Union is an annual address in which the President of the United States delivers a speech to Congress on the condition of the country and reports on plans, priorities, and recommendations for the future. Choose an arena or environment that you preside over in some way, such as a bedroom, office cubicle, spot in the backyard, or table at a café. Then, write a personal essay in the form of a speech addressing the state of things in your chosen entity—describe the current conditions and announce any plans you have for the future.

Second Self

posted 1.28.16

Borat, RuPaul, and Ziggy Stardust are some well-known and colorful alter egos whose identities have served a purpose for their creators. Have you ever imagined or assumed an alternate identity? Write an essay about this character—or who this character could be, if you’re imagining for the first time—and where she stands in relation to your own psyche and personality. What does this second self allow you to express, and why?

Resolutions

posted 1.21.16

While some people vow not to make any resolutions for the New Year, others are busy drawing up fresh goals—often involving self-improvement measures such as diet and exercise regimens; reading more; picking up a new language or hobby; or improving a financial situation. For 2016, turn your gaze outward and write a list of three resolutions, each focused on a different person in your life. It may be a close friend or family member, or someone you come into contact with on a daily basis but with whom you are only superficially acquainted—a neighbor, coworker, mail carrier, or coffee-shop barista. Write a trio of short essays in which you imagine what you can add to your encounters with each person in the coming year to invigorate your interactions. Predict how small gestures can potentially propel you into a dynamic new direction.

Biography

posted 1.14.16

“I didn’t want to write a biography…. But I fell in love.” Terese Svoboda writes about her experience working on a biography of poet Lola Ridge in “The Art of Biography: Falling In and Out of Love” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Who would you choose if your next project was a biography of a historical figure? Write an essay about the personal traits or accomplishments that draw you to this person, and explore the ways in which your fascination with him or her may reveal insights about your own character.

Seasonal Adaptations

posted 1.7.16

Banded Woolly Bear caterpillars that live in the Arctic have such short feeding periods that they cycle through several years of freezing solid in the winter where their bodies produce a natural antifreeze substance that thaws in the spring. They feed in the summer and then emerge as moths. Write an essay in which you examine your own basic seasonal rituals, such as winter reading or spring cleaning. How do they relate to your survival skills? Have your habits adapted to fit your needs and goals?

Phobia Investigation

posted 12.31.15

What’s your greatest fear, your singular phobia? Is it heights, snakes, or spiders? Write an essay that investigates your phobia—not its subject, but the fear itself—across history, culture, and science. Can treatises on your fear be located in ancient texts? Or do you suffer a more modern affliction, one that says as much about you as it does about our present day? Treat the subject as a nucleus around which you can spin research, criticism, and personal perspective.

Sharing Stories

posted 12.24.15

Call Me Ishmael is an innovative, multi-platform project founded by Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent, and featured in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Readers can call a phone number, leave a message relaying a story of how a particular book has been life-changing, and visitors to a website can access over a thousand of these recorded stories. Write a personal essay you might want to record about a book that has changed your life in a small or big way. What was it about this book that impacted or inspired you? What was unique about your reading experience that you would wish to pass on to others?

Holiday Travel

posted 12.17.15

The holiday season often means traveling short or long distances to spend time with family and friends. You might find yourself in a car, bus, train, subway, plane, or perhaps even a combination of several modes of transportation. Write a personal essay about an experience you’ve had while in transit during the holidays. Were there particular memories that surfaced as you looked out a bus window at the passing scenery? Did an unexpectedly funny or fascinating conversation take place with others who happened to be riding with you?

Acquired Taste

posted 12.10.15

Sometimes the food we disliked as children—spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, raw fish, dark chocolate—we end up finding a taste for later in life. Or we end up getting tired or bored eating the same family dishes over and over, only to discover that, years later, we want to re-create them ourselves when we are in search of feel-good comfort food. Think of a specific dish or food that you used to hate but now love, or vice versa, and write a short essay about how your perceptions of it evolved over time. Describe the physical location, the atmosphere, and the people that you associate with the food, and how those elements might have changed. What do you remember about your emotional state when you ate this dish long ago? What aspects of this specific food induce your sense of nostalgia? How might your change in taste reflect other aspects of your life that have also been transformed?

Familiar Differences

posted 12.3.15

Write a short personal essay about your relationship with a family member whom you feel is especially different from you. Explore a few memories or observations from your shared experiences over the years. Are there feelings of insecurity or other emotions that are brought up when you consider your differences? How do the disconnects affect your sense of identity and place within your family? Are you able to detect any common bonds?

F is for Food Writing

posted 11.26.15

In her collection of essays An Alphabet for Gourmets (Viking, 1949), celebrated food writer M. F. K. Fisher uses such disparate subjects as gluttony, literature, and zakuski (a Russian hors d’oeuvre) as frames for writing about her beliefs on gastronomy, life, and how they’re always connected. In the style of Fisher, choose a subject for a letter in the alphabet—A is for Aging, R is for Rib Eyes, W is for Wanderlust—and write your own essay about the interplay between cooking and eating and your own life.

Work of Art

posted 11.19.15

Ekphrasis is a term commonly applied to poetry, in which a poem describes, or is inspired by, a work of art, often a painting or a sculpture. More broadly, it can be attributed to any genre of writing in response to a work of art. Think of the first film, photograph, painting, or song that left a strong impression on you. Spend some time experiencing it again, and then write an ekphrastic personal essay. Focus on why it resonates with you, and explore the memories, feelings, associations, and observations that surface.

Time Capsule

posted 11.12.15

Imagine that you’ve been chosen to be the representative of your neighborhood and tasked to fill a time capsule that will be sealed and buried for one hundred years. Write a letter to future inhabitants who may unearth and open your time capsule. Describe the items you've included and explain their value and importance in the world today. Would you choose technological products, favorites books, or personal photographs or letters? What would you hope to offer the future through your selections?

Sad Songs Say So Much

posted 11.5.15

Think of a song that you would consider a lifelong favorite, even if your love for it now is attributed more to a strong sense of nostalgia than to your current musical tastes. Does hearing the song unexpectedly on the car radio or in a restaurant suddenly transport you to a different time or instantly change your mood? Write a personal essay about the memories you have associated with the song, and how the lyrics might have resonated with a certain significance in your past. How has your understanding and appreciation of the song evolved?

Paranormal Investigation

posted 10.29.15

Research a paranormal story or legend native to your community. Write an essay that meditates on its origins, its historical context, how it characterizes your community today, and what reservations or questions it stirs up in you. Whether you’re the deepest skeptic or the most willing believer, how you engage with these supernatural tales can reveal a lot about your mind and imagination.

Letter to an Old Friend

posted 10.22.15

Write a letter to a friend you’ve lost touch with for at least ten years—perhaps you haven’t spoken to each other because of a falling-out or one of you moved to a new town. What do you remember about the last time you saw this person? Reflect upon the ways in which you have changed and remained the same from who you were ten years ago. Examine the emotions that surface when you think about this old friend and your relationship, and the physical places that your memories take you.

Urban Legend

posted 10.15.15

The term "urban legend" refers to contemporary myths often connected to popular culture that are recounted to entertain and/or explain random events. Write an essay using an urban legend as a jumping-off point for probing into what you find entertaining or unsettling. For inspiration, you might consider the stories of Bloody Mary, exploding Pop Rocks, bodily spider infestations, or alligators in the sewer.

Written in the Stars

posted 10.8.15

Whether or not you believe in astrology, it can be an engaging exercise to contemplate the authority of a prediction based solely on your birthdate. Look up your current horoscope in a newspaper or online, and take note of how the forecast characterizes your astrological sign. Which particular elements of the horoscope’s characterizations do you find yourself immediately agreeing with? If you find yourself mostly in disagreement, what would you predict for yourself instead? Using the second-person voice, write an essay in the form of an astrological forecast. Describe how you foresee the upcoming month in terms of love, finances, home, and spiritual matters, and cite how these predictions are justified by your personality traits. Or, if you’d prefer, write an essay against astrology, pointing out the flaws in such pseudoscientific systems of divination, and examining what it is about your personality that opposes them.

My Own Private October

posted 10.1.15

October begins today. Pick a memory, moment, image, object, or idea that holds the essence of the month in your mind. Explore this entity from multiple angles: the visual, literal, historical, and metaphorical. Perhaps it is rooted in nature or childhood, in a color or flavor. Examine your associations with the month and how your perceptions have changed over the years.

Television Commercial

posted 9.24.15

This week, think of a television commercial you saw recently, or one that you recall vividly from your childhood. Write an essay exploring why this particular advertisement is still stuck in your head. Did you covet the product being sold? Was there an actress or tagline that evoked a certain feeling or emotion? Does the commercial bring you back to a familiar time or place?

Street Name

posted 9.17.15

This week, look to the name of your street for inspiration. Or if you prefer, choose the name of a previous street you lived on, or a particularly fascinating street name in your city or town. Is the street designated for a famous person, a defining local feature, or a natural landmark? Are there Dutch, Spanish, or Native American roots to the name? Write an essay about the street’s origin, and how the name might be fitting or outdated. Reflect on the ways you connect with where you live, and how your own history intertwines with the streets names that surround you.

Schoolteacher

posted 9.10.15

This week, think back to your childhood, and the teachers who taught you through elementary and middle school. Choose one of your former teachers and write a list of his most distinctive characteristics—maybe a bizarre hairstyle, his old blue car, or a rumor you remember about him. Write an essay reflecting on what makes this teacher memorable and significant in your life, what you might say if you bumped into him today. Would either of you have any regrets to discuss?

Reshaping the Past

posted 9.3.15

In Mary Karr's new book, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), she writes that "from the second you choose one event over another, you're shaping the past's meaning." Think of a significant event from your past that you've written about before. Make a list of three other events or changes that were occurring in your life around that same time. Write an essay about one of these "secondary" events, focusing on deriving personal or emotional meaning out of this seemingly less impactful event.

Shoes

posted 8.27.15

This week, choose a pair of shoes that you own or have owned that has significance to you. Perhaps it's the first pair of dress shoes that you purchased, the well-worn sneakers that you wear over and over again, or a pair of shoes that you've never worn but can't bear to toss out. Write an essay about your connection to these shoes, describing them in detail and thinking about the specific qualities that drew you to them in the first place. What do they say about your personality? Where have they accompanied you already, and where might they take you in the future?

Breaking News

posted 8.20.15

When something major happens in our lives, we often put some time between us and the event before we write about it. But sometimes, when we let too much time pass, the intense emotion of the event fades and is replaced by a more analytic, objective memory of the incident. In order to channel that sense of immediacy, put yourself back at the scene of a significant incident, right in the middle of the action. Something life-changing is happening to you at this very moment. Report on it. Make your statements short, energized, and to the point. Be sure you cover the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of the story. Sensationalize at your discretion. Skim over nitpicky details if necessary in order to get to the heart of the story.

Dear Me

posted 8.13.15

Think of a situation from your past when you were unsure of what to do and wished for someone's advice or opinion. Describe the scenario and ask specific questions about your next course of action, as if you were posing the issue to an advice columnist. Then, write an essay in the form of an advice column response to yourself. Analyze the situation objectively—cite relevant anecdotes, examples, or hypothetical outcomes—and share words of guidance, insight, and encouragement with your past self.

Postcard

posted 8.6.15

Postcards sent to friends and family from far-off places often have a "Wish you were here!" sentiment. This week, think of someone who's located far away from you, and write a postcard to him or her with the opposite outlook of "Wish I was there!" Explore what exactly it is about "there" that seems so appealing. What are the most striking differences between where you are and where you wish to be? Depict a vivid scenario in just a few, succinct sentences by focusing on sensory descriptions of that distant locale.

Road Trip

posted 7.30.15

The concept of the American road trip has compelled many writers—Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Tom Wolfe, Cheryl Strayed, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few—to pen memoirs or novels exploring themes of exploration, adventure, and discovery. Take inspiration from this map of American literary road trips from Atlas Obscura, and write a short travel essay of your own. Recount your experience whether it’s making the journey from your front door to a neighbor's house, or to a city you’re never explored. Find the balance that feels right for you between observations of physical or geographical details, and the interior landscape of emotions and memories.

Summertime

posted 7.23.15

This week, pick one thing you personally associate with summer: maybe it's eating a particular flavor of ice cream on a sweltering night, the whirring sound of a ceiling fan as you fall asleep, or the smell of sunscreen. Write an essay inspired by your recollections—think back to your earliest memory of the activity and the people or places connected to it. Reflect on how your relationship to this one summer specific sensation might have evolved over the years, and why it remains so vivid.

Today, I

posted 7.16.15

Heidi Julavits's book The Folded Clock (Doubleday, 2015) takes the form of a diary, each entry beginning with "Today, I...." This week, write an essay starting with this same phrase, and recount a straightforward event or observation that occurred earlier in the day. Then allow yourself to stray from describing the basic details of that incident, and go on to explore other memories that spring to mind, reflecting on how this event may provide some unexpected clarity to your life.

Secret Life

posted 7.9.15

Virginia Woolf said: "Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works." Think of one thing you've never told anyone before: something you once did and kept secret, or simply a thought you've had that has never been disclosed. Write an essay about your secret. Explore your reasons behind keeping it hidden and why you feel that it’s time for a confession.

I Said, You Said

posted 7.2.15

What happens when you tell the story of a real event from another person’s point of view? Think of a situation in which you disagreed with someone—it could be a slight difference in taste or a fight with far-reaching consequences—and recount the opposing opinions each of you expressed. In the first-person voice, write an essay about the disagreement from the other person’s perspective. Take into consideration how the words you uttered during the event could be interpreted differently by the other person.

An Urgent Matter

posted 6.25.15

Writer John Berger says: “What makes me write is the fear that if I do not write, something which ought to be said will not be.” This week, make a list of five things that you feel urgently need to be said about current events. Choose one of them and write an essay expressing your personal opinions—recount related anecdotes, share emotions, and reflect on why this matter is important to you.

Give Yourself a Present

posted 6.18.15

“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.” These words of wisdom from Special Agent Dale Cooper, a character in David Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks, are extremely important to remember—especially when you feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. Write about your pleasures, guilty or otherwise, and how they enhance your life. If you treat yourself to the same thing every day, like a morning Starbucks latte, does it still feel special? Or has it become more of a habit? Maybe you need to expand your definition of the word present. Sometimes moments of peaceful solitude, like taking a walk to the park during your lunch break or soaking in a hot bath before bed, can be just enough.

Definitions

posted 6.11.15

We have dictionaries and encyclopedias to provide us with official definitions, but sometimes the personal definitions we construct take precedence. These personal definitions may be created from experiences, memories, the opinions of others, or the truths we've come to discover. This week, choose a word you've created your own definition for and write a personal essay in the style of a dictionary entry. Begin with the pronunciation, the part of speech, and origin of the term. Then go on to state the definition and historical significance of the word.  

Sacred Spaces

posted 6.4.15

Homes often feel like they contain the energy of those who live there. Once the occupants are gone, whether they've moved on to another home or passed away, the house may suddenly feel vacant, even when the furnishings and decor remain. This week, write about a home or place so special you would consider it sacred, and how you felt when that space underwent a significant change. Recall fond memories and the absence experienced in that space.

Poetry Prompts

Creative guidance for writing poems and experimenting with forms.

Postal Poem

posted 5.24.16

Get out of town. Take a drive, a train, or a bus. It doesn’t matter how. It doesn’t have to be far. Just get away. Once you’re there, buy a postcard, address it to yourself, and write a poem on it. Fill up the whole card. Don’t edit yourself too much, just let it roll, then drop it in the mail. When it finally arrives back home, transcribe it onto a notebook and see if you can build from it. It may already be well on its way to a finished product, or it may only have one or two lines worth keeping. Regardless, stepping away from what’s familiar and writing a poem to your future self can help guide you to new images and thoughts that the daily writing life may not inspire.

Personal Possessions

posted 5.17.16

Beginning next week, a collection of Marilyn Monroe’s personal possessions—including handwritten notes and receipts, an address book, lipstick and cigarettes—will be displayed on a worldwide tour before being put on auction. Choose one of Monroe’s items and write a poem imagining the story behind her connection to the item. You might even want to try writing from the point of view of the inanimate object.

Word Aversion

posted 5.10.16

A recent study by Paul Thibodeau, a professor of psychology at Oberlin College, examines the phenomenon of “word aversion”—the extremely visceral distaste that some people have in response to certain words, such as “moist,” “luggage,” and “phlegm.” Write down a list of five words that you find particularly repulsive, words that might not otherwise have any definitively negative connotations. Use these words in a poem and explore how word choice can propel you toward certain subject matter. Do you find yourself pulled to other repellant images and memories, or pushed to offset those words with more pleasing evocations?

Feeling Music

posted 5.3.16

For a period of eighteen months in the late 1970s, an unexpected pairing of communities took place: the building that housed the San Francisco Club for the Deaf, a social club for the deaf community, became the venue for notable punk rock shows and album recordings. In an article about a Deaf Club event in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Opal Gordon, a deaf performer, said, “Music is strong, [deaf people] can feel the vibrations. Punk is perfect because it’s loud, it’s heavy, it’s in your face.” Write a poem in which you imagine experiencing a musical performance—whether punk, classical, country, or jazz—that you can see and feel, but not hear. Think about the ways in which music can transcend sound, focusing on the visual or literal attitude of the performance.

Aphorisms

posted 4.26.16

In During (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), the new collection by National Book Award finalist James Richardson, there are, in addition to many wonderful poems, dozens and dozens of aphorisms (a poetic specialty of his), including gems like, “Maybe what interests me in the mirror is not myself but that person who looks so interested in me.” Try your hand at writing a handful of aphorisms, focusing on the way they use brevity and clarity to find their way into an idea. For inspiration, read more of Richardson’s aphorisms, and some from his favorite aphorist Antonio Porchia.

Connected

posted 4.19.16

Technological and scientific advances have recently enabled surgeons to implant a chip into a human brain that, through a computer, can send signals to the body allowing a person living with paralysis to regain movement. Write a poem reflecting on your own observations about autonomy, the role of technology, and the physical mechanisms of the body. Think of unique ways to describe the inner workings of our minds, muscles, and limbs.

Poems in Your Pocket

posted 4.12.16

In preparation for next week’s Poem in Your Pocket Day, find a short poem that you are especially drawn to and carry it with you, taking time to reread and reflect upon it. If you need help finding one, try the Academy of American Poets or Poets House websites. At the end of the week, write your own poem that in some way responds to your chosen poem. Next Thursday, on Poem in Your Pocket Day, add your original poem to your pocket and share it with others.

Summer

posted 4.5.16

Matthew Zapruder, poetry editor for the New York Times Magazine, says of Eileen Myles’s poem “Summer”: “Its drifting, elusive movement defines and also conjures the feeling of experiencing summer itself.” This week, make a short list of adjectives and phrases that signify to you the feeling of experiencing summer. Then write a poem that mimics the motions, rhythms, or sensations of the season. Be sure to include personal impressions or events that make your observations unique.

Do the Dew

posted 3.29.16

A recent issue of the New Yorker includes poet Timothy Donnelly’s wild ode to one of his favorite guilty pleasures, “Diet Mountain Dew.” The poem barrels along, exploring all the qualities of the less-than-quality beverage, including its radiant green, prominent logo, and commercial history. Write an ode to one of your own culinary guilty pleasures that engages directly with its unsavory elements, such as its ingredients, appearance, and origin. Use your imagination to transform these details into avenues for lyrical observations. 

That One Year

posted 3.22.16

This week, select a random year from the last five to ten years, and by combing through your memory, old notes, e-mails, and calendars, jot down a list of events in your life from that year. What were some of your reactions and emotions that accompanied those situations? Write a poem that encapsulates the ups and downs of that single year. Be sure to explore how the intervening years between then and now may have provided you with a wiser, refreshed perspective on past occurrences, and offers a reflective conclusion to your poem.

Pandora's Box

posted 3.15.16

In the story of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology, Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, opens the lid of a container, thereby allowing all of the evils stored inside to escape out into the world. In contemporary colloquial usage, to “open a Pandora’s box” refers to an action that seems small or harmless but ultimately proves to have disastrous consequences. Write a poem that starts with a seemingly innocent action, which then unexpectedly unleashes a dramatic chain of events. For inspiration, listen to Ada Limón’s poem “The Last Move.”

A New Color

posted 3.8.16

Visual artists who have been productive over long stretches of time often develop certain periods of work with shared characteristics, such as similar color palettes. For example, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse both had dark periods, Pablo Picasso had his blue and rose periods, and Victor Vasarely had a black-and-white period. As we begin to think about the year's transition from winter to spring, bringing along with it seasonal changes in light and sound, consider embarking on a new period of your own work. Write a series of short poems inspired by your observations of the different colors, moods, and scenery around you that signal the forthcoming spring season. To begin a green period, for example, what might be your key points of inspiration, in terms of imagery and vocabulary?

Sounds Like a Collision

posted 3.1.16

Scientists announced last month that they had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding and merging a billion light-years away. The sound was described as a small, quick, birdlike chirp. Create a list of object pairs; the items can be clearly connected—like a red car and a blue car, or you and a loved one—or disparate, or conceptual. Choose an especially inspiring pair from your list and write a poem about the two objects as they head on a collision course, and the unexpected sound that’s heard when they finally merge. 

Begin at the End

posted 2.23.16

If you’re having trouble starting a poem, begin at the end. Take a single collection of poems and make a list of the last two words from each poem. Then write your own poem using only these words. Be vigilant at first utilizing just the vocabulary from the list. After a couple of drafts, stray from the limited words to help bring the poem to its full realization. 

Universal

posted 2.16.16

Write a poem exploring a broad topic or theme—like love, death, kindness, the passage of time, or faith, for example—that uses vivid, sensory detail. Utilize language from familiar worlds such as animal behavior or everyday household objects to form connections to these larger subjects. For inspiration, listen to the late C. D. Wright read “Obscurity and Voyaging” in the latest episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast.

Hot and Cold

posted 2.9.16

Scientists recently reported that 2015 was the hottest year on record, and yet certain areas of the North Atlantic Ocean experienced unusually low temperatures, and New York City had its second largest snowfall last month. With these historic weather events in mind, write a two-part poem with a tone shift involving hot and cold climates. Move beyond the most frequently used images and vocabulary associated with extreme temperatures, and explore fresh new ideas, sounds, and textures that achieve chilling or sweltering effects.

Year of the Monkey

posted 2.2.16

February 8 marks the new year on the lunar calendar this year. On the Chinese zodiac, this date marks the passage from the Year of the Sheep, a year of prosperity and promise, to the Year of the Monkey, a sign known for mischief and playfulness. Write a poem about this animal sign, looking beyond the typically cited characteristics of the monkey and exploring the lesser-known traits that might be associated with your own specific wishes or worries for 2016.

The Sentence

posted 1.26.16

The challenge is simple: Write a poem that is a single sentence long. But don’t write just any old sentence. Instead, challenge yourself to sustain the sentence for as long as possible. Use all the tools of syntax, grammar, and poetic form to help keep it going. While these tools are already at play when writing a poem, the single-sentence constraint will force you into exciting and unexpected rhetorical solutions. For inspiration, read this article on one-sentence poems by poet Camille Dungy.

Groundhog Day

posted 1.19.16

On February 2, according to popular folklore, a groundhog that emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow signifies six more weeks of winter; if it's cloudy and no shadow is present, spring will arrive early. Other animals, too, are said to exhibit weather-forecasting attributes: sneezing cats, fat rabbits, and howling wolves, for example. Write a poem based on one of these legends, perhaps experimenting with an unexpected point of view, such as having the speaker of the poem be the animal, or an onlooker who is completely unfamiliar with the myth behind it. What textures, sights, and sounds would be unique to the occurrence? Explore the emotional resonances and psychological underpinnings of superstitions and folklore.

Music and Poetry

posted 1.12.16

As forms of creative expression, music and poetry share similarities in the usage of sound and rhythm to generate emotional resonance. Musicians and poets have often expressed their mutual admiration, and even collaborated with each other. Read the poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?,” from Tracy K. Smith’s collection Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011), with its many references to David Bowie, or watch an animation of Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” read by Tom Waits. Then write a poem of your own inspired by the mood or themes of a favorite musician or song.

Best of the Year

posted 1.5.16

The end of the year is often accompanied by the practice of looking back at the previous twelve months and drawing up “Best of” lists: best moments, best books, best songs. As the new year kicks off, browse through some 2015 lists and jot down words, phrases, and notes about the themes in popular songs and books. Then write a poem that encapsulates the spirit of the music and literature recognized in 2015.

Calendar of Metaphor

posted 12.29.15

Think back over the past year. What does the memory of each month feel like? What is its emotional tone, vibration, form? Write a poem in twelve parts that tries to capture each month’s abstract feeling in a single line or stanza. Like Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” you can repeat the same object or setting throughout the poem, or offer a different context for each section. Challenge yourself to avoid the clichéd images that are often paired with months (i.e. the beach and July, leaves and October), and instead, try to translate the ineffable into the visual. When finished, you’ll have a calendar of metaphor.

Lone Human Voice

posted 12.22.15

Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich has said, “I love how humans talk...I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.” Write a series of short poems each written in the voice of a distinct first-person speaker using casual spoken language. You might try loosely connecting the poems by having the voices in dialogue with one another, or by using recurring themes or repeated phrases. Emphasize the uniqueness of each voice with different perspectives, speech tics, slang, and tone.

Pantoum

posted 12.15.15

This week, write a pantoum, a modern verse form adapted from traditional Malaysian folk poetry that uses repeated lines throughout a series of quatrains. How does the repetition of words influence the mood or pacing of your poem? Allow the repeated phrases to take on different meanings as the contexts shift throughout the piece. Refer to the Academy of American Poets website for details and examples of pantoums.

Utter Nonsense

posted 12.8.15

Muggle, Heffalump, Chortle, Chintzy. From Sir Thomas More (utopia) to Robert A. Heinlein (grok) to J. K. Rowling (quidditch), writers throughout history have created new words to describe the invented worlds in their books. Sometimes these neologisms are names of made-up places, feelings, or actions, but sometimes the meaning is more mysterious and ambiguous. Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" appears in the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as part of a dream. Although it is full of nonsense words, the poem itself follows conventional syntax and structures. Invent your own word and designate it as the name of a newly imagined place or feeling. Write a poem inspired by this new word, combining vivid imagery and specific sounds and rhythms, with familiar elements, to evoke the sensations of a completely new and invented—or inverted—universe.

Translations

posted 12.1.15

There is the view that all poetry is a translation of feelings and perceptions that are in some ways fundamentally unsayable. Try translating a poem after you’ve read a few different translations of the same poem. Several interesting things may happen: you check one version against another; you’re on high alert for the “prose meaning” of the original, as well as the tone; you see what the translations at once obscure and reveal of the original piece; even if one translation is just a remote account, it offers a particular construal. After reading, try your own translation of the same poem. If it is not in a language you know, you now have an idea of what is there and to be looked for. You may find that you’re creating with a refreshed eye and ear for the true, and any false, notes in the music that is poetry.

This week’s poetry prompt comes from Sandra Lim, author of The Wilderness (Norton, 2014). Read Lim’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.

At Dawn

posted 11.24.15

As winter approaches, the days are getting shorter and shorter making it a perfect time to write an aubade, a poem set at dawn. Though its tradition is rooted in love poetry, modern masters like Philip Larkin have used the form to muse on the darker side of sunup. Whether in the tradition of John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” or Larkin’s “Aubade,” write your own version that explores how the early hours spin your imagination.

Vocabulary Bank

posted 11.17.15

In “Mermaids and Matryoshkas: The Secret Life of a Poetic Sequence” by Sandra Beasley in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Matthea Harvey talks about "harvesting words from the dictionary... to create the vocabulary bank for new poems." Grab a dictionary, flip through it, and put your finger down on a random page. Record the word you land on and go to the next page and write down the word that appears at the same spot, repeating until you have accumulated a vocabulary bank to work from. Write a poem by constructing surprising associations, perhaps thinking of familiar words in an unexpected way, or drawing a personal connection to a new term.

Eavesdropping on the World

posted 11.10.15

In Writers Recommend, Camille Rankine shares that her ideas and inspiration come from “eavesdropping on the world.” This week, collect phrases from overheard conversations, the radio, TV, or magazine articles. When you have a quiet moment, read over your notes and pick one quote that especially sparks your imaginative impulses. Write a poem that uses the found quote as a first line. Explore your immediate reactions and emotions, and allow those feelings to develop the tone of the lines that follow.

Choice Words

posted 11.3.15

This week, listen to a poem new to you—by a contemporary poet or a bygone poet—and jot down the words, phrases, and images that are most striking or memorable to you. Then write your own poem inspired by this list of words. How do you transform someone else's poetic intuition and choices into a work that demonstrates your personal idiosyncrasies and specific aesthetic sense?

Hagiography

posted 10.27.15

After All Hallows’ Eve comes All Saints’ Day. The good news: Hagiography is a treasure trove of unique material for poems. Write a poem in the voice of a famous saint who has returned for this day. What would he or she make of the modern world? Would the remnants of present-day Halloween festivities leave the saint perplexed, mystified, even horrified? Challenge yourself to make the common rituals of modern life seem foreign and charged with possible meaning.

Literary Obsessions

posted 10.20.15

In “Selected Poems: Looking Back on a Lifetime of Writing” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Donald Hall writes, "A grumpy stranger asked me, 'What do you write about anyway?' I blurted out, 'Love, death, and New Hampshire.'" What would you blurt out if you were asked the same question? Write a poem that draws upon your top three thematic obsessions, whether you instinctively reach for these topics each time you start writing, or enjoy revisiting this material in your work. What fresh insights might the juxtaposition of these three subjects in a single poem bring to light?

Red Planet

posted 10.13.15

In recent years, NASA scientists have found a steadily increasing amount of evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars. These discoveries could lead to scientists’ quest to confirm that the planet has hosted life. Write a poem in which you explore the mysterious possibilities of the red planet, extraterrestrial life, the galaxies and constellations, or the notion of human colonies on other planets. Focus on examining the emotions that emerge when you contemplate the vast unknowns of outer space.

Perfect Strangers

posted 10.6.15

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself,” said author Mohsin Hamid in a 2012 interview. Think about a stranger with whom you recently crossed paths. It could be the person who bagged your groceries, stood in front of you in line at the post office, or simply walked by you on the street. What type of situation can you imagine this stranger experiencing? Which emotions or feelings would you project onto this stranger? Write a poem about this imagined event from the stranger's perspective. Concentrate on digging deeply into your own private observations and personal history to capture what sensations might be echoed in another person’s experience.

Ode to Autumn

posted 9.29.15

In “To Autumn,” John Keats personifies the season through descriptions of landscape and life in agrarian England. Write an ode that personifies a modern vision of autumn. Use characteristics of contemporary life: perhaps a new school year, a harvest we no longer see, football and its violence, costumes and horror, or our obsession with pumpkin spice. Explore what these aspects reveal about our present-day relationship to nature and the seasons. Does the idyllic character of Keats’s poem endure?

On the Hunt

posted 9.22.15

Richard Wilbur says about inspiration, "A poem comes looking for me rather than I hunting after it." Quickly make a list of the first five things that pop into your head, "looking" for you. It may be a striking image, a phrase, or a memory of someone from your past that has resurfaced unexpectedly. Use one of the items on your list as a source of inspiration and write a poem examining why this subject occupies your mind. As you write, continue to hunt for some clarity.

New Supplies

posted 9.15.15

As kids, the prospect of getting new school supplies always seemed to brighten back-to-school woes. This week, imagine what you would pack in a backpack to prepare yourself for the school of life. Make a list of five "supplies" that you can picture yourself using every day—they can be practical tools, made-up magic potions, or even intangible thoughts or mantras. Write a poem in which you describe the supplies with concrete details, exploring how having each one easily accessible at all times would vastly improve your prospects.

On the Big Screen

posted 9.8.15

Choose a memorable character from a movie—someone from an old Western or a James Bond film, for example—and write a poem inspired by this on-screen persona. What are the most striking aspects of her style or demeanor? Focus on connecting specific details, like a certain way of walking or talking or dressing, to her emotional state to create a lyrical portrayal of this larger-than-life character.

Loud or Quiet

posted 9.1.15

Do your poems tend to be loud or quiet? Try your hand at switching up your writing's volume. Write a poem that's noisy and full of hard consonants and cacophonous sounds, or write a calmer poem that whispers with a softer rhythm and smoother pacing. Perhaps you can transform your piece by altering capitalization or punctuation, or by italicizing. When you increase or decrease the levels in your poem, are the types of images or emotions that come to mind drastically different?

Blue Cow

posted 8.25.15

In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Dean Young talks about his earliest recollection of writing a poem as a child and the realization that, "you could make up reality with language.... You could write the words blue cow, for example, and there'd be a blue cow." Make a list of five vivid but nonsensical phrases describing things that don't exist in reality. Then, choosing one of the phrases to use as a first line, write a poem that is unrestrained by fact or conventional logic. Rather than focusing on consistency or reason, allow your imagination to quickly zigzag from one surprising image, sound, or emotion to the next.

Legend Has It

posted 8.18.15

Epic poems, like Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, chronicle the tales of heroes set against the backdrop of historical events. They are often lengthy, and typically include narratives featuring superhuman feats, wild adventures, and stylized language. While we usually equate epic poetry with ancient times, the form has also been used by modern poets. From Lord Byron's comic use of the epic form in Don Juan, to Ezra Pound's The Cantos and Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, this form has been used throughout the ages. Try your hand at writing the beginning of an epic poem. Choose a hero and a quest, and then set sail on a lyric journey. Write in dactylic hexameter, as Homer did, or use your own meter. After all, it's your adventure!

Two Poets, One Poem

posted 8.11.15

This week, encourage someone close to you to collaborate on writing a poem. Together, choose a subject—it can be a shared experience, a mutual friend or loved one, or a place familiar to you both—and then separately, write a short poem on the chosen subject from the first-person perspective. Finally, work together on the editing process, combining the two poems by interweaving lines and stanzas, and formulating a collective rhythm. For inspiration, read "Two Fathers" by Lois Baer Barr and Ellen Birkett Morris.

Desert Island

posted 8.4.15

If you found yourself stranded on a desert island, what would you most want to have with you? Make a list of ten things—anything from books, music, and photos, to people, pets, or food—and then write a poem with the items in your order of importance. Include the reasons why you can’t live without each item. Are there specific memories attached to certain items that persuaded you to choose them?

Dog Days

posted 7.28.15

The "dog days" of summer typically refer to the hottest days around July and August. The term originates with the ancient Romans who associated this time of year with the brightest star Sirius—also known as the Dog Star—rising and setting in sync with the sun, supposedly making the days hotter. Explore other natural occurrences that coincide with summer—fire rainbows, foxfire, midnight sun—and write a poem in tribute to the hottest days of the year.

A New Direction

posted 7.21.15

Poet and translator George Szirtes says: "Nobody reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. They read the poem for the experience of travelling through it." This week, choose a short poem—it can be one of your own or someone else’s—and cross out the last line. Read it again now without its last line, and imagine how the poem might take a different turn at this juncture. Write a continuation of the poem, allowing it to travel to an entirely new conclusion.

Genre Poetry

posted 7.14.15

Choose a genre for a poem: science fiction, fantasy, romance, thriller, noir, or historical—perhaps the one that seems the furthest from your usual subject matter. Experiment with vocabulary typically associated with that genre. Perhaps words like “android” or “femme fatale” might offer unexpected inspiration.

Sensory Details

posted 7.7.15

This week, imagine you have been deprived of one of your senses for a year, and then suddenly regained it. What specific sensations might you have missed and be eager to experience again? Write a poem about the longing and appreciation for this sense, focusing on creating fresh and unexpected phrases and descriptions. For example, if you choose the sense of taste, how might you express the sweetness of something without using the word sweet?

Landmark Poem

posted 6.30.15

Poets laureate traditionally compose and present ceremonial verse for official events and occasions, like a commemoration to the opening of a bridge or the unveiling of a monument. Write a poem dedicated to a familiar landmark as if you were introducing it to the world. You might research the actual historical significance, or invent a completely made-up history. What unexpected facts—real or imagined—would you include for future generations to learn about this particular landmark?

Tanka

posted 6.23.15

The tanka is a type of classical Japanese poem, most popularly known in its five-line form, with syllable counts of 5/7/5/7/7. In ancient Japanese tradition, the short poetic lines were exchanged between lovers in the morning, after spending an evening together. This week, try your hand at writing a tanka. Start with a concrete image or object you closely associate with a loved one. Then create a dramatic shift in thought or emotion to express the speaker's personal response. For inspiration, read examples of the tanka compiled by the Academy of American Poets.

Be Kind

posted 6.16.15

"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." Take to heart Kurt Vonnegut's words, from his 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, and spread some kindness through your poetry. Pick someone you admire and write a poem to this person about all the things you want to say to him or her, no matter how personal or embarrassing. Try to avoid focusing on physical appearance or material possessions, and instead celebrate the personality traits or the fond memories you’ve shared. Consider sharing your poem with this person, or at least say some of the lovely things you’ve written to him or her. Kind words have such power; they can lift your spirits, boost your self-esteem, and even change your life—and your poem.

Favorite Sounds

posted 6.9.15

This week, concentrate on the sounds of words and pick four or five words that you love to hear and pronounce. Don't worry about whether these words are complex or commonplace, just focus on the way they sound when spoken aloud. Then using one as the title, incorporate these favorite words into a poem. Create a narrative if you wish, or allow yourself to focus completely on sound as you piece together your poem. Consider the similarities between the words you've chosen, in terms of their meaning and their internal music.

Tribute

posted 6.2.15

Consider someone you've been thinking about recently and write a poem as a tribute to her. Perhaps she did you a much-appreciated favor, paid you an unexpected visit, or just popped into your head as you went about your daily tasks. Take some time to consider what this person means to you and why you're thankful to have her in your life. Examine the bond between the two of you, and why you are important to each other.  

Fiction Prompts

Suggestions for devising plots and creating compelling characters.

Adaptation

posted 5.25.16

If you’re having trouble starting a scene, try taking it out of the story and writing it as a screenplay. Made up of only the most essential pieces of expression, action, and dialogue, a screenplay can act as a kind of blueprint for a scene, helping you to make sense of the complexity and movement while forcing you to cut away whatever isn’t necessary. Once you understand the scene at its core, try plugging it back into the story, adapting it to the style of the prose, and giving it more body, like clay onto an armature. You can also try this on a scene or story you admire, adapting it into a screenplay to get a sense of how the author crafted such a powerfully dramatic moment.

Emotional Truth

posted 5.18.16

In “The Deepest Place” by Kevin Nance in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Adam Haslett says of his new novel, Imagine Me Gone (Little, Brown, 2016), “it’s the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written,” referring to the intensity of the emotional truth laid bare on the page. Choose an emotional event from your past and transmute it into a fictional scene. Create new, imagined consequences that nonetheless reflect the true anguish of the moment. How can turning fact into fiction construct a distance between the life and the work that offers a new take on an intense situation?

Cult Book

posted 5.11.16

Cult books, as with films that are considered cult favorites, often contain elements of the extreme, bizarre, or subversive—their power to inspire and persuade seemingly just on the edge of propriety. This week, choose one of your favorite cult books, or browse through this top-fifty list for ideas. Then, write a story about a character who stumbles upon this cult book for the first time, and after speeding through it from cover to cover, is suddenly empowered toward a new course of action. What is the single most influential element of this book for the character?

Re-creating Fear

posted 5.4.16

“Can we really mold a narrative around something that defies narrative itself?... How can we re-create an experience that eludes the conscious mind?” In “This Is Your Brain on Fear” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, J. T. Bushnell asks these questions as he explores the relationship between narrative storytelling and the often fragmentary, uncertain nature of memory and observation when people experience trauma. Write a scene of high stress, fear, or trauma for a first-person narrator that makes use of “selective description of external details.” Resist the temptation to fill in the blanks or describe the passage of time in a linear way. Explore the way the human brain processes events, and incorporate your findings into your storytelling.

I Am the Walrus

posted 4.27.16

Kevin Barry's novel Beatlebone (Doubleday, 2015) imagines John Lennon taking a mini pilgrimage to an island he's purchased off the west coast of Ireland. Led by his driver, Cornelius, they jump from one strange encounter to another as they try to avoid the paparazzi and make it to the island. Write a story in which the main character is someone famous in popular culture. Research the character, try to inhabit them far beyond the public persona, and send them on a journey that reveals the person beyond the limelight. 

Promposal

posted 4.20.16

If you haven’t heard of it already, a “promposal” is a request for a date to high school prom through a dramatic gesture often involving witty puns and surprise declarations of affection in public, all recorded on camera and shared widely on social media. Write a scene in which a secondary character carries out an elaborate “promposal.” Is it angst-ridden and cringe-worthy, or humorously slapstick? Does the success or failure of the act offer foreshadowing for the atmosphere of the entire story?

Skywriting

posted 4.13.16

Skywriting is often used for advertising or special occasions, such as a birthday or a marriage proposal. A small plane expels smoke as it flies in a specific pattern resulting in words that appear to be formed out of clouds for the world below. Write a short story in which two characters in two different locations glimpse a mysterious message written in the sky. How will the message bring your characters together? 

Allergies

posted 4.6.16

Many people experience seasonal allergies during spring caused by the increased amount of pollen and grass present in the air. Write a short story in which one of your characters is affected by seasonal allergies. Is it a condition that proves to have surprisingly dramatic consequences, or one that simply adds a layer of pathos, humor, or realism to the story or character?

Death by Toothpick

posted 3.30.16

On March 8, 1941, Sherwood Anderson, author of the American classic Winesburg, Ohio, died from peritonitis. An autopsy later revealed that a swallowed toothpick was to blame. Craft a story in which a seemingly benign object, like a toothpick, ends up as the catalyst for some great change or tragedy. The object can be the focus of the story, as you track its movements through space and time, or it can appear in a brief moment, only to rise back up with great consequence. Think about how the tiniest details can give a narrative a new spin.  

Big or Small?

posted 3.23.16

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice shrinks after drinking a potion labeled “DRINK ME,” and then later balloons in size after eating a cake labeled “EAT ME.” Write a story in which your main character is simultaneously confronted by these same two options and consequences. Which one does he choose? Does the sudden transformation in size help or hinder him as the story progresses? What aspects of his personality are brought to the forefront and magnified as a result?

Overnight Sensation

posted 3.16.16

Twenty years ago, Scot Rossillo started making rainbow bagels at his bagel store in Brooklyn, New York. In the last few months, with media attention, the popularity of the rainbow bagels has skyrocketed, even resulting in the temporary closure of one of his shops for renovations to keep up with the overwhelming demand. Write a story about a character who has been working on her own creative project for years—toiling in relative obscurity—and suddenly becomes an overnight sensation. How does she handle the increase in attention and demand for her work? What kind of new and unforeseen pressures might create conflict for her, and what kind of sacrifices is she willing—or not willing—to make?

Short Story Vending Machine

posted 3.9.16

Toward the end of last year, French publisher Short Édition unveiled short story vending machines in eight public places around the city of Grenoble in southeastern France. Users can choose either one, three, or five minutes' worth of fiction to read—ideal for waiting or commuting—and one of six hundred community-submitted stories is dispensed for free from the cylindrical orange vending machine on receiptlike paper. Try your hand at writing a short story that can be read in one minute; then write a three-minute story; and finally a five-minute story. How does manipulating diction, tone, and style make sense for different story lengths? Explore the use of dialogue and a limited number of characters necessary to accommodate the restricted length.

And the Award Goes to...

posted 3.2.16

The Academy Awards, National Book Awards, James Beard Awards, Grammy Awards, Nobel Prizes, and Super Bowl MVP Awards all recognize and celebrate the achievements of their recipients annually with great fanfare. Write a short story that begins with the main character winning a major award. Describe the award, real or imagined, and whether there is an accompanying prize in addition to the honor and acclaim. Does your character prove to be camera-shy or fame-hungry? Does the award ultimately change her circumstances for better or for worse? Are there surprising consequences?

Leap Year

posted 2.24.16

2016 is a Leap Year, meaning February gets an extra day on Monday, February 29. Push this one step further and invent—instead of an extra day—an extra month. Where would this thirteenth month fall in the calendar? In what season? Would it be named for an event or a person? Write a story that takes place within this month, using the invented details to enhance the story’s plot and tone. 

Helping

posted 2.17.16

“‘Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist. There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing,’” writes Annie Dillard to John Freeman in “Such Great Heights” by Freeman in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a scene in a short story in which a character with creative inclinations feels like he’s not being a helpful member of society. How does he shake himself out of it? Does his chosen course of action help his productivity as an artist? What does this change reveal about his place in the world of the story?

Fish Out of Water

posted 2.10.16

A black bear wanders into a backyard in Florida and tries out lounging in a hammock. A sloth is found stranded on a highway in Ecuador, clinging to a guardrail for dear life, and is rescued by transportation officials. A rabbit gets catapulted up onto a roof during a windy storm in Northern Ireland and is saved by firefighters. Write a scene in which a character—human or animal—finds himself in a situation where he is a fish out of water. Does he explore the new and foreign environment surrounding him, or is he in need of rescue?

Redemptive Voice

posted 2.3.16

In the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Tom Spanbauer talks about using the “redemptive voice,” which “can have the effect of a third-person omniscient voice...but also the very important added benefit of having a personality, actually being a part of, and speaking from, inside the story.” Write a short story in which your narrator’s voice is both informal and informed. How will you take advantage of a point of view that can travel through time and space?

Fictional Lonely Planet

posted 1.27.16

In The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi catalog the fictional places of world literature. From Italo Calvino’s invisible cities to Umberto Eco’s abbey in The Name of the Rose, Crusoe’s island to the vast worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, the volume explores how so many worlds of the imagination have come to influence our own. For an exercise, write your own guide for a fictional locale of your creation or one that you’ve recently encountered in reading. Consider what most characterizes this space: Is it the unique architecture of a structure, a brutal climate in harsh terrain, or the unique customs of an isolated people? 

Be Mine

posted 1.20.16

"A love story can never be about full possession.... Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart," writes Jeffrey Eugenides in his introduction to the anthology My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, From Chekhov to Munro (Harper, 2008). "Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name." Write a short story that gives love a "bad name," first plotting the blossoming and struggle of a relationship in your story arc, and then its ultimate dissolution. What's the primary obstacle for your characters? Are your lovers hindered by geographic distance, opposing political viewpoints, or financial woes? Does the tale involve online dating and mistaken identity? Or is it finally the characters' own emotional histories that provide the biggest conflict? Perhaps at love's peak your characters will catch a hopeful glimpse of "full possession."

Dear Author

posted 1.13.16

The importance of knowing one’s characters is well understood and near axiomatic for fiction writers. However, sometimes we think of this mostly as preparatory work done at the start of a story or novel and not for what it is: an ongoing process. One of the pleasures of writing fiction is seeing the way our characters develop and surprise us as the story evolves and works to make its meaning. For this exercise, pick a character who appears in a story or novel currently in progress. Write a letter to yourself in the voice of that character in which he or she reveals something to you that you didn’t know before. 

This week’s fiction prompt comes from Andrew Malan Milward, author of I Was a Revolutionary (Harper, 2015). Read Milward’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration. 

You Can't Go Home Again

posted 1.6.16

The popular saying “you can’t go home again” refers to the difficulty of matching a confrontation of one’s childhood and home as an adult with the version that exists in nostalgia-tinged memories. This week, write a scene in which your main character has attempted to “go home again” and is in for a rude awakening. What expectations and memories did she have before arriving home? Do the shortcomings of home reveal something about her personality and identity?

Two Sides

posted 12.30.15

In Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies (Riverhead Books, 2015), which President Barack Obama named his favorite book of 2015, a marriage is detailed first through the husband’s perspective, then the wife’s. His memories are fond, but hers, not so much. Take on that old adage about two sides to every story and pick a supporting character from a novel, film, or short piece, and rewrite a story from his or her point of view. You could even invent a character related to a famous one, as Sena Jeter Naslund did in her novel Ahab’s Wife (William Morrow, 1999). Experiment with how a scene or plot can be completely transformed just by a change of perspective.

Surprise Gift

posted 12.23.15

Sometimes the gifts we receive may seem plain or simple at first—another book, bag, pair of pants, or electronic gadget—but end up changing our lives in unexpected ways. Write a short story in which your main character receives a gift that he is unimpressed with, but that turns out to be more than meets the eye. Does using the gift result in a domino effect of unforeseen consequences? Is something surprising revealed about the gift giver?

Winter in Antarctica

posted 12.16.15

In Antarctica’s winter season, which takes place from late February through September, temperatures can reach one hundred degrees below zero Fahrenheit. There are about four months of complete darkness and the population typically shrinks to approximately one-fifth of its summer population size. Write a short story with the backdrop of an Antarctic winter. What unexpected circumstances might arise by being stuck indoors without sunlight with the same group of people for months in cramped quarters? What thoughts, occurrences, and behavior might be unique to the experience of living in such an extreme environment?

Mistaken Identity

posted 12.9.15

In many of Shakespeare's comedies, twists and turns in the story arc are caused by cases of mistaken identity. For example, in Twelfth Night, a young shipwrecked woman dresses up and pretends to be a young man in order to get a job; in As You Like It, the daughter of a duke disguises herself as a poor shepherdess; and in Measure for Measure, a duke impersonates a friar in order to spy and play tricks. Write a short story that starts with a scene in which your main character interacts with another character while in disguise. What does your character hope to gain by taking on this new persona? How must the character transform—both physically and emotionally? What are the limitations or pitfalls of the disguise? Conversely, are there doors that might now be open to this new identity that were closed before?

Wild Animal

posted 12.2.15

This week, write a scene in which your main character has an eye-opening encounter with a wild animal. Perhaps your character stumbles upon a raccoon, skunk, or opossum in an urban or suburban setting, or maybe it's an unexpected sighting of a bear or wolf in a remote forest. Does the encounter bring to the surface feelings of fear or compassion? Will the animal become symbolic for your character? For inspiration, watch Marsha de la O read her poem “Possum.”

Holiday Soliloquy

posted 11.25.15

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves explores the inner lives of its six characters through a sequence of connected soliloquies. Try writing a story using only soliloquies. Choose a scene that involves multiple characters, like a Thanksgiving dinner or a holiday party, and move between their inner monologues, building the setting and plot through each character’s unique thoughts and observations. When layered together, the different streams of consciousness will create the world in which these characters live.

Roll of the Dice

posted 11.18.15

In a recent conversation with President Obama, Marilynne Robinson observes that "people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice." This week, select a work-in-progress and add a new character to the story. Maybe it’s a stranger who gets involved in the plot, or someone from your protagonist’s past who suddenly shows up. You might decide whether this new character makes things easier or more difficult for your protagonist, or you might remain undecided as you write and see where this new relationship takes the story.

Fictitious Dish

posted 11.11.15

In Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature's Most Memorable Meals (Harper Design, 2014), Dinah Fried’s photographs are inspired by passages from some of her favorite classic and contemporary works of literature. Create a reversal of Fried's project by imagining the fictitious life story behind a meal. Look through some photos of complete meal spreads from different time periods, countries, and types of establishments and choose a photograph that piques your storytelling instincts. Develop a unique character, setting, and situation inspired by the food, tableware, and mood in the photograph.

Memoranda

posted 11.4.15

Development team Bit Byterz is currently in the process of completing creation of Memoranda, a video game inspired by twenty of Haruki Murakami's short stories. The game employs Murakami's trademarks of bizarre surrealism and characters who are in search of something they’ve lost. Continue this chain of inspiration by writing a short story revolving around an object or person—or even something more conceptual—that has been lost. Allow your scenes to unfold as a series of puzzles and problems to solve, as your main character journeys to locate the lost item.

On Holiday

posted 10.28.15

This week, create your own unique holiday, then write a piece of flash fiction about it. Include any traditions or customs that may be involved, and the story behind them. Is the main event a special feast, a bacchanalia, or a time to let loose an alter ego? Is it a day of celebration or contemplation? Explore what this holiday represents for the people who observe it.

Spine Tingler

posted 10.21.15

Vladimir Nabokov said, “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.” Try your hand at writing a spine-tingling tale. You might create a feeling of mystery or unease by introducing a creepy premise in the first sentence, or decide to lull the reader into a sense of security with a few run-of-the-mill details before unleashing an element of horror. For inspiration, read Nabokov's short story, "The Visit to the Museum."

Nobel Prize Invitation

posted 10.14.15

Last week, the 2015 Nobel Prize recipients were announced, awarding a writer, scientific researchers, and peace advocates from around the world whose areas of work range from molecular cell DNA repair to political mediation in Tunisia. Write a short story in which your main character finds himself invited to the Nobel Prize award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. What preconceived notions might he have about the festivities and winners? Is he star-struck, mildly impressed, or ambivalent? Does he have dubious plans beyond celebrating with the recipients and guests?

Stream of Unconsciousness

posted 10.7.15

Though in many ways the act of writing can be considered an exercise in control—over everything from plot arc to characters to the weather in your setting—what happens when you take a more passive position and relinquish control, allowing a story to emerge from your unconscious mind? Many scientists, spiritualists, and artists have reported on “automatic writing,” in which a person steers clear of putting any conscious intention behind the words that are put down. Try your hand by first writing about what comes to mind immediately: perhaps the changing colors and textures of autumn leaves outside, or everyday details about upcoming holidays and visiting family. Try not to pause or edit yourself. Gradually let your mind progress into an associative stream of consciousness. Take a look at what you’ve written and, using your favorite elements, write a short short story with a seasonal theme, allowing it to be nonsensical, absurd, or surreal.

The Raker

posted 9.30.15

Autumn leaves are a pleasurable part of the season, until it’s time to rake them up. Write a story about a character who rakes her neighbors’ lawns for extra cash. Have her deliver a short narrative about each home she visits. Delve into how these narratives relate to one another and whether they are intertwined. Do they reveal a greater story about the neighborhood that has been hidden until now? Does your narrator uncover secrets about her neighbors or her home?

Natural Disaster

posted 9.23.15

Recent wildfires in California and an earthquake and tsunami in Chile are potent reminders of how destructive forces of nature can be upon modern civilization. Out of catastrophe, however, we see acts of bravery, generosity, and compassion. Write a short story that takes place in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Examine the ways in which your main character's psychological and physical strength might be tested under the circumstances.

Future Species

posted 9.16.15

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a new species in the early human lineage: Homo naledi. Write a short story that takes discovery into the future by imagining a character who is of a new human species from the next millennium. What useful adaptations or physical differences might she have developed in order to survive an advanced environment? Would the progression of technology alter the need for long fingers or certain emotions?

Emotional Robot

posted 9.9.15

Designed by the French robotics company, Aldebaran, Pepper the robot is able to read emotions and respond accordingly, and has the ability to learn over time. Write a short story imagining that your protagonist has somehow acquired one of these highly sought-after robots. What plans or hopes does he have for Pepper? Will having the robot turn out to be a nightmare or a dream come true?

Personified Emotions

posted 9.2.15

In the recent animated film, Inside Out, the main character’s mind is steered by five personified emotions—anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. Imagine a scene in which your main character suddenly feels one of these emotions intensely. Jot down a list of colors, sensations, and personality traits you associate with this emotion. For example, if you choose anger, you might find yourself thinking of the color red, heat, erratic gestures and movements, and loud noises. Write a short story in which this emotion completely overtakes your character’s personality, using vivid sensory details to match the atmosphere and tone.

Telephone

posted 8.26.15

In the ​game of telephone, a sentence is whispered down a line from person to person until the last person says the sentence out loud, which oftentimes turns out to be humorously different, and distorted by misunderstandings, from the original. Write a short story that opens with a dialogue between two characters talking on the phone. After the conversation is finished, imagine that one character has completely misheard or misinterpreted something the other character has said. What are the consequences? Is the chain of events that the error sets off tragic or funny, relatively insignificant or life-changing?

Going Solo

posted 8.19.15

When the weather turns warm and the pace of life relaxes, it's a natural time to think about traveling. Whether you set off on a rambling road trip across the country, or catch a plane to a distant land, being away from home always feels like an adventure. But what happens if the person you planned to take a trip with can't go at the last minute? Write a story about this scenario, and have your main character decide to take the trip alone. How does this person handle traveling solo? What obstacles does she encounter? Maybe she decides to document the trip for the person who couldn't make it by writing diary entries, or perhaps she sends a postcard home every day. Write about the effect of this experience on the traveler's self-confidence and sense of independence.

Deus Ex Machina

posted 8.12.15

In modern storytelling, a deus ex machina is a plot device in which a dramatic and oftentimes contrived occurrence suddenly saves the day or solves a seemingly impossible problem.​ This week, write a short story using this device in the form of a character, object, or newfound ability. How will you manipulate the pacing to create the most effective sense of surprise? Consider the tone of the story, perhaps incorporating tragedy and comedy, as you lead up to the unexpected turn of events.

All Grown Up

posted 8.5.15

This week, think back to the most memorable books you read as a child, and pick one of your favorite children's book characters, such as Harriet the Spy or Curious George. Write a story that places the character into adulthood. What are the character’s distinctive traits that remain consistent? Would this well-known character be able to solve his or her grown-up problems in the same way?

Conflicting Evidence

posted 7.29.15

Penelope Lively says, "History is in fact not so much memory as it is an examination of conflicting evidences. And this is the same for a fictional purpose: in any scene there can be as many accounts of a scene as there were people present." This week, write two separate accounts of a scene in which a crime is unfolding, witnessed by two people who are standing side by side looking out the same window. How might two individuals be compelled to notice different details? What might this reveal about their personalities and emotional states?

Uncharacteristic Behavior

posted 7.22.15

What happens when you've created and written a character who is so thoroughly realized that he or she is always, well, in character? This week, write a scene in which your character is caught doing or saying something shockingly out of character. What event or realization has caused this atypical behavior, and what is your character's response to being confronted about it? Will the consequences be immediate and dramatic, or gradual and subtly psychological?

Fashion Statement

posted 7.15.15

Coco Chanel famously said, "Fashion has to do with the ideas, the way we live, what is happening." This week, focus on the way one of your characters gets dressed: Does he throw on the first thing he sees, or will it take hours for him to get ready? Is a typical outfit an accurate representation of his personality, or more of a disguise? Write a scene describing your character’s clothing in detail, and what is revealed about his demeanor through his attire.

Overheard

posted 7.8.15

Keep your ears open this week, and write down an intriguing phrase that you overhear. This might be a snippet of a sentence exchanged between two people talking, a few words spoken by someone on the phone next to you, or even part of a loudspeaker announcement. Spend some time imagining what led up to that remark. Then write the rest of the story making the overheard phrase your last sentence.

Mundane Moments

posted 7.1.15

This week, jot down a list of five actions you perform on a daily basis—maybe it's tying your shoes, getting off at a certain bus stop, buying a cup of coffee, or brushing your teeth. Choose one of these mundane moments and write a scene in which a character is in the middle of performing this everyday task. Then bring in an element of the fantastic: Does an extraterrestrial or a doppelgänger appear? Is the character suddenly transported into the past or future? Explore the possibilities of what can occur when the ordinary collides with the extraordinary.

Romantic Landscape

posted 6.24.15

In Elegy for a Dead World, a creative-writing video game featured in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, players write stories and poems while traversing through deserted worlds inspired by the poetry of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. This week, find fictional inspiration by choosing a Romantic poem and writing down, in complete sentences, the mood or atmosphere. Describe the visual landscape that you imagine, then create a scene and introduce characters.

Don't I Know You?

posted 6.17.15

You know that weird notion that sometimes surfaces when you meet new people—that feeling that you already know them, but can’t remember why or how? Write a scene for a story about two people who both experience the same déjà vu upon meeting, with a plot driven by their need to figure out how they know each other. Use this opportunity to add an element of magical realism to your story. Perhaps they were married in a past life, or maybe they met in a dream. Once they solve the puzzle, how does this impact their lives going forward? Do they even believe the answer, or do they agree it’s too far-fetched?

Unfamiliar Acquaintances

posted 6.10.15

Every so often, we run into people we recognize but can't quite place. Perhaps you catch sight of a strangely familiar face at your favorite coffee shop, and then later at a diner while visiting family out of town, and are puzzled by the coincidence. Write a story in which two of your characters keep crossing paths, either accidentally or because of particular circumstances. What keeps them from properly introducing themselves? Could they become good friends, or will they become adversaries?  

Specialty Dishes

posted 6.3.15

Cooks usually have a specialty dish that is made with pride—one that is requested by friends and family for special events and holiday gatherings. This week, write about a character who is known for his or her specialty dish. It could be as basic as chocolate chip cookies, or perhaps he or she has invented an original dish with unheard-of ingredients. Has this character's culinary genius been influenced by a family member? Is this cook a raw talent?

Amit Majmudar

posted 5.26.16

“Whether it's prose you want to write or poetry, if you're feeling blocked, simply open up Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian..."

Katie Chase

posted 5.19.16

“My approach to short stories is to think of each as its own world, with its own parameters, and even its own aesthetics. The tradeoff for the fun and satisfaction this brings..."

Tyehimba Jess

posted 5.12.16

“When I'm stuck, when I'm really stuck and the words can't seem to get out, there are a few things that I do to try to jar myself into action. Every poet has a few bibles of poetry—books..."

Kali VanBaale

posted 5.05.16

“Like most writers, I frequently rely on trusted early readers to give me constructive feedback for my work-in-progress. But after a certain point,..."

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