In an essay published in our September/October 2022 issue, Valeria Luiselli writes about her selection process as guest editor of The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, the latest installment of the anthology series. Luiselli speaks about the significance of the prize changing the “American author” rule to accepting all English-language writers appearing in North American publications regardless of citizenship, as well as work in translation, and how this opens up “the unknowable, the unpredictable, and the strange” within these short stories. She writes: “That is precisely what good stories feel like: Within the setting of complete familiarity, the flowering of the extraneous.” Inspired by this description, write a short story that follows an unpredictable path. Try, as Luiselli describes, to draw out extraneous outcomes from familiar circumstances.
Writing Prompts & Exercises
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers three new and original writing prompts each week to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also curate a list of essential books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend for guidance and inspiration. Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block, looking for a fresh topic, or just starting to write, our archive of writing prompts has what you need. Need a starter pack? Check out our Writing Prompts for Beginners.
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In a world run by technology, now more than ever, it can be rewarding to unplug, go outside, and look to the natural scenery around you. In Louise Glück’s poem “Sunrise,” the narrator reflects on the still, beautiful landscape in the hills and the ways in which nature is always there, persisting, even through life’s ups and downs. “And if you missed a day, there was always the next, / and if you missed a year, it didn’t matter, / the hills weren’t going anywhere, / the thyme and rosemary kept coming back, / the sun kept rising, the bushes kept bearing fruit,” writes Glück. Write a poem inspired by the beauty and perpetuity of the natural world that surrounds you. Think about the simplicity of a blade of grass or a flower petal, and how every detail is a life of its own.
For many the end of summer brings forth memories of transition, as a new school year is set to begin. Every year, especially during the formative time of late childhood through adolescence, students return from their summer vacations changed, having used the freedom of the time away to explore changing friendships, interests, and core beliefs. What recollections do you have of the end of summer and the beginning of the school year? Catalogue as many back-to-school memories as possible, from kindergarten through high school, perhaps using old photographs to guide you. What patterns and transformations do you come across? Using this list as a structure, write an essay charting this time in your life.
The beginning of the fall season is marked in late September by the autumnal equinox, which signals the shortening of days and lengthening of nights, and by the harvest moon. Although dependence on the moon has waned in modern society, farmers once looked to the bright, early moonlight to help harvest their summer crops. In many East Asian and Southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, the harvest moon is still honored through annual celebrations that include moon gazing, eating moon-shaped desserts, and lighting lanterns. Inspired by this rich history, write a story in which a protagonist relies on the harvest moon. How will you build the stakes for a story that depends on a lunar phenomenon?
In Jenny Xie’s poem “Memory Soldier,” which appears in her second collection, The Rupture Tense (Graywolf Press, 2022), the poet chronicles the life of Li Zhensheng, a photojournalist who documented the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. In the eight-page poem, Xie weaves back and forth from biographical information to spare descriptions of Zhensheng’s stark photographs, creating a rich reading experience that honors the life and work of the unflinching artist. “Li’s camera can capture distance in a face,” writes Xie. “It can materialize a person’s doubt, so transparent is his lens.” Write a poem in sections that considers the life and impact of an artist you admire. Whether through an essayistic prose form or lineated stanzas, how does the technique of accruing language inform your understanding of the chosen subject?
“The confessional booth felt like every other confessional booth I’d ever been in. The wood of the bench was so dark and uniformly grained that it looked fake, and the once-plush cushion atop it was now dingy and flat,” writes Isaac Fitzgerald in his memoir, Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional (Bloomsbury, 2022), in which he recounts the experience of confessing his sins to a priest when he was twelve at a church in Boston. In the passage, Fitzgerald both describes the physicality of the experience—the breath of the priest filling the confessional, hearing his disembodied voice—and maintains the intimacy of the first-person perspective, making the memory itself read like a confession. This week write a personal essay in the form of a confession. Does writing in this perspective change your narrative voice?
In an article for the New York Times for Kids special section for July, Josh Ocampo interviews sixty-eight kids over the course of three summer days on Coney Island in Brooklyn. The iconic neighborhood is best known for its festive boardwalk along the beach, annual hot dog eating contest, and amusement parks, home of the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone roller coaster. The article features quirky, silly, and sometimes serious responses to what they’ve experienced at the classic New York spot, such as taking their dog on the Ferris wheel, wearing a hat instead of sunscreen on their face, and how seagulls steal their hot dogs. Consider writing a story from the point of view of a kid spending the summer at a popular amusement park or beach boardwalk. What fleeting dramas take place during this hot and vigorous season?
“When in danger the sea-cucumber divides itself in two: / one self it surrenders for devouring by the world, / with the second it makes good its escape,” writes Wisława Szymborska in “Autotomy,” which appears in her collection Map: Collected and Last Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak. In the poem, Szymborska reflects on the creature’s process of autotomy, casting off a part of the body while under threat, through the lens of survival and mortality. She writes: “It splits violently into perdition and salvation, / into fine and reward, into what was and what will be.” Write a poem inspired by an animal’s unique behavior, perhaps the molting of a snake or the colorful courtship habits of a bowerbird. What does this behavior symbolize for you?
In an article for Atlas Obscura, Eden Arielle Gordon writes about the work of dendrochronologists dating the oldest tree in the world. Jonathan Barichivich is a Chilean scientist and grandson of a park ranger who discovered the Alerce Milenario, a Patagonian cypress in Chile’s Alerce Costero National Park. Barichivich’s careful calculations estimate the Alerce Milenario to be 5,474 years old, which would mean the cypress lived through several of the world’s most transformative events, including the development of writing, clocks, and the hydrogen bomb. Write a personal essay inspired by the discovery of this ancient tree. What would it mean to be over 5,000 years old? How would you reflect on the ways the world has changed?
In an essay excerpt published on Literary Hub, which appears in Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature (Graywolf Press, 2022), Charles Baxter writes about an exercise he would assign to his students in which they are asked to compile ten facts about one of their characters, encouraging them to consider “particularized details.” He writes: “For example, you can say, ‘She likes chocolate,’ but almost everybody likes chocolate. It’s better to say, ‘The only chocolate she will eat is imported from Mozambique.’” Try out this exercise and compile ten things you know about a new, invented character. Then, write a short story with this character at the core. How do these details inform the personality and actions of your protagonist?
The late poet and critic John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (Viking, 1975) is considered his masterpiece, having won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. The long title poem is a meditation on sixteenth-century Italian artist Parmigianino’s painting of the same name. Ashbery writes: “The surface / Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases / Significantly; that is, enough to make the point / That the soul is a captive.” This week write a poem about your reflection. Whether seen through a traditional mirror, a body of water, or a distorted lens, begin with a description of what you see and follow through with an inner reflection.
As heat waves strike around the globe, many flock to beaches and parks for refreshment and recreation with friends and family. Although being out in the hot weather requires sunblock and stamina, weekend excursions ultimately provide an opportunity to disconnect from work life, day-to-day duties, and the overall stress that comes with modern society. Think back to a time you visited a favorite place to relax on a weekend. Was it a quiet spot under the shade of a tree, a nearby body of water to dip your feet into, or a hiking trail with an incredible view? Write an essay that explores this experience at your favorite place. Try telling the backstory of what was happening in your life to color the essay with context and depth.
“My novel, An American Marriage, involves a husband and wife with an unusual challenge: Eighteen months after exchanging their vows, he is arrested and incarcerated for a crime he does not commit,” writes Tayari Jones in “Finding the Center” from an installment of our Craft Capsule series published in 2018. In the essay, Jones writes about the process of choosing the protagonist of her award-winning novel: “I discovered a fundamental truth of fiction and perhaps of life: The character with the most pressing material crisis will always be the center of the story.” This week, write a story in which you explore two sides of the same conflict between two characters. Whether by dividing the story into two parts, or weaving both perspectives together, how can you differentiate their individual stakes and perspectives?
In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters,” which appears in his 1979 collection, Field Work, the speaker faces an internal conflict in which he relishes in the “perfect memory” of eating oysters with friends while also dealing with the anger and “glut of privilege” that allows him such refined experiences. In the final sentence, as if avoiding the lingering guilt, Heaney writes: “I ate the day / Deliberately, that its tang / Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.” Write a poem in which a moment of pleasure is met with guilt or shame. Bring both feelings into focus, digging into the complexity of the scene.
“There are two kinds of silence that trouble a translator: physical silence and metaphysical silence,” writes Anne Carson in her essay “Variations on the Right to Remain Silent” published in A Public Space. In the essay, Carson discusses various forms of silence—whether of torn ancient manuscripts, the untranslatable, or not being heard—through the works of British painter Francis Bacon and German poet Friedrich Hölderlin, weaving in and out of anecdotes and analyses that are punctuated by the author’s extensive experience as a translator of ancient Greek. Inspired by this thought-provoking essay, meditate on the many ways that silence has taken shape in your life. Then, write an essay that uses the works of others, or your own personal life, to illustrate your experience with silence.
Literature is fueled by its villains as much as it is by its heroes, and oftentimes, the villains make more compelling characters due to their flaws, convincing arguments, and twisted aspirations. Shakespeare’s villains are infamous for their layers of complexity. For example, Lady Macbeth, as she sleepwalks in Act V of Macbeth, hallucinates and sees her own bloodstained hands revealing both her guilt as much as her cruelty: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!” she says. Then as she reflects on plotting to kill King Duncan says: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.” This week, write a story with a compelling, complicated villain at its core. How will you turn this villain into a three-dimensional character?
“Scientists have picked up a radio signal ‘heartbeat’ billions of light-years away,” reads an article headline published by NPR last Thursday from a report that astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology picked up radio signals that repeat in a clear periodic pattern similar to a beating heart from a galaxy billions of light-years from Earth. The discovery could help researchers determine at what speed the universe is expanding. Write a poem inspired by this headline in which you explore the metaphorical and literal ramifications of a “heartbeat” billions of light-years away.
In her lyric essay “Tsunami” published in the Margins, Juliet S. Kono uses the zuihitsu form to tell a layered story about how her family has survived through multiple tsunami attacks. The essay uses dates to introduce each section, beginning with her family emigrating from Japan to Hawai’i in the early 1900s, then jumping to the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, Japan, and culminating in 1946 when she and her family survived a deadly tsunami in Hilo, Hawai’i. Inspired by Kono, write a lyric essay that explores a shared history between you and your ancestors. Try using dates to structure the essay, adding historical and emotional layers to the narrative as you write.
This past Sunday marked Marcel Proust’s birthday, the French novelist, essayist, and critic whose list of work includes his iconic seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. In the first volume, Swann’s Way, the protagonist dips a madeleine cake in his tea, takes a sip, and is overcome with a sensation of joy he traces back to a childhood memory of sharing a snack with his aunt Léonie. Proust has been named the originator of the term “involuntary memory,” which, according to Psychology Today, is “now understood to be a common mental recall experience that happens without any effort.” This week, write a story in which a character experiences a moment of “involuntary memory.” Either through food or an unexpected encounter, try immersing the reader in this memory which uncovers a secret in your character’s life.
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsules series, Lauren Camp shares a technique she uses to salvage phrases from her poems that aren’t quite working. “Over the last few decades, I have maintained a Word document—I call it my ‘Keeps’ document,” Camp writes. “Into this file I paste my ‘darlings,’ margin to margin across the width and length of the page, smooshing them together with other beauties I couldn’t make work.” Inspired by Camp’s process, find a draft of a poem you have worked on but have yet to complete. Take a word or a line and repurpose it in a new poem. What surprising places do these words and phrases take you in your new work?
“My multiethnic existence is a protest against a racial hierarchy,” says Kali Fajardo-Anstine in “Keeping the Stories,” a profile by Rigoberto González published in the July/August 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “If you ask me about my identity, prepare to hear about a complicated ancestry. I am a Chicana of Indigenous and mixed ancestry, and the story of who I am is inextricably tied to this country.” Inspired by Fajardo-Anstine’s statement, write an essay about the experiences that influence how you identify yourself in the world. What are the many stories that make up who you are?
In Flannery O’Connor’s classic story “The Geranium,” an old, Southern man moves to New York City to live with his daughter and sits at the window looking into the apartment across the street where a potted geranium is set out on the ledge for sunlight every day. Although the story’s conflict involves the man’s racism and culture shock as a rural Southerner living in a big city, the story’s climax comes to a head when the geranium falls off the ledge and crashes six floors down into the alley. Write a story in which a character becomes obsessed with a neighbor’s life. What is transfixing about the neighbor’s daily routine that spurs on self-reflection for your character?
This past weekend, Independence Day was celebrated in the United States with barbecues, concerts, parades, picnics, and fireworks commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Amidst the celebration, the day has also become a reminder of what it means to uphold human rights. Write a poem reflecting on celebrating the country you grew up in and all the complicated feelings and memories that come along. For inspiration, read “Ghazal: America the Beautiful” by Alicia Ostriker, included in the archives of the Academy of American Poets’ website.
In the introduction to the anthology This Woman’s Work: Essays on Music (Hachette, 2022) edited by Kim Gordon and Sinéad Gleeson, which is featured in “The Anthologist” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, composer and guitarist Heather Leigh writes about how the authors of each essay acknowledge that “music somehow remains intangible” and how “we can try to explain and to rationalize it, but we’re seduced back by the song.” What music seduces and captures you? Using this question as a guide, write an essay that centers around the impact a certain song or musician has had on your life. Use tangible memories and details to add texture to the composition of your essay.
According to Merriam-Webster, the “dog days” are “the period between early July and early September when the hot sultry weather of summer usually occurs in the northern hemisphere.” As the month of July begins this week, many may begin to experience extreme heat and the stress that arrives along with it. Write a story set during the dog days of summer. Perhaps your character is faced with a big decision on the hottest day of the year or is on an exciting summer trip. How can the harsh weather add pressure to your character’s behavior?