“Milton’s Satan, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden.” Steve Almond’s essay “The Darkness Within: In Praise of the Unlikable” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine examines off-putting characters throughout literature and the issues that surround readers’ responses to them: gender, reader sensibility, morality, the role of literature, the publishing industry. Write a short story that showcases a main character’s repellent or abrasive behavior. In what way does complicating the character to make the reader uncomfortable and unsympathetic express an understanding of how struggles with failure and darkness are an integral part of the human experience?
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.
Swiss photographer Steeve Iuncker has photographed Yakutsk, Siberia (coldest city in the world); Tokyo, Japan (most populous city in the world); and Ahwaz, Iran (most polluted city in the world) for a photo series project focusing on different record-holding locations. Write a poem about a record-holding city, using a real or humorously obscure record of your invention. You might find inspiration in a city you’ve lived in, loved, have never been to, or that only exists in your imagination. How are the geography, culture, and inhabitants affected by the extreme conditions? What kind of behavior and interaction unique to this place will you explore?
In 2014, the oldest eel in the world passed away. Ale the eel was 155 years old and had been living in a well in a small fishing town in Sweden, thrown in the well by a young boy when eels were used to keep a house’s water supply clean from insects. That statement may sound like the premise of a fable, or perhaps the beginning of a joke, but in fact it is a true story. Reality abounds with such surprises. This week, seek out a bizarre fact from the news or a historical document and try using it as the starting point for an essay.
Something Something Soup Something is a video game, or “interactive thought experiment,” created by Dr. Stefano Gualeni, a philosopher and video game designer at the University of Malta. In the game, you are presented with an image and a list of ingredients, and are simply asked to decide “Soup” or “Not Soup.” For example: “Rocks with flies and a candy cane served in a hat with a fork.” Taking this question as inspiration, try writing a scene that begins with a bowl of soup. Perhaps the scene focuses on the senses involved in creating and tasting the soup, or an absurd bit of dialogue debating the definition of soup. Let the strangeness of this thought experiment guide your story out of the ordinary.
Celebrities are often used as subjects in contemporary poetry, from movie stars to athletes, to singers and reality TV stars. In his poem “Marilyn Monroe,” Frank Bidart considers Monroe through a symbolic, almost metaphysical lens. In her poem “Beyoncé in Third Person,” Morgan Parker presents Beyoncé as a point of contrast for reflecting upon her own life. This week, try zeroing in on a celebrity that fascinates you. Start with a few notes on why this celebrity is iconic and build upon these points for your own poem.
Cultures around the world have always developed rituals and traditions to act as guides through all types and stages of interpersonal relationships. Taking inspiration from “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” the title story from the 2001 collection by Alice Munro, choose one of these words and think of a personal habit, routine, or ritual you have developed or participated in as part of a relationship. You might think about or research historical or modern friendship rituals involving bracelets and necklaces, or secret passwords and handshakes. You might find inspiration in considering romance and courtship traditions involving chastity belts, love potions, gentlemen callers—even arranged marriages. Write a short personal essay that delves deep into your experiences and memories, exploring the social conventions and restrictions involved in your navigation of that relationship.
Many traditional symbols of the winter holiday season bring with them associations of playfulness, innocence, togetherness, and celebration. Jo Nesbø’s crime novel The Snowman, however, turns one such symbol on its head, following a detective as he tracks a serial killer whose victims are always found after winter’s first snowfall, with a snowman nearby. Many other authors have experimented with the ominous side of holiday symbolism, such as Terry Pratchett in his fantasy novel Hogfather (a twist on Father Christmas); Christopher Moore in the satirical The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror; and Nick Hornby in his darkly humorous A Long Way Down, in which four strangers coincidentally decide to jump off the roof of the same high-rise building on New Year’s Eve. Write a short story in which you subvert an expectation that arises with a holiday of your choice, imbuing one of the symbols surrounding the occasion with a new layer of meaning. Why might holiday cheer and sentimentality inspire stories of the opposite?
Plaid flannel shirt, leather pants, polo shirt, hoodie, Levi’s 501 jeans, fanny pack, Dr. Martens, red lipstick. The exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” organized by Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher, curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, explores 111 iconic clothing pieces that have transformed fashion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, interweaving research and responses from designers and engineers on politics, cultural identity, labor, technology, aesthetics, and economics. Many contemporary poems that revolve around clothing also focus on basic and iconic items, such as Ruth Fainlight’s “Handbag,” Lynda Hull’s “Red Velvet Jacket,” Michael Longley’s “The Pattern,” “Harryette Mullen’s “Black Nikes,” and Sean O’Brien’s “Cousin Coat,” and investigate the intimacies of creation, nostalgia, transformation, and appearance. Write a poem that excavates the memories associated with one of your favorite everyday clothing items, then move on to provide a personal point of view of the item’s wider historical and functional roles.
“Yet where else besides windows can we perceive the thin boundaries between our inner and outer realities?” Justin Hocking’s essay “Diving Through Windows” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine is a series of vignettes, quotations, anecdotes, and observations that all revolve literally or metaphorically around windows. Hocking discusses windows in the context of creative perspective, architecture, literature, politics, linguistics, and nature. Choose a symbolic object, perhaps an architectural element, and write an essay comprised of short vignettes that explore a variety of topics currently on your mind.
Of the nearly seventy thousand passenger elevators in New York City, there are likely less than a hundred left that are holdovers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manually run by full-time elevator operators. This week, write a scene for a short story that takes place in a manually operated elevator. Do the passengers feel a sense of wonder, anxiety, or accustomed indifference in the old-fashioned space with its noisy and rickety movements? What kind of conversation or other interaction might take place between passengers and the operator?
“The happiest places incubate happiness for their people,” writes Dan Buettner in National Geographic about findings from the annual World Happiness Report that revealed that three-quarters of human happiness is driven by six factors. These include: strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, trust, and freedom to live the life that’s right for you. Write a poem that examines how your personal happiness is connected to your location and environment. How does living in your home, neighborhood, city, state, or country affect your general feelings of contentment or joy? Think of specific memories of happiness, and explore how a particular location might have contributed in direct or indirect ways to your feelings.
As writers, we tend to put up a wall between our creative writing (poems, stories, essays) and our more ordinary writing (to-do lists, e-mails). This week, try poking a hole in that wall. Think back and reflect upon an e-mail you received recently that startled you, that brought you unexpected happiness or unexpected pain. Or reflect on a recent to-do list you’ve written for yourself. Write an essay that feels as immediate as these messages or lists. Think about where you were physically and emotionally when you read or wrote these words. What does this say about you in this moment in time?
In her new photography series titled “Home,” Gohar Dashti explores the interiors of houses in her native Iran that have been abandoned and reclaimed by nature. The images create an ambiguous effect; an old bedroom overrun with wildflowers is lovely in one sense, but also hints at a darker history. What happened in these houses and why did the people who once lived in them leave? This week, imagine what it would look, sound, and smell like, and how it would feel to have your childhood home overtaken by nature. Try using this eerie space as the setting for a short story.
In 1996, David Lehman gave himself the task of writing a poem a day and continued for the next two years. The best of these resulting poems became his collection The Daily Mirror: A Journal in Poetry. In the introduction, Lehman says of his writing process: “Inspiration was not something you needed to sit and wait for. It was something that came when you invited it.” This week, instead of waiting for inspiration, try to simply reach your hand out and gather some. Write down a list of observations each day from scraps of dialogue you overhear, images you encounter, and thoughts that cross your mind. Shape your daily observations into a poem and title each one with the date until you have seven for the week.
Poets Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon founded the CDC Poetry Project in response to a Washington Post report that the Trump administration had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using seven words in their official documents for the 2018 budget. The project invites poets to submit poems that use all of the banned words, which include “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “evidence-based.” This week, choose two or more of these words as inspiration for a series of flash essays. Use the immediate energy of short prose to express what comes to mind when you hear these words.
The Entomological Society Krefeld, a volunteer-run group of amateur insect enthusiasts, recently published their findings showing that the insect population they tested in nature preserves in western Germany had decreased by over 75 percent over the course of thirty years. This decline is thought to accurately reflect the insect species on a much larger and international scale. Write a short story that takes place in a world where there are no insects left. Aside from no longer needing to clean bugs off of car windshields, what are the repercussions given the integral role that insects play in the ecosystem? Does your story include a movement to bring insects back?
An ekphrastic poem reflects on a work of art. “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” written by John Keats in 1819 is a well-known example of this poetic tradition. But as the nature of art changes over time, so too does the nature of ekphrastic poetry. A more recent example, “BBHMM” by Tiana Clark, engages with a music video by Rihanna. This week, choose a piece of art from the digital age that speaks to you, and try speaking back to it in the form of a poem. Your subject could be a photograph, film, or television show. Or it could be even more unexpected: a podcast, a commercial, even a tweet or a meme.
Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallows’ Eve. A number of holidays are celebrated on the evening before as well as the day of the holiday, including many Jewish holidays which begin at sundown on the previous day. Write a personal essay about a particularly eventful or momentous day for you this year that begins with a recounting of the evening before. What details do you decide to emphasize or omit in order to prepare or surprise your reader? Do you create a slow buildup of anticipatory progressions, or is the sense of tension suddenly dropped in by upended expectations?
“I don’t believe in not believing in guilty pleasures.” This line, written by Elisa Gabbert in her essay “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” in the Paris Review, is one of Slate’s “19 Best Sentences of 2017.” Write a short story inspired by one of your favorite sentences from the year, perhaps read or heard in an essay, speech, social media post, poem, song, or work of fiction. You might decide to use it as the first or last line of the story, or allow your plotline or characterization to be more conceptually informed by your inferences of the sentence’s implications or mood.
The anthology Bullets Into Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence (Beacon Press, 2017), coedited by poets Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader, was published this month coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In “Bullets Into Bells” by Maya Popa in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the editors discuss the impact of having each poem paired with an essay response by an activist, politician, or survivor. Taking a cue from the anthology's structure, write a poem as a personal meditation or response to a nonfiction piece or news report covering a specific event from 2017.
In preparation for cold winter months, red-toothed shrews are able to shrink their head and brain mass by 20 percent and then regrow it as the weather warms up in spring. With this survival strategy, they expend less energy when food resources are scarce. Does your energy level or your relationship to your body change during certain seasons? Does your body feel, act, or respond differently in the winter? Write a personal essay about measures you’ve taken, whether moderate or drastic, to adjust your body to difficult times or discomfiting temperatures at various points of the year.
In her story “My Wife, in Converse,” Shelly Oria delivers a narrative about a relationship in eighteen short sections, including one section that’s only nine words long. This fragmented approach allows the story to unfold and reveal so much about the characters while using a relatively small number of words. For a writer, an approach like this can be liberating: not every scene needs to be neatly explained or expanded. This week, try writing your own short story in eighteen sections, and listen for the conversation that develops between them.
How long can a fruitcake last? Conservators from the Antarctic Heritage Trust in New Zealand revealed earlier this year that a well-preserved fruitcake, which likely belonged to British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, had been discovered in one of the continent’s oldest buildings. Scott’s expedition dates to 1911, making the fruitcake, which “smelled edible,” 106 years old. Write a poem from the vantage point of this fruitcake, perhaps touching upon topics such as the stereotypical longevity of the traditional dessert, frigid Antarctic isolation, or the prospect of resurfacing in civilization after missing out on over a century’s worth of events.
In Literary Hub's piece “137 Writers and the Words They’re Best Known For,” Kaveh Akbar lists responses he received from Twitter when asking for words that readers associate with a writer, those that have become their “signature” word. The pairings include Samuel Coleridge and “albatross,” Ross Gay and “gratitude,” Adrienne Rich and “wreck,” and Rebecca Solnit and “mansplain.” Write a short series of micro essays, each one exploring one word you often use in your own writing or speech. How does your repeated usage reflect a persistent preoccupation, an important memory, or evoke an influential person in your life?
Though indoor shopping malls hit a peak in the mid- to late-1980s, financial services company Credit Suisse reported earlier this year that about a quarter of the enclosed malls still existing in the United States will be shut down within the next five years. Write a short story that takes place in what was once a popular shopping mall. Is it completely in shambles or just eerily empty? Has the mall been repurposed, as some have been, into entirely new spaces such as micro apartments, hospitals, offices, churches, greenhouses, and sports arenas? How does this affect the characters, their livelihoods and community?