Depending on one's point of view, long sentences are either a writing hazard or a literary virtue. From Joyce to Faulkner to Lowry, authors have long been showing off their prowess at stringing together clauses in seemingly endless narration. Try writing a scene, in which one character says goodbye to another, using sentences as long as you can muster.
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.
On June 25, 1857, French poet Charles Baudelaire published his book Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), which led to his conviction on charges of blasphemy and obscenity. Here's a sample: "Huddled, teeming, like gut-worms by the million, a clutch of Demons make whoopee in our brain and, when we breath, Death floods our lungs, an invisible torrent, muffled in groans." Get good and dark: Read a bit from Flowers of Evil then write a short poem. Unleash the gut-worms!
In “Why We Write: Tilted Naked Weirdo” (Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 2013), Nancy Méndez-Booth writes that by allowing herself to explore her “uglies”—the weirdest, most uncomfortable, or embarrassing parts of her life—she has been able to find her truest voice. “Writing honestly makes me feel stripped and exposed,” she writes. “I put everything I’d rather hide right on the page for the world to see. It horrifies me.” Write an essay about your own uglies—the strange, the silly, the discomfiting and weird—the parts of your life that few people know but you.
The author of four story collections; two novels; and two memoirs, including the one for which he is perhaps best known, This Boy's Life, was born on June 19, 1945, in Birmingham, Alabama. Check out Wolff's Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories (Knopf, 2008), read some of his work—don't miss "Hunters in the Snow" and "Bullet in the Brain"—and see where it takes you. Celebrate Tobias Wolff's birthday by starting a new story.
"I know Midwesterners are accused of talking too much about the weather, but that criticism must surely come from people who don't have weather like ours," novelist David Rhodes once wrote to his editor at Milkweed Editions, Ben Barnhart. "These last few weeks have been filled with the bright, indolent humidity of summer, offset by sudden, tyrannical darkness and booming threats of supernatural violence. Not mentioning such revolutionary experiences would be inhuman." Go Midwestern and write a poem about today's weather. And if you're interested, read "After the Flood: A Profile of David Rhodes," from the September/October 2008 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.
"This is one of the few stories I’ve written for myself, about myself," wrote the late Sean Rowe in the introduction to his essay about his experiences in jail, "An Insider’s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine: Dining In," which was originally published in Oxford American and reprinted in the third volume of The Best Creative Nonfiction. “That’s a dangerous practice. It’s dangerous because the more personal you get in a story, the harder it is to stay honest. Here I think I pulled it off, but at a price: I had to reveal things I’m not proud of to get at something bigger than me.” Write an essay about something—or a host of things—you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Be honest about what you did, what consequences you faced, and how you feel about it now. What lessons did you learn about yourself, and about life, that you can pass on to your readers?
In Herman Melville's classic story "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" (1853), the character of the eponymous scrivener repeatedly says, "I would prefer not to," in response to requests at the law firm where he works. Take it a step further: Come up with a signature response of your own and try writing a short story in which it is the only sentence one of your characters ever utters. See where it takes you.
In a profile of Natasha Trethewey in the September/October 2012 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, contributing editor Kevin Nance quotes the poet laureate (who was elected to a second term on Monday) about her use of poetic form. "I never set out to write in a particular form, but usually something in the early drafting process suggests to me the possibility of a form I might follow that might help take the poem in a better direction than I might have sent it without following that impulse,” Trethewey says. “I find that it helps me with poems that have seemed unruly for some reason—maybe the story is too big, or the emotion of it is overwhelming for me, and the form helps bring shape to it." Choose a poem that has been giving you trouble—an unruly poem of your own—and try to rewrite it as a sonnet, a villanelle, a pantoum, or another form. (Consult the Academy of American Poets website for help with poetic forms.)
In A Chance Meeting: The Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, nonfiction author Rachel Cohen investigates the relationships and interactions between various writers—Henry James and William Dean Howells; Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein; Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore—and while the book relays actual encounters, many of the unknown details (what clothes were worn, what the subjects were thinking) are imagined. Write a letter to one of your favorite writers, living or dead, telling him or her about your work, your life, and how their writing has influenced you. Then write an imagined response, from the writer to you.
In her book An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, Janna Malamud Smith writes about a photography exhibit she saw in the late 1970s that consisted of Abe Frajndlich's pictures of photographer Minor White, who died in 1976. "In the photographs, Frajndlich shows White dressed up in different costumes representing other lives he might have lived," she writes. "What, the exhibition asked on White's behalf, would it have been like to have had more than one turn? Who else might I have become? What other work could I have done?" Choose a minor character from one of your stories (one that is giving you trouble, perhaps) and give him or her the Abe Frajndlich treatment: Write a series of paragraphs in which you imagine different lives for that character.
In their introduction to My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), Kevin Killian and Peter Gizzi write about Spicer's idea of the serial poem, "a book-length progression of short poems that function together as a single movement." Robin Blaser described the form as "a dark house, where you throw a light on in a room, then turn it off, and enter the next room, where you turn on a light, and so on." As Spicer's poetry "moves from dark room to dark room," Killian and Gizzi write, "each flash of illumination leaves an afterimage on the imagination, and the lines of the poem become artifacts of an ongoing engagement with larger forces." Read some of Jack Spicer's long poems, including The Holy Grail and Billy the Kid. Consider throwing a light on some rooms of your own.
Spend a few moments looking around your kitchen, office, or bedroom, and gather any found objects (not including books, magazines, or journals) that contain text: post-it notes, receipts, a piece of mail, the packaging of food or household products. Freewrite for fifteen minutes, recording as many words and phrases from the objects as you can, and taking note of any connections, associations, or themes that may arise. Then write an essay about what you find.
"As a reader, I have a favorite canon of ranters that runs from Dostoevsky to Thomas Bernard to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater," says novelist Claire Messud in a profile by Michael Washburn in the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. "I love a ranter." Read some of the work of the authors Messud mentions and write a rant of your own.
In honor of the centennial anniversary of the birth of May Swenson, on May 28, read some poems by this award-winning poet (consult the Academy of American Poets website for a bibliography), then write a poem with her work in mind. Remember, this is a poet who, four months before her death on December 28, 1989, wrote, "The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem."
Often found in the work of Elizabethan and Romantic poets, anaphora—a Greek word meaning “the act of carrying back”—is the repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive lines, sentences, fragments, or verses. Write a short anaphoric essay beginning each sentence with the same word or phrase.
Imagine you are your main character (or just write from your own perspective). What do you really, really want? Now, start talking about that object of desire. Don’t keep saying, “I want X, I want X, I want X.” Rather, just talk about the thing you want, in all its desirable specificity. Let yourself get caught up in all that wanting.
This week's writing prompt comes from Eileen Pollack, whose most recent novel, Breaking and Entering, was published in January 2012 by Four Way Books. She wrote about desire and writing for Fiction Writers Review.
Poetry is all around you. Find a public place—a train station, a park bench, a street corner, a coffee shop, a bookstore, the line at the Department of Motor Vehicles—and listen to the people around you. Choose one quote from a stranger and use it as the first and last line of a new poem.
Make a list of the physical objects you carry with you: a wallet and phone, a journal and pen, medications and mementos. Then make a list of the non-objects you carry: memories, ideas, dreams, scars (literal or figurative), the people or places of your past. Once you've created both lists, write an essay that incorporates and investigates the items on each. Why do you carry these things? What do they mean to you? Do the physical items relate to the mental ones? Use "These are the things I carry" as your opening line.
In Writers Recommend, Amy Shearn extols the virtues of coffee and its importance in her daily writing routine. Write a dialogue in which two characters are deprived of something: caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sweets—or perhaps something as seemingly banal as cellular service, television, or the Internet. Now give one character his or her fix, leaving the other without, and rewrite the dialogue.
Print or write out a handful of unfinished poems you’ve had difficulty revising. Cut out each line and mix them up. Rearrange the lines to make a new poem. Consider using one of the lines as the title.
In his recent New Yorker article on writing and revision, “Draft No. 4” (April 29, 2013), nonfiction writer John McPhee recommends drawing boxes around any word that “does not seem quite right” as well as those “that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” Then, he writes, consult the dictionary—not the thesaurus—to find better words. While the thesaurus can be useful, McPhee writes, it can also be dangerous, often muddling a word’s meaning. The dictionary, on the other hand, not only offers a host of alternatives but can also spark new inspiration. Revisit an essay that’s ready for a new draft. After circling all words and phrases that could use work, dig deep into the dictionary to see what new words—and what new meaning—may arise.
Choose a minor character from a story or book you’ve read recently and have that character write the author a letter, beginning: “Dear Author, nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....” Now turn your attention to one of your own stories. Think of a character in a work-in-progress whom you'd like to get to know more deeply. Have the character write you a similar letter: “Dear [your name here], nice try, but here’s what you missed about my life....”
This week’s fiction prompt comes from Aaron Hamburger, author of the story collection The View From Stalin’s Head (Random House, 2004) and the novel Faith for Beginners (Random House, 2005). He currently teaches at the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.
Pick an iconic figure with a famous weak spot (Superman and kryptonite, Achilles and his heel, Samson and his hair, the Wicked Witch of the West and water). Write a letter from the icon to the weakness or from the weakness to the icon. Is it hate mail? A love poem? A blackmail note? Advice?
Think about your life in relation to the seasons. What is your favorite season and why? During which season were you born? How did you feel as a child about each season? Have significant events happened during one season over the others? How do you see the world around you change at the start of each season? Use these musings to fuel an essay about one or all of the seasons.
Write a story in which a minor incident occurs—the main character is bitten by a cat, loses her keys, gets a flat tire, accidently breaks something—that symbolizes something larger. Use the incident and how the character deals with it to both move the plot forward and explore a larger significance.