“I’ve been pregnant. I’ve had sex with a man / who’s had sex with men. I can’t sleep,” writes Nicole Sealey in her poem “Medical History,” selected by Reginald Dwayne Betts to be published in the New York Times Magazine. In the poem, Sealey lists the speaker’s and their family’s medical history, creating a startling portrait of genealogy and the anxieties surrounding mortality that come with it. “Uncle Ken, wise as he was, was hit / by a car as if to disprove whatever theory / toward which I write. And, I understand, / the stars in the sky are already dead.” Write a short story in which the protagonist contends with their medical history. How does this fixation on their health affect the way they move through the world?
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.
“Consider this: I’ve spent nine months cradled in my mother’s body,” writes Nawaaz Ahmed in his debut novel, Radiant Fugitives, published earlier this month by Counterpoint. “My world was small and safe and familiar, interrupted only occasionally by light and sounds from the outside. And even those arrived muted by my mother’s flesh and bone, the light tinted by her blood.” The novel, a saga involving an immigrant family’s secrets and betrayals, begins from the point of view of the protagonist’s child at the moment of his birth, infusing the novel’s prelude with disorienting descriptions recounting the experience of first encountering the world. Write a story that begins through the eyes of a newborn. Consider the reason for this beginning and try, as Ahmed does, to suffuse the scene with sensual imagery.
“My story starts decades before my birth. In my father’s earliest memory, he is four years old, shooting a toy gun at nearby birds as he skips to the town square,” writes Qian Julie Wang in Beautiful Country, her memoir about coming of age as an undocumented child in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1990s, published in September by Doubleday. Wang begins by telling the story of her family decades before, during China’s Cultural Revolution, shedding light on the lives her parents led as professors before working in sweatshops and sushi factories in America and relying on their young daughter for help with their daily lives. Write a series of character studies about your protagonist and their parents. Consider how a drastic change in culture can shift the roles in a family. How does this inform the reasons for your character’s actions as well as their values and preoccupations?
This past Sunday marked the end of the 2020 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, an international, multi-sport event that celebrates the tenacity of the human body and the achievements of athletes at the top of their field. Historically the Olympics have also caused controversy, such as holding the 1936 Berlin Games amid the rise of Nazism, the 1968 Mexico City Games preceding the Tlatelolco Massacre, and the 2008 Beijing Games in which migrant workers were denied proper wages and protections during construction. Write a story that takes place during the Olympic Games in which a dramatic event separate from the athletic competition occurs. For more on controversial Olympic incidents, read this list curated by Teen Vogue.
In a profile of Alexandra Kleeman for the New York Times, she discusses her relationship to the speculative and the setting of a post-apocalyptic California in her latest novel, Something New Under the Sun, out this week from Hogarth. In the novel, only the wealthy have access to temperature-controlled interiors and real water. “Things that we’ve always needed, like land, a place to live, resources, become privatized and turned into possessions, when they weren’t to start with,” says Kleeman. Write a story with a speculative setting in which a necessary resource is privatized. Ask yourself “what if” when considering this altered version of reality.
In an interview for the Creative Independent, Jackie Ess discusses how an Instagram account with nature photos started by her partner inspired the titular character of her debut novel, Darryl (Clash Books, 2021). “I started a Twitter account for Darryl,” she says. “I would do these little monologues as Darryl, and I think you see that the chapters are a little bit like Twitter threads.” This week, write a story with a protagonist inspired by a social media presence. Whether it be an influencer or somebody’s dad, how will their virtual mask fold into the conflict of the story?
The first chapter of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad (Knopf, 2010), titled “Found Objects,” first published in 2007 in the New Yorker, explores the perspective of a woman reckoning with a dangerous habit of stealing from others while at a session with her therapist. The conversation between Sasha and her therapist creates moments to weave in and out of the present and past. Throughout the chapter, Sasha lies to her therapist, to others, and to herself, as she struggles to figure out the reason for her addiction. Inspired by Egan, write a story set during a therapy session. What is the protagonist contending with, and how does the setting allow for the story to weave in and out of the present?
“The forgetting of Afro-Chinese histories, and furthermore of Afro-Chinese women, is an example of what it means to be beyond the interest or comprehension of coloniality,” writes Tao Leigh Goffe in an excerpt from The Other Windrush: Legacies of Indenture in Britain’s Caribbean Empire (Pluto Press, 2021) published in gal-dem. Goffe discovers photographs of a previously unknown relative, her great aunt Hyacinth Lee who migrated to the U.K. from Jamaica, and traces her story. Write a story from the perspective of a family member, real or imagined, who you feel has been lost to history or whose story is still untold. Are there mysterious family photographs you’ve seen that might tell a story?
In this week’s installment of Ten Questions, author Pajtim Statovci and translator David Hackston discuss the writing of Bolla (Pantheon, 2021), a novel with an unlikely love story set in Kosovo between two young men at the outbreak of a war. The novel’s title comes from the name of a demonic serpent that remains in a dark cave hidden from humans except for one day every year when it transforms into a dragon and is released, wreaking havoc and destruction. Through this legend, Statovci gives the love story a shape, as their conflict is refracted through the metamorphosis of this mythical dragon. Think of a fable from your childhood and consider ways you could use it as inspiration for your own story—as a template for your plotline, as a metaphor for your character’s conflict, or as a way to build the story’s setting.
In an article for Literary Hub, Angela Rose Brussel documents the protests of the summer of 2020, among which included protesters gathering and camping out for a month in front of City Hall in New York City in an effort to change the city’s budget. She describes how the demonstrations slowly became less about complaints, and more about celebration: “The summer of 2020 was a fusion of the two, making manifest not only the direct politics of rage, but of joy.” This week, inspired by the article and its photographs, write a story in which protests take place and infuse not only rage, but hope and joy into your characters.
“My first book was a memoir, so I wanted to write my second book about something outside myself completely—something universal. What was more universal than loneliness?” writes Kristen Radtke in “The Loneliness Project: My Journey Through American Loneliness,” an essay featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. In the essay, Radtke talks about the process and challenges in writing her graphic nonfiction book Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, forthcoming from Pantheon in July. Write a story in which a protagonist grapples with loneliness. How will you communicate this universal feeling in a specific way?
In Joss Lake’s debut novel, Future Feeling, published in June by Soft Skull Press, the absurd meets the epic in the story of Penfield R. Henderson, a former dog walker obsessed with the social media presence of Aiden Chase, a fellow trans man and influencer documenting his transition into picture-perfect masculinity. After resentfully attempting to hex Aiden, Penfield instead curses another young trans man named Blithe to “the Shadowlands,” an emotional landscape through which “every trans person must journey to achieve true self-actualization.” What follows is the journey Penfield and Aiden take to save Blithe and the lessons the three learn about the power of human connection and choosing your family. Taking inspiration from Lake’s epic tale, write a story that establishes how three strangers meet to achieve a common goal. How can you challenge yourself to imagine a plot that, like a puzzle, positions these three characters to save one another?
Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, who the German Academy for Language and Literature in Darmstadt once stated made German literature richer with her “streams of language, word inventions, and associations,” died last Friday at age ninety-six. Acclaimed for her poetry, Mayröcker also wrote novels, memoirs, drama, radio plays, and children’s books. In each work, she created new ways for her language to flow freely, such as in her 1988 story “my heart my room my name,” which was written entirely without punctuation, and her book-length lament Requiem for Ernst Jandl, which exhibits a liberal use of capitalization. This week, inspired by Mayröcker, write a story with a protagonist whose perspective requires an associative, free-flowing use of language. How does pushing the limits of language produce a fresh perspective?
Last week, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan’s eightieth birthday was celebrated across the world and on social media, and many fans shared their favorite songs from his illustrious repertoire. The singer-songwriter has also inspired many famous writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, whose story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is dedicated to Dylan. This week, write a story inspired by a singer or a songwriter. Is there a particular song or are there lyrics you’re drawn to, or is it just the aura of the artist that inspires your story?
“It seems to me that people undertake pilgrimages because they’re stuck; they’re in some kind of situation in their life, or their mind, where they don’t want to be the person they are, and they don’t know how to change that unless they change everything,” says Anne Carson in this conversation with her partner and collaborator Robert Currie and poet Sara Elkamel on the poetry and prose of pilgrimage and stasis that was recently published on Literary Hub. “Oddly enough, it’s a kind of freedom that is also a sort of bondage, because when you undertake a pilgrimage, you’re bound to everything about the road.” Write a story with a character who seeks change and undertakes a pilgrimage. How will the protagonist be challenged by the landscape surrounding them?
“So, what comes after irony? For me, it’s wonder and horror, magic and sorrow,” writes Brenda Peynado in her essay “Is Fabulism the New Sincerity?” published on Literary Hub. In the essay, Peynado describes how she grew up in an era when irony and sarcasm were default ways to express oneself and how her writing turned to fabulism, a change prompted by a desire to “save realities from erasure” and inspired by writers such as Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison, as well as more contemporary writers such as Carmen Maria Machado, Nana Kwame Adjei Brenyah, and Te-Ping Chen. Write a short story inspired by fabulism that relies on “wild conceits” to express a truth and offer social critique, such as Peynado’s short story which includes angels appearing after a school shooting.
In an article for the Guardian featuring six poets and their reflections on the past year, Kae Tempest writes about the process for their short, four-line poem “2020.” Tempest mentions that the poem was longer, and then they realized the poem only needed four lines: “Sometimes it takes writing the thing to know what it is you are trying to write.” Inspired by Tempest’s process, choose an abandoned draft of a story and rewrite it as a concentrated version of itself. Does this exercise help you get closer to what’s essential about the narrative?
“If something is forgivable, and we forgive, is that really worth that much?” says Viet Thanh Nguyen about his latest novel, The Committed (Grove Press, 2021), and how the narrator wrestles with his unforgivable deeds in an interview with Mitzi Rapkin for an episode of the podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing, excerpted on Literary Hub. “While whatever constitutes the unforgivable is very subjective for each of us,” he continues, “if we cannot forgive the unforgivable, then maybe we’re not really truly capable of forgiveness.” Write a story in which a character is contending with something “unforgivable.” How will the protagonist deal with this unconscionable deed?
“How can I repackage the initial premise of a joke in more colorful wrapping and offer it up to the reader as something brand-new?” writes Kristen Arnett in her first Craft Capsule essay on humor in fiction. In the essay she remembers a scene in Rebecca Dinerstein Knight’s novel Hex (Viking, 2020), in which the unexpected delivery of a mattress alters the activities of a dinner party. Arnett reflects on the use of the mattress in the scene and concludes that “when considering how humor can sit inside fiction, perhaps imagine it as the same strange and unexpected body wearing different disguises to a costume event.” Write a story in which an unexpected object inserts mischief and humor into the otherwise mundane lives of the protagonists.
“First, grant me my sense of history,” writes Agha Shahid Ali in his poem “The Wolf’s Postscript to ‘Little Red Riding Hood’” in which he reimagines the classic fairy tale from the perspective of the story’s villain. “And then grant me my generous sense of plot: / Couldn't I have gobbled her up / right there in the jungle?” The poem offers a complicated portrait of the “Big Bad Wolf,” including disturbing confessions and provocative questions that reexamine this allegory and consider the power of perspective in storytelling. Write a story that explores the perspective of a villain in a children’s story you know well. What new information will you include about this character? What, perhaps, was left out of the story?
Amy Gerstler’s book of poems Index of Women, published last week by Penguin Books, depicts experiences of womanhood through a number of forms and perspectives, including a dramatic monologue from an aging opera singer, an ode to a head of lettuce, and prose poems recounting personal memories. The second poem in the collection, “Virginity,” builds an atmosphere around the experience of having sex for the first time, without ever naming the act itself. Through subtle details that hark back to adolescence—“passing notes rather than speaking” and “reading secret magazines a cousin stuffed / into the bottom of his sleeping bag”—Gerstler avoids cliché and develops the speaker’s voice using the oft-mythologized moment of losing one’s virginity, offering instead a sense of the speaker’s life that isn’t defined by sex. Write a series of scenes that study a character experiencing a key life moment without ever explicitly naming the experience itself. What is revealed or emphasized by gesturing to details that surround the experience?
Amy Hempel’s short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” begins with a conversation between two best friends in which the narrator keeps her ill friend company in the hospital by telling her random facts. “Make it useless stuff or skip it,” requests the friend. The story then hooks the reader with a series of tall tales and jokes that entertain both the sick friend and the reader alike, serving as context for their close relationship and a unique introduction for the heart-wrenching story. Write a short story that begins with, or uses throughout, trivia or jokes as a way of developing the relationship between two key characters.
At the Millions, Emily Layden writes about how campus novels offer “a portrait of a community, not just in cast but in geography, and tell us the story of the relationship between a place and its people—how they shape one another, imprint on each other, leave the other forever changed.” Layden compiles a list of the “best campus novels,” which includes The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, and My Education by Susan Choi, and discusses how each novel captures the intimacy of youth through the evocative and tense setting of the academic campus. Write a story set on an educational campus. Use the hierarchies inherent to the school setting—principals, teachers, counselors, seniors, freshmen—to set up the story’s conflict.
Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019), begins as a letter: “Dear Ma, I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” The letter unearths the family history of the narrator, from Vietnam to their lives in Connecticut as immigrants, capturing the deep love between a single mother and her son while asking questions that explore race, class, and masculinity. The novel is gripping from the first sentence with the inherent intimacy of the epistolary form bridging the distance between the speaker and the reader. Write a story in the form of a letter that speaks to a cherished guardian figure. Why is the letter the perfect form for what your protagonist wants to say?
“My name is Arturo and the first time I saw an airport was in 1968. It was November or December, maybe the end of October,” writes Roberto Bolaño in Cowboy Graves: Three Novellas (Penguin Press, 2021), translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, an excerpt of which was published on Literary Hub. This pivotal scene finds the young narrator in an airport before he and his family are called forth by a voice over a loudspeaker and later escorted by two Interpol agents to somewhere unknown. The story then divagates as Arturo launches into memories of his mother, airports, poetry, and his horse Ruckus. Write a story set at a pivotal moment in your character’s life that begins in an airport. Will your protagonist make the flight, or decide otherwise?