Read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and Wells Towers’s story “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Both stories integrate the ancient and the contemporary in surprising and disturbing ways. (For another example read Matthew Sharpe’s novel Jamestown [Soft Skull Press, 2007]). Draft a story that does the same thing, blending the past and the present into the fictional elements of plot, setting, dialogue, and character.
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.
Ruminate on the following lines by Greek poet Aeschylus: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget / falls drop by drop upon the heart, / until, in our own despair, / against our will, / comes wisdom / through the awful grace of God."
Use these lines as the epigraph to a poem. Once you've finished the poem, delete the epigraph.
There is someone inside a house at night who is startled by a knock at the door. Outside the door are two people. Complete this scene by considering the following questions: Who is the person inside the house? What is he (or she) doing when he hears the knock? Does he know why the pair are at the door? Who are the pair? What do they want? After completing the opening scene, write the story of what happens next.
Using one of your own stories or one by another author, rewrite the story from the perspective of one of the minor characters.
Choose a page from a book, a magazine, or a newspaper and make a list of the nouns mentioned. Using free association, jot down a new noun for each noun in your first list. Using the second list of nouns, write a poem.
In honor of the birthday (August 30, 1797) this week of Mary Shelley, author of the classic Frankenstein, a novel she based on a dream, write a horror story, using material from your most memorable nightmares, should you need it.
Your assignment is to go wild. Let the sacred and profane language spill from you without censor. Find the wildest part of your personality and give it full vent for five pages. Forget about obedience of language, of character, of form. Forget about what is proper. Write the feral sentences you've been afraid to say in public. Have no shame for a spell. Free yourself from the confines of a well-behaved syntax, of expected word choice. Here's my hell-bent, uninhibited narrator from Busy Monsters, Charlie Homar, after making a rather asinine decision involving a firearm: "My mission shat upon by the Miocene logic and cruel outcomes afflicting all those with pluck but no punctilio, with hearts that run on gasoline: okay, I overreacted, I admit it." Never rely on the available jargon. For five nonstop pages, surprise yourself with the ecstatic language you know is in you.
This week's fiction prompt comes from William Giraldi, author of the novel Busy Monsters, published by W. W. Norton in August.
In Peter Schjeldahl's article, "Roots: Hopper's House," which appeared in the July 11 & 18, 2011, issue of the New Yorker, he describes the history of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York, mentioning that performance artist Karen Finley conducted writing classes there this summer, during which she assigned her students to "imagine and describe their personal summer interiors." Now that the season is coming to a close, imagine your summer interior and write a poem that describes it.
A man and a woman in a room. This is Salina, Kansas. He wears cufflinks on his white shirt sleeves, a silk tie. She seems preoccupied. She holds a glass in her hand. Write their story in three hundred words. Use the word "salvation" and the word "light." Make one of the pair the central character and construct the story from his or her point of view.
This week's fiction prompt comes from novelist John Dufresne, author, most recently, of the book Is Life Like This? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months (Norton, 2010).
Transcribe five sentences that you find interesting from a book or a magazine or newspaper article. Send the first half of each to a friend via e-mail and ask him or her to finish the sentence and send it back to you. Use the responses, or portions of them, as the beginnings of poem.
Go to a thrift store, explore an attic, or exchange with a friend three unfamiliar items: a piece of clothing, an object you can do something with—such as a coffee cup, a screw driver, or a letter opener, and a photograph or postcard. Wear the piece of clothing, use the object, and place the image in your work space where you can see it. Then write a scene about a character who is wearing the piece of clothing, while using the object, and has a memory filled with conflict conjured by the photograph or postcard.
Find a map—of the Earth, the United States, or your home state or city—or visit Google Maps, pick a town at random, and write a poem about daybreak in that specific location, inventing any pertinent details.
Go for a walk, paying careful attention to your surroundings, until you find something that doesn't belong. It could be a piece of garbage on the street, a coin, an animal, a car battery in the woods, anything out of place. Tell the story of how it got there.
The late English poet Philip Larkin was born eighty-nine years ago this month. Begin a poem using the first lines of Larkin's oft-studied poem "Church Going," from The Less Deceived (Marvell Press, 1955): "Once I am sure there's nothing going on / I step inside, letting the door thud shut."
In a radio interview this week on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, fiction writer Donald Ray Pollock, whose most recent novel, The Devil All the Time, was published this month, talked about how he learned to write by typing out a story by an established author once a week. Use Pollock’s strategy this week, typing a story by an author whose writing you admire. After typing it out, print out a copy and carry it with you, reading and rereading it, making notes along the way. Let the process reveal the story’s gifts to you. Then begin a story of your own.
Approach a poem (or revise an existing poem) as if you were writing a fable. Keep a third-person point of view. Address the anthropomorphic qualities of the objects you introduce. Invite an animal or creature into the poem. Allow an invisible force to alter time and space. Instead of ending with a lesson or moral, try closing the poem with a question.
Create a main character assigning basic characteristics, such as gender, age, and physical attributes. Imagine this character having dinner with three other people. At the end of this dinner, the character will have lost something significant—a job, a partner, a home. Write this scene at dinner, and then use it as a turning point for a larger story
Focus this week on collecting images, drawing on as wide a range of sources as possible. Cull family albums for interesting photos, visit online archives of images, cut out images from magazines or newspapers, take photos of buildings, billboards, birds—anything that strikes you as you make your way through each day. At the end of the week, assemble these on a table or tape them to a wall in your work space. Write a poem inspired by this collage.
Choose a unique historical moment, the first that comes to mind: the Crimean War, the first lunar landing, the invention of the wheel, or something seemingly less dramatic, such as the building of the first traffic light. Then spend some time researching the moment you chose—dig into a few sources, make a page of notes. Create a character who lives on the periphery of the event—a witness or minor player, yet someone living at the intersection of history. The character can be swept up by the event or remotely affected, battle against it or be its biggest cheerleader. Write his or her story.
Make a list of the names of your family members and friends. Use all of them to create a poem. Try writing a tiny letter to each name, using free association to link each name with another word, or describing each briefly as if it were a character or object.
Think about an incident from your life—something especially monumental, unexpected, or traumatic that altered the way you see the world. Write a story or essay about it, but from someone else’s perspective. You can appear as a character in the story, but explore it from outside of yourself, as an event that happened, but not one that happened to you.
Experiment with form, creating an upcycled poetic object, by writing a poem using found materials.
Open your medicine cabinet and choose something from it that one character will use to kill another in a story.