“John Bonham was the coolest member of Led Zeppelin and getting hit in the auricle region with a wrench thrown by his apparition would be a damn honor,” writes Timothy Cahill in “Five Things I’d Rather Get Hit With Than Have to Hear Led Zeppelin’s ‘All My Love’” on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Think of a song that’s gotten stuck in your head, an especially irritating earworm that was just the wrong thing at the wrong time. Write a humorous personal essay about the song and the havoc it wreaked on your life, perhaps using satire or exaggeration for comedic purposes. Does the song have a pop cultural context? Was there a time when you enjoyed it? If so, what changed your outlook?
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.
“At almost one o’clock I entered the lobby of the building where I worked and turned toward the escalators, carrying a black Penguin paperback and a small white CVS bag, its receipt stapled over the top.” The entirety of Nicholson Baker’s debut novel, Mezzanine (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986), takes place during a ride up an office escalator during a lunch break. Baker inserts extensive footnotes on ordinary phenomena such as shoelaces, milk cartons, perforated paper, plastic straws, paper towel dispensers, and the contents of his lunch into the story. Write a personal essay that uses footnotes to delve into the details of an hour in your daily routine. Incorporate minutiae about your physical movements and observations of mundane objects to express the significance of your everyday experience.
In a recent interview for BOMB Magazine, poets Prageeta Sharma and James Thomas Stevens visit the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and discuss topics ranging from Native American artists to identity, community, and appropriation. Throughout the interview the paintings and artworks viewed at the museum are brought into their conversation, propelling them to go in new directions or to speak more deeply on a subject. This week take a walk somewhere scenic—perhaps in a park, natural environment, or art museum—and write a short lyric essay that ties together issues already on your mind with ones that come up as you explore and carefully observe your surroundings.
The abacus: a time-tested tool or outdated artifact? A recent New York Times article showcased an annual abacus tournament in Kyoto with competitors ranging in age from eight to sixty-nine years old. Children across Japan were taught proficiency in using the tool for calculations until the early 1970s, but since then instruction has been cut down to a couple of hours of basic use during elementary school, though advocates are pushing for reinstatement. Think of an object, tool, or method that you currently use that might be considered old-fashioned. Write an essay that reflects on why you continue to use this method. What are its drawbacks and advantages?
The summer season is always ripe for trends that pair with warm weather like beaded necklaces, tie-dye T-shirts, and the bright orange Aperol Spritz cocktail. Some might revel in what’s in vogue, and others might scoff at the buzz. Now that the fall equinox is just around the corner, reflect on what’s been all the rage and pen a humorous essay declaring a controversial opinion about something trivial but trendy. Consider the reasons behind the proliferation of the fad of your choosing—Cronuts, standing desks, axe throwing bars—and then discuss why you find the craze overrated, absurd, or downright dangerous while interjecting personal history and experiences.
In Marguerite Duras’s 1985 essay, “Reading on the Train,” from the collection Me & Other Writing (Dorothy, a publishing project, 2019), translated from the French by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan, Duras writes about reading the first half of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace while on a train and feeling that in speeding through the story, she’d sacrificed a more intense, less narrative-driven understanding of the book. “I had realized that day and forever after that a book was contained between two layers superimposed with writing, the legible layer that I had read that day as I traveled and the other, inaccessible.” Write an essay about a beloved piece of literature in which you discuss both the legible layer and attempt to decipher or articulate a deeper resonance of the writing. What can you glimpse—in the story and in yourself—when you delve beyond the literal reading?
“I saw the book as another kind of house. How did I want the reader to pass through it? What room would they enter first, and how should that room feel?” writes Sarah M. Broom about the structure of her debut memoir, The Yellow House (Grove Press, 2019), in “The New Nonfiction 2019” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a memoiristic piece, or revisit one already in progress, and work on constructing it like a house that the reader must pass through. Plan out the points of entry and exit, and organize different sections or vignettes to be experienced as rooms visited one after another.
What would motivate you to walk thousands of miles? Last month, researchers released data that tracked an arctic fox that had made a trek of over two thousand miles across the frozen Arctic Ocean from Norway to Canada over the course of seventy-six days, most likely prompted by a search for food or a new habitat. Write a personal essay about a time that you traveled a long way—traversing a great physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual distance—to achieve something that was of utmost importance to you. What motivated you along the way? How did the trials of the journey compare with the end result?
One hundred years from now, what physical objects from your life would you want preserved that express your work as a writer? In the New York Times, Thessaly La Force asks, “What should an artist save?” while examining the eclectic archives left behind by artists, including boxes of fabric in Louise Bourgeois’s basement, a rejection letter addressed to Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz’s “magic box.” Jot down a list of objects, physical spaces, and writings that you would consider integral to understanding the intersections of your life and work. Write a lyric essay composed of reflections on each of these items and how they are connected to your personal creative intentions or beliefs.
Earlier this year, quantum physicists succeeded in un-ageing a single, simulated particle, essentially moving it backward through time for one millionth of a second. The feat required so much manipulation and was considered so impossible for nature to replicate that scientists present it as reinforcement of the irreversibility of time. But what if the reversal of a single moment in time was possible? Write a personal essay that reflects on one moment in your life that you would do over, if you could. What actually happened, and what do you perceive as the long-term consequences if things changed?
How much do you trust the Internet, and its users, to guide your life? For the last three years, data engineer and programmer Tyler Wood has set up a system online where thousands of subscribers watch a livestream of a plant and vote on whether or not it should be watered. Write a personal essay about an instance when you have trusted the knowledge or opinions of Internet strangers to provide information about something such as where to eat, what to buy, how to fix something, or how to navigate a place or situation. Did you have feelings of hesitation or did you trust the advice implicitly?
“Its freedom lies in fragmentation and even welcomed chaos. The embrace of intended disorganization felt right to me,” says Tina Chang in a Q&A with Poets & Writers about using the zuihitsu form in her third poetry collection, Hybrida (Norton, 2019). The zuihitsu is a Japanese form and genre comparable to the lyric essay comprised of casual, loosely connected fragments and ideas, often in haphazard order, such as in Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. Write a zuihitsu-inspired essay, collecting a dozen or so random thoughts and personal notes about your surroundings, and incorporating text fragments, observations, and lists.
In Thomas Clerc’s autobiographical novel, Interior (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018), translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, each chapter consists of the author documenting the objects in the seven rooms in his Parisian apartment, from the peephole in the entryway and the toilet brush in the bathroom, to a switch plate on his kitchen wall. Write a lyric essay inspired by this concept. Select one room, or one part of a room, and write a series of vignettes detailing the physical objects. Include mundane architectural components as well as the memories that surface when you encounter these items on a daily basis, revealing your interior thoughts.
Amanda Lee Koe’s debut novel, Delayed Rays of a Star (Nan A. Talese, 2019), begins with a photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt at a party in Berlin in 1928, a chance snapshot of Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl during their early years of celebrity. Koe’s novel explores each of their lives and worlds, as they navigate womanhood in Berlin, Hollywood, the Alps, and Paris. Taking inspiration from this idea of drawing narrative—both historical and mythological—from a single image, search through your old photos and select one that depicts a few people from your past. Consider the period and its conventions, and research news events that were occurring at the time. Write a personal essay that examines your relationship with each person and their relationships with one another while also weaving in historical events and your memories about the particular occasion.
“A plume came and a plume went,” said NASA scientist Paul Mahaffy about the possibility of a sign of life detected on Mars after a startling spike in the amount of methane gas found in a crater prompted excitement. A second test a few days later, however, came up with nothing. Write an essay about a time when something occurred which gave rise to a certain expectation, and then the situation did not pan out as hoped. What was the progression of emotions involved? How did your interactions with those around you fluctuate over the course of your experience?
This past Sunday, Nik and Lijana Wallenda, seventh-generation members of the Flying Wallendas circus family, walked a 1,300-foot wire tightrope suspended between two skyscrapers, twenty-five stories above Times Square in New York City. “It was hard to hold it together,” stated Nik in an interview in the New York Times, describing the emotionally intense moment when he met his sister in the middle of the wire, before they carefully passed each other and then continued their separate ways to opposite ends. Write a personal essay about a time when you met someone face-to-face for an intense confrontation. How did the anticipation build as you got closer to meeting, and how was the tension released?
“A writer’s library is more than just a collection of books. It is also a piecemeal biography of that writer’s life,” writes James P. Blaylock in his essay “My Life in Books: A Meditation on the Writer’s Library” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. This week, write a personal essay that follows a timeline of five or six books that have been benchmarks in your life, or played pivotal roles in some way. Who were the people in your life when you read each book, what were your geographical surroundings, and what were some of your major accomplishments, issues, or concerns at the time? What are the thematic links that lead from one book to the next?
“My feckless Googling had reaped a monstrous reality that I knew was going to haunt me for the rest of my life,” Douglas Preston writes in Wired about a nostalgia-induced online search for his childhood best friend that leads him into some unexpectedly dark territory. This week, think about a time when you inadvertently uncovered something (good or bad) you weren’t meant to know—perhaps you overheard a conversation about yourself or someone close to you, followed an Internet search that spiraled to an unintentional conclusion, or submitted an online DNA kit without considering the consequences. Write an essay about the discovery and the actions you took as a response. Did you confront this new truth or carry on as if you had never learned it?
“Lyrical essays are more like jazz than a concerto. The idea that lyrical essays are more poetic than logical has allowed authors to play fast and loose with the truth,” writes GD Dess in his Los Angeles Review of Books review of Elisa Gabbert’s essay collection The Word Pretty (Black Ocean, 2018). Think of a current conflict or issue in your personal life that remains unresolved—perhaps you are uncertain where exactly the truth of the matter lies. Write a lyric essay that engages with the seemingly solid facts of the topic, but allow yourself the freedom to veer into stream of consciousness and follow a “more poetic” logic.
“When you talk to strangers, you’re making beautiful interruptions into the expected narrative of your daily life—and theirs,” Kio Stark says in her 2016 TED Talk “Why You Should Talk to Strangers.” As children, we are often cautioned against talking to strangers, but as adults, this warning becomes nearly impossible to heed. Whether online or in person, many of our daily interactions are with people we may never see or speak to again. Once in a while, this anonymity can lead to a level of intimacy and honesty that is surprising and unparalleled even with close friends or family. Think about a time in your life when an unexpected moment with a stranger had a profound effect on you. Write an essay about this exchange, the circumstances surrounding it, and what it meant to you.
Anna Wintour’s office, the United Nations’ Security Council Consultations Room, David Zwirner’s office, an IKEA design lab, a Fox News studio. Brent Murray’s New York Times piece “The Rooms Where It Happens” showcases photographs of these rarely seen spaces where powerful decision-making occurs. Write a personal essay about a room that has played an important role in your life. Describe the furniture, lighting, and paraphernalia, and consider the actions, behaviors, and thinking you’ve done in this room. Are there expected and unexpected correlations between the objects and actions?
Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February, was originally released serially in a Japanese monthly, from 1978 to 1979, to correspond with the book’s twelve sections, which span a single year. Throughout the text, certain observations mark transformations in physical surroundings: the length and temperature of the days, the changing light and shadows, a daughter’s birthday. Other shifts have more interior significance: interactions with various neighbors, the behavior of the daughter at school. Write a personal essay consisting of one section per month, covering the events of the past year. Focus on one situation or incident each month, and allow this event to associatively lead you to other memories or ruminations about relationships in your life. Bring in specific and timely details about the environment, setting, or special occasions that inspire you to reflect on the passage of time.
The unofficial Smith College Historic Clothing Collection is home to three thousand dresses, suits, and accessories worn from the nineteenth century to today, showcasing a wide variety of women’s social uniforms across a diverse range of economic backgrounds. Search online for photos and advertisements of everyday work attire or casual wear from the last century or two, and write a personal essay that contemplates how the outfits differ from what you wear and see worn on others in the present day. What clues can you derive about the culture and its values—in terms of gender, workforce, or class—from the clothing worn back then? How does that carry through to what you wear today?
Can refrigerator contents lead to a love connection? Refrigerdating is an app that works with Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, a four thousand dollar appliance with a built-in camera and touchscreen door, and allows you to browse ice box contents of potential dates for compatibility. Write a personal essay that considers the contents of your own fridge, and compares it with what’s inside the fridge of a friend, family member, or foe. How are your personalities and habits apparent in your preserved food choices? What might be misconstrued or misrepresentative?
“I had surveyed thousands of miles of panoramic splendor, and I couldn’t believe I had come all that way just to get to Los Angeles,” Caity Weaver writes at the end of her New York Times essay “There Is no Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train. But I Did It Anyway.” In other words, sometimes the old adage applies: It’s about the journey, not the destination. Think back to a time in your life when you had to travel for a long period of time to get somewhere—by train, car, plane, bus, or on foot—and the memory of the trek itself now eclipses the destination. Write a personal essay about the experience and what made it so memorable: the people, the landscape, and the unexpected moments along the way.