In Writers Recommend, Amy Shearn extols the virtues of coffee and its importance in her daily writing routine. Write a dialogue in which two characters are deprived of something: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sweets—or perhaps something as seemingly banal as cellular service, television, or the Internet. Now give one character his or her fix, leaving the other without, and rewrite the dialogue.
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.
Print or write out a handful of unfinished poems you’ve had difficulty revising. Cut out each line and mix them up. Rearrange the lines to make a new poem. Consider using one of the lines as the title.
In his recent New Yorker article on writing and revision, “Draft No. 4” (April 29, 2013), nonfiction writer John McPhee recommends drawing boxes around any word that “does not seem quite right” as well as those “that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” Then, he writes, consult the dictionary—not the thesaurus—to find better words. While the thesaurus can be useful, McPhee writes, it can also be dangerous, often muddling a word’s meaning. The dictionary, on the other hand, not only offers a host of alternatives but can also spark new inspiration. Revisit an essay that’s ready for a new draft. After circling all words and phrases that could use work, dig deep into the dictionary to see what new words—and what new meaning—may arise.
Choose a minor character from a story or book you’ve read recently and have that character write the author a letter, beginning: “Dear Author, nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....” Now turn your attention to one of your own stories. Think of a character in a work-in-progress whom you'd like to get to know more deeply. Have the character write you a similar letter: “Dear [your name here], nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....”
This week’s fiction prompt comes from Aaron Hamburger, author of the story collection The View From Stalin’s Head (Random House, 2004) and the novel Faith for Beginners (Random House, 2005). He currently teaches at the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.
Pick an iconic figure with a famous weak spot (Superman and kryptonite, Achilles and his heel, Samson and his hair, the Wicked Witch of the West and water). Write a letter from the icon to the weakness or from the weakness to the icon. Is it hate mail? A love poem? A blackmail note? Advice?
Think about your life in relation to the seasons. What is your favorite season and why? During which season were you born? How did you feel as a child about each season? Have significant events happened during one season over the others? How do you see the world around you change at the start of each season? Use these musings to fuel an essay about one or all of the seasons.
Write a story in which a minor incident occurs—the main character is bitten by a cat, loses her keys, gets a flat tire, accidently breaks something—that symbolizes something larger. Use the incident and how the character deals with it to both move the plot forward and explore a larger significance.
Choose a favorite or compelling line from another writer's poem, and write your own line with same number of stressed syllables and same vowel sounds. Use this line as the start of a new poem.
We’ve all heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” But in his latest book, To Show and Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013), Phillip Lopate argues that the personal essay is perhaps the one form in which it’s not only permissible, but necessary, to do a little telling. “We must rely on the subjective voice of the first-person narrator to guide us, and if that voice never explains, summarizes, interprets, or provides a larger sociological or historical context for the material, we are in big trouble.” With Lopate’s advice in mind, choose a subject for an essay that you’d like to write. Then make a list of the particular kinds of “telling” you’ll need to do in terms of providing background, research, context, and personal experience. Use this list to guide the writing of a first draft.
Believable, fully developed characters serve to engage readers and strengthen your stories. Choose a character from one of your stories-in-progress or imagine a character about whom you’d like to write. Compose a character sketch based on a day in the life of this character. Explore every detail of what this person does and why throughout one day. What are his or her morning rituals and routines? How does he or she go about choosing clothes? What does this person eat? What does the inside and outside of his or her car look like? How does he or she walk and what does it say about this person? Where does he or she go and why? Use this sketch to inform the revision or writing of a story.
Write a Terza Rima, a poem of three-line stanzas in which the end-word of the second line in the first tercet establishes the rhyme for the first and third lines in the following tercet and so on. The poem can have as many stanzas as you’d like, and the rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc. continues through the final stanza.
In the age of Facebook and Twitter, some tenets of the personal essay—confession, self-reflection, and cultural investigation, to name a few—have made their way further into the digital mainstream. Some authors have even written entire books on Twitter. With this in mind, create a series of micro-essays using Twitter as a model. They might be slightly disconnected vignettes or they may work to create a larger, more cohesive story. Either way, keep each individual piece to 140 characters and maintain some form of narrative thread throughout. If you’re feeling adventurous, try to utilize things like hashtags, links, and “Tweetspeak.” If you have a Twitter account, consider posting each piece as you finish.
There are two men sitting in the booth of a diner eating dinner together and talking. A woman sits outside in a parked car, watching them through the window. Who are they? What is their relationship to one another? What are the men discussing? What is the woman thinking? What does she do next? Write a story that opens with this scene and explores these questions.
Write a poem of fourteen lines. Instead of using the first person (I), use only the second person (you).
Write an essay about the year that you were born. Research what was happening politically, socially, and environmentally, both in your town or city and around the world. Place yourself and your family among the events of that year, and try to find out where you fit into the picture of what was happening in the world.
In Writers Recommend, author Alix Ohlin writes: “When I’m in direst need of inspiration, I do what I call ‘sentence stealing.’ I find a sentence from a writer I admire and write it down. ‘In the beginning I left messages in the street.’ Or, ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ Then I write my own version of the sentence, focusing only on its rhythms: by which I mean, replacing a noun with a noun, a verb with a verb. What’s left is a ghostly echo of the original sentence with no relationship to its actual content. And I follow that new sentence wherever it takes me, down the road to an unfolding story.” Using Ohlin’s method, write a story of your own.
Choose a word or phrase you find yourself saying often (e.g. like, totally, hate, really, kind of) and write a poem using it as much as possible, turning it over and over, repositioning it, extending it, playing with its uses and the parts of speech into which it can be shaped.
In the classic essay "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin writes about his relationship with his father, against the backdrop of a time of racial violence in America. Write an essay about your relationship with a parent and try to relate it to a larger aspect of the society and culture in which you were raised.
Think about a person from history—Anne Boleyn, Martin Luther King Jr., Cleopatra, Abraham Lincoln—whose story you find compelling. Write a summary of this person's life, charting the ups and downs that made it remarkable. Using this summary as a plot, write a story that is set in the present and features a main character from your imagination.
Choose a poem—a classic work or something you've newly discovered—and memorize it. As you do so, note the rhythms, sounds, and structure that help you remember it. To test your memory, and in honor of National Poetry Month, consider reciting it to a friend in person, leaving a recording of it on a friend's voicemail, or sending an audio file of it to one or more friends via e-mail.
Browse through online newspapers for stories that took place on the same day at least ten years apart. Write an imaginative essay, based on these two stories, that moves back and forth between them and ultimately ties them together.
Take a draft of one of your stories and cut it up into sections no longer than three to four paragraphs each. Reorder these sections and revise the story accordingly, writing transitions and discovering connections that lead to a new cohesive structure.
Make a collage inspired by a working draft of one of your poems, using images from books, photographs, magazines, newspapers, and drawings. You may incorporate words as well. Let the transformation of your poem into another medium inform a revision of the poem on the page.
Write a micro essay of 1,000 words in which you incorporate a series of footnotes. Strive to create the footnotes so that they both propel the essay forward and layer it with meaning.
From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus to Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, there is a long tradition of fiction about monsters. Write a story of your own in which a monster is the main character. The monster could be based on another monster from literature or popular culture or it could be one from your imagination.