Twenty years ago, Scot Rossillo started making rainbow bagels at his bagel store in Brooklyn, New York. In the last few months, with media attention, the popularity of the rainbow bagels has skyrocketed, even resulting in the temporary closure of one of his shops for renovations to keep up with the overwhelming demand. Write a story about a character who has been working on her own creative project for years—toiling in relative obscurity—and suddenly becomes an overnight sensation. How does she handle the increase in attention and demand for her work? What kind of new and unforeseen pressures might create conflict for her, and what kind of sacrifices is she willing—or not willing—to make?
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.
In the story of Pandora’s box in Greek mythology, Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, opens the lid of a container, thereby allowing all of the evils stored inside to escape out into the world. In contemporary colloquial usage, to “open a Pandora’s box” refers to an action that seems small or harmless but ultimately proves to have disastrous consequences. Write a poem that starts with a seemingly innocent action, which then unexpectedly unleashes a dramatic chain of events. For inspiration, listen to Ada Limón’s poem “The Last Move.”
In an essay published in the New Yorker in 2011, Jhumpa Lahiri wrote, "Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'" Jot down a list of several personal beliefs, contemporary topics, or ideas that you feel an especially strong need to express volubly—from the personal to the political, the spectacular to the mundane, the all-encompassing to the minute. Write a personal essay about one of these issues, reflecting on how you arrived at your opinions by first discussing the idea with other people and listening to what they had to say, and then making your own, more specific conclusions. Provide anecdotes from conversations, events, situations, or words you have read or overheard. Make sure that your unique personality and voice are showcased in what you've decided is worthy of being shouted from the rooftops.
Toward the end of last year, French publisher Short Édition unveiled short story vending machines in eight public places around the city of Grenoble in southeastern France. Users can choose either one, three, or five minutes' worth of fiction to read—ideal for waiting or commuting—and one of six hundred community-submitted stories is dispensed for free from the cylindrical orange vending machine on receiptlike paper. Try your hand at writing a short story that can be read in one minute; then write a three-minute story; and finally a five-minute story. How does manipulating diction, tone, and style make sense for different story lengths? Explore the use of dialogue and a limited number of characters necessary to accommodate the restricted length.
Visual artists who have been productive over long stretches of time often develop certain periods of work with shared characteristics, such as similar color palettes. For example, Paul Cézanne and Henri Matisse both had dark periods, Pablo Picasso had his blue and rose periods, and Victor Vasarely had a black-and-white period. As we begin to think about the year's transition from winter to spring, bringing along with it seasonal changes in light and sound, consider embarking on a new period of your own work. Write a series of short poems inspired by your observations of the different colors, moods, and scenery around you that signal the forthcoming spring season. To begin a green period, for example, what might be your key points of inspiration, in terms of imagery and vocabulary?
“A Book Sanctuary in the Rockies” by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine details the project of Jeff Lee and Ann Martin to create a network of three residential libraries, which will be home to tens of thousands of books and will host writers- and artists-in-residence. The libraries will be located in the Rocky Mountain region in and around Denver, Colorado with many of the books, projects, and community partners focused on land, environment, and the West. Write an essay about what your vision of a residential library would be if you were to create one. What might your theme or focus be, and your inspiration? What rural, urban, or suburban space would you want to offer to writers-in-residence at your library?
The Academy Awards, National Book Awards, James Beard Awards, Grammy Awards, Nobel Prizes, and Super Bowl MVP Awards all recognize and celebrate the achievements of their recipients annually with great fanfare. Write a short story that begins with the main character winning a major award. Describe the award, real or imagined, and whether there is an accompanying prize in addition to the honor and acclaim. Does your character prove to be camera-shy or fame-hungry? Does the award ultimately change her circumstances for better or for worse? Are there surprising consequences?
Scientists announced last month that they had recorded the sound of two black holes colliding and merging a billion light-years away. The sound was described as a small, quick, birdlike chirp. Create a list of object pairs; the items can be clearly connected—like a red car and a blue car, or you and a loved one—or disparate, or conceptual. Choose an especially inspiring pair from your list and write a poem about the two objects as they head on a collision course, and the unexpected sound that’s heard when they finally merge.
What was your worst subject in school? Write an essay about that subject and why you found it so difficult. Does the experience still influence the way you process information? Have you developed a passion for what you once couldn’t crack? Use this prompt to study your own approaches to learning, and how your mind and personality may have changed over time.
2016 is a Leap Year, meaning February gets an extra day on Monday, February 29. Push this one step further and invent—instead of an extra day—an extra month. Where would this thirteenth month fall in the calendar? In what season? Would it be named for an event or a person? Write a story that takes place within this month, using the invented details to enhance the story’s plot and tone.
If you’re having trouble starting a poem, begin at the end. Take a single collection of poems and make a list of the last two words from each poem. Then write your own poem using only these words. Be vigilant at first utilizing just the vocabulary from the list. After a couple of drafts, stray from the limited words to help bring the poem to its full realization.
Go outside, with only yourself. Find an isolated bench. Or stay near and settle into a chair at home. Or climb the rungs to the roof and take your place above the city. Sit. No phone, no laptop. Nothing but you and you. For about thirty minutes or so, sit and do nothing. And when you’ve been there long enough to settle into yourself, to feel the voice that’s deepest inside you, the one that only you know, the one that only you hear, go and take up the page or turn on the screen. Listen. Start an essay from that hidden voice.
This week’s creative nonfiction prompt comes from Jill Talbot, author of The Way We Weren’t (Soft Skull Press, 2015). Read Talbot’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.
“‘Working in a soup kitchen is great for a writer or any artist. There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise. You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing,’” writes Annie Dillard to John Freeman in “Such Great Heights” by Freeman in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a scene in a short story in which a character with creative inclinations feels like he’s not being a helpful member of society. How does he shake himself out of it? Does his chosen course of action help his productivity as an artist? What does this change reveal about his place in the world of the story?
Write a poem exploring a broad topic or theme—like love, death, kindness, the passage of time, or faith, for example—that uses vivid, sensory detail. Utilize language from familiar worlds such as animal behavior or everyday household objects to form connections to these larger subjects. For inspiration, listen to the late C. D. Wright read “Obscurity and Voyaging” in the latest episode of Ampersand: The Poets & Writers Podcast.
Fatimah Asghar says, “I write for the people who come before me and the people who might come after me, so that I can honor them and create space for what is to come.” Write a personal essay about who, or what, you write for. Is there a specific audience or philosophical goal that you aim to reach? What space do you hope to see created in the literary world for future writers and yourself?
A black bear wanders into a backyard in Florida and tries out lounging in a hammock. A sloth is found stranded on a highway in Ecuador, clinging to a guardrail for dear life, and is rescued by transportation officials. A rabbit gets catapulted up onto a roof during a windy storm in Northern Ireland and is saved by firefighters. Write a scene in which a character—human or animal—finds himself in a situation where he is a fish out of water. Does he explore the new and foreign environment surrounding him, or is he in need of rescue?
Scientists recently reported that 2015 was the hottest year on record, and yet certain areas of the North Atlantic Ocean experienced unusually low temperatures, and New York City had its second largest snowfall last month. With these historic weather events in mind, write a two-part poem with a tone shift involving hot and cold climates. Move beyond the most frequently used images and vocabulary associated with extreme temperatures, and explore fresh new ideas, sounds, and textures that achieve chilling or sweltering effects.
The State of the Union is an annual address in which the President of the United States delivers a speech to Congress on the condition of the country and reports on plans, priorities, and recommendations for the future. Choose an arena or environment that you preside over in some way, such as a bedroom, office cubicle, spot in the backyard, or table at a café. Then, write a personal essay in the form of a speech addressing the state of things in your chosen entity—describe the current conditions and announce any plans you have for the future.
In the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Tom Spanbauer talks about using the “redemptive voice,” which “can have the effect of a third-person omniscient voice...but also the very important added benefit of having a personality, actually being a part of, and speaking from, inside the story.” Write a short story in which your narrator’s voice is both informal and informed. How will you take advantage of a point of view that can travel through time and space?
February 8 marks the new year on the lunar calendar this year. On the Chinese zodiac, this date marks the passage from the Year of the Sheep, a year of prosperity and promise, to the Year of the Monkey, a sign known for mischief and playfulness. Write a poem about this animal sign, looking beyond the typically cited characteristics of the monkey and exploring the lesser-known traits that might be associated with your own specific wishes or worries for 2016.
Borat, RuPaul, and Ziggy Stardust are some well-known and colorful alter egos whose identities have served a purpose for their creators. Have you ever imagined or assumed an alternate identity? Write an essay about this character—or who this character could be, if you’re imagining for the first time—and where she stands in relation to your own psyche and personality. What does this second self allow you to express, and why?
In The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi catalog the fictional places of world literature. From Italo Calvino’s invisible cities to Umberto Eco’s abbey in The Name of the Rose, Crusoe’s island to the vast worlds of Middle Earth and Narnia, the volume explores how so many worlds of the imagination have come to influence our own. For an exercise, write your own guide for a fictional locale of your creation or one that you’ve recently encountered in reading. Consider what most characterizes this space: Is it the unique architecture of a structure, a brutal climate in harsh terrain, or the unique customs of an isolated people?
The challenge is simple: Write a poem that is a single sentence long. But don’t write just any old sentence. Instead, challenge yourself to sustain the sentence for as long as possible. Use all the tools of syntax, grammar, and poetic form to help keep it going. While these tools are already at play when writing a poem, the single-sentence constraint will force you into exciting and unexpected rhetorical solutions. For inspiration, read this article on one-sentence poems by poet Camille Dungy.
While some people vow not to make any resolutions for the New Year, others are busy drawing up fresh goals—often involving self-improvement measures such as diet and exercise regimens; reading more; picking up a new language or hobby; or improving a financial situation. For 2016, turn your gaze outward and write a list of three resolutions, each focused on a different person in your life. It may be a close friend or family member, or someone you come into contact with on a daily basis but with whom you are only superficially acquainted—a neighbor, coworker, mail carrier, or coffee-shop barista. Write a trio of short essays in which you imagine what you can add to your encounters with each person in the coming year to invigorate your interactions. Predict how small gestures can potentially propel you into a dynamic new direction.
"A love story can never be about full possession.... Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart," writes Jeffrey Eugenides in his introduction to the anthology My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, From Chekhov to Munro (Harper, 2008). "Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name." Write a short story that gives love a "bad name," first plotting the blossoming and struggle of a relationship in your story arc, and then its ultimate dissolution. What's the primary obstacle for your characters? Are your lovers hindered by geographic distance, opposing political viewpoints, or financial woes? Does the tale involve online dating and mistaken identity? Or is it finally the characters' own emotional histories that provide the biggest conflict? Perhaps at love's peak your characters will catch a hopeful glimpse of "full possession."