Last week the New Yorker’s fiction department serial tweeted Jennifer Egan’s story “Black Box,” which appears in the magazine’s science fiction issue. Egan structured her story in prose bursts of 140 characters or fewer—the limit for a single tweet. Challenge yourself to write a story that could appear in small installments by shortening the length of the story’s paragraphs to one or two sentences. Try to advance the story with each terse paragraph.
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.
Write a poem in which you give the reader directions about how to assemble an object or an emotional experience. Think of the various sensory stimuli your directions provide and experiment with the order of the lines. For inspiration, read Matthea Harvey’s poem “Setting the Table.”
In Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994), Anne Lamott's classic instructional treatise on writing and life, the author says: "Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can't—and, in fact, you're not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing." Keeping this in mind, write the beginnings of an essay whose direction and ending you don't yet know. Start small, focusing closely on a single place, person, or incident, without thinking ahead. Then keep going: Allow the writing to tell the story, and see what develops.
Think of a dramatic situation in which there is one main character. If you need to, steal a situtation from the news, such as "Man Dangles Child Over River" or "Woman Follows Couple Home From Mall." Based on this situation, write a sketch of the main character that explains how and why this person did what they did. What is it about his or her personality, past, and relationships that has brought him or her to this moment?
An ekphrasis is a poem about, describing, or inspired by, a piece of art. Rather than writing a poem based on a piece of art, try writing a poem inspired by an existing ekphrasis.
Write about the moment that everything changed. For inspiration, check out Smith Magazine's The Moment (Harper Perennial, 2012), a collection of personal essays about the key experience—"a moment of opportunity, serendipity, calamity, or chaos"—in each of the author's lives, whose effect was revelatory, profound, and life-changing.
Write a story where nothing takes place outside of one small room. You can describe the interior of the room, but refrain from describing anything outside of it. Take note of how this restriction forces you to rely on certain techniques of storytelling.
Revisit a poem of yours that is longer than one page. Try rewriting the poem by condensing it to ten lines or fewer. Cut and rearrange lines from the original poem, or write a completely new one that gives fresh attention to an evocative image or line from the original.
Choose a topic that interests you—it could be an animal, a scientific process, or a historical event, for example—and research it. Next, think of an unrelated experience from your life—a particularly memorable moment from childhood, perhaps, or when a loved one passed away—and write an essay on the two subjects. Alternate between short paragraphs of factual reportage on the topic and brief, more lyrical vignettes about the remembered experience, with the end goal of finding a way to relate the two.
Pick an overlooked, everyday object—a scarf, a carton of strawberries, a snow globe—and write eight different scenes or vignettes in which that object appears centrally. Have each scene take place in a different location and have the characters interact with the object in various ways.
Make a list of commonly used phrases or idioms (e.g. “don't let the cat out of the bag,” “beat a dead horse,” “no strings attached”). Choose one or two and examine them closely, particularly their literal meaning. Write a poem in which at least one line attempts to reveal the strangeness of a commonly used idiom. Read Dora Malech’s “Love Poem” for inspiration.
In Cheryl Strayed's new memoir, Wild (Knopf, 2012), the author recounts her months-long hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that she took entirely alone after life as she'd known it had fallen apart. "It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along," she says, "one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been." Write about a time when you got a little wild—when you embarked upon something new and challenging, maybe something frightening, or maybe even a little dangerous. Write about the wilderness itself, but also about what brought you there, and who you had become by the time you walked back out of the woods.
Write a piece of flash fiction or a short story that starts with an advice column. Use the advice column to introduce the story's protagonist, the central drama, or the back story of the characters. Alternatively, read through advice columns such as the Rumpus's Dear Sugar and Salon's Since You Asked and create a story based on the problem posed by one advice-seeker.
A cento, Latin for "patchwork," is a poem composed entirely of fragments and lines taken from other poems and/or written sources. Try creating your own patchwork poem by incorporating lines from various poems in a poetry anthology. For inspiration, read David Lehman's cento in the New York Times.
Think back to the closet of your youth, and write an essay about what was inside. Let the contents of the closet become a metaphor for who you were as a child, who you might have wished to be, and who you have become.
Write a story that begins like this: On the morning Bill Somers shot his dog, I was...
While writing poetry in a particular form can feel restrictive, it also forces you to make decisions, use words, and write lines that you might not otherwise. Look over your poetry for common features such as the number of lines and stanzas. Based on what you find, create a form—a set number of lines, a set number of stressed syllables per line, and perhaps a relationship among lines, such as having certain lines rhyme or repeat. Write five poems using this form.
Research the origins (Latin, Greek, biblical, or otherwise) of your first name and develop an alter ego for yourself based upon those origins. If your name is Alex, for example, whose origin, Alexandros, originates from the Greek root "to defend," your alter ego could be "The Defender." Free-write for twenty minutes from the perspective of that alter ego, writing about anything that comes to mind—and see what kind of patterns, ideas, or thoughts emerge.
Think about a conflict you had with someone in the past that left you feeling especially wronged or misunderstood. Write a story from the other person's perspective, fictionalizing the details of that person's character. Create the story behind why this person did what they did or said what they said.
Choose a well-known person from history or from the news. Write a persona poem from this person's voice and perspective. For an example, read the poet Ai's "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981," from her collection Sin (Norton, 1986), written from the perspective of convicted murderer Wayne Williams, or watch a video of Ai reading the poem.
Aimee Phan, author of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, wrote in Writers Recommend, "I don’t intentionally scrapbook for inspiration, but that always ends up happening. I will see a graphic or image, or hear a song on the radio, and start to collect them for characters whose perspectives I am about to inhabit." Adopt Phan's practice as your own this week. Collect images, songs, magazine articles, matchbooks, etc., and begin to image how these items inform the perspective of a character you want to write about. After a week of collecting, write a character sketch.
In her essay "Total Eclipse" from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Collins, 1982), Annie Dillard recalls traveling to the top of a mountain to witness a total solar eclipse. The darkness she discovered as the sun disappeared, in a world suddenly without light, was incomprehensible and terrifying, but also illuminating. "What I saw," she writes, "what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world." Write about a time when you disappeared into darkness—whether by your own choosing or not—and emerged again into the light, with a new understanding.
Imagine today that the universe is trying to send you a message. Try to see everything through this imagined perspective. Take note of the day's incidentals that are working to convey this message to you: the guy walking toward you on the street wearing your brother's favorite color, the petals of the same color blowing in the wind, a sign you notice with a saying that strikes you, how the quality of light conjures a past event. Write a poem using these collected images and impressions that reveals the message.
Look through your poem drafts, notes, and writing fragments. Choose one line that you like and refine it until it feels as complete and polished as one line out of context can be. Use that line as a refrain in a new poem. When you've completed a decent draft, try writing an additional draft of the poem without the line, using it instead as the title.
Think about big and small regrets you have in your life—things you wish you had done, people you wish you had treated better, directions you wish you'd gone. Draw a chart that represents a hierarchy of your regrets. It can be simple or decorative, straightforward or complex. Then write an essay that explores what you see when you look at it.