The promise of a new year is laden with expectations. Much of the conflict and drama that propels stories forward stems from a character’s passions and expectations. Some of those expectations are achieved, others bring heartbreak and despair. Write a scene in which your protagonist deals with unfulfilled expectations. Describe in detail his or her reaction, whether it is expressed by a simple downward gaze or a violent tirade. Contending with failed expectations reveals much about the inner worlds of our characters.
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 end of 2013 has arrived. Considering we are all on earth for a limited amount of time, it is important to reflect and appreciate the end, and beginning, of another year. Take time away from the popping champagne bottles, boisterous countdowns, and feigned promises of resolutions. Sit alone somewhere and ruminate on the past year. Slow down. Think. Be grateful. Write a poem about your thoughts and emotions as you recall the people, moments, and events that brought you joy and sadness this past year. Time is indifferent to life and death. This is why poetry exists.
Sometimes the inanimate objects in our lives adopt parts of our beings: a bed assumes the contours of a couple’s sleep, a knitted scarf stretches to accommodate the long neck of a businessman’s windy walks to the subway, a wooden bannister becomes polished by the hands of children running to and from the kitchen. Write five hundred words about a piece of furniture in your home that has somehow incorporated the soul of a person. Focus on textures, sounds, and smells that imbue life into this living object.
This is a difficult week for fiction writers. Like athletes, writers must maintain a disciplined daily regimen to ensure their creative muscles are strong, productive, and functioning at peak levels. The holidays, however, can derail even the most committed writers as our lives submit to the drama of meddling family members, long lines at airport security, or a lovingly made apple pie dropped on the front steps. Give yourself the gift of time this holiday. Take twenty minutes to disappear and write. Hide if you must. Report from the eye of the holiday storm. Create characters from the people around you. Develop fictional stories from their real experiences. Stay creative.
Despite the commercialism, stress, and anxiety over gifts and travel, the holidays are a time to reflect on the more endearing aspects of humanity: our ability to love, connect with, and help those around us—including strangers. Write a poem that explores the complexities of the human heart and mind, and how the holiday season—if only for a few days or even moments—brings out the best in the poetically flawed human condition.
“You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying in the road.” This quote from author Richard Price emphasizes the importance and power of details in conveying a larger emotional storyline or the nuances of a complex concept. Reflect on the relationships you’ve had in life—with your family, your friends, or your colleagues—and choose one poignant and definitive memory that involved a sense of loss. Write five hundred words about that loss using carefully selected details to express complicated emotions and interpersonal dynamics.
"I read newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction." This humorous quote from Aneurin Bevan, the architect of Britain's National Health Service following World War II, is also packed with advice for fiction writers. Newspapers—whether online or print—offer a wealth of story ideas, inspiration for character development, and engrossing portrayals of humanity and inhumanity. Read the local section that highlights everyday people confronting the ordinary trappings of life. Choose a person, event, or experience that captures your attention. Begin your next story there.
Sounds are filled with meaning. Poets can use sounds not only to create wonderful and complex worlds through words, but also to create a rhythm and flow that gives life to the wind, the footsteps, and closing doors around us. Sit quietly somewhere with colorful and unique sounds: an art museum, a lonely riverbank, or a bustling subway station. Write a poem about the sounds you hear. Focus on the poetry and music of the sounds, and how the sounds put everything else—nature, life, and death—into context.
Conveying how people communicate is a formidable challenge for the creative nonfiction writer because technology has changed—and continues to change—the very fundamentals of human interaction. Describing a series of e-mails or texts relates far less emotional information than depicting a verbal conversation in which a writer can chronicle facial expressions, voice inflections, and other physical details that inform the exchange between characters. But this is our modern reality. Write about an occasion in your life that exemplifies the shortcomings of communicating in the digital age. Capture the sensations of frustration, humor, and confusion that often dramatize miscommunication.
Tension is critical in fiction. Tension is the difference between a story about a boy flying a kite and a story about a boy flying a kite in an electrical storm. Tension often is created through conflict—which means your character must want something desperately: an apology from a lover, respect from a father, a cup of water on a crowded lifeboat. Revisit your writing and read it carefully for tension, which keeps readers engaged and propels the story forward. If you stop reading, check for lapses in tension.
Poetry has very powerful redemptive and healing capacities. The mere process of writing and reading poetry forces us to connect with life on a meaningful, meditative level. Poetry requires a deliberate and calm contemplation that creates spaces for forgiveness, understanding, and self-awareness. Write a poem about a recent disappointment in your life. Be honest about your feelings. The power of your poetry begins with your truths.
You are not the same person today that you were five years ago. We all change. Creative nonfiction seeks to explore not only the changes we experience as human beings, but also how those changes impact our relationships with family members, friends, and lovers. Our lives are shaped by joy, disappointment, triumph, and loss. Write about someone you love who has changed due to a particular life event. Examine this individual’s shift in attitude, behavior, and demeanor. Write with humanity.
“I still maintain that the times get precisely the literature that they deserve, and that if the writing of this period is gloomy the gloom is not so much inherent in the literature as in the times.” This quote from author William Styron, who died in 2006 at age eighty-one, addresses the role of tone in fiction. People are the products of their times; they are influenced by the economic, political, and cultural climate that surrounds them. Write five hundred words that bring to life the mood of the society your characters inhabit. A bloody sunset, a tarnished silver fork, or a character’s stoic posture can make vital intangible forces accessible to your readers.
Like snowflakes, every family is unique. From quirky aunts and greedy uncles to gracious moms and despicable cousins, every family is peculiar in some meaningful way. Write a poem about your family. Focus on the people who create the love, the pain, and the dynamics that define your family. Be honest. Be courageous. Be open.
Writing about life from a child’s perspective is challenging. We remember the feelings, thoughts, and concerns we experienced as children, but as writers of creative nonfiction, we must recreate that world and make it accessible to adult readers. Use Thanksgiving Day as a source of inspiration. Watch how the children in your family interact with one another, the adults, the food, and other holiday activities. Write five hundred words that describe Thanksgiving Day from a child's unique point of view.
Details are critical to character development, especially when describing a character’s face. A glass eye, a crooked nose, or thin lips can convey more meaning than exposition or action. Describe the face of your protagonist, and then describe the face of your antagonist. What qualities do they share? How are they different? Write so that a comparison of the characters’ faces provides both symmetry and juxtaposition that symbolizes the nature of their relationship.
It is estimated that 43.4 million Americans will travel fifty or more miles this Thanksgiving weekend. Travel is so often inspiring because it mixes a sensory experience with the opportunity for a prolonged period of contemplation. Write a poem about a recent trip you took. Carefully select your words to evoke the sights and sounds that accompanied the journey of your inner thoughts and feelings.
Keys are a sad part of life. They remind us that the world is untrustworthy and unsafe, and that locks are needed to protect our loved ones and possessions from humanity’s less appealing inclinations. But keys are also filled with memories: a first apartment, a new car, access to a home no longer occupied by a friend. Choose a key from your keychain, or perhaps one abandoned in the back of a kitchen drawer, and write six hundreds about it. Begin with a detailed description of the key and segue into broader, more meaningful thoughts.
Sleep deprivation can make any person act strangely. A barking dog, a leaky faucet, or a loud and unruly neighbor can own the night, turning pleasant people into frazzled malcontents. Write five hundred words about a protagonist who is prevented from sleeping by an outside force, and describe how this character handles the stress and resolves the challenging situation.
Our lives are constantly changing as we navigate what we can and can’t control. Every day there is a new beginning and ending—in big and small ways. We fall in love. We lose an eyelash. Write a poem about how your life is changing. Be specific. Change is complex and emotional on any level because it reminds us of our humanity—and of our mortality. Get writing.
We have all experienced Kafkaesque situations in our lives—those moments that are surreal, bizarre, or menacingly illogical, and yet very real. Write about a time when you encountered a Kafkaesque circumstance. Carefully select descriptive words that will effectively represent the complex emotions, weird thoughts, and bouts of confusion that filled your mind and the strange world around you.
Class is often characterized by how an individual treats others when no one is looking. Without interference from societal judgment, family expectations, or peer pressure, people often act very differently—revealing much about their true natures. Some become selfish and ruthless. Others shine with empathy and magnanimity. Place your protagonist in such a situation. Allow your character to take the lead. As a writer, it is your job to follow and relay what happens. Write five hundred words.
We all lose things in life that are uniquely special to us: a wool scarf knitted by a beloved friend, a letter opener that belonged to a grandfather, a stuffed animal won for a daughter at a state fair. Life moves forward and so do we. Time crowds old memories with new ones. We misplace the things we love. We lose them. Or, somehow, they just leave us. Write a poem about an object that has disappeared from your life. Use the power of memory and emotion to give it new life, rendering it no longer lost, but found.
Writers share many creative qualities and artistic processes with painters. Both are engaged in the difficult endeavor of portraying oneself through art as an artist. Write six hundred words about you as a writer, manipulating your words and sentences like different brush strokes to create an image of how you perceive your artistic self. Be bold. Be thoughtful. Be candid. Self-portraits are rarely flattering. Art is about truth and true artists never spare themselves.
Fiction writers know that conflict drives plot. Tension and drama imbue life into our characters and propel their stories forward. Human nature, however, craves tranquility and clarity. Write five hundred words describing your protagonist at peace—truly one with the universe, even if only for several seconds. Perhaps your character is sitting on a park bench and staring at a bruised cloud, or on a crowded subway car listening to the rails below, or walking out of a cemetery with a beer in hand. Peace is unique to everyone.