One of the challenges of writing memoir is balancing truth and one’s subjective experience of the past. Write an essay about something that happened in your past that involved family or friends who you trust. Send your essay to one or more of these people, and ask them to read it and to point out any differences between how you presented the event and how they remember it. Use their input to revise the essay.
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.
Dialogue, when it’s working well, moves the story forward and more fully develops your characters. Keeping this in mind, write a scene for a story that is only dialogue between two characters. Let what the characters say reveal the plot and their personalities and motives.
As poet Ted Kooser writes in The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), “When it comes to the form your poem takes, you can determine it as you write....As you work on your poem, try to see what shape the poetry wants to assume.” Following Kooser’s advice, write a draft of a poem and analyze its structure. How many lines does it have? How many stanzas? How many stressed syllables per line? Look for a dominant pattern in what you’ve written and revise the poem to fit that pattern consistently.
Read through your past writings—drafts of essays, journal entries, letters, stories—looking for themes or images that are repeated. Choose one of these and write an essay about it, exploring as much of it as you can. Incorporate your personal connection to it, as well as outside sources, such as definitions in the dictionary, historical information, and/or cultural and literary references. The idea is to dive deeply into this theme or image to discover the root of your obsession with it.
Choose a short story by a writer whose style is very different from yours. Type out the story, reading it out loud as you go. Then analyze the opening of the story: Does it begin with dialogue? An anecdote? Setting? Begin a story of your own, modelling its opening after the one you've read and incorporating its style and rhythm.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, write a love letter to an inanimate object that explores why you appreciate what you're writing about, what its special qualities are. Title it as you would address the letter: Dear Subway, Dear Keychain, Dear Gloves.
Write a scene for a story with two characters. One character has kept a secret from the other, and the other has recently discovered it, but not yet revealed her discovery. Have the characters engaged in an activity—shovelling out from a snowstorm, preparing for a party, looking for a lost ring. Use the dialogue and the action to express the tension between the two, without having them directly discuss the secret.
Send a line of poetry to a friend via text message or e-mail and ask her to compose a line in response. Collaborate on drafting a poem in this way, building it line by line until you both agree that it's reached its end. Using the final product as a draft, revise the poem and have your friend do the same. Compare your final drafts.
In Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction authors Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd describe how in "The White Album," an autobiographical essay by Joan Didion about the 1960s, Didion "uses her own responses to the times as a means of trying to capture a broad truth about events." Choose a period in your life, and write an essay about loosely related events you experienced that together offer insight into a certain time or place.
Write a story of 1,000 words from a main character's perspective about the moment his or her life took a significant turn. Keep the description about the moment sparse, focusing on what happened versus how it happened. For an example, read Denis Johnson's short story "Car Crash While Hitchhiking."
Using scissors, cut up one of your poems that needs revision into its lines or parts of lines. Rearrange these clippings in various combinations and create a new draft. Write a revision of your poem based on this new draft.
In honor of the 100th anniversary on February 1 of New York City's famed Grand Central Station, write an essay about a time in your life when you travelled—it could be daily travel, such as the commute to and from a job; seasonal travel, such as heading to a beach community every summer; or a vacation, such as a trip to a foreign country. Focus on what compelled you to go and the transition of leaving one place and arriving in another.
Write about a main character for a story, focusing on his or her occupation. Freewrite for five minutes about this character, considering the following: What is his or her job? How did the character get it? How long has he or she held it? What does he or she like and dislike about it? Set your freewriting aside, then research details about this occupation, taking notes along the way. What kind of language would a person with this job use? What kind of equipment? Where would the office be located? Who would be the boss? What would the job title be? Use your freewriting and your research to inform a story about this character.
Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of American poet Robert Frost. To honor this day, read Frost's poem "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" on the Academy of American Poets' website. Analyze the poem's structure, and write a poem with the same rhyme scheme and number of lines.
Think about an important conclusion or insight that you've had at some point in your life but that took time to fully realize. It could be anything—the need to end a relationship, the decision not to pursue a certain career, or the hard truth about a life challenge. Write an essay structured around the many moments that led you to your final conclusion or insight. Consider using headings for each section, such as The First Time I Realized X, The Second Time I Realized X, etc.
Choose two people who you know well and write a detailed character description of each one. Next, change their gender, name, and physical traits. Begin a story with both characters standing on the platform of a train station, waiting for a train.
Choose any word from the dictionary and read its definitions. Write a poem using only the language of these definitions. Try repeating them in different combinations and using line break to create unexpected phrases. Experiment with how far you can push the limits of the language you're working with. Use the word you've chosen as the title of the poem.
Think about a choice you made in your life that led to specific consequences or outcomes. Explore the alternative reality that could have been if you'd made a different choice in an essay that begins If I hadn't...
Choose one of your favorite classic books and make a brief outline of the plot. Write a story, set in the present, adapted from that classic story, using your outline and the classic book's main character to guide you. For example, write a version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre set in Los Angeles in 2013. Who would a contemporary Jane be? Under what circumstances would she go to live and work in the home of a widower? If she fell in love with him, what would happen?
Look out your window or observe your surroundings and make a list of ten images. Choose the three that you find most compelling and freewrite about them, exploring any memories or associations they elicit. Put your freewriting exercise aside, and draft a poem that incorporates at least five of the images from your list.
Choose a topic with currency that you feel personally connected to and want to explore through writing. Research statistics, facts, and events related to it. Weave these with personal anecdotes that are also related. For example, if the topic is gun control, write an essay that combines statistics about how many people own guns in the United States, factual stories about incidents of gun violence, and personal anecdotes about how you learned to hunt growing up. Strive to explore the complexity of the topic.
We each have our own approach to writing stories—some writers compose quickly and broadly, leaving the sentence-level refinements for later, while others labor over each sentence until its worded just right before moving on. Identify which kind of writer you are. Then revise a story you’ve been working on, applying the approach you don’t normally take.
Think about something that you did or said to someone that you regret. Write a poem of apology, comprising five four-line stanzas, with the same number of stressed syllables in each line. Avoid sentimentality. Rely on images, rhythm, and structure to convey your regret.
Think about an aspect of your life story and rewrite it, telling the tale from another angle or perspective. For example, if your family always considered you to be a difficult teenager, write about other interpretations of your behavior. Or if you've always been considered successful, write about the fear of failure that lurks beneath the facade. Find a way to reconstruct an aspect of your personal narrative that explores the complexity of who you are.