The setting of a story can act as more than just a backdrop, such as in Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” where the train station acts as a physical representation of movement and decision. Louisiana’s landscape and climate plays an active role in Kate Chopin’s short story “The Storm.” More recently, the modern-day Brooklyn setting in Daniel José Older’s paranormal novel Shadowshaper was praised in a 2015 New York Times review for offering up “parallels between personal histories and histories of place.” For this week’s prompt, write a piece of short fiction that makes the setting an active character in the story. Consider the protagonist’s relationship and history with their physical surroundings. How can you make a place come to life and interact with the subjects of your story?
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 “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” published in the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, poet and novelist John Keene reflects on language as “a medium, a field, a tool, a site of being and expression and communication.” Through his translation work, Keene engages with writing that is often overlooked, such as poetry “by women writers, by LGBTQ writers, and by writers of African descent,” in order to publish the work for more readers. Choose a poet whose work you admire and translate one of their poems into another language or form. Perhaps you attempt a translation from one language to another or try “translating” a sonnet into a pantoum. What would you like to express through this exchange of language?
“A cliché is thoughtless, whereas love is thoughtful. A cliché reproduces ideas originating in the culture, not in lived experience; it is antithetical to love because whereas love is alive, a cliché is dead. It’s an empty husk,” writes Sarah Gerard in “On Falling in Love With Your Characters” published in Literary Hub, an essay that explores the writing process of her second novel, True Love (Harper, 2020), as she experienced the end of one love and the beginning of another. Write a personal essay that examines a cliché about love, or a conventional cultural “truth” that is often associated with love. How has this played out in your own life, with your own past or present experiences of love?
“I regret that my fondness for cows, combined with an overactive imagination, may have carried me beyond what is comprehensible to the average Far Side reader.” In the fall of 1982, cartoonist Gary Larson published his “Cow Tools” cartoon, which confused so many readers that he was compelled to issue a public statement, revealing that even his own mother was puzzled by the meaning of the cartoon. Write a story that centers around an object, maybe even a tool, that becomes integral to your character’s survival. Perhaps you explain what the object does or you keep it a mystery as to why your character needs it so badly. Either way, have fun with your overactive imagination.
What can you tell from a kelp’s DNA? In a paper published earlier this month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists reported findings that the genes of bull kelp found in New Zealand bear different genetic markers because of an earthquake that occurred eight hundred years ago, a reminder of how nature has the power to recover from a disruption. Write a poem that revolves around a specific idiosyncrasy or personality trait, and imagine its connection to an ancient ecological disaster. You might take inspiration from the undulating forms of seaweed waving underwater as you braid in themes of history, continuation, inheritance, and the twinning of destruction with renewal.
In “What We Found in Writing: Authors on Creativity in Quarantine” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, thirteen authors describe their experiences of writing and not writing during the past several months of quarantine. Ada Limón writes: “What struck me, almost immediately, is that fear was more incapacitating than despair. I could surrender to a hopelessness and still make something. Even if it felt like a last gasp of my own humanity or love or tenderness, I could still write it. However, if I focused on fear, I was always silenced.” Write a personal essay that examines how your own creativity has ebbed and flowed during this time. Are there things that have been easier or more difficult to write about? Where have you found inspiration? What has been unexpected?
“Like other artistic endeavors, garden making can be a response to loss. Creating a garden can be as much a re-creation as a creation; an idea of paradise, something that reconnects us with a landscape we have loved and which compensates us for our separation from nature,” writes Sue Stuart-Smith in The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature (Scribner, 2020). Write a short story in which a garden is created in response to a loss. Is the garden a gift? What is the character or community’s connection to nature? Include details of what is grown in the garden and how it is used.
“Rituals—or the tasks we perform repeatedly, not for what they accomplish but for what they mean to us—help athletes prepare their minds for the unknowns they’ll face when they perform,” writes psychiatrist Neha Chaudhary in a New York Times article about how rituals—such as “Steph Curry’s sinking a shot from the tunnel before each basketball game” or “Serena Williams’ bouncing her tennis ball five times before her first serve”—can help instate feelings of connectedness and calmness during anxiety-inducing times. Write a poem about a ritual that’s a part of your everyday life, or perhaps one that you performed regularly during a past phase of your life. How can you play with repetition, pacing, sound and rhythm, and white space to mimic the enactment and aftereffects of a ritual?
This week, take a look at a photo essay by Jared A. Brock of one hundred well-known authors in their writing spaces and write a personal essay about a particular spot where you have written a significant amount of work. Perhaps the space is at a desk in the same corner you’ve retreated to for years, or a specific seat on a certain bus during a commute, or a summer cabin you visited a handful of times years ago. What was one writing project you worked on in that space that you remember particularly well? Describe your mindset in that space versus outside of it. Incorporate the sounds, smells, and other details needed to create a sensorial experience of the space.
In a recent report in Current Biology, researchers published findings that the white-throated sparrow’s birdsong, which originally sounded like “Old Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody,” had evolved over the last fifty years to sound more like “Old Sam Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh-Peabuh.” In the New York Times, Ken Otter, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, says this unexpected shift related to the migration patterns of the sparrow is “kind of like an Australian person coming to New York, and all the New Yorkers start suddenly deciding to adopt an Australian accent.” Write a story about a character who has moved to a new city, and whose behavior has an outsize influence on the town’s citizens. Does the change happen gradually, going largely unnoticed for a long period of time, or does your character set off a rapid-fire chain reaction of transformations?
In “The Untranslatable” published on the Paris Review website, the translators of poems featured in the magazine’s summer issue write short essays about their processes. Patricio Ferrari and Susan Margaret Brown, who translated António Osório’s poems from the Portuguese, write about choosing between words in the English language that have Latin versus Germanic origins: “Most words representing abstract ideas stem from the Latin while the majority of words exemplifying concrete ideas come from the Saxon. In a newspaper article, the choice may be irrelevant; in a poem, the choice matters.” Rewrite or draft a new version of a poem you’ve written in the past, switching out some of the Latinate words for those with Germanic roots, and vice versa. How does this change the sound, tone, and other nuances of your poem?
“Search YouTube with the word ‘commercials’ and the decade of your choosing, and you will find hundreds of compilations, including transfers of old broadcasts,” writes Eve Peyser in “In Vintage TV Ads, a Curious Fountain of Hope (and Cheese)” in the New York Times, about her habit of watching old television commercials in order to “make believe that I live in a world I never got to inhabit but is still familiar.” Browse through some old commercials from the decade of your choice, and write a personal essay that explores how the viewings lead you to thoughts about the past and the future. What emotions are evoked as you think about broader themes such as the passing of time, the omnipresence of consumerism, and the trends and values of different eras?
“We realized there was a whole hidden collection within the collection,” says Kristin Jensen, the manager of a project that archives the marginalia and materials found in circulating library collections around the world, in “Secrets Hidden in the Stacks” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Readers from the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, it turned out, used books as souvenirs, journals, greeting cards, funeral programs, and invitations, among myriad other purposes.” Write a short story in which a character uses the blank pages or margins of a book to write a diary entry or letter, or to press flowers. What’s the significance of the particular book chosen? Is there someone on the receiving end, or are the traces discovered years later by accident?
In response to the increasingly searing and muggy days, a recent Bustle article detailed the effects of humidity on the body. “You may feel more uncomfortable on a humid day because your body is not as easily able to evaporate the sweat on your skin, due to the moisture in the air,” says physician assistant Christina L. Belitsky, adding that “evaporation of sweat on our skin is our body’s way of naturally cooling us down in warm temperatures.” Write a poem where you discuss an aspect of how the body—internal organs, skin, or your own joints—functions in such sticky heat. What images and vocabulary enable you to perfectly encapsulate the physical effects of a sweltering summer day?
“What’s in your guts, in your muscles, in your blood?” asks Sarah Bellamy in her Paris Review essay “Performing Whiteness” in which she uses her experience as a stage director to examine the ways in which racial trauma and sentiments are manifested in our physical bodies. “Bodies arrive written with racial scripts that inform the meaning of gesture, stillness, and movement onstage.” Write a personal essay in which you focus on the way you move your body in the world and how those physical gestures and subtle movements inform who you are. What kind of tension, freedom, joy, strength, or weakness do you feel? How can you connect those sensations with bodies throughout history that have resembled yours?
The New York Times’s recent “More Than a Meal” series featured essays by renowned writers about memorable meals experienced in restaurants at a time when reminiscing about dining out has been the restaurant goer’s solace. The meals described range from Ruth Reichl writing about a fancy restaurant in Paris, to Samantha Irby writing about the Cheesecake Factory, to Alexander Chee writing about waiting tables at a Theater District restaurant in Manhattan. Write a scene that takes place in a restaurant. Is this the first time your character has dined out in a long time, or does she frequent this establishment every week? What is revealed about her personality or state of mind through her interactions with others in the restaurant?
When’s the last time you took a really close look at an insect? In Aliens Among Us: Extraordinary Portraits of Ordinary Bugs (Liveright, 2020), photographer Daniel Kariko uses a scanning electron microscope and a stereo microscope to present extreme close-up photographs of insects—beetles, flies, centipedes, bees, wasps. Browse through some of Kariko’s photos, and write a poem inspired by the surprising details you discover in these portraits. Focus on reflecting texture, color, and the form and function of insect bodies into the fabric of your poem.
Inside the Actors Studio, hosted for twenty-two seasons by the late James Lipton, began as a craft seminar for students of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York. Now a well-known network television show, famous actors, writers, and directors are interviewed, and a questionnaire is submitted to the guest. This list of ten questions, meant to reveal deep truths about one’s psychology, includes: “What is your favorite curse word?” “What sound or noise do you hate?” and “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Write an essay where you explore one or more of these queries. Are there any misconceptions about yourself revealed in the process?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful? What is your most terrible memory? What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about? In a 1997 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologist Arthur Aron along with scholars Edward Melinat, Elaine N. Aron, Robert Darrin Vallone, and Renee J. Bator developed thirty-six questions that supposedly lead to accelerated intimacy between two strangers. Write a story in which two strangers stuck together for a set amount of time decide to ask each other some of these questions. Is it by accident? Does one of them have designs on the other? Do the questions succeed in breaking down emotional barriers or lead to unexpected consequences?Editor’s Note: In an earlier version of this prompt, we neglected to include information about Elaine Aron’s professional qualifications as well as the other scholars involved in the study; the prompt has been updated to include this information.
“If we study what we are attracted to, tease out the correspondences, follow the connections, and find the parallels, we make something new—something that speaks to a shared past and idiosyncratic present,” writes Emily LaBarge in a Bookforum review of Moyra Davey’s new essay collection, Index Cards (New Directions, 2020). Write a poem that revolves around a selection of everyday objects that you feel inexplicably drawn to, perhaps a particular pencil or spoon, a favorite mug or lamp, a preferred toothbrush or view from a window. What connections or parallels can you draw between them? How do they exist in harmony or tension with each other?
“If you’re like me, you may have a tendency to skim over historical passages,” writes Layli Long Soldier in a recent Literary Hub essay about instincts, memory, and the violent history of the United States. “I don’t know why I do this and I don’t like my habit. But I ask you, warmly, to return to accounts from our Lakota ancestors, quoted previously. Take your time. Because, in their words, you may sense an old, yet very present energy.” Begin with a bit of research into a historical event connected to your personal history, taking care to think about the contexts and biases present in any history. Write an essay that allows for gaps, contradictions, and memories to seep in, as you use your instincts to draw connections between the past, present, and yourself. What can you discover or sense when you take your time with a historical text?
What power will your words hold in one hundred years? In the New Yorker profile “Maxine Hong Kingston’s Genre-Defying Life and Work,” Hua Hsu writes about Kingston’s idea to publish a posthumous novel, which came to her after learning that Mark Twain’s autobiography wasn’t released in uncensored form until a hundred years after his death. “If Kingston knew that she wouldn’t have to answer for her work, perhaps she would be able to write more freely,” writes Hsu. Write a short story with the thought that it will not be published or read for one hundred years after your death. What freedom does this grant you in terms of subject matter, voice, style, politics, characterization, or structure?
In “The Linguistic Case for Sh*t Hitting the Fan” at JSTOR Daily, Chi Luu writes about the functions of idiomatic speech, their linguistic origins, their usage and effects, and their power to draw people together with a feeling of intimacy or community, citing examples such as “chew the fat,” “pull someone’s leg,” “kick the bucket,” “shoot the breeze,” “let the cat out of the bag,” and others. “Idioms, though seemingly mundane, are the fossilized poetry of language,” writes Luu. Write a poem that springs from one of your favorite idioms, perhaps one you use frequently or one with particularly evocative imagery. What memories, associations, or resonances arise?
Conceptual artist Christo, who died on Sunday, was known for his large-scale environmental pieces mostly created in partnership with his wife Jeanne-Claude and involving the cooperation of many others—including politicians, legal workers, landowners, environmental groups, engineers, and city administrators—and often taking decades to complete. In a 1972 New York Times article, Christo said: “For me esthetics is everything involved in the process—the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people. The whole process becomes an esthetic—that’s what I’m interested in, discovering the process. I put myself in dialogue with other people.” Find a personal essay you wrote in the past, or perhaps one you never finished, and work on adding a new layer that incorporates all of the people and things that have to be in place for you to do your creative work. You might include documents, photographs, found text, or other ephemera in your piece.
“One week before my wedding day, upon returning to my hotel room with a tube of borrowed toothpaste, I find a small bird waiting inside the area called the antechamber and know within moments it is my grandmother.” In Marie-Helene Bertino’s second novel, Parakeet (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), the narrator’s dead grandmother returns to life as a parakeet and bestows the bride-to-be with the task of finding her estranged brother. Write a story in which your protagonist is confronted with a lost loved one who has come back to life in another form. What is the significance of the form you choose to house the spirit? Is there an important purpose or mission handed down?