“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.
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.
“The carnation had possessed me,” is a sentence from Amparo Dávila’s short story “The Breakfast,” illustrated in a New York Times piece by Tamara Shopsin. Through her illustrations, Shopsin presents quotes from Dávila’s story collection The Houseguest (New Directions, 2018), translated from the Spanish by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, that imbue mundane plants with a sense of strange terror. Another sample is from the short story “The Cell”: “She was like ivy attached to a giant tree, submissive and trusting.” Select one of the lines—or jot down your own menacing plant simile or metaphor—and use it as a starting point for a poem.
This month, TIME magazine unveiled their 100 Women of the Year project, which shines a light on influential women from the past century who have been overshadowed by their past Man of the Year covers. Choose a woman who has played an important role in your life—someone you have been close to for many years, or an acquaintance or celebrity whose words or actions have affected you in a significant way—and think of one year that was particularly affected by your encounter. Write a personal essay that details your memories of an inciting incident, and that celebrates the impact of this woman. Browse through TIME’s new covers for inspiration.
“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?
In the New York Times, Elisa Gabbert writes about Alice Notley’s new book, For the Ride (Penguin Poets, 2020), which takes place in a world where most of civilization—and therefore language—has been destroyed. “Because language is broken, the verse is intentionally awkward, as though carelessly translated: ‘glyph doth include the real air? / yes, including vraiment the other air.’ Words from French and Spanish are peppered in, while others are cut off (‘lying togeth, floor of hypermarket in afterli’) or smashed together (‘playtoyswords’), creating unresolvable ambiguities.” Write a poem that uses words that are cut off, smashed together, or borrows from other languages in a way that opens up the possibilities of meaning. How do you provide guidance through the ambiguity or confusion?
“On the average Tuesday morning most people are waiting in more than one way: waiting to get to their stop, but also waiting for news, for inspiration, for intervention, for a promotion, for a diagnosis, for breakfast,” writes Jordan Kisner in “Attunement” from her debut collection, Thin Places: Essays From In Between (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). In the essay, Kisner writes about phases of her life spent in suspension, waiting for God, an epiphany, meaning, and for clarity of conviction to “come crashing through the ceiling.” Write a personal essay about a time when you waited for something philosophical, spiritual, or emotional to reveal itself, perhaps juxtaposing it with another memory of waiting for something more practical and tangible. Was there clarity that made it worth the wait?
“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?
At the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, Ruby Brunton writes about Elaine Kahn’s collection Romance or The End (Soft Skull Press, 2020), whose first poem, “ROMEO & JULIET & ELAINE,” has a speaker who inserts herself into Shakespeare’s iconic love story. “There aren’t ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ in Kahn’s game of love, only flawed humans who make mistakes even when trying their best not to. The book plunders traditional love story tropes to offer a more authentic, and sometimes more cynical, counternarrative.” Write a poem in which you insert yourself into a famous relationship from literature. Do you approach your intrusion through a lens of different cultural customs, or perhaps a more open-minded approach to perspectives on love, loneliness, or sexuality?
In the Paris Review Daily’s Eat Your Words series, Valerie Stivers creates recipes inspired by food references in literature. Writing about her favorite Hilda Hilst novel, Letters From a Seducer (Nightboat Books, 2014), translated from the Portuguese by John Keene, Stivers mentions the eccentric ways food is incorporated into the text: “Blouses smell of apples; people sell clams, oysters, coconuts, hearts of palm, dried meat; a penis is a giant chorizo or a ‘wise and mighty catfish’ or a strawberry.” Write an essay that incorporates the shapes, smells, textures, and connotations of food in an unexpected way. What comes to your mind when considering the skins, peels, fat, seeds, flesh, pulp, nubs, and bones from your meals?
“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 “‘Hostile Architecture’: How Public Spaces Keep the Public Out” in the New York Times, Winnie Hu reports on elements of urban architecture in New York City that are designed to enforce order and deter lingering, loitering, sleeping, skateboarding, and the homeless. This includes metal spikes, studs, teeth, bars, bolts, walls, and railings placed on resting surfaces like benches, ledges, and low walls in public plazas. This week, look around more closely at the architectural details you pass by and write a poem about an interesting feature or texture whose design functions in a specific way. Is it welcoming or hostile? Can you express the physical details by playing with sound, rhythm, and spacing?
In the New York Times Letter of Recommendation series, Durga Chew-Bose writes about the value of getting an assortment of things framed after moving to an apartment in Montreal. “Some of us are born a little mournful, and we spend our lives discovering new traditions for housing those ghosts we’ve long considered companions. Framing, I’d venture, is central to this urge. It gives memories a physique.” Think of a memory that continues to haunt you like a ghost. Write a personal essay that uses a frame technique—the telling of a story within a story—to give the narrative a fixed structure. Tell the story of your memory, framed at the beginning and end with your current state of mind. What is revealed by the juxtaposition of this story embedded within another?
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 where 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?
“Truth can be lazy because it becomes satisfied with itself, and it is often so tethered to time and space that to demand one truth can often invisibilize another’s truth,” says Natalie Diaz in “Energy,” an interview by Jacqueline Woodson in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “When and where does truth begin, and whose truth is it?” Think of an issue in your life that you feel conflicted over, an idea or state of being that you have long held to be true, whose solidity you have begun to question. Write a poem that attempts to demand more from this perceived truth, exploring how it entered your belief system. To whom is it tethered?
“Objects make love visible. They give us an archive, a timeline with clear milestones. They tell a story that would otherwise be almost impossible to see or even narrate,” Jenn Shapland writes in her Literary Hub essay “The Maggie Nelson Test for Lesbian Dating Success.” Shapland explores the value of shared and exchanged objects and artifacts between friends and lovers, with an emphasis on gifting books. Write an essay about a book that you gave or received from someone with whom you’ve had a significant relationship, perhaps at a particularly precarious turning point. Describe the book and set the scene, exploring what the exchange revealed about you and the state of the relationship.
“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 Cut, seventy-eight new emotions are introduced, inspired by a theory that emotions are not just objective, biologically measurable states but are constructed interpretations of sensations affected by our cultures, expectations, and language. Writers, including Greg Jackson, Sara Nović, and Bryan Washington, name and describe new emotions like jealoushy: “The feeling of being jealous of someone while also having a crush on them,” and heartbreak adrenaline: “The strange feats of strength that can be accomplished after a devastating breakup.” Write a poem that revolves around a newly named emotion of your own invention, perhaps involving love, lust, or heartbreak. How does giving new language to a feeling expand your perspective?
In artist John Baldessari’s “Eight Soups: Corn Soup,” he borrows an image of a Henri Matisse painting of goldfish and writes the words “corn” and “soup” underneath it, while another piece includes a photograph of himself standing beneath a palm tree with a caption that says, “wrong.” In Deborah Solomon’s New York Times piece on Baldessari, who died earlier last month, she writes of a postcard the artist once sent from the Cincinnati Zoo to a friend: “The message bore no discernible relation to the photograph of the tiger cubs. In this way, it resembled his work. Text plus image and many possible paths between them.” As you go about your week, keep an eye out for readymade images—a photograph, a painting, an advertisement—and jot down words that immediately come to mind. Write an essay that uncovers, or makes discernible, the paths between the image and what it conjures up for you.
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.
Marshes, rivers, forest, mountains, butterfly wings, fungi, fruits, flowers, birds, leaves, foxes, bears, wolves, and whales. The Biodiversity Heritage Library, billed as the “world’s largest open access digital library,” is a free archive of over fifty-seven million pages of sketches, illustrations, diagrams, studies, and research of life on Earth from the fifteenth century to the present. Browse through their Flickr gallery and choose a group of images that you find particularly intriguing, striking, curious, or beautiful. Write a poem that considers the life forms and ecosystems depicted in the illustrations and how they affect your imagination today.
Can you imagine what the voice of a three-thousand-year-old mummy would sound like? Last week Scientific Reports published a study that describes engineering the voice of Nesyamun—an ancient Egyptian priest and scribe whose coffin’s hieroglyphs describe him as “true of voice”—by combining his 3D-printed mouth and throat with an artificial larynx and using speech synthesizing software. This week write a personal essay about the one long-ago sound you wish to hear, if you could engineer a way. Would you choose the voice of a loved one or important historical figure, the sounds of an extinct animal or bygone technology, or perhaps simply the everyday sounds of a different era?
“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?
“Most time-keeping traditions track the movement of the sun, moon and stars. Others consider seasonal events,” writes Steph Yin in the New York Times in an article about the lunar new year and other time-keeping traditions and cycles found in cultures around the world. “Each calendar reveals something about how the people who created it relate to the world around them while also preserving rich cultural identities and memories.” Write a poem about the passing of time that uses a metric personal to you. Perhaps a tree growing in your yard or an iconic neighborhood establishment that has changed over the years. What does it say about how you relate to the world?
“Sometimes we feel ‘blocked’ because we started a story in the wrong place or ended in the wrong place,” writes Sarah Ruhl in “Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Find a draft of an unfinished essay or one you’re uncertain about or unsatisfied with, and try starting from a different place. How does this new beginning alter the tone of the piece? Does this shift give new meaning to the true core of the story?
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?