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 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.
“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?
Much like Rudyard Kipling’s tales about animals and their origins, Just So Stories, scientists have many hypotheses to explain the mystery of why zebras have stripes including that they function as interspecies identifying marks, detract flies, or confuse predators. For ten summers, biologist Tim Caro conducted trial-and-error experiments to test these hypotheses, going so far as to walk around dressed in a custom-made black-and-white striped pajama suit and count flies that landed on himself. Write a poem inspired by Caro’s perseverance that explores the human desire to solve mysteries and explain unknown origins. How can you use diction, sound, and imagery to create an atmosphere of curiosity, frustration, or discovery?
In The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris, the eleventh-century Japanese poet and courtier created a series of lists based on her daily life. Her topics included “Hateful Things” (“A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise”), “Elegant Things” (“A pretty child eating strawberries”), “Things That Have Lost Their Power” (“A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air”), and “Things That Should Be Large” (“Men’s eyes”), among others. The list form allowed her to celebrate, or denigrate, details that may have otherwise been passed by unnoticed. This week, take ten minutes to invent and populate a list of your own—the more specific, the better. Make more lists with each day if the spirit strikes you.
John Berger begins his classic book Ways of Seeing with the sentence: “Seeing comes before words.” He argues that, “We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice.” In a sense, the stories we write depend upon what we choose to focus on; by looking at something, we bring it to life. Yet it’s possible to fall into patterns of attention in which our vision becomes predictable, and potentially meaningful curiosities go unseen. Try freewriting about an object that might typically be overlooked. Maybe it’s a toothbrush, or the zipper on a jacket, or a stain on a sidewalk. What does it look like? Where did it come from? How was it made? How long has it been there? What has it seen? At a certain point, description may give way to imagination, which could lead to the beginning of a new story.
As the landscape and terrain of planet Earth shifts and transforms over time due to impact caused by natural and human forces, some ancient trees, bodies of water, cliffs, and stone formations have disappeared. Taking inspiration from National Geographic’s photo slideshow of natural wonders that are in the process of vanishing or have already vanished, think of a specific situation or physical item in your own life that one day will cease to exist. Write an ode to this ephemeral subject, exploring the idea of transience as part of an inevitable progression.
In O. Henry’s 1905 short story “The Gift of the Magi,” a young woman is in desperate need of the perfect Christmas present for her husband one day before the holiday. The two have fallen on hard times and find themselves with little money and only a pair of prized possessions: Della’s long brown hair and Jim’s gold watch. Della ends up selling her hair to buy a watch-fob chain for Jim, only to discover during the gift exchange that Jim has sold his watch to buy her combs for her formerly long hair. Think of a time when you’ve made a significant personal sacrifice in order to bestow a gift or act of generosity, or when someone else has done the same for you. Write an essay about the emotional journey involved in committing to such an act of kindness and selflessness. What feelings of conflict or uncertainty accompanied the situation, and what outcomes made the sacrifice worth it?
Max Brooks’s fantasy novel Minecraft: The Island (Del Rey, 2017), about a main character who must learn to survive on an island, is designed to reflect the experience of playing the Minecraft video game; in fact the narrative can be re-created in the actual video game. Write a short story that incorporates a video game, real or imagined, perhaps taking inspiration from other game-related novels such as Dennis Cooper’s God Jr. (Black Cat, 2005), in which a father is preoccupied with a scene in his deceased son’s favorite game; Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Crown, 2011), in which the teenage protagonist seeks to discover the secret hidden inside a game by its creator; or Nathan Hill’s The Nix (Knopf, 2016), in which the main character is addicted to video games. Can you draw any parallels between the journey of being a player in a game and the character arc that develops over the course of your story?
“If I’m transformed by language, I am often / crouched in footnote or blazing in title. / Where in the body do I begin.” Many of the poems in Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection, Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017), explore historical relations between Native Americans and the U.S. government through a lens focusing on linguistics and different forms of official language. Write a poem using found language from official documents or reference materials, such as legal decrees, applications, surveys, dictionary definitions, history textbooks, or identification cards, to explore personal feelings about nationality, identity, or family history. What makes the language and grammar in these texts powerful? Taking inspiration from Long Soldier’s poems, incorporate formatting and styling that contribute to the emotional intentions of your poem, such as strikethrough, border boxes, white spaces, sideways orientation of words and lines, italics, quotation marks, punctuation, and parentheses.
In his experimental memoir, I Remember (Angel Hair Books, 1970), Joe Brainard begins every paragraph with the phrase, “I remember.” By repeating this simple form again and again, Brainard is able to uncover memories previously buried beneath other memories: “I remember my grade school art teacher, Mrs. Chick, who got so mad at a boy one day she dumped a bucket of water over his head. I remember one very hot summer day I put ice cubes in my aquarium and all the fish died. I remember after people are gone thinking of things I should have said but didn’t.” Try borrowing Brainard’s construction for your own experimental essay. Follow the beads of memory and see if they lead you somewhere surprising.
Miranda July’s short story “The Metal Bowl” is about a marriage and a secret that one partner brings to it, but the narrative ends up depending on the eponymous metal bowl. July’s story joins a tradition of short stories that hinge on a single (often surprisingly mundane) object, such as Lydia Davis’s “The Sock” and Aleksandar Hemon’s “The Accordion.” Try writing your own short story or scene in which a nondescript object plays a crucial role.