In her essay "Total Eclipse" from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Collins, 1982), Annie Dillard recalls traveling to the top of a mountain to witness a total solar eclipse. The darkness she discovered as the sun disappeared, in a world suddenly without light, was incomprehensible and terrifying, but also illuminating. "What I saw," she writes, "what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world." Write about a time when you disappeared into darkness—whether by your own choosing or not—and emerged again into the light, with a new understanding.
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.
Imagine today that the universe is trying to send you a message. Try to see everything through this imagined perspective. Take note of the day's incidentals that are working to convey this message to you: the guy walking toward you on the street wearing your brother's favorite color, the petals of the same color blowing in the wind, a sign you notice with a saying that strikes you, how the quality of light conjures a past event. Write a poem using these collected images and impressions that reveals the message.
Look through your poem drafts, notes, and writing fragments. Choose one line that you like and refine it until it feels as complete and polished as one line out of context can be. Use that line as a refrain in a new poem. When you've completed a decent draft, try writing an additional draft of the poem without the line, using it instead as the title.
Think about big and small regrets you have in your life—things you wish you had done, people you wish you had treated better, directions you wish you'd gone. Draw a chart that represents a hierarchy of your regrets. It can be simple or decorative, straightforward or complex. Then write an essay that explores what you see when you look at it.
Conjure someone you haven't seen or talked to in over ten years. Imagine you receive a phone call from this person today. Why are they calling? What do they want? Write a story about it.
Take a walk that you know well—through your neighborhood, around the block where you work, or your route to the train or bus. Study this familiar landscape carefully, and try to find a detail that you hadn’t noticed before—a piece of graffiti, a certain row of trees, the pattern in which the sidewalk is cracked. Write about this new observation, small as it may be, starting with physical description and then allowing your thoughts to wander.
The website Brain Pickings posted a video version of Kurt Vonnegut's eight tips for how to write a great short story. Choose a draft of one of your unfinished stories and apply Vonnegut's advice during the revision process.
In honor of National Poetry Month, commit to memorizing one poem a week during April. Allow the experience of inhabiting each poem in this way feed your own poetry.
Like fiction, good nonfiction narratives are often driven by description of place. Think of a place that you know well—your kitchen, your office, or a spot you often visit—and, from memory, write a passage that describes that place. Focus on the physical characteristics of the space, leaving out any emotion that may be connected to it, and be as descriptive and detailed as possible. The next time you’re there, read your description and see how accurately your memory served you. Take note of the details you may have missed.
Look through your desk or visit a thrift store or drugstore to find a selection of postcards. Write short missives to yourself in the voice of an imagined character, sending a dozen or so cards to your home address. Allow your reaction to receiving the postcards and the messages themselves, inspire the beginnings of a story.
Open a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or a book from your bookshelves to any page; choose a word, and write it down. Repeat this nine times. Write a poem with ten couplets (they need not rhyme) using one of the words from your list in each couplet, without using the first person.
In Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), the author writes, “suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the shape and size of a life.” Write about a time in which you experienced suffering—emotionally, physically, or otherwise—and try to focus on how that suffering fit into the shape of your life then, and how it has helped shape the life you know now.
Record the slogans you see on billboards and in other advertising as you go about your daily routine—Prescription Drug Misuse Is a Growing Trend; Forever Engagements; Truth & Honesty: That's the Manfredi Way! Choose one from the list you've gathered and use it as the opening line for a story.
Visit a museum or an art gallery. While looking at the art, transcribe fragments from the written descriptions and/or titles that accompany each work. Create a poem out of the fragments you've transcribed.
Choose an article from a magazine that profiles a person, such as a celebrity, a political figure, or a professional athlete. Using one of the settings in the article and a fictionalized version of the person as the main character, write a story in which it is revealed that the main character's greatest strength is also his or her greatest failing.
Travel writer, memoirist, and novelist Mary Morris, who teaches a workshop called The Writer and the Wanderer at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, likes to send her students on field trips to light the creative torch. “I like to get my students out of the house, and a little out of their heads,” says Morris, whose most recent book is the memoir River Queen (Holt, 2007). “Go away. Listen. Eavesdrop. Find something new. Bring back a souvenir. What do you take with you? What do you leave behind? Sit outside in one place until a story comes to you.” Follow Morris's guidance: Go on a field trip of your own, and discover the wanderer within you.
Write a lyric poem titled "Ode to the Girl in the Red Shoes." Read the Poetry Foundation's definition of the ode, for more information.
In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Viking, 2005), Rebecca Solnit discusses the importance of allowing yourself to get lost—both in life and in writing—in order to become more fully conscious. The art of getting lost, she says, "is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss." Write about a time when you got lost—physically, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise—and how getting lost, and perhaps embracing that loss, resulted in something new being found.
Fill in the generalities with details and use the following to begin a scene for a story: CHARACTER NAME sits at his/her desk in his/her office above Guiliani's Pizza on STREET NAME in CITY NAME. He/she leans down and removes his/her shoes, placing them neatly by the bookcase, then picks up the phone.
During the next week collect images, photographs, small objects, lines of poetry that you've written, passages from other writers' work, snippets of conversations you overhear. Throughout the week put these things in a shoe box or something similar. At the end of the week, sit down and lay out each thing around you. Use the things you've collected as the ingredients for a poem.
Write a list titled "The Ten Things I Will Not Think About in My Last Seconds of Life." Give yourself ten minutes to freewrite the list, then turn the list into an essay. It can be funny, serious, or strange; the points may be connected or not. The important part is to allow yourself to linger on each item in your list and let it grow into its full potential, perhaps keeping it mind for an essay of its own. For this assignment, make sure to incorporate all ten things from the list into your essay.
Write a story in which a character lives alone in a desolate environment—the woods, the desert, the mountains. Describe your character going about the day, and use that action as a backdrop for revealing the reason why he or she has chosen to retreat from the world. Then, have another character enter the scene, describing how he or she arrives. What happens next?
Channel a person you've lost in your life. Find a photograph or reflect on a mental image of a friend or relative who is no longer part of your everyday life (because of death, estrangement, physical distance) and reenter the moment of that image, examining the clothing, the facial expression, the nuances of the scene in which the subject is situated. Then go deeper, into the scents, the temperature of the air, the physical and emotional sensations related to this particular scene from a past life. Now write down any words evoked by this reflection, whether they form a narrative or are entirely associative, whether they come from the point of view of an observer or the person herself. Use this material you've created to write a poem (you might try writing it in the form of a letter to your loved one, or from her to you).
Read the newspaper today and note the articles that you're most interested in reading. From those, choose a theme or concept that characterizes one or some of them, such as corruption, crime, war, love, or politics. Freewrite about the theme you've chosen, focusing on the articles you've read, your personal experience, and other anecdotes. Then craft an essay titled "Five Things I Know About [Your Chosen Theme]," in which you further explore what you've discovered by reading, thinking, and freewriting.
Take a working draft of one of your stories and reorder the structure—write it from the end to the beginning, use flashbacks to rearrange the timeline, or tell the story using some other kind of organizational principle, such as using short sections with subtitles.