“This is a novel. All facts are true, but I have imagined feelings, thoughts, and dialogue. I used intuition and deduction rather than actual invention…. When I read about him, something happened. He started to live in my head like a character in a novel,” writes Catherine Cusset in the prologue to her latest book, Life of David Hockney: A Novel (Other Press, 2019), translated from the French by Teresa Fagan, which offers a portrait of the famous painter through a blend of biography and fiction. Think of an artist whose work you admire, whose character or life circumstances resonate with you in a personal way. Research some basic facts about this artist’s life, and then write a short story that focuses on emotional truth, using your intuition to imagine feelings and thoughts.
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.
In “Job Opening: Seeking Historian With Tolerance for Harsh Weather, the Occasional Bear,” MPR News reporter Euan Kerr interviews Lee Radzak about his retirement this spring after thirty-six years as the lighthouse keeper at Split Rock Lighthouse on Lake Superior in Minnesota. Radzak says many of the romantic notions about lighthouses can be attributed to the physical space they inhabit on “the edge—the edge of land and of water,” but that there are also difficult and tedious tasks that accompany his job. This week, write a story about someone who resides and works in a space that is intermittently peopled and completely isolated—a national park, a large estate, or a new planet. How do these extremes affect the life of your character?
“Experiencing gives you a ‘first’ person perspective. You see others while you act. Watching gives you a ‘third’ person perspective. You learn something about how others see you,” says Elizabeth Loftus, a UC Irvine professor who studies memory, in Julia Cho’s New York Times piece on how watching a recording of an event can alter one’s initial memory of the experience. Write a scene in which your character attends or participates in a performance, party, or special occasion. Explore how her initial memory of the experience changes once she watches a video of the event. What stands out from the recording that hadn’t been noticed before? How does this reshape her memory?
What does it mean to be crowned the ugliest in the village? Every year, thousands gather in Piobbico, Italy to attend the Festival of the Ugly and vote for the president of the World Association of Ugly People, known by locals as Club dei Brutti. In the Paris Review, Rebecca Brill writes of the festival and attendees: “Centuries of hard work have destigmatized ugliness to the point that Piobbicans declare their ugliness cavalierly, as if the categorization were no more charged than that of having say, brown hair or blue eyes.” This week, write a story in which characters vie for a prize or title that would be generally considered undesirable. Describe the history of the competition and what this unusual accolade means to your characters.
This spring, a six-ton potato structure, formerly used as a traveling advertisement by the Idaho Potato Commission, will be available for guests to rent through Airbnb. The Big Idaho Potato Hotel includes amenities such as air conditioning and heating, a bathroom, an indoor fireplace, and an antler chandelier. Located on four hundred acres of farmland about twenty-five miles southeast of Boise, the one-bedroom potato can accommodate two people. Write a story that revolves around a character’s stay in the potato. Does the unconventional setting lead to weird, scary, or humorous occurrences?
“Each of us came with a past attached, like a wagon or a bindle or a hump.” In Kathryn Davis’s eighth novel, The Silk Road (Graywolf Press, 2019), the recollection of this inescapable past is a means by which the main characters—eight siblings with names such as the Astronomer, the Botanist, the Cook, and the Geographer—examine their memories of childhood and is integral to how their futures will unfold. Each character’s journey meanders and doubles back onto itself like a labyrinth, sometimes intertwining with another’s, and as the story progresses, the gradual recombining and layering of past memories sheds light on the shifting and ephemeral nature of all trajectories. Write a story that revolves around a small group of characters whose pasts are connected. How does the weight of each person’s past eventually prove to have immense bearing on the present and future of everyone in the group?
“You don’t need to look up the specifics of some detail right that moment. You just don’t. So you get the state wrong when you’re writing the short story that was inspired by that Internet video of the black bear that broke into a house and played the piano in what you think was probably Colorado,” writes Camille T. Dungy in “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story inspired by a strange or humorous Internet video you watched a while ago. Don’t worry about rewatching it to make sure you get the details right. Allow the fallibility of your memory to take the story into a new and bolder direction.
According to a recent study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, scientists found evidence in a cave in Texas that 1,500 years ago, someone ate a venomous snake whole. The discovery was made through analysis of coprolite, fossilized poop, which revealed a wealth of information about the ancient forager’s life and times. While there is no way to be certain, the archaeologists believe it’s possible that the snake was eaten for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes. Write a short story in which your main character finds a fossil in an unlikely place. How does this discovery steer your character into a mystery?
For decades, phones shaped like Garfield—Jim Davis’s comic strip cat best known for being lazy and loving lasagna—kept washing up on the northwest coast of France seemingly out of the blue. The mystery was finally solved after a French environmental group discovered an abandoned shipping container filled with these feline phones lodged deep inside a nearby cave, according to a recent report in the Washington Post. This week, write a story about an enigmatic object that surfaces near a body of water. Concoct an explanation that is logical, fantastical, or somewhere in between—a statement on wastefulness and global pollution or about the magical interconnectedness of the world. For ideas and photographs of strange artifacts discovered underwater, including an ice cream truck and a giraffe, visit Underwater New York.
Earlier this month, a woman in Taiwan who was clearing weeds from a gravestone as part of the Chinese Qingming Festival—a day for sweeping, tidying, and paying respects at ancestral tombs—felt a sudden pain in her left eye. Upon seeking medical attention, the source of the swollenness turned out to be four bees that had flown into her eye and were feeding on her tear ducts. Write a short horror story that starts with a seemingly innocuous irritation that turns out to be something more unsavory. Begin your story with a presumably everyday nuisance—sand in your eye, a pebble in your shoe, a paper cut on your finger—and then let the horror unfold bit by bit.
In a study published last week in Scientific Reports journal, psychologists reported findings that cats are able to recognize and respond to their names. Dogs, however, have a definite advantage, having been domesticated twenty thousand years before cats by humans who intentionally bred them to be obedient. Write a story that has a temperamental cat in it, sometimes responsive and other times quite aloof. What purpose does the cat serve in the story? How can you depict the cat as more than just stereotypically mercurial?
Chindogu, a Japanese term that literally translated means “weird tool,” was coined by Kenji Kawakami, former editor of a monthly magazine called Mail Order Life. As a prank, Kawakami published prototypes for his own bizarre inventions, that were intentionally useless and could not actually be purchased, in the magazine and later in a book titled 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu (Norton, 1995). Some of his popular inventions include the Eye Drop Funnel Glasses, the Dumbbell Telephone, and Duster Slippers for Cats. For this week’s fiction prompt, write a short story that envisions the backstory for one of these good-natured but impractical contraptions, or invent one yourself following one of the tenets of Chindogu: “You have to be able to hold it in your hand and think, ‘I can actually imagine someone using this. Almost.’”
“A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge…. After this gingerbread you might sweat, swell, and suffer, shed limbs.” In Helen Oyeyemi’s sixth novel, Gingerbread, published in March by Riverhead Books, a mysteriously powerful homemade gingerbread wends its way like a spell through multiple generations of friendships and familial relationships. At times it plays an integral role in the alienating forces that drive characters painfully apart, and at other times it proves to be a tie that reinvigorates the complex bonds between mothers and daughters, as well as between friends. Taking inspiration from an ingredient, dish, or recipe that has meaning for your own family, write a short story that revolves around food and how the sharing of it can be both nurturing and disruptive. You might do some research into the larger cultural or geographical history of the food, or integrate elements of folklore or mythology.
Does common sense go out the window when you go grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Last fall scientists published findings in Science Advances that even snails start making questionable food choices when they’ve gone too long without eating. Extreme hunger alters the brain’s perception of stimuli in a way that makes otherwise unappealing nourishment seem worthy of the risk, which explains why you might find yourself walking out of a grocery store with bizarre food combinations. Write a short story in which your main character makes an unusual choice while in the throes of hunger. Does it turn out to be merely a comic interlude or are there irreversible consequences?
Ancient Greek and Egyptian texts dating back two thousand years have recorded the use of leeches to treat everything from headaches to ear infections to hemorrhoids. More recently, magnetic therapy has been marketed in the form of magnetic jewelry, belts, and blankets to help alleviate pain, depression, and even boost energy. Write a short story in which a character makes the decision to seek out an unusual or unorthodox form of treatment. Is it an unexpected choice or does it seem to align with personality, circumstances, and setting? What has led your character to this unconventional option and how do loved ones react to this decision?
“Children force parents to go out looking for...the right way of telling the story, knowing that stories don’t fix anything or save anyone but maybe make the world both more complex and more tolerable,” writes Valeria Luiselli in her fourth novel, Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), which she speaks about in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story in which a parent or guardian character must figure out “the right way” to tell a child some difficult news, perhaps in a moment of particular uncertainty, danger, or crisis. Describe the conflicts in deciding what to tell and not tell in an effort to make the world feel more tolerable. How does the child react to what’s been told?
In “Color Blind Pal,” Zoe Dubno’s New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation essay, she writes about a life-changing experience at a family fondue dinner when she was twelve and upset her brother by grabbing his green fork repeatedly instead of her orange one. Only half of one percent of women have red-green color blindness (compared with eight percent of men), so it often goes unrecognized—unless a significant social faux pas brings it into focus. Write a story in which one of your characters is unable to see, feel, smell, or hear something specific (i.e. bird calls, plant thorns, burnt toast), but does not realize it until an encounter involving a mix-up occurs. Does this alter the way your character experiences the world? Is it a life-changing moment?
Scientists at NASA announced earlier this month that 2018 was officially the fourth warmest year since 1880, the earliest year that records of the Earth’s global surface temperature are available. In fact, the past five years have been the warmest in the record, marking a trend of steadily increasing temperatures. Write a short story that takes place somewhere that is always hot, and with temperatures that continue to rise. Do your characters remember and reminisce about days of cold? In what ways does this world function and look different from the one we live in today?
Last month’s total lunar eclipse during a “super blood wolf moon” was watched by millions of people around the world. Already a rare cosmic occurrence, what was particularly unusual was that many cameras caught a tiny flash during the eclipse, which one astronomer quickly deemed was a speeding meteoroid crashing into the moon. While lunar impacts happen all the time, the visibility and recording of one was unique since the flash of light could only be seen from Earth because of the shadow caused by the eclipse. Write a short story in which something unexpected is caught on camera during a shared celestial experience that has never been filmed before. Is it cause for concern, terror, wonder, or humor?
Last week, news surfaced that a glitch in Apple’s FaceTime group-chatting feature was allowing someone placing a video call to eavesdrop on another person through their phone’s microphone even if the call went unanswered. Write a short story that begins with your main character inadvertently catching something not meant for her eyes or ears through a video call. Does she pretend it didn’t happen, force a confrontation, or figure out a way to turn it to her advantage?
Marie Kondo has been making recent headlines for her Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, which follows the organizing consultant as she helps families clean up and declutter their homes. The show has sparked a wave of donations to used bookstores and thrift stores as well as social media posts of celebrities and noncelebrities following Kondo’s tips and KonMari method. For this week’s prompt, brainstorm a list of the strangest items you might find in a donation bin or out on the curb. Write a series of flash fiction stories about a few of these objects. Describe each piece in careful detail—involving as many of the senses as you can—and imagine why it was discarded and what it may have meant to the original owner.
“I am glad it cannot happen twice, the fever of first love. For it is a fever, and a burden, too, whatever the poets may say,” writes Daphne du Maurier in her 1938 Gothic novel, Rebecca. First love between characters who meet and bond at a young age has often been depicted in literature as feverish obsession sustained over the course of many years. Consider the monstrously toxic romance between Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and the fifty-plus-year separation of lovers in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Write a story that revolves around a character’s experience of first love. Explore your character’s perceptions of love and how they evolve over time.
“The stories that we tell ourselves and the stories we learn from others are a matter of life and death. Literature has the ability to literally change our minds—to change how we act, how we grow, what we believe, how we vote, how and when we speak,” says Morgan Parker in “Portraits of Inspiration” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a short story that revolves around a subject, topic, issue, or idea that feels intensely important, urgent, or vital to you. How can you create a character that becomes a source of empathy for what matters to you?
In E. L. Konigsburg’s 1967 classic children’s book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, two young runaways hole up in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for some adventure, but what would happen if it were a museum of food instead of art? Browse through National Geographic’s roundup of food museums and food factory tours—including ones for bread, Coca-Cola, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, chocolate, and ramen—and write a short story in which your protagonist has a memorable experience in one of these gastronomically focused places. Does the experience leave nothing—or everything—to be desired?
“There is no market, school, doctor, or shop, and from late-autumn until mid-spring the village is inaccessible by car and uninhabited,” Alex Crevar writes in National Geographic about Lukomir, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s highest village and home to just seventeen families. Write a story set in such a place (real or imagined) that is similarly caught between modernity and the social and technological isolation of its landscape. What does living in this world do to alter the interactions and daily concerns of its inhabitants? Is there a generational shift or a longing for change?