Frank O’Hara’s tongue-in-cheek manifesto “Personism,” published in the magazine Yugen in 1959, argues against using abstraction in poetry and advocates for a movement, “which nobody knows about,” that puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, comparing the act of writing a poem to picking up a telephone to speak to a loved one. If you were to write a manifesto describing your preferences when it comes to writing an essay, what would you call it? Write a short manifesto that explains how you came to your writing style and includes a metaphor that best describes your intentions as an essayist. Are your essays like hard candy or perhaps like peeling an onion?
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.
In Randon Billings Noble’s Literary Hub essay “How to Render Epiphanies in Nonfiction Without Getting Didactic,” she writes about resisting the need to prove a thesis in a work of nonfiction. “An essay can also muse, warn, wonder, wander, teach, play, lilt, explore, or, in the words of Jane Alison, meander, spiral, explode.” Write an essay that resists reaching a conclusion or a lesson and instead reflects on the details of an experience. How can the details of a seemingly simple scene provide readers as much of an impact as a more traditional conclusion?
“The day that changed my life was like every other day before it, except that it changed my life.” Mateo Askaripour’s debut novel, Black Buck, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in January, sets up anticipation in the first chapter by starting on the day where everything changed for the protagonist, Darren. Ordinary activities and smells are described, inviting the reader in while building suspense for the change to come. “The house smelled as it always did at 7 a.m.—like coffee. It made me want to puke.” Write an essay that walks the reader through a regular day in your life when you felt the circumstances of it change, whether big or small.
Amy Key’s essay “A Bleed of Blue,” published this month in Granta, begins with a white lie: “I wasn’t in LA because of Joni Mitchell, but that was what I had told my Lyft driver and it felt good to have a story.” The essay meditates on Mitchell’s iconic 1971 album Blue, and reflects on Key’s memories listening to it as a teenager with her friend who had just begun experiencing menstruation: “In my memory of that night, the lava lamp was like the pain my friend was experiencing, the hot red pulse of it.” Song by song, Key recounts her memories of Los Angeles and her emotional connection to Mitchell’s songwriting. Choose a music album that’s meant a lot to you, then write an essay that reflects on how the experience of listening to each song transformed you.
New Year’s traditions range across cultures and families. Rolling empty suitcases around the block to increase one’s chances of traveling, pounding rice to make mochi for good fortune, eating lentils to herald prosperity, and enjoying twelve grapes for twelve wishes are just a few of the traditions whereby folks start anew and connect with their roots. Some of these practices, such as kissing at midnight for romantic luck and throwing pails of water out a window to chase away evil spirits, date back a century or more. What are some of your New Year’s traditions? How is the way you celebrate uniquely yours? Write an essay that describes your New Year’s traditions, traces their cultural lineages, and tells the story of how you learned them.
Many might think of the great Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci as naturally gifted, but Francesca Fiorani, author of The Shadow Drawing: How Science Taught Leonardo How to Paint (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020), points out in an excerpt published on Literary Hub that even the prolific virtuoso, at one point, did not know how to paint. It wasn’t until after a series of experiments with a candle did da Vinci learn how to realistically paint light, writing that “every shadow made by an opaque body smaller than the source of light casts derivative shadows tinged by the color of their original shadow.” Inspired by da Vinci, write about a time when a deep study helped you overcome an obstacle, whether in writing or life. What kind of focus was necessary to see a solution more clearly?
“You kissed the ones you loved and the ones you didn’t even like that much, sometimes even someone you hated, just so you wouldn’t seem shady. Too much garlic was never a problem, we kissed anyway. We kissed the living and the dying, knowing that the dying were part of the living and we wanted to keep them with us.” In this passage from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s nonfiction book The Freezer Door, forthcoming in December from Semiotext(e), she writes about the kiss greeting embedded in queer cultural norms she adopted while living in San Francisco in the early 1990s. What happens to gestures of intimacy during a pandemic at the time of year traditionally associated with family and friends, holiday festivities, and gatherings in close proximity? Write a personal or lyric essay that meditates on memories of intimacy from your past, perhaps also exploring how your perceptions or modes of intimacy have changed over the course of the past year.
Every year Oxford Languages picks a word of the year, which in the past has included “climate emergency” in 2019, “toxic” in 2018, and “youthquake” in 2017. However, this year in lieu of choosing one word, a sixteen-page language report was released with sections on COVID-19, remote work, social movements, and the environment, highlighting words of the year which include “social distancing,” “pods,” “Blursday,” “allyship,” and “bushfire.” Write an essay that reflects on the personal experiences of this complex year using some of these featured words. In what ways have you witnessed the evolution of language in your attempt to describe new experiences?
In a 2018 Boston Review interview, Avni Sejpal asks Arundhati Roy about the narrative differences between her two novels, The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, elaborating on how the former is “written in a style often described as lyrical realism,” while the latter is “more urgent, fragmented, and bleak.” Arundhati’s response pushes back on the word “bleak” as she explains that “most of the characters, after all, are ordinary folks who refuse to surrender to the bleakness that is all around them, who insist on all kinds of fragile love and humor and vulgarity, which all thrive stubbornly in the most unexpected places.” Write about a time when you chose to push against despair and bleakness. How did love, humor, and hope persist despite dire circumstances?
“A farmer lived, but not well. If she planted grain, it would not sprout. If she grew rice, it would rot. If she tried to raise livestock, they would gasp and choke and die before they’d seen a second dawn,” begins The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott, a GalleyCrush pick forthcoming from FSG Originals in February. These straightforward conditional sentences help to quickly synthesize information and set the tone for conflict in the story. This week write an essay that begins with a conditional phrase expressing a conflict in your life. Start the first sentence with an “if this, then that” scenario to produce tension and set the stage for what will unfold.
“Craft is not simply technical. If we take our craft seriously, or even if we want to play, we must realize that what we bring to craft is the world that crafted us,” writes Joy Priest in an installment of Craft Capsules published in July. “The way we work, our technique, holds all of our subconscious anxieties and desires.” What was the world like that shaped you, and how does it manifest in your writing? Write an essay describing how your childhood shaped the way you think and the choices you make as a writer. Consider the questions that Priest poses throughout her essay, such as, “What are you avoiding? What are you leaving out? What is uninterrogated?”
In Wesley Morris’s essay “My Mustache, My Self,” published in the New York Times earlier this month, he explores how growing a mustache during quarantine led him to deeply consider his identity as a Black man. After a friend describes him as looking like “a lawyer for the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense Fund,” Morris meditates on how this friend “had identified a mighty American tradition and placed [his] face within it.” Either recently or in your past, has a subtle or dramatic stylistic choice in your presentation affected the way you see yourself? Write an essay that considers how a new look can alter how you view yourself, or how others perceive you.
Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz edited by Lisa Darms and David O'Neill collects the recorded diaries of the artist, activist, and writer from 1981 through 1989 examining his life, art, and dreams. The cassettes hold a string of different modes of speaking through ideas in real time—going from stream of consciousness, to searing argument, to meditations on death, to divagations between poems and phone calls—producing a record of a singular artist’s mind in a crucial moment in history. Record yourself for two minutes each day this week and untether your thoughts in real time. How do your ideas unfold without the stop-and-go of composing the right sentence? At the end of the week, transcribe and arrange your recordings into an essay of fragments surrounding a theme.
Sabrina Orah Mark’s Paris Review column Happily features essays inspired by fairy tales and motherhood, including “It’s Time to Pay the Piper,” which reimagines our current reality through the children’s story “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.” Through incantatory sentences and the framing of our reality through a fantastical lens, it asks whether the reason for the pandemic, corrupt leaders, and environmental collapse has a link to the story of the piper, who collects payment by robbing the village of its children. Pick a fairy tale you are familiar or enchanted with and write an essay that uses the structure of that story to explain an event in your life. How do well-known characters and themes help add meaning to the subject matter?
“The cold seemed to have come on all at once, just after lunch, as the teacher and his wife were tranquilly talking over their plans to return to the capital the next day, the second of September, a little later than usual.” At the beginning of Marie NDiaye’s novel That Time of Year (Two Lines Press, 2020), translated from the French by Jordan Stump, a teacher’s wife and son disappear on the day before they are all to return to Paris after spending the summer in a countryside village. The unsettling events and confrontations that follow, as the teacher searches for answers, are a reminder that boundaries are everywhere, between summer and autumn, vacation life and regular life, between those with power and those without. Write a personal essay about an uncertain time in your life when a dramatic event caused a shift. Did you lean into the in-between and search for answers or try to ground yourself and move on?
In the title essay of landscape photographer Robert Adams’s collection Beauty in Photography: Essays in Defense of Traditional Values (Aperture, 1981), he goes about the impossible task of defining beauty, a position he acknowledges is “unprovable.” Through a variety of mediums, including fiction and poetry as well as photographs, Adams goes about discussing beauty’s relevance to society, its unavoidability in an artistic practice, and whether it is the goal of art. In his essay, Adams posits that beauty is “a synonym for the coherence and structure underlying life.” Using the catalog of your own experiences and knowledge, write an essay searching to answer what beauty is to you. What life events does the word conjure?
Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies: Essays Near Knowing (Nightboat Books, 2016) is an essay collection that experiments with memory. Each single-subject essay—on topics such as foot washing, dossiers, house-sitting, and Br’er Rabbit—is based on what the author has read and remembers (or misremembers) and was written without the internet or any kind of research. The book ends with “Corrections,” which fact-checks the claims in the essays, cataloguing Blanchfield’s errors and what his memory has altered. Write a series of flash essays on a variety of subjects that relies exclusively on your memory, then write a catalogue of corrections that fact-checks your claims. How does the experience of relying on your memory change your relationship to fact and truth?
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (Norton, 1934), is a collection of letters written when he was twenty-seven and living and working with the artist Auguste Rodin in Paris. Rilke’s correspondence was with Franz Xavier Kappus, an aspiring nineteen-year-old poet seeking advice. Many scholars say that much of Rilke’s advice to the younger poet is advice he himself received from a more experienced Rodin when they worked together at different points of their career. Write a short series of letters addressed to your younger self. What experiences can you use to encourage your less experienced self?
In California’s chaparral plant ecosystem, there are dozens of species known as “fire followers”—including tree and fire poppies, whispering bells, phacelia, lupine, poodle-dog bush, and snapdragons—whose growth is triggered after regional fires by changed chemical conditions of charred soil, and fire- or smoke-activated seeds or buds. Write a series of flash nonfiction pieces, each pointing to a small beginning of sorts after a specific event of chaos or destruction in your life. Does each short narrative pick up a thread from an originating incident and carry it toward something new?
Henri Cole’s latest memoir, Orphic Paris (New York Review of Books, 2018), mixes the forms of autobiography, diary, essay, and poetry with photographs for a complete and intimate look into his time spent in Paris. Each line in the last essay of the book begins with “j’aime,” as Cole uses anaphora, a form which repeats a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, to write a final moving ode to Paris. Whether it be by your travels or ancestry, what city or place do you feel captivated by? Write a personal essay that uses the repetition of a word or phrase, or the anaphora form to examine your connection to that particular place.
Whether it’s a nod that means “yes,” or a pointed finger that says, “over there,” we all likely express some form of nonverbal language in our day-to-day lives. But just how specific can we be with our body language? Think about how you communicate nonverbally to those around you. Are there certain gestures or facial expressions that only certain friends or family members understand? In a personal essay, reflect on when you use these actions and behaviors, where you learned them, and how they differ culturally and within particular social circles.
“There’s a spot over Lake Superior where migrating butterflies veer sharply. No one understood why they made such a quick turn at that specific place until a geologist finally made the connection: a mountain rose out of the water at that exact location thousands of years ago,” writes Aimee Nezhukumatathil about a natural phenomenon that caused a reaction in an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed Editions, 2020), which appears in a Q&A by Ross Gay in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “Maybe that is the loneliest kind of memory: to be forever altered by an invisible kiss, a reminder of something long gone and crumbled.” What belief, family story, or past event do you feel inexplicably tethered to? Write an essay that draws the connection between your physical reality and the unseen forces behind it.
“If this story was a stack of photographs—the old kind, rounded at the corners and kept in albums under the glass and lace doilies of center tables in parlors across the country—it would start with Vivek’s father, Chika. The first print would be of him riding a bus to the village to visit his mother,” writes Akwaeke Emezi at the start of their second novel, The Death of Vivek Oji, out this month from Riverhead Books. Taking inspiration from this novel’s introduction, think of a transformative time from your past or an incident that resulted in a change in perspective, one that involved family or friends. If you were to tell the story of this experience as a stack of photographs, what images spring to mind? Write a personal essay that begins with descriptions of a few memorable photos—or mental snapshots you’ve retained—allowing the details in the images to provide a contextual background.
“The realm of my own life is the quotidian, the everyday, where I sleep and eat and work and think,” writes Helen Macdonald in a New York Times Magazine essay adapted from her new collection, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, 2020). “It’s a space of rising and falling hopes and worries, costs and benefits, plans and distractions, and it can batter and distract me, just as high winds and rainfall send swifts off-course.” In the essay, Macdonald makes a connection between the flight patterns of swifts—how they ascend and descend to different altitudes, at times alone or in a flock—and her own routine movements, including those of her mind. Write a personal essay that takes a pattern or routine you observe in the natural world and applies it to your own everyday habits. You might decide to delve deeper into some scientific research, or use poetic license to draw connections from sensory observation.
Is everything just cake? Earlier this month, prompted by viral videos of Turkish chef Tuba Geckil cutting into her ultra-realistic cakes made to look like everyday objects—such as a red Croc shoe, a roll of toilet paper, a potted aloe plant, a carton of eggs, and plastic-wrapped raw chicken drumsticks—Twitter was flooded with cake memes and the internet began to question if everything in the world might, indeed, actually be cake. Write a personal essay that recounts a past incident that made you question your reality. Perhaps you caught sight of something particularly uncanny or jarring, and suddenly so many other things seemed terrifyingly possible. How did you reconcile this shifted perception with what your mind could tolerate? Or did everything remain cake?