In the profile “Emma Straub’s Life in Letters” (Poets & Writers Magazine, September/October 2012), author Emma Straub reveals that the genesis for her novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures was an obituary she read about a woman named Jennifer Jones. After reading the obituary, she wrote a fictionalized account of her life. Follow Straub’s example: Read the obituary section of a newspaper, and write a story with a main character loosely based on what you find.
The Time Is Now
The Time Is Now offers a weekly writing prompt (we’ll post a poetry prompt on Tuesdays, a fiction prompt on Wednesdays, and a creative nonfiction prompt on Thursdays) to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also offer a selection of books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend you check out for inspiration, plus advice and insight on the writing process from the authors profiled in Poets & Writers Magazine. And don’t miss Writers Recommend, which includes books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired other authors in their writing.
Choose a poem that needs revising and transform it into a Shakespearean sonnet—a poem of fourteen lines, arranged in three quatrains (a rhyming stanza of four lines) and one couplet (two rhyming lines). The end of every other line in each quatrain should rhyme (or sound similar), and the end of each line in the final couplet should also rhyme (or sound similar). Visit the Academy of American Poets website and search "sonnet" for examples.
Sometimes our dreams tell a story about our lives. Think about a dream you’ve had—it could be a recent one, one that you recall from your past, or one that recurs. Write down the details of the dream as descriptively as your memory allows, focusing on imagery, narrative, characters, and any odd or distinct details you can recall. Once you’ve written a description, freewrite about what the images, characters, and details remind you of from your waking life. Then, using the material you've generated, write a short essay about the dream. What do you think it meant? What experiences or emotions did it represent? Did it seem real or otherworldly? How did it made you feel upon waking? For future dream analysis exercises, keep a dream diary by your bed and record your dreams first thing each morning.
Write a story composed entirely of letters from one character to another who never replies. The characters could know each other or could be complete strangers. For an example, read Claire Vaye Watkins's story "The Last Thing We Need" in her collection Battleborn (Riverhead Books, 2012).
Revisit one of your poems that needs revising, especially in terms of its length. Rewrite it on a postcard, including only what is most important, using the limited space of the postcard as your guide. When you've finished, consider mailing it to someone!
Some of the best stories and essays revolve around the author's hometown. Spend fifteen minutes freewriting about the town or city in which you grew up. Focus on the people, the places, the landscape, and the memories surrounding them. Where was your favorite place to eat? Who were the most interesting characters? What did you do with your family and friends? What did the school look like? Where did you go when you wanted to run away?
In R. V. Cassill’s classic book Writing Fiction (Prentice Hall Trade, 1975), he describes “conversion,” a method for revision that he says is “vaguely comparable to transposing a piece of music from one key to another.” Try the following conversion exercise: Cut up a story into its paragraphs (using scissors). Rearrange the paragraphs, and add any connective writing needed to support the new structure.
Choose a poem—one of your favorites or one you select randomly—and closely analyze its structure. How many stanzas does it have? How many lines comprise each stanza? How many stressed syllables are in each line? Is there a pattern to the number of syllables per line? Once you've fully analyzed the structure, write a poem of your own using that structure.
Extreme experiences can significantly alter our perspective on life. Write an essay about a time when you faced a near-death experience, or believed you were in serious danger. Consider the following questions: How did you react immediately? How did you respond later? In retrospect, do you wish you'd reacted differently when it happened? What from the experience do you still carry with you?
One of a writer’s most powerful tools is sensory perception. As an exercise, deprive yourself of stimulation. Sit quietly in a dark room, turn off and hide your electronics, and avoid becoming distracted. Try this for an entire day, or whatever time span you can manage. After leaving yourself alone with your thoughts for some time, write a story inspired by your musings. Try starting with a single sentence that may have risen to the surface during your day.
Read up on a famous figure (living or dead) whose personality is completely different from your own. Write a poem from that person's perspective about an important event or series of events that shaped who he or she was.
Now that fall has almost arrived, ruminate about all that happened over the summer. Choose a moment or a scene that you distinctly remember and freewrite about it. What took place? Who was involved? Is it important? If not, why did you remember it? How did it make you feel? Review your freewriting and transform what you discover into an essay that transcends the subject at hand, so that it has universal appeal to readers.
Write a story with two major threads, each with two characters. For example, the first could be a man and a woman driving in a car–where are they going? what happens along the way? what are they discussing? The second thread could be about two boys in a canoe–do they get along? what is the relationship between them? what happens to cause tension between them? Switch back and forth between each thread, spinning each of the stories. Find a way to slowly weave the stories together: Do the two sets of characters cross paths? Are they somehow related? Is one story something that happened in the past of a character from the other story?
Write a poem that incorporates the following words: transfer, single, impend, knot, rhapsody, revue, air lock.
Tell a story through the journal entries and/or correspondences of the central characters. Note how the switch between different perspectives and the reliability—or lack thereof—of the characters affect the way the plot is revealed to the reader. For inspiration, read Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story.
Spend a day at a museum or reading an art book. Choose a piece of artwork that you enjoy or that you find thought-provoking. Rather than composing an ekphrasis that comments on the artwork itself, try your hand at writing a poem in the “mode” of the artwork. This may mean writing a poem in the poetic style that you think is reflected by the artwork, or it may mean trying to write in what you perceive to be the “tone” or "voice" of the artwork.
Compose a table of contents for your life. Include titles, subtitles, sections, and chapters that outline a period—or the entirety—of your life. Once you've finished the table, write a brief summary for each section.
Compose a story by making a fairy tale or old folktale contemporary. Aim to retain the basic plot of the original tale, but have the characters' tensions and fears reflect twenty-first-century encounters and conflicts. For an added challenge, offer an alternate ending or tell the narrative from an unexpected perspective.
Write a poem that addresses a past or future version of yourself. Write in the second-person singular. Reassure a younger self, send warnings to a future self, or ask questions to which you don’t know the answers.
Using the advice column as your form, write about a problem or challenge you have faced. Addressing a fictional recipient who is facing the same issue, offer your best advice on how to handle the situation. For inspiration, check out the Rumpus's advice column, "Dear Sugar," penned by creative nonfiction writer Cheryl Strayed.
Write a short story in which a museum is the setting for the central conflict. Consider the following questions: What kind of museum is it? Why are the characters there? Do any of the museum's objects trigger a turn in the story? Visit a local museum or peruse one's holdings online to find inspiration.
During the next week, take note of the various flora and fauna you encounter. Look through classification books or search online for the precise names for the animals, birds, and plants you’ve observed. Choose the most sonorous names and include two in your next poem.
The letter is one of the earliest and most widely practiced forms of the personal essay: It tells a story about the author's life; it poses questions; and, perhaps most important, it's a way of connecting to a reader. Write a letter to someone you know, keeping the basic tenants of the personal essay in mind. The letter should be about you, but should also somehow address a larger question or idea. For inspiration, check out Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road (Grossman, 1970), a collection of letters that documents her years-long correspondence and relationship with the owners of Marks & Co., a bookstore in London.
Write a story in which one of the following objects triggers a flashback: a child’s keyboard, a bag of Werther’s Original Caramels, a taxidermied animal, a bar of lavender soap, or an old travel brochure.
In his poem “Refrigerator, 1957” (originally published in the New Yorker, July 28, 1997), Thomas Lux writes about a jar of “lit-from-within red” maraschino cherries that, as a boy, he never ate from. Write a poem about something that you longed for when you were younger, but was always off-limits.