“You know who I imagine? The narrator. I imagine the narrator as an actual reader, reading what I’ve written and commenting to me about the voice and point of view,” writes Lorrie Moore in a New Yorker interview by Deborah Treisman, about the reader she imagines when writing. “You have to be true to your narrator. The narrator is the supreme reader. And narrators may quibble with the narration you’ve created for them.” Write a new version of an old story, or perhaps one you never finished, while imagining that the narrator has objections about how they are portrayed. Adjust the voice to be true to your narrator’s new needs.
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.
What comes to mind when you think of indoor activities versus outdoor activities? As the weeks of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown wear on, many have found it necessary to reconsider the traditional boundaries of these divisions. A recent New York Times article featured Michael Ortiz, a “financial executive and recreational endurance athlete” who has been running hundred-mile marathons inside his 960-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn, first running 13,200 laps around his living room rugs in sixty hours, and then on a treadmill. Write a pair of poems; one that focuses on an indoor activity, and one on an outdoor activity. How has your notion of those designations been transformed since the pandemic? Are there new designations you’ve created?
“The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to pay attention,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum in a recent Paris Review essay. This phrase is repeated throughout the piece as Koestenbaum floats from one memory to another and suggests that a writer should “revisit books to which we have ceased paying sufficient attention, books we have failed adequately to love” and “play with words and to keep playing with them—not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage, and awakening conscience.” Write an essay about your personal perspective on the role of a writer today. Allow for a fluctuating and expansive definition, one that can accommodate not-writing, playfulness, contradictions, and elasticity.
In what circumstances are a person’s true colors revealed? Sometimes in times of chaos or upheaval, latent strengths, abilities, foibles, or idiosyncrasies come to the surface, which can be as much of a surprise to oneself as to others. This week, write a short story in which your main character learns something new about themselves during a crisis. Is there an unexpected feeling of panic, wild and unpredictable behavior, or is all eerily calm? Does your character step up to the plate or cower under pressure?
“It’s astonishing to me that there is so much in Memory, yet so much is left out: emotions, thoughts, sex, the relationship between poetry and light,” writes Bernadette Mayer in the introduction to her book Memory (Siglio Press, 2020), featured in the Written Image in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The book presents a collection of photographs and text from 1971 when Mayer shot a roll of film every day for the month of July and wrote in a journal—a record of her consciousness. Taking inspiration from this project, jot down notes describing several images and observations each day this week. Then, write a poem that combines them into a single, sequential mass, a contemporaneous manifestation of your conscious mind.
In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Cathy Park Hong discusses the writing process for her first nonfiction book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2020), in an interview by Dana Isokawa. Hong talks about patching together “scenes, personal anecdotes, analyses of books, vents about things” and how this eventually developed into a form. “I began mixing and matching these paragraphs the way you would put together stanzas for a poem, and that’s how I arrived at a modular form.” Write a personal essay that revolves around an important belief, opinion, or question. Begin accumulating different paragraphs that contribute to your argument, and then collage them together, perhaps using other texts and facts from research. What’s your organizing principle in providing shape to this structure?
“I had never tried to map story—the elements of narrative that move from a state of equilibrium for the protagonist to disequilibrium to equilibrium restored—onto theory. I had never interrogated that artistically. That arc is not available to blackness, there is no equilibrium to be regained,” says Frank B. Wilderson III in a New York Times interview with John Williams about writing his new book of memoir and philosophy, Afropessimism (Liveright, 2020). “What does it mean to tell the story of a sentient being who does not need to transgress to experience the violence of lynchings, of slavery, of incarceration? What does it mean to not have an arc from innocence to guilt?” Write a short story that tells the tale of a main character’s unsettling experience, one that does not follow a conventional arc but upends this narrative order. What questions or new ideas are brought up by this disruption?
“Language and the body are inextricable, if not synonymous, and often the body can express what language cannot,” writes Nicole Rudick in her Poetry Foundation essay “Mutual Need and Equal Risk” about Dodie Bellamy’s writing. Rudick offers examples of this blur of language and body communication from Bellamy’s book Cunt-Ups (Tender Buttons, 2001): “I used to have brains but now my tongue moves aback and forth along you” and “My fingers have turned into poems like a very real possibility.” Write a poem focusing on the expressions of the body—one that allows physical movements to be described by the vocabulary of intellect, linguistics, or poetics and vice versa. How can one type of language or expression step in when another seems insufficient?
“Doctor, you say there are no haloes / around the streetlights in Paris / and what I see is an aberration...” In the Paris Review’s “Poets on Couches” video series, Maya C. Popa reads Lisel Mueller’s “Monet Refuses the Operation” and speaks about how the poem brings her comfort. In the poem, Mueller imagines a conversation between a doctor and the painter Monet, who pushes back against having surgery to correct his cataracts, which may just be the source of his artistic vision. Write an essay where you express your unique vision of the world. Was there a moment in your life when you had to fight to be true to yourself?
“The care of a human body ties people to the physical, social world they’ve been abruptly forced to leave behind,” writes Amanda Mull in “Isolation Is Changing How You Look” at the Atlantic. “Stuck inside, people are left with just their existing tools and skills, trying to maintain their sense of self, or at least their eyebrows. With people’s faces, so go their identities.” Consider how this time of quarantine and isolation is affecting our grooming rituals and self-identity, and try writing a short story where your main character makes a change to their physical appearance, either drastic or small, in response to a pivotal moment in their life. Track their thoughts throughout the process including both their physical and internal selfhood.
Earlier this year, the Dutch dance company Nederlands Dans Theater performed at New York City Center as part of their sixtieth season. Included in their program was the U.S. premiere of Walk the Demon, a 2018 piece by Marco Goecke that featured sharp, small, and abrasive movements. Drawing inspiration from this choreographic style, try writing a poem using only single-syllable words to mimic short and sharp actions. What content do you find best fits this stylistic endeavor? See what unfolds from this syllabic limitation.
Happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise have been named by twentieth-century psychologists as our basic human emotions, but what about other types of feelings? In her first essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, published in February by One World, Cathy Park Hong writes that “minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” Hong writes that minor feelings are related to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s idea of ugly feelings, which are “non-cathartic states of emotion.” Think about a time when you have felt cognitive dissonance with the state of current events or between your personal reality and how the larger world perceives you. Write a personal essay that explores the experience of minor feelings, such as boredom or irritation or envy, that lead to no cathartic outlet or breakthrough. What do you find when you trace these feelings to larger sociocultural or historical forces?
Like the taste and scent of the madeleine that prompts a flood of memories in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the pungent aroma of a grandmother’s homemade tea transports the main character of Dorothy Tse’s short story “Sour Meat,” translated from the Chinese by Natascha Bruce and included in That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction (Two Lines Press, March 2020). “F’s memories of Grandma were hazy. If it hadn’t been for the intense, distinctive smell of the tea, she’d have written them off as figments of her imagination.” Write a story that revolves around an aromatic encounter that brings to the surface unexpected memories for your main character. Do these memorable aromas propel your character toward light or fraught memories, or perhaps something complex and pleasurably in between?
“Caught in the rain today, I recall that couple kissing and holding each other infinitely close in the rain one dark evening under the nearly invisible trees,” wrote Paul Valéry in 1910, in a notebook included in The Idea of Perfection: The Poetry of Paul Valéry, translated from the French by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody and forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this month. Draw inspiration from rainy scenes in poetry such as William Carlos Williams’s “Spring Storm,” Sara Teasdale’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and Emily Dickinson’s “Like Rain it sounded till it curved” and write a poem that captures a moment in the rain, one that seems quiet or private but also carries emotional weight. Is there something poignant, parallel, or contradictory between the subject of the poem and the themes of rebirth and renewal that are conventionally associated with springtime?
“September 3: (Lord’s day.) Up; and put on my colored silk suit very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair, for fear of the infection,” writes Samuel Pepys in his diary about the Great Plague of 1665 in London, excerpted in Lapham’s Quarterly. This week start writing short, daily journal entries about your observations and feelings about the current coronavirus pandemic. How have your small, everyday routines been affected by the crisis? How have new habits popped up? Record your tangential musings along with feelings of loss, helplessness, anger, humor, or hope as they arise.
In “How to See the World When You’re Stuck at Home,” a New York Times essay about using Google Street View to explore the world, Reif Larsen writes: “I often turn to it as a research tool when I’m writing a novel but more often than not, I simply use it to practice being a curious human. What an unbelievable resource! An endless fountain for little details.” Think of a place—a region, country, specific city, or remote locale that you find evocative—and take a voyage using Street View on Google Maps, which collects panoramic images from Google Street View car cameras and individual contributors. Explore the architecture, local flora and fauna, and any people who were caught on camera. Write a short story that responds to the images you see, and let your imagination fill in other sensory details and observations.
“I return to some books that have helped ground me and given me this long-seeing perspective, and from their words I made some poems,” Alli Warren writes at Literary Hub, where she created short poems from books that help her feel less alone, including W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America, Bernadette Mayer’s Utopia, and Emanuele Coccia’s The Life of Plants. “These are not my words, they are the words of their authors—I just translated them into poems, so that we can sing them and remember (poetry is a technology of memory), building up community memory, humming these fight songs.” Think of a book that you turn to for solace or wisdom in difficult times, and select lines from the book to turn into a fight song poem of your own to sing.
“I have to remind myself that the possibility of everything ending up okay is no more outlandish than any worst-case scenario I can conjure,” writes Lilly Dancyger in her essay “My Book Comes Out Next Year. Do I Even Still Believe in Next Year?” at Electric Literature. “If I can imagine a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I tell myself, I should also be able to imagine something like stability.” While acknowledging the precariousness of making plans during this uncertain time, write a personal essay about your hopes for next year. What comes to mind when you allow for the possibility that accomplishing small, controllable tasks today can have a bearing on the possibilities you might be working toward for next year? Reflect on how you have dealt with anxiety or panic in difficult times in your past, and how you might carry some of that knowledge to the present moment.
When asked the question, “What kind of writing is possible in a time of crisis?” by the Guardian, author Bhanu Kapil responded, “That is a question that people have been answering with their bodies all over the world for a very long time. But here we are. Let’s see what unfolds. What is a page for? What is a sentence for?” This week, open up a new page. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself what this page can be, for you, right now. What will your first sentence offer? What about the next? Allow a story to pour or trickle out until your page is full. Perhaps you will be surprised with what there is to say.
Can’t tell the difference between a Canada goose and a snow goose? Even if you have no experience in birdwatching, New York Times science writer James Gorman recommends watching birds during this time of isolation and social distancing. “I’m suggesting you just watch birds in the way that you might watch people in a crowd, in the days when there were crowds. I like Canada geese, because they are a lot like people. They gather and squawk, conducting unknown goose business and gossip.” Keep your eyes peeled for birds as you peer out your window or go for a solitary walk outside, browse for zoo and aquarium webcam videos online, or watch live streaming videos for a peek at other animals. Then, write a poem that captures the liveliness and camaraderie provided by these creatures.
“I sometimes find talking about a piece of visual art can help illuminate certain abstract ideas,” says Jessi Jezewska Stevens, author of the debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), in a BOMB magazine interview by Kristina Tate. “I am drawn to visual art as a tool of writing about perception and the fragility of perception.” Take a cue from Stevens’s way of connecting writing and visual art, and write a lyric essay inspired by a particular painting or work of art that you find resonant. What kind of inferences can you make about the artist’s ways of perception from looking at the work? How can you connect this with the ways you perceive the world?
“This is how you tell a story,” says narrator Tilda Swinton in a short film written and directed by Andrew Ondrejcak, which goes through six steps of a writer’s process paired with a dance choreographed by Kyle Abraham. “There is a problem. It is an obstacle so monumental that it seems unlikely our tiny protagonist will be able to overcome something so impressive. It’s a mountain pressing down, it’s a witch, a curse, a giant.” Think of the motions associated with loneliness and heartbreak, and write a scene of a short story that foregrounds your protagonist’s movements as they experience one of these invisible obstacles.
“The carnation had possessed me,” is a sentence from Amparo Dávila’s short story “The Breakfast,” illustrated in a New York Times piece by Tamara Shopsin. Through her illustrations, Shopsin presents quotes from Dávila’s story collection The Houseguest (New Directions, 2018), translated from the Spanish by Audrey Harris and Matthew Gleeson, that imbue mundane plants with a sense of strange terror. Another sample is from the short story “The Cell”: “She was like ivy attached to a giant tree, submissive and trusting.” Select one of the lines—or jot down your own menacing plant simile or metaphor—and use it as a starting point for a poem.
This month, TIME magazine unveiled their 100 Women of the Year project, which shines a light on influential women from the past century who have been overshadowed by their past Man of the Year covers. Choose a woman who has played an important role in your life—someone you have been close to for many years, or an acquaintance or celebrity whose words or actions have affected you in a significant way—and think of one year that was particularly affected by your encounter. Write a personal essay that details your memories of an inciting incident, and that celebrates the impact of this woman. Browse through TIME’s new covers for inspiration.
“I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell,” concludes the prologue to Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History (Knopf, 1992). In a piece in Book Riot in praise of prologues, Nikki VanRy writes, “a good prologue is one that introduces the tone and style of the story. A great prologue, however, is all about setting the stage, baiting the tease, opening up the mystery, allowing the reader to come in slowly and—once they’re there—hooking them.” Write a brief prologue to a short story you’re in the process of writing. How does your prologue create an opening to your story that strikes a balance of laying the groundwork and setting the bait?