“We realized there was a whole hidden collection within the collection,” says Kristin Jensen, the manager of a project that archives the marginalia and materials found in circulating library collections around the world, in “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Readers from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it turned out, used books as souvenirs, journals, greeting cards, funeral programs, and invitations, among myriad other purposes.” Write a short story in which a character uses the blank pages or margins of a book to write a diary entry or letter, or to press flowers. What’s the significance of the particular book chosen? Is there someone on the receiving end, or are the traces discovered years later by accident?
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.
The New York Times’s recent “More Than a Meal” series featured essays by renowned writers about memorable meals experienced in restaurants at a time when reminiscing about dining out has been the restaurant goer’s solace. The meals described range from Ruth Reichl writing about a fancy restaurant in Paris, to Samantha Irby writing about the Cheesecake Factory, to Alexander Chee writing about waiting tables at a Theater District restaurant in Manhattan. Write a scene that takes place in a restaurant. Is this the first time your character has dined out in a long time, or does she frequent this establishment every week? What is revealed about her personality or state of mind through her interactions with others in the restaurant?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful? What is your most terrible memory? What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about? In a 1997 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologist Arthur Aron along with scholars Edward Melinat, Elaine N. Aron, Robert Darrin Vallone, and Renee J. Bator developed thirty-six questions that supposedly lead to accelerated intimacy between two strangers. Write a story in which two strangers stuck together for a set amount of time decide to ask each other some of these questions. Is it by accident? Does one of them have designs on the other? Do the questions succeed in breaking down emotional barriers or lead to unexpected consequences?Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this prompt, we neglected to include information about Elaine Aron’s professional qualifications as well as the other scholars involved in the study; the prompt has been updated to include this information.
What power will your words hold in one hundred years? In the New Yorker profile “Maxine Hong Kingston’s Genre-Defying Life and Work,” Hua Hsu writes about Kingston’s idea to publish a posthumous novel, which came to her after learning that Mark Twain’s autobiography wasn’t released in uncensored form until a hundred years after his death. “If Kingston knew that she wouldn’t have to answer for her work, perhaps she would be able to write more freely,” writes Hsu. Write a short story with the thought that it will not be published or read for one hundred years after your death. What freedom does this grant you in terms of subject matter, voice, style, politics, characterization, or structure?
“One week before my wedding day, upon returning to my hotel room with a tube of borrowed toothpaste, I find a small bird waiting inside the area called the antechamber and know within moments it is my grandmother.” In Marie-Helene Bertino’s second novel, Parakeet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), the narrator’s dead grandmother returns to life as a parakeet and bestows the bride-to-be with the task of finding her estranged brother. Write a story in which your protagonist is confronted with a lost loved one who has come back to life in another form. What is the significance of the form you choose to house the spirit? Is there an important purpose or mission handed down?
“In the hollow of her throat, a tendon was jumping. I felt it in my own neck. The rigid angle of her arm: my arm, too, was oddly bent. Always between us there had been this symmetry,” writes Kyle McCarthy in her debut novel, Everyone Knows How Much I Love You (Ballantine Books, 2020). This scene, in which the protagonist reunites with a childhood friend and experiences a rush of intense feelings, serves as a portent of the story that follows: a dark exploration of the secret and inexplicable longings present in ourselves and our relationships with others. Write a short story that begins with a main character coming face-to-face with an old friend. Do sentiments that went unarticulated as children surface in unexpected ways years later?
A recent headline on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s discussion site announced “Migration Alert: northeastern North America flood gates open, 14–18 May 2020,” reporting high-intensity concentrations of migratory birds, which “coincides with a significant warming trend and also the potential for precipitation.” Write a short story that launches with the opening of floodgates—something that has been restrained or kept in containment which now bursts free. What confluence of forces had to combine to create the circumstances that would allow this to happen? Focus on the impact this release has on characters’ emotions, and how they deal with the fallout.
“Each of my pilgrimages aims at some other pilgrim,” writes Olga Tokarczuk in her novel Flights (Riverhead Books, 2018), translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. This sentence is repeated throughout the book, which unfolds as a series of scenes, vignettes, and stories told and relayed by a traveling narrator, stories both expansive and intimate which span and hop back and forth between different eras, continents, and a vast array of histories and disciplines. This week, conceive of a pilgrimage for a main character who is in search of an answer to a big life question. How might your character find guidance on this journey by turning toward other pilgrims from the past?
“You know who I imagine? The narrator. I imagine the narrator as an actual reader, reading what I’ve written and commenting to me about the voice and point of view,” writes Lorrie Moore in a New Yorker interview by Deborah Treisman, about the reader she imagines when writing. “You have to be true to your narrator. The narrator is the supreme reader. And narrators may quibble with the narration you’ve created for them.” Write a new version of an old story, or perhaps one you never finished, while imagining that the narrator has objections about how they are portrayed. Adjust the voice to be true to your narrator’s new needs.
In what circumstances are a person’s true colors revealed? Sometimes in times of chaos or upheaval, latent strengths, abilities, foibles, or idiosyncrasies come to the surface, which can be as much of a surprise to oneself as to others. This week, write a short story in which your main character learns something new about themselves during a crisis. Is there an unexpected feeling of panic, wild and unpredictable behavior, or is all eerily calm? Does your character step up to the plate or cower under pressure?
“I had never tried to map story—the elements of narrative that move from a state of equilibrium for the protagonist to disequilibrium to equilibrium restored—onto theory. I had never interrogated that artistically. That arc is not available to blackness, there is no equilibrium to be regained,” says Frank B. Wilderson III in a New York Times interview with John Williams about writing his new book of memoir and philosophy, Afropessimism (Liveright, 2020). “What does it mean to tell the story of a sentient being who does not need to transgress to experience the violence of lynchings, of slavery, of incarceration? What does it mean to not have an arc from innocence to guilt?” Write a short story that tells the tale of a main character’s unsettling experience, one that does not follow a conventional arc but upends this narrative order. What questions or new ideas are brought up by this disruption?
“The care of a human body ties people to the physical, social world they’ve been abruptly forced to leave behind,” writes Amanda Mull in “Isolation Is Changing How You Look” at the Atlantic. “Stuck inside, people are left with just their existing tools and skills, trying to maintain their sense of self, or at least their eyebrows. With people’s faces, so go their identities.” Consider how this time of quarantine and isolation is affecting our grooming rituals and self-identity, and try writing a short story where your main character makes a change to their physical appearance, either drastic or small, in response to a pivotal moment in their life. Track their thoughts throughout the process including both their physical and internal selfhood.
Like the taste and scent of the madeleine that prompts a flood of memories in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the pungent aroma of a grandmother’s homemade tea transports the main character of Dorothy Tse’s short story “Sour Meat,” translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce and included in That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction (Two Lines Press, March 2020). “F’s memories of Grandma were hazy. If it hadn’t been for the intense, distinctive smell of the tea, she’d have written them off as figments of her imagination.” Write a story that revolves around an aromatic encounter that brings to the surface unexpected memories for your main character. Do these memorable aromas propel your character toward light or fraught memories, or perhaps something complex and pleasurably in between?
In “How to See the World When You’re Stuck at Home,” a New York Times essay about using Google Street View to explore the world, Reif Larsen writes: “I often turn to it as a research tool when I’m writing a novel but more often than not, I simply use it to practice being a curious human. What an unbelievable resource! An endless fountain for little details.” Think of a place—a region, country, specific city, or remote locale that you find evocative—and take a voyage using Street View on Google Maps, which collects panoramic images from Google Street View car cameras and individual contributors. Explore the architecture, local flora and fauna, and any people who were caught on camera. Write a short story that responds to the images you see, and let your imagination fill in other sensory details and observations.
When asked the question, “What kind of writing is possible in a time of crisis?” by the Guardian, author Bhanu Kapil responded, “That is a question that people have been answering with their bodies all over the world for a very long time. But here we are. Let’s see what unfolds. What is a page for? What is a sentence for?” This week, open up a new page. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself what this page can be, for you, right now. What will your first sentence offer? What about the next? Allow a story to pour or trickle out until your page is full. Perhaps you will be surprised with what there is to say.
“This is how you tell a story,” says narrator Tilda Swinton in a short film written and directed by Andrew Ondrejcak, which goes through six steps of a writer’s process paired with a dance choreographed by Kyle Abraham. “There is a problem. It is an obstacle so monumental that it seems unlikely our tiny protagonist will be able to overcome something so impressive. It’s a mountain pressing down, it’s a witch, a curse, a giant.” Think of the motions associated with loneliness and heartbreak, and write a scene of a short story that foregrounds your protagonist’s movements as they experience one of these invisible obstacles.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell,” concludes the prologue to Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (Knopf, 1992). In a piece in Book Riot in praise of prologues, Nikki VanRy writes, “a good prologue is one that introduces the tone and style of the story. A great prologue, however, is all about setting the stage, baiting the tease, opening up the mystery, allowing the reader to come in slowly and—once they’re there—hooking them.” Write a brief prologue to a short story you’re in the process of writing. How does your prologue create an opening to your story that strikes a balance of laying the groundwork and setting the bait?
“It is a very old sound, the sound of people who decided to sit in the same sheltered space for a few hours, with food and drink in front of them, their family or friends at their side, and forget about the snarling beasts they battled all day,” writes New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells in defense of noisy restaurants. “There is the skipping, questioning rhythm of flirtation; the confident bleat of people showing off money; the squawk of debate.” Write a story that takes place amidst the hustle and bustle of a meal in a noisy restaurant. How do the words spoken by other diners and restaurant staff, and the ambient sounds of moving bodies and food being served, intertwine with the interactions of your characters?
“There is sort of a recurring character with different names, this extremely self-possessed, undereducated person. There’s absolutely an element of autobiography there,” says Emily St. John Mandel in a profile by Michael Bourne in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Bourne describes the different iterations of heroines that have surfaced again and again in each of Mandel’s novels: “The figure of the rootless young woman with few worldly possessions beyond a fierce intelligence and a certain relentlessness.” Think of a character from a short story you’ve written in the past who possesses certain personality traits based on your own, and resurrect this character for a new story. Which characteristics remain intact and which are more dispensable?
In A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s latest film about an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight on behalf of the Nazis during World War II even while faced with execution for his defiance, the camera moves across landscapes as actors are kept in constant motion. Vulture film critic Bilge Ebiri reasons that this continuous movement of both camera and actor becomes a dance of sorts. Write a short story where you place emphasis on the movement of your characters’ bodies. Focus closely on their actions, how they relate to one another spatially, and try to keep your writerly eye on the move. Create a dance that becomes a narrative of its own. What emotional states do these movements reveal?
“Infatuation is a solitary pursuit. Dante doesn’t want to be with Beatrice: he wants to be alone,” writes Anne Boyer in “The One and Only” in the journal Mal. “A real Beatrice stands with real desires on a real street in a real city in real shoes. This is inconvenient to any Dante.” Write a story in which your main character is in love with the idea of someone, perhaps a stranger in the neighborhood or an imagined being. What is it about not knowing the real or actual object of affection, and their mundane opinions and habits, that allows for fantasy to bloom? What are the consequences of keeping this sort of distance?
In “The Machines Are Coming, and They Write Really Bad Poetry (But Don’t Tell Them We Said So)” on Lit Hub, Dennis Tang writes about the results of using GPT-2, an artificial intelligence language program, to generate poetry in the style of Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and Sylvia Plath. Phrases, snippets, and passages are submitted to the program, which then produces several lines of writing that attempt to mimic the original text’s style. Using the Talk to Transformer website, try feeding the program one or two sentences from a story you’ve written in the past and see what the machine generates. Then, go with the flow of AI and use its verse to continue the story in a new, unexpected direction.
“I have to learn that in presence, the rushed, the partial, is still a whole, an experiment in form. In collage, my snippets of repurposed texts, ideas, and observations are not connected seamlessly; I see their edges,” writes Celina Su on the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog in “A Collage in Progress,” a piece about her experience of the fragmentation of time and attention alongside new parenthood. “This allows me to cite, attribute, give credit to those who have contributed to my thinking.” Write a short story that consists of snippets that do not fit together seamlessly and feel rushed or partial. How does this collection of fragmented things shape your narrative?
Last week, scientists published a study in Science journal reporting findings that the impact of the dinosaur-killing asteroid from millions of years ago ended up nurturing the environment for the development of early mammal species. The ocean’s acidity levels were altered thereby tempering the global warming caused by concurrent volcanic eruptions that would have otherwise been harmful. Write a short story in which a catastrophe of high or low order has an unexpectedly positive side effect. How does your protagonist respond to both the larger conflict and the smaller benefit of this calamity?
“‘To approach snow too closely is to forget what it is,’ said the girl who cried snowflakes,” begins Shelley Jackson’s “Snow,” an ephemeral project and “story in progress, weather permitting,” which is featured in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The story is written in the snow in Jackson’s Brooklyn neighborhood, one word at a time, and then photographed and shared on Instagram. Taking inspiration from the ephemerality intrinsic to this project’s format, write a flash fiction story in which each word is composed on a surface—perhaps drawn in dust, penciled on a piece of scrap paper, marked on a whiteboard, or spelled out with pebbles or twigs. How do form and function intertwine with the idea of impermanence in your story?