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.
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.
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.
Write a poem that is in the form of a letter to a person from your past, a person from history, or a place. As you revise the poem, examine the poem's structure, looking for patterns. How many syllables are most of the lines? How many lines make up each unit (or stanza). Once you get a sense of the dominant structure, revise the poem asserting that structure consistently.
Research one of the decades during which you were a child. Make a list of the popular music at the time, the best-selling books, the favorite movies and celebrities. Then write notes about politics—who was president? what were the major political issues in the United States and globally? Then freewrite about the neighborhood where you lived—who were your neighbors? what was the living situation like? what was a typical day for you and the people around you. Finally, choose an event from your life or from history that happened during the time you've researched and write about it, using your research to inform and contextualize what you write.
Think about a time or incident from your past when you just barely averted disaster. Write a story about it, but change the circumstances so that the disaster actually happens.
Poet Stanley Kunitz often advised his students to end a poem on an image without explaining it. Write a new poem or revise an old one, ending it with an evocative image left unexplained.
Using Lorrie Moore's "How To Be An Other Woman" from Self-Help (Knopf, 1985) as inspiration, turn a personal experience into a twelve- (or more) step, how-to manual. The piece can be a simple enumerated list, or it can be more detailed, conveying a broader story; but use the second-person, and keep it instructional.
Find a blank notebook, and for one week fill it with whatever strikes you—images, photographs, cut-out excerpts from articles or books, notes on matchbooks, maps, drawings, and your own writing. At the end of the week, use this material as inspiration for a story.
Record the advertising slogans and advertising copy that you encounter throughout the day. Pick one slogan/catchphrase or a brief selection of advertising copy and incorporate it into a poem, without mentioning the object or service being marketed.
Read the headlines in today's newspaper. Choose one that you find compelling, and without reading the accompanying article, write a story based on the headline.