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.

5.26.11

Think about the times in your life when you've been the most frightened. Choose one of these times, and write a scene or story about what happened using third-person narration.

5.23.11

Browse through a collection of photographs in a book or online (such as the New York Times or the Library of Congress) and choose an image that you find arresting. Use the title of the photograph (if it has none, write one for it first) as the title and the starting point for a poem.

5.18.11

Write a scene in which two characters who are close (friends, relatives, a couple) are secretly angry at each other about something that has happened in the past. Decide what they are angry about before writing the scene but don't write about it directly. Instead, reveal the tension between them in the dialogue and in the actions involved in accomplishing a mundane task they are doing together, such as moving a couch, setting up a tent, making dinner, or painting a house.

5.16.11

Compose a poem collaboratively with a friend. Write one line and send it to your friend via e-mail, or by passing a notebook back and forth, and invite your friend to write the next line, building on what you wrote. Continue composing the poem together, line by line, until you have at least twenty lines. Then each of you consider the draft and revise it independently. Compare your final versions.

5.12.11

Choose a bureaucracy: the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Post Office, the Army,etc. Imagine two people who work there, one a supervisor, the other an underling, and write their letters of resignation. Then write a scene where the two former co-workers meet for coffee three years later.

5.9.11

Choose a sentence from a newspaper whose meaning gets larger and stranger when taken out of context. Use it as the first line of a poem. If you get stuck partway into the poem, try repeating just part of the line and vary how you complete the rest of the sentence, changing the meaning and music of the line each time. When you have a draft you like, try moving the full sentence to the end of the poem, or somewhere to the middle, or maybe take it out entirely. Stir, and see what happens.
This week's poetry prompt comes from Idra Novey whose debut collection The Next Country received the Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books and was included in Virginia Quarterly Review's list of Best Poetry Books of 2008. She teaches in the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

5.5.11

Take a story you know extremely well, such as how my parents met, my first kiss, or the night I was born and fictionalize it by writing it from a distinct or unlikely point of view. For example, using the story how my parents met, write it from your father's perspective or from the perspective of the bartender at the bar where they met.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Joanna Hershon, author of three novels, including The German Bride (Ballantine, 2008).

5.2.11

Think back to yourself ten years ago—where you lived, what your preoccupations were, who your relationships were with, who you were. Write a letter in the form of a poem to yourself then from yourself now.

 

4.28.11

In a Paris Review interview, fiction writer Amy Hempel talks about a workshop she took with legendary editor Gordon Lish in which he assigned  the class to "write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, 'dismantles your own sense of yourself.'" From this came her story, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." Follow Lish's assignment. Write a story about your worst secret.

4.25.11

Write a prose poem, a poem that doesn't use line breaks to convey its meaning. Read [the siren's story] by Barbara Jane Reyes for an example.

4.19.11

Eavesdrop on two people having a conversation in a public place. (Avoid small-talk, conversations about the weather.) Write down exactly what they say, including their "ums," "uhs," "likes," and stutters for two pages. Then rewrite that page, using only dialogue, but making it more suited for the literary page; clean it up, keeping the sentiments, but getting rid of all the inconsequential words and lines, and even changing the language to make it more engrossing. (Try to find the subtext behind what they’re saying and what you observed about them while listening.) Compare the original and the revised dialogue. The revision will still be boring, as most people’s conversations are, but the point is to see how fictional dialogue is not the same as spoken dialogue.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Teddy Wayne, author of the novel Kapitoil (Harper Perennial, 2010).

4.18.11

Write a poem that explores how you were named and the meaning of your name. Include at least one bold lie.

4.14.11

Choose a social-media Web site, and click on the profile of a person you don't know. Look at his photos, interests, and friends. Give this person a new name, and write a story about something you imagine happened to him ten years in the past, an event that altered the course of his life.

4.11.11

Snip apart a draft of one of your poems, line by line or in chunks. Rearrange the elements and rerecord the original work.

4.7.11

Take a standard medical form from a doctor's office and fill it out in the persona of a character you're working on. Generating even basic information—the name of her street, her family's medical history, her emergency contact—may lead to new insights about her life and her background that you can explore later.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Eleanor Henderson, whose first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, will be published by Ecco in June.

4.4.11

Take a cue from Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which tells a single narrative in ninety-nine ways, and write a poem based on what happened just after you got up this morning. Then use one or more of these filters to revise the poem: onomatopoeia (integrating the sounds of your morning into the language of its telling), litotes (a supremely understated start to the day), overstatement (embellishing every detail), olfactory (emphasizing the morning's smells), tactile (emphasizing the morning's physical feel), gustatory (emphasizing the morning's particular taste).

3.31.11

Take a book off the shelf and write down the opening line. Then substitute as many words as possible with your own words, keeping the syntax and parts of speech intact. Then keep writing. Performing this kind of literary "Mad Lib" often creates a useful starting place for a story, especially when the sentence contains an intersection of character, setting, and situation. Or try using these opening lines, from Faulkner, García Márquez, and Plath, respectively:

Through the [concrete noun], between the [adjective] [concrete noun], I could see them [verb ending in "ing"].

It was inevitable: the scent of [adjective] [plural noun] always reminded him of the [noun] of [adjective] [noun].

It was a [adjective], [adjective] [season], the [same season] they [transitive verb, past tense] the [family name, plural], and I didn't know what I was doing in [city].

This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Eleanor Henderson, whose first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, will be published by Ecco in June.

3.27.11

Spend a few moments examining an old photograph—a found image, a photo from childhood, an iconic shot from history—and give it a title. Then put the photo aside and write a poem using this title.

3.24.11

In the third person, write a scene using three different modes of narrative distance. First, using an objective point of view, describe a woman boarding a bus. Use only actions, expressions, and dialogue; make no judgments about the scene or about her interior life. Then, using the omniscient point of view, describe the woman striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to her. You can still describe what you see on the "outside," but now, reveal something "inside" that only a privileged narrator would know. (Is she late for work? Is she worried about something? Is she bored by the conversation?) Finally, shift into stream of consciousness as the woman gets off the bus. Continue to access the woman's thoughts, feelings, and memories, but use the language of the character herself, revealing "the process as well as the content of the mind," as Janet Burroway says. This wide range of voices may be extreme, but it allows for a full portrait of a character's inner and outer life—and reminds us that no point of view is static.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Eleanor Henderson, whose first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, will be published by Ecco in June.

3.21.11

Write a poem on a page of today's newspaper, allowing your eye to wander slightly and take in the language on the page, and for your text to overlay the text on the page. If you fix your eye on a specific word or phrase, incorporate it into the composition.

3.17.11

Find a story you admire, one with a tight, linear structure. Stories by Flannery O'Connor or Tobias Wolff would be good choices. Read the story slowly and thoroughly five times, so that you are emotionally detached from the narrative, so that you are able to recognize every sentence as a moving part that contributes to the overall design. Then read it again, for a sixth time, with a notebook next to you. Chart the architecture of the story. Indicate a new paragraph with a dotted line running across the page. Separate every instance of white space with a bold line. Track each paragraph, noting every relevant element. Example: Opens with a description of setting that clues us in to the mood of despair. Character A introduced with a line of dialogue that reveals his selfishness. And so on. When you finish, write your own story that bears no resemblance to the original except in its design. Paste new flesh on an old skeleton. For canonical examples of this, compare "Mexico" by Rick Bass to "The Prophet From Jupiter" by Tony Early or "The Lady With the Pet Dog" by Anton Chekhov to "The Man With the Lapdog" by Beth Lordan.
This week's fiction prompt comes from fiction writer Benjamin Percy, whose most recent novel, The Wilding, was published in September 2010.

3.14.11

Choose a poem that you are in the process of revising. Draw a map of that poem, paying attention to the details of its landscape, its realities and abstractions, its landmarks, the spacial relationships among its features. Use the map to guide a revision of the initial work.

3.10.11

Think of a piece of gossip you've heard and identify the least sympathetic person involved. Maybe it's the adulterous mother of two? Or the Salvation Army bell ringer who, during the holidays, pocketed some of the donations he'd collected? Write a story from the perspective of the least sympathetic person with the piece of gossip as the narrative climax. You might also try writing the story with the piece of gossip as the inciting action of the story, as the event that sets everything in motion.
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

3.7.11

Choose a clichéd phrase ("fit as a fiddle," "think out of the box," "running on empty," etc.) and turn it around. Use the new meaning created by this reversal to fuel a poetic meditation.

3.3.11

Make a list of five physical artifacts that seem to lack emotional weight, the more mundane the better. A donut, a vacuum cleaner, a pair of socks, etc. From your list, choose one of the artifacts, and use it as the emotional linchpin of a story. Write a story in which, say, a vacuum cleaner takes on enormous and surprising emotional significance to a character. For an example of how this can work, read Ann Beattie's story "Janus" from her collection Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories (Scribner, 2002).
This week's fiction prompt comes from Bret Anthony Johnston, fiction writer and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer.

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