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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.

2.23.22

Angel Dominguez’s Desgraciado (the collected letters), published in February by Nightboat Books, comprises a series of letters addressed to Diego de Landa, a Spanish friar who attempted to destroy the written Mayan language in Maní Yucatán in the sixteenth century. This hybrid epistolary collection navigates the shared trauma and history of colonization while creating an intimate correspondence that returns agency to the descendant of a people de Landa tried to extinguish. “Dear Diego, I write to you because there’s nothing else to do; nothing to be done, and yet we must go on. Go on living, go on writing,” Dominguez writes. Draft a story in which a character corresponds with a figure from history. Whether through letters, dreams, or ghostly visitations, what would your protagonist ask this historical figure, and what would drive this quest for answers?

2.16.22

For those in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures are beginning to warm up indicating the coming of spring. This period in February, in which there can be a week of mild weather with birds chirping and plants blossoming followed by a deep freeze, is what climate scientists call “false spring.” Write a short story set in the interstices of seasons. For example, in the cold week at the end of summer signifying the coming of autumn, or just before spring. What tension can the setting of a story add to the conflict in a character?

2.9.22

Boxes of chocolate, a bouquet of roses, candlelit dinners, greeting cards. As Valentine’s Day nears, the pressure to make a romantic gesture or celebrate the day looms with storefront decorations and advertisements. However, high expectations mixed with packed restaurants and a shortage of flowers can lead to disastrous and disappointing evenings. Write a story that takes place on Valentine’s Day, or the days leading up to it, in which a romantic evening goes awry. How can you amp up the stakes of the story early on to help build up the tension of the disappointing day?

2.2.22

“I wanted to make a character who is sometimes good and sometimes bad, yet neither comicially nor tragically so. She’s just misguided, self-absorbed, and wrong,” writes Destiny O. Birdsong in her Craft Capsule essay “Ain’t We Got Enough Problems?” In the essay, Birdsong discusses her relationship with an unlikeable character in her forthcoming debut novel, Nobody’s Magic (Grand Central Publishing, 2022), and how she grew to love her. Inspired by Birdsong, write a story focused on an unlikable protagonist that reveals some of your worst fears about yourself. Show the character’s vulnerabilities as well as their misdeeds so the reader can go on the journey of understanding them.

1.26.22

In Laura Gilpin’s popular poem “The Two-Headed Calf” from her award-winning collection, The Hocus-Pocus of the Universe (Doubleday, 1977), hope is briefly found in the doomed life of a calf. In this moving, two-stanza poem, the juxtaposition of suffering and hope is distilled into a final moment in which the young animal can see “twice as many stars as usual.” Write a short story in which the protagonist is inspired by a unique animal. Whether it’s a prizewinning pig or an albino alligator, how does your protagonist see themselves in this rare creature?

1.19.22

January 14 marked the fifty-ninth anniversary of the original publication of Sylvia Plath’s haunting novel, The Bell Jar, which was first published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” The novel, which wouldn’t receive its wide acclaim until 1971, two years after the death of Plath, opens with one of the most iconic first lines in contemporary literature: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” This week, write a story influenced by this powerful opening line. Set the tone of the story by situating the time and place into historical context, as Plath does. How can an event seemingly unrelated to the rest of your story carry the weight of the reader’s expectations?

1.12.22

In an article for Oprah Daily, Maggie Shipstead chronicles the seven- year journey of writing and researching her latest novel, Great Circle (Knopf, 2021). After a solo trip around New Zealand, Shipstead encounters a bronze statue of Jean Batten, the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand, and is struck with the idea to write a book about a pilot. This week, inspired by Shipstead, consider a statue you’ve come across and write a story inspired by this encounter or the person commemorated. How will the statue come to bear significance in the story?

1.5.22

Edgar Gomez’s debut memoir, High-Risk Homosexual (Soft Skull Press, 2022), begins with a secret: “Moments after I was born at the Mount Sinai Medical Center of Greater Miami, my parents were handed a document, which I stumbled upon years later, curled and yellow at the edges, inside of a shoebox in a corner of my closet.” The book’s first sentence sets up the tension between the narrator and his family as Gomez recounts coming of age as a gay, Latinx man. Write a story that begins with a character finding a secret object—whether it be a hidden note, a photograph, or an unopened box. Who does the object belong to, and what feeling does this discovery conjure in your protagonist?

12.29.21

Go to the gym. Read more books. Save more money. Eat better. Wake up earlier. New Year’s resolutions begin as good intentions meant to introduce positive change in one’s life, but of course they can be difficult to sustain. Often characterized by vowing to continue healthy practices, change an undesired trait, or accomplish a new goal, resolutions bring with them hope but often turn to disappointment as these once-a-year aspirations fade with each passing day of the new year. Write a story about a character who is at a crossroads and makes an urgent resolution to change their ways. What are the circumstances that necessitate a need for change? How does your character go about accomplishing—or failing to meet—this pressing goal?

12.22.21

In a 2009 interview for Newsweek, renowned children’s book writer Maurice Sendak is asked the following question: “What makes a good kids’ story?” At first Sendak dismisses the question saying that he just writes the books, but then remembers the experience of hearing stories told by his parents when he was a child with his siblings. “My parents were immigrants and they didn’t know that they should clean the stories up for us. So we heard horrible, horrible stories, and we loved them, we absolutely loved them.” This week, write a short story inspired by a particularly gruesome or frightening story you heard as a child. Whether by word of mouth or from a book, how will you adapt your terrifying tale to the plot line of a short story?

12.15.21

“That woman who killed the fish unfortunately is me,” begins the title story of Clarice Lispector’s collection of children’s stories, The Woman Who Killed the Fish, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser in a new edition forthcoming from New Directions in July. “If It were my fault, I’d own up to you, since I don’t lie to boys and girls.” Taking inspiration from Lispector’s story, write a story that starts with a major confession from the narrator. How will the story progress after this shocking revelation?

12.8.21

In his iconic, postmodern short story “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges recounts living alongside a second version of himself, to whom he is slowly “giving over everything.” The story is known for its brevity—at about one page long—and its sense of compression, as Borges describes this struggle between self and persona. “I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor,” he writes. Write a story about the push and pull between the self you present to the world and the self you know. Is there conflict or cooperation?

12.1.21

In this week’s Craft Capsule essay, Julia Sanches discusses using Google Maps as a resource while translating books set in places far from her home in Providence, and how this research has opened up her exploration. “Working on these translations hasn’t exactly given me wings, as the cliché goes, though it has forced me to navigate the geographical makeup of real places I’d never laid eyes on before, whose streets I’d never felt beneath my feet,” she writes. This week, use Google Maps to explore a city or place you’re never physically visited, perhaps the setting from one of your favorite books. Write down details from your research as a starting point for a short story.

11.24.21

“Now you’re fourteen, standing in awesome slacks and looking at an ungainly body in the mirror,” writes Lana Bastašić in “Bread,” a short story translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published in Freeman’s issue on change. “In the mirror is a mutilated body, and inside that body is you.” The story follows a fourteen-year-old girl going through puberty and engages the reader through a second-person perspective in which the “you” makes the awkwardness of the prepubescent body more visceral. This week, write a story from the perspective of an adolescent in the second person. How will you build intimacy in this voice? What are some thoughts only the speaker knows?

11.17.21

“Growing up / we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon / and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles, / butter melting in small pools in the hearts / of Yorkshire puddings, butter better / than gravy,” writes Elizabeth Alexander in her timeless poem “Butter,” in which she depicts her family’s love for butter and the childhood memories attached to these meals. Write a story centered around a family dinner in which a significant conversation occurs. Savor the description of what is eaten and said between forkfuls.

11.10.21

“One night, while watching a friend’s dog, a thunderstorm came rolling over the city. He felt the change in the atmosphere; his tongue flopped out, eyes bulging,” writes Christopher Gonzalez in his Craft Capsule essay “Pet Sitting.” “With a belly brimming with bourbon, I Googled how to help a dog in crisis.” In the essay, Gonzalez recounts pet-sitting for friends and using the experience as inspiration for his short story “What You Missed While I Was Watching Your Cat.” Write a story in which the protagonist is watching a friend’s pet and things go horribly awry. What questions can you ask, as Gonzalez does, to help drive the narrative forward?

11.3.21

Day of the Dead is a two-day holiday that originated in Mexico, in which loved ones who have died are honored and celebrated. Consisting of a variety of traditions, including making ofrendas (altars with offerings for the deceased) and decorating the home with marigolds and skulls, this holiday allows for a time for the living and the dead to reunite through food, music, and dance. Write a story in which a character mourns and celebrates a loved one on Day of the Dead. Describe why their relationship is special and what memories bring them together.

10.27.21

Jezebel’s annual Scary Story contest invites readers to submit true, terrifying tales, some of which are animated into short films. With titles such as “Look at Me,” “911 Calling,” and “Keeping a Secret,” the red-and-black stark videos are perfect to watch as Halloween approaches, if you’re looking for some haunting inspiration. Check out some of the videos and try your hand at writing a scary story based on a real-life experience. Consider how to sustain suspense and incite fear in your readers.

10.20.21

In an interview on Literary Hub, Ruth Ozeki talks about a transformative experience she had in college with a professor teaching Old English: “She asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves. When my turn came, I said my name and she repeated it. ‘Ruth.’ Her voice was deep and husky, like gravel and honey.” Ozeki goes on to mention that the professor taught her about poetry and German film, among other things, and at the end of the semester told her, “You will be fine. You are going to be a writer.” Write a story about a character whose life is changed by the words of a teacher. How will you show the protagonist's transformation through the care of a generous mentor?

10.13.21

The winter holidays have served as inspiration for writers across the ages, yielding stories such as “A Christmas Tree and a Wedding” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “One Christmas Eve” by Langston Hughes, and “Santa’s Children” by Italo Calvino. In Calvino’s story a father of three children is ordered by the company that employs him to dress up as Santa Claus and deliver gifts to a town of citizens unimpressed by his costume. The satirical story concludes in a critique of the materialistic nature of the holiday, as the company’s president and head of the “Society for the Implementation of Christmas Consumption” boosts a campaign to push for “the Destructive Gift,” such as matches and hammers. Write a story set during holiday festivities in which something unexpected occurs. Perhaps you might lean into elements of satire or the surreal to explore new dimensions of this familiar territory.

10.6.21

In an article for the Guardian, children’s book author Piers Torday writes about a recent study in the journal People and Nature conducted by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research which concluded that “animals are being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world.” Torday notes that although there are plenty of animals in children’s literature, there is a shortage of them in novels and concludes that, “perhaps it is time for fiction authors to educate ourselves, and learn how to radically and authentically represent the non-human voice on the page.” This week, write a story with a non-human protagonist. How will you render their voice urgently real?

9.29.21

In an interview for the VS podcast with hosts Franny Choi and Danez Smith, poet Cyrée Jarelle Johnson discusses the appeal of poetic forms and his relationship to breaking them. “If the form is broken, it’s broken for a reason,” says Johnson. Write a short story in which the form of a traditional narrative is somehow broken. Whether by choosing an unexpected point of view, or by defying the conventions of a particular character’s archetype, challenge the expectations of the reader and break the form, as Johnson says, “for a reason.”

9.22.21

A rare townhouse in New York City’s Greenwich Village that was once the home of several artists in its storied history, including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, cartoonist William Steig and his wife’s sister, anthropologist Margaret Mead, was recently featured in the New York Post. Often called the narrowest home in the city because it is less than ten feet wide, the space was originally an alleyway to a brewery in the 1840s. Write a story inspired by an historic piece of real estate in which your protagonist lives in the former home of a famous figure. How does this history influence your protagonist?

9.15.21

“He said he wanted to set me on fire like a cigarette—he inhaled me with vigor, indulgence, and did so really, really carelessly,” writes Brontez Purnell in his short story “The Boyfriends,” in which titled sections include “Boyfriend 2.0 / The Firefighter,” “Boyfriend #33 / The Hairdresser,” and “Boyfriend #77 / The Chef.” The story, which is featured in Purnell’s collection 100 Boyfriends (MCD x FSG Originals, 2021), consists of quick scenes that have brief conclusions and convincing details, altogether creating a feeling for a particular time in the speaker’s life. Write a story consisting of brief scenes that recount time spent with either one or several lovers. What do these scenes reveal about your protagonist?

9.8.21

“[Amy] Winehouse is so much more than the sum of her parts, isn’t she? The tower of hair. The broad wings of eyeliner. The coldness beneath the boldness, the shyness beneath the highness,” says Diane Seuss in an interview with Tony Leuzzi for the Brooklyn Rail discussing the title of her latest collection, frank: sonnets (Graywolf Press, 2021), a reference to three things: Frank O’Hara; the synonym for honest and direct; and Winehouse’s first album, Frank. Write a story in which the protagonist is based on a legendary singer. Use song lyrics as well as their biography as inspiration for a way to begin the story.

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