“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?
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.
“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 in which 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?
Last month at the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan exhibited an artwork titled “Comedian” that consisted of a ripe banana duct-taped to a wall. Three editions of the piece—certificates of authenticity for the concept with replacement installation instructions of the banana specified by the artist—were sold, each for over $100,000. Gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin eventually had to remove the work as it became a safety risk due to crowds, but said of the piece, “‘Comedian,’ with its simple composition, ultimately offered a complex reflection of ourselves.” Write a short story that relies on an absurdist or comedic ingredient as the linchpin for its unfolding. How does your story bring into question the very definition of art, fiction, or storytelling?
In Lee Matalone’s debut novel, Home Making (Harper Perennial, 2020), a woman moves into an empty house by herself while her estranged husband is dying of cancer. Throughout the story she grapples with tearing down and building both real elements and psychological concepts of home, navigating the memories, people, and places that constitute shelter, stability, and familiarity. “Can you be too old to run away from home? Can a full-grown woman run away from home? Can she run away from a home that was forced upon her? She should be allowed to, if that’s what she wants,” she writes. As thoughts of new beginnings arise with the new year, write a short story in which your protagonist is going through a period of transition, reevaluating the definition of home, and embarking on a fresh start. How are ideas of home formed in childhood, and how do we reconcile them as adults?
French photographer Thomas Jorion spent a decade taking shots of abandoned eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Italian mansions for his series Veduta. “At first I photographed them to keep a trace of the places before they disappeared,” says Jorion in an interview for My Modern Met. “And then I realized that there was a beauty, an aesthetic, that emerges with shapes, colors, and lights. I do not necessarily look for abandonment, but rather the patina of time.” Write a short story in which your main character encounters a now forgotten, but once majestic, building. Explore the feelings that are stirred as a result of encountering this crumbling beauty. Is there a certain, sustained charm to be found in this remnant of the past, or is it overshadowed by the ephemeral aspect of this man-made structure?
In anticipation of Zadie Smith’s first short story collection, Grand Union (Penguin Press, 2019), an interview with the author was published in September in Marie Claire. When asked about whether living in the United States and England affects her writing, Smith responded, “I think of myself as somebody not at home, I suppose. Not at home anywhere, not at home ever. But I think of that as a definition of a writer: somebody not at home, not comfortable in themselves in their supposed lives.” Write the opening line of a short story from the perspective of a character who is experiencing a feeling of not belonging. How do you convey this sentiment in one sentence? If this first sentence inspires more, continue on with the story.
In the December 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine, photographer Corey Arnold writes about an expedition last winter to change the batteries in the radio collar of a black bear in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park that he assumed would be hibernating. The bear turned out to be awake, which made the adventure more adventurous than expected. Write a short story in which your main character is operating under the assumption that an upcoming activity will be safe, but at a crucial moment discovers that danger is lurking. How do you ramp up the sense of anxiety and tension? Does your protagonist respond calmly or with panic when confronted with a sudden terror?
If you’re looking for a change in perspective, why not try from the mind of a tiny animal? In a New York Times By the Book interview, when asked what subjects she wants more authors to write about, actor and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge says, “I wish more people would write from the point of view of tiny, witty animals.” Write a story from a diminutive, bright critter’s point of view. Consider whether this animal observes a larger story enacted by human beings, or if the story’s universe is comprised solely of tiny animals. Try incorporating humor in the voice of this quick-witted creature while still retaining its animal-like nature in unexpected ways.
The manipulation of memory has been a point of inspiration for a number of literary works, resulting in iconic fictional elements such as the memory implants in Philip K. Dick’s 1966 story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” the mind-wiping in Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity (Bantam, 1980), and the memory downloads and uploads in George Saunders’s 1992 story “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz.” In Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (Pantheon, 2019), translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, the authoritarian government of an unnamed island eradicates commonplace objects—hats, ribbons, birds, roses—and subsequently attempts to erase all memories associated with the objects. Write a short story that imagines a world in which memories can be manipulated by choice or by force, by individuals or by powerful governments. What are the rules? How are the emotional trajectories of your characters disrupted when certain memories are altered?