Sit down at your writing desk and look around you. Many of the objects nearby have a utilitarian purpose: Your coffee mug holds coffee, for instance. Other objects, however, possess emotional significance: your grandmother’s portrait over the couch, the painted conch shell you use as a paperweight. Perhaps that same coffee mug says, in faded and defeated letters, “World’s Greatest Parent.” In writing, objects in a character’s personal sphere should reflect something about the character’s emotional DNA. Start the exercise by making a list of meaningful objects within your character’s reach—wherever they may be. Then build their world into the scene. A coffee mug should never just be a coffee mug.
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.
Poetry, like life, is about making decisions. Write a poem to the person you may have become had you made an important life decision differently. Remember, this version of you is also vulnerable to the whims of an indifferent universe, so you’re merely making an educated guess as to your doppelgänger’s outcome. Craft your poem with respect. You’re writing to you.
When writing about our own lives it is tempting to tamper with the truth. We worry about what our fathers, daughters, and even strangers will think of our weak moments. Don’t be afraid. Vulnerability creates trust. Your words are only part of the literary experience. As David Sedaris said in an interview in the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.” Have faith in your readers. Identify a poor decision or embarrassing moment in your life. Write an essay about it. Don’t censor your words or thoughts and don't write with anyone else—including your critical self—in mind. Get out of your own way. Be honest. Be funny if possible. But be real.
It’s easy for writers to fall in love with their own characters. We created them, after all; they are part of us. But remember that characters are human beings and all human beings have flaws—sometimes terrible ones. Insecurity, loneliness, addiction, violence, and even pure evil are not easy to write about. However, flaws can also be the most compelling characteristics of our characters. Flaws create conflict, tension, and drama as our characters slug their way through challenges and heartache. In many ways, weakness can be a character’s greatest literary strength.
Choose an inch of space anywhere around you: the sole of your hiking boot, the rusted headlight of an abandoned car, that weathered and broken thumb your grandfather used to pry open the back fence. Write about that inch. As poets we often become overwhelmed by the big picture. We seek to conquer love, injustice, and the meaning of meaning. Take a step back. Focus the scope of your poetry. Writing about a single drop of rain can tell us the most about the sky above.
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” So Joan Didion begins her famous essay “Goodbye to All That,” about arriving in—and eventually leaving—New York City. Write about a time when you left something—a city, a country, a job, or a lover. Include details about how things began, but focus most of your attentions on how they ended. For inspiration, read or revisit Didion’s essay, originally published in her essential collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968).
In honor of Independence Day, take another look at the great document that was signed by Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the others on July 4, 1776. Reread that most famous sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Use it—or rewrite it—in a short story that takes place at dusk on July 4, 2076. Happy Tricentennial?
"For the poetry reader...there are certain emotions you are allowed to feel—sadness, love—but this is such a miserable choice of all the emotions one feels," writes Craig Raine in the English Review. "One feels anger, boredom, chilliness—quite strong emotions, but they don't get much of a run in poetry, and I think they should." Write a poem about anger or boredom or any other "nonpoetic" emotion. If you have trouble getting started, try using the first line of John Berryman's devastating "Dream Song 14": "Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so."
In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between (Da Capo Press, 2012), Lee Gutkind writes that there are two sides to creative nonfiction: the personal, as found in memoirs and personal essays, and the "big idea"—a public topic, the kind often tackled in literary journalism—each of which tends to attract a different audience. The ideal piece, Gutkind writes, is one that offers both, one that explores a big idea from an intimate perspective. "Writers who can choose a public subject and give it a personal treatment are establishing a 'universal chord': reaching out and embracing a large umbrella of readership." This, he writes, is the creative nonfiction writer’s mission. Choose a "big idea" that interests you—a certain kind of food, a style of music, a political issue, a specific sport—and write down everything you know about the subject. Do further research and record everything you find. Then write an essay, including anecdotes about why the subject interests you, and try to strike that universal chord.
Depending on one's point of view, long sentences are either a writing hazard or a literary virtue. From Joyce to Faulkner to Lowry, authors have long been showing off their prowess at stringing together clauses in seemingly endless narration. Try writing a scene, in which one character says goodbye to another, using sentences as long as you can muster.
On June 25, 1857, French poet Charles Baudelaire published his book Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), which led to his conviction on charges of blasphemy and obscenity. Here's a sample: "Huddled, teeming, like gut-worms by the million, a clutch of Demons make whoopee in our brain and, when we breath, Death floods our lungs, an invisible torrent, muffled in groans." Get good and dark: Read a bit from Flowers of Evil then write a short poem. Unleash the gut-worms!
In “Why We Write: Tilted Naked Weirdo” (Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 2013), Nancy Méndez-Booth writes that by allowing herself to explore her “uglies”—the weirdest, most uncomfortable, or embarrassing parts of her life—she has been able to find her truest voice. “Writing honestly makes me feel stripped and exposed,” she writes. “I put everything I’d rather hide right on the page for the world to see. It horrifies me.” Write an essay about your own uglies—the strange, the silly, the discomfiting and weird—the parts of your life that few people know but you.
The author of four story collections; two novels; and two memoirs, including the one for which he is perhaps best known, This Boy's Life, was born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama. Check out Wolff's Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Knopf, 2008), read some of his work—don't miss "Hunters in the Snow" and "Bullet in the Brain"—and see where it takes you. Celebrate Tobias Wolff's birthday by starting a new story.
"I know Midwesterners are accused of talking too much about the weather, but that criticism must surely come from people who don't have weather like ours," novelist David Rhodes once wrote to his editor at Milkweed Editions, Ben Barnhart. "These last few weeks have been filled with the bright, indolent humidity of summer, offset by sudden, tyrannical darkness and booming threats of supernatural violence. Not mentioning such revolutionary experiences would be inhuman." Go Midwestern and write a poem about today's weather. And if you're interested, read "After the Flood: A Profile of David Rhodes," from the September/October 2008 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.
"This is one of the few stories I’ve written for myself, about myself," wrote the late Sean Rowe in the introduction to his essay about his experiences in jail, "An Insider’s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine: Dining In," which was originally published in Oxford American and reprinted in the third volume of The Best Creative Nonfiction. “That’s a dangerous practice. It’s dangerous because the more personal you get in a story, the harder it is to stay honest. Here I think I pulled it off, but at a price: I had to reveal things I’m not proud of to get at something bigger than me.” Write an essay about something—or a host of things—you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Be honest about what you did, what consequences you faced, and how you feel about it now. What lessons did you learn about yourself, and about life, that you can pass on to your readers?
In Herman Melville's classic story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853), the character of the eponymous scrivener repeatedly says, "I would prefer not to," in response to requests at the law firm where he works. Take it a step further: Come up with a signature response of your own and try writing a short story in which it is the only sentence one of your characters ever utters. See where it takes you.
In a profile of Natasha Trethewey in the September/October 2012 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, contributing editor Kevin Nance quotes the poet laureate (who was elected to a second term on Monday) about her use of poetic form. "I never set out to write in a particular form, but usually something in the early drafting process suggests to me the possibility of a form I might follow that might help take the poem in a better direction than I might have sent it without following that impulse,” Trethewey says. “I find that it helps me with poems that have seemed unruly for some reason—maybe the story is too big, or the emotion of it is overwhelming for me, and the form helps bring shape to it." Choose a poem that has been giving you trouble—an unruly poem of your own—and try to rewrite it as a sonnet, a villanelle, a pantoum, or another form. (Consult the Academy of American Poets website for help with poetic forms.)
In A Chance Meeting: The Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, nonfiction author Rachel Cohen investigates the relationships and interactions between various writers—Henry James and William Dean Howells; Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein; Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore—and while the book relays actual encounters, many of the unknown details (what clothes were worn, what the subjects were thinking) are imagined. Write a letter to one of your favorite writers, living or dead, telling him or her about your work, your life, and how their writing has influenced you. Then write an imagined response, from the writer to you.
In her book An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, Janna Malamud Smith writes about a photography exhibit she saw in the late 1970s that consisted of Abe Frajndlich's pictures of photographer Minor White, who died in 1976. "In the photographs, Frajndlich shows White dressed up in different costumes representing other lives he might have lived," she writes. "What, the exhibition asked on White's behalf, would it have been like to have had more than one turn? Who else might I have become? What other work could I have done?" Choose a minor character from one of your stories (one that is giving you trouble, perhaps) and give him or her the Abe Frajndlich treatment: Write a series of paragraphs in which you imagine different lives for that character.
In their introduction to My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi write about Spicer's idea of the serial poem, "a book-length progression of short poems that function together as a single movement." Robin Blaser described the form as "a dark house, where you throw a light on in a room, then turn it off, and enter the next room, where you turn on a light, and so on." As Spicer's poetry "moves from dark room to dark room," Killian and Gizzi write, "each flash of illumination leaves an afterimage on the imagination, and the lines of the poem become artifacts of an ongoing engagement with larger forces." Read some of Jack Spicer's long poems, including The Holy Grail and Billy the Kid. Consider throwing a light on some rooms of your own.
Spend a few moments looking around your kitchen, office, or bedroom, and gather any found objects (not including books, magazines, or journals) that contain text: post-it notes, receipts, a piece of mail, the packaging of food or household products. Freewrite for fifteen minutes, recording as many words and phrases from the objects as you can, and taking note of any connections, associations, or themes that may arise. Then write an essay about what you find.
"As a reader, I have a favorite canon of ranters that runs from Dostoevsky to Thomas Bernard to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater," says novelist Claire Messud in a profile by Michael Washburn in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. "I love a ranter." Read some of the work of the authors Messud mentions and write a rant of your own.
In honor of the centennial anniversary of the birth of May Swenson, on May 28, read some poems by this award-winning poet (consult the Academy of American Poets website for a bibliography), then write a poem with her work in mind. Remember, this is a poet who, four months before her death on December 28, 1989, wrote, "The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem."
Often found in the work of Elizabethan and Romantic poets, anaphora—a Greek word meaning “the act of carrying back”—is the repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive lines, sentences, fragments, or verses. Write a short anaphoric essay beginning each sentence with the same word or phrase.
Imagine you are your main character (or just write from your own perspective). What do you really, really want? Now, start talking about that object of desire. Don’t keep saying, “I want X, I want X, I want X.” Rather, just talk about the thing you want, in all its desirable specificity. Let yourself get caught up in all that wanting.
This week's writing prompt comes from Eileen Pollack, whose most recent novel, Breaking and Entering, was published in January 2012 by Four Way Books. She wrote about desire and writing for Fiction Writers Review.