In classic Greek tragedies, the term hamartia, first described in Aristotle’s Poetics, refers to a fatal flaw in the main character of the drama, which causes a chain of events to unfold: a reversal of fortune from good to bad, and the eventual downfall of the character. One traditional example of such a flaw is hubris, an overblown ego and lack of humility. Write a short story in which your protagonist suffers from an unfortunate degree of hubris. Does overconfident pride blind the character to the consequences of that individual’s actions? Does arrogance lead the protagonist toward one big mistake, or several small errors that lead inevitably to tragic misfortune?
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 the first time, I agreed last year to cotranslate a book from a language I don’t speak at all…. It was an opportunity for new kinds of thinking but also new kinds of failure,” writes poet, novelist, and translator Idra Novey in her essay “Writing While Translating.” Many contemporary writers have expanded the art of translation by experimenting with form and content: Mary Jo Bang filled her translation of Dante’s Inferno (Graywolf Press, 2012) with pop culture references; David Cameron used spell-check and word-association methods for Flowers of Bad (Unbelievable Alligator/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007), his “false translation” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal; and Paul Legault’s The Emily Dickinson Reader (McSweeney’s Books, 2012) is a translation of Emily Dickinson’s poetry into one-line renderings, from English into a different version of English. Try your hand at translating a short series of poems from one language to another. Use your knowledge of another language, slang, dictionaries, or any unlikely source to explore the elasticity of language while considering how new kinds of failure might inspire a refreshing direction for your writing.
Photographer Akasha Rabut has documented the Caramel Curves—New Orleans’s first all-female motorcycle club—in a series of portraits over several years. The club has become a unique pillar of their local community, with some seeing the women as role models. Write an essay meditating on a group or a person from your past who unexpectedly made an impact on your community. Were you personally affected by their actions?
NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest had over six thousand entries this year, and was unanimously won by hip-hop and R&B band Tank and the Bangas. One of the techniques the band incorporates is a kind of lyric dialogue between Tarriona “Tank” Ball and Anjelika “Jelly” Joseph who share singing roles, much like two best friends finishing each other’s sentences. Work on a piece of dialogue between two characters who interrupt each other, or riff off of a stream of consciousness flow in conversation. How might you use this technique to build tension in a story?
In his book Dear Darkness (Knopf, 2008), poet Kevin Young has a series of odes to particular foods that meditate on memories of the speaker’s father and other family members, such as “Ode to Okra.” Using Young’s poem as inspiration, write an ode to one of your favorite foods that personifies and addresses the dish as “you.” Explore the senses—flavors, smells, sounds, textures, colors—that are stirred from these memories of meals.
In a 2010 panel discussion at the Paley Center, Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei spoke about his extensive use of Twitter to share about his art and activism. Pressuring Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey to make Twitter’s web interface available in Chinese, Ai stated how well suited it is to the Chinese language, in which each character constitutes an entire word: “With 140 characters in Chinese you really can write a novel.” Taking inspiration from this discussion, write a series of flash creative nonfiction pieces about art, human rights, or the use of social media, each 140 words long. Later, you may want to decide whether the essays function as standalone pieces or a connected series.
Earth’s “most tenacious creatures,” according to National Geographic’s website, are small aquatic invertebrates called tardigrades—also commonly known as water bears. Among their amazing feats are the fact that they can dry out completely and survive without water, they were launched into outer space and survived, and they roamed the earth and seas long before humans and will likely outlast us. Write a short story that incorporates a water bear, perhaps finding sci-fi, fantasy, or horror inspiration in its physical attributes, or writing a narrative that philosophizes about the range of its adaptations.
“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter,” wrote Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder in 1956. Write a poem centered around one image or sensation you associate with the spring season, using diction and rhythm to evoke the repeated refrains, patterns, and cycles of nature. Explore both the symbolic and physical beauty of your image.
In late February, frogs, salamanders, and other amphibians responding to early warm temperatures began migrating from their winter hideouts to vernal pools to begin the spring mating season. Some of the animals were chaperoned to safety by concerned volunteers across trafficked streets late at night in New York and other Northeastern states. Write an essay about a time in your life when you made a big decision or took a leap. Did someone arrive to accompany you or were you on your own? Was your emotional journey guided by a crossing guard who brought you to safety?
In “The Emotional Realist Talks to Ghosts” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, George Saunders discusses the different stages of writing his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo (Random House, 2017). The long process included attempting a third-person version of the story, as well as a play. Though neither form was quite right, Saunders says, “It made me more convinced that there was definitely a story there.” Take a short story in progress and rewrite one particular scene in two new forms—from a different narrative point of view, and in a dramatic script format. What are the main ideas that remain consistent and integral to the story throughout all three versions?
A salt lake in Melbourne, Australia recently turned pink due to the growth of algae “in response to very high salt levels, high temperatures, sunlight, and lack of rainfall.” The phenomenon transformed the lake from its natural blue tone to an unusually bright flamingo color. Write a poem that begins by evoking the sensations of one color, and then—gradually or abruptly—turns a strikingly different color, perhaps even pink. How will you manipulate the mood, images, sounds, and rhythms of your language to reflect the color change?
Over the course of the last year, Jorge Otero-Pailos, a Columbia University professor and preservation expert, and a group of his graduate students have been collaborating with the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan on a project studying the smell of old books, furniture, and more. The library was built in 1906 by John Pierpont Morgan to house his rare books and art collection, and is one of the premier repositories in the world. Write an essay about a place that you have spent a considerable amount of time in—perhaps somewhere you lived or worked before—and whose smells are curiously linked with your recollection. Describe the emotions and events from that period that those smells conjure up, and the ways in which your memories may have been colored by your preference or distaste of those smells.
“She imagines him imagining her. This is her salvation,” writes Margaret Atwood in her 2000 novel The Blind Assassin. Write a short story in which one segment involves a main character imagining another character imagining him. You may decide to differentiate this segment by setting apart the text in italics, or explicitly stating that it is imagined, or perhaps you may decide to blur the line between real and imagined. In what ways does this line of thought help your character through a conflict or obstacle? What does this insight tell us about how he perceives himself in relation to others?
If you read, in order, the last word of each line in Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Golden Shovel,” you will discover that they are the words of Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” the inspiration for Hayes’s poem. Select one or more lines from a poem you admire, and write your own “Golden Shovel” poem. Use each word from the source text in its original order for the last word in each line of your new poem. When you are finished, the end-words of your poem should trace out the origin poem. Be sure to add a note crediting the poet whose line(s) you’ve used.
Walden, a Game is a new video game to be released this spring that tasks players with activities inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s time spent in solitude and reflection at Walden Pond in nineteenth-century Massachusetts. In the game, the player’s feelings of inspiration “can be regained by reading, attending to sounds of life in the distance, enjoying solitude and interacting with visitors, animal and human.” Write an essay exploring your personal opinions of solitude as exemplified by a memory from a time when you chose to be alone. How, and why, did it help or hinder your emotional state?
Last week, a new McDonald’s in Italy opened that features not only fast food, but also a preserved stretch of paved Roman road from the second century BCE—first discovered when construction for the restaurant began in 2014. Write a short story in which a new structure is being built and something surprising is excavated on the construction site. What does the discovery reveal about something previously hidden or mysterious in this geographical location? Is there a reason for the concealment? Will a conflict or debate arise over how to proceed with the unexpected unearthing?
Artist B. A. Van Sise’s photo series Children of Grass—featured in “The Written Image” in the March/April 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine—consists of portraits of American poets who have been influenced by Walt Whitman, with each photograph based on a poem. Browse through some of Van Sise’s portraits or select any other poet portrait of your choice, and taking a reverse approach to Van Sise’s project, write a poem based on the image. How does the language, tone, and rhythm in your poem relate to the composition, props, and background of the portrait?
Have you ever taken a job you didn’t want in order to support yourself? In “The Meaning of Work,” an episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, psychologist Barry Schwartz asks, “Why is it that, for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the work they do has none of the characteristics that gets us up and out of bed and off toward the office every morning?” Write an essay in which you explore Schwartz’s question by recounting your own work experiences. Has anything surprised you? Consider what your dislike or delight with certain jobs reveals about your own ideas regarding the purpose of work.
Social justice movements require strong leadership, organization, and resources, often starting with a demonstration leading to more action. Write a short story in which the protagonist wants to organize a demonstration for a cause. What events lead her to this point? Who does she turn to for help? Use the backdrop of this activity to reflect on the growth and development of your character as a leader.
Writing an unsentimental love poem can be one of the more difficult endeavors a poet can take on, whether the subject of that poem is a lover, a family member, or friend. Taking inspiration from the popular film 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, write an ode to the aspects of a loved one that downright irk you. How might you use a form of repetition in your poem—like an anaphora or refrain—to build tension and showcase either the unlikable or admirable aspects of this person?
Poet, jazz musician, woodcarver, multimedia artist, painter. A variety of hidden talents may in fact lie behind the familiar faces of an apartment building porter, doorman, handyman, or other neighborhood figure. Write an essay about a time when you learned about someone’s secret skill or hidden talent. What are the assumptions that accumulate when you only encounter someone in a professional or public capacity? What might be inspiring or exciting about the idea that anyone—perhaps even everyone—may have a hidden talent?
Researchers recently discovered a new addition to the genus of lizard species that can shed their skin and scales when grabbed by a predator, in order to slip away and escape. The Geckolepis megalepis has the largest known gecko scales, and is able to shed them with particular ease, looking like a “raw chicken tender” before its scales are regenerated over the course of a few weeks. Write a short story in which your main character is able to escape from danger by altering her physical appearance in a drastic way. Why is it imperative that she escape? How does her transformation both save her and make her vulnerable? What is her “regeneration” process?
“The Love Song for Shu-Sin”—written around 2000 BCE in ancient Mesopotamia—is considered the oldest love poem that exists in text form, but also functioned as a song performed during a sacred marriage ceremony for Shu-Sin, a ruler in the city of Ur. Read through Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer’s translation and think about the elements of the writing that tie it to its specific time and context. What feels ancient about the poem? Can you extrapolate or interpret its meanings in a way that reflect your own experiences of contemporary love? Write a love poem that meditates on love as it might have been expressed four thousand years ago versus how you see it today.
Cabbages, pumpkins, eggs, sugar, honey, fleas, gazelles, doves—all are terms of endearment lovingly used in different cultures and languages. Think of a pet name you have used for a loved one, or one that has been used for you, and write an essay exploring your memories of the word or phrase’s usage. Is the term connected to a specific story or event? Is it used during particular moods? Does it soothe or ruffle feathers? Consider how these terms reflect a certain aspect of your relationships.
Last month, hundreds of thousands of red Skittles were found on a highway road in Wisconsin, having spilled from a truck transporting the candy for integration into cattle feed. Write a short story that starts with a similarly striking image of something highly unusual found on a road. As the story progresses, continue escalating the mystery and oddity of the situation. Does the story end with a satisfactory resolution, or does it leave the reader with lingering questions?