In the popular apocalyptic video game and HBO series The Last of Us, a zombifying fungus has destroyed the world. Although there are destructive types of fungi, in forest habitats they can be quite beneficial. Fungi intertwine with the roots of trees underground and connect individual plants to form a network they use to communicate and transfer water, nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals. Older, more seasoned trees in a forest, sometimes referred to as “mother trees,” use these fungal connections to send needed nutrients to younger saplings, much like the ways in which humans care for those in need. Inspired by the interdependence of forest habitats, write an essay that reflects on the metaphorical ramifications of this nurturing relationship. Is there a parallel you can find in your own life?
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
For the last sixty years, the Chicago River has been dyed green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. The tradition was begun by the city’s plumbers in an effort to identify leaks in pipes but stuck and even inspired other cities. Unique traditions enrich a city’s identity and there is no shortage of odd and entertaining ones. In Chandler, Arizona, there is an ostrich-themed carnival; in Boise, Idaho, onlookers gather to watch a giant potato descend at the countdown to the new year; and for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, local bakeries make king cakes with tiny plastic babies hidden inside. Write an essay about a tradition that is uniquely celebrated in your hometown. Describe in detail the origin and longevity of this beloved custom.
“I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences,” writes former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in her essay “I Go to AWP,” published in Poetry magazine in 2005. Ryan recounts the many stages of anxiety, wonder, exhaustion, and satisfaction she felt attending the Association of Writers and Writers Programs’ annual conference in Vancouver that year. Organized like journal entries, each section of the essay is a rare and personal glimpse into this storied weekend of writerly activities. Inspired by Ryan’s experience, write an essay about how you have felt, or might feel, attending a popular event surrounded by your peers. Take the reader moment by moment through the anticipation and excitement.
During the pandemic, a popular pastime has been rewatching favorite shows, from recent offerings to classics. According to an article published in Reader’s Digest, this trend can be traced to the concept of status quo bias: the idea of maintaining one’s current or previous decision. Psychologists also note that we tend to stick with what’s familiar to ease anxiety and avoid disappointment and stress. This week write an essay about rewatching your favorite shows. Do you encounter something new each time or find comfort in reliving the same emotions?
In 2011, Oakland-based artist Alexis Arnold began making art from the discarded books and magazines she continually came across on the street. Arnold transformed the scrapped volumes into sculptures by growing crystals on them. Some of the books she has crystallized include Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, as well as encyclopedias and dictionaries. The results evoke, as Arnold describes it, “geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory.” Inspired by the rapidly changing landscape of print media, write an essay that reflects on your first memories with books and print magazines. Do they remain precious to you? For more on Arnold’s art, read “The Written Image: Crystallized Books” in the March/April 2023 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.
“Drenched by a summer downpour or softened by spring rain, I have felt an aspect of freedom,” writes Ama Codjoe in her essay “An Aspect of Freedom,” included in the anthology A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars (Milkweed Editions, 2023) edited by Erin Sharkey. In the essay Codjoe explores her relationship with rain through the lens of freedom, using personal anecdotes, historical events, and photographs taken during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “In the rain, or in the ocean, or in a flood of people singing freedom songs and calling the names of our unjustly killed, I feel a part of nature, a part of nature’s self, which may be anything that gives nourishment and everything that breathes,” writes Codjoe. In expectation of the upcoming fertile season, write an essay that explores your relationship with spring rain. As you write, take inspiration from Codjoe’s essay and consider the question: When do you feel most free?
Valentine’s Day is commonly known as a day to express affection for loved ones with greetings and gifts, but its origin remains a bit of a mystery. Some suggest that the holiday dates back to Lupercalia, a Roman festival to ward off evil spirits and infertility that was later banned in the fifth century, while others have said that the true origin of the day is related to a priest named Valentine who was martyred circa 270 CE by emperor Claudius II. According to one legend, the priest signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter. Other accounts tell the story of St. Valentine of Terni, a bishop who secretly married couples to spare husbands from war. What is your personal history with Valentine’s Day? Using these origin stories as inspiration, write an essay that explores your memories of this holiday of love.
Every year on February 2, thousands of spectators visit Punxsutawney, a small town in Pennsylvania, to watch whether a groundhog sees his shadow or not. The first Groundhog Day celebration at Gobbler’s Knob was held in 1887 and the tradition predicts how long the winter season will last. Similar superstitious traditions connected with animals include the ancient Greek art of ornithomancy, the practice of reading omens from the actions of birds, and the Woollybear Festival in Ohio, in which fuzzy woolly bear caterpillars predict the winter forecast. Do you participate in any superstitious traditions? Write an essay that reflects on your relationship to any rituals or superstitions you believe in.
According to the Chinese zodiac, 2023 is the year of the rabbit, which symbolizes longevity, peace, and prosperity. The zodiac is a repeating cycle of twelve years, and each year is represented by a different animal with symbolic traits. Next year will be the year of the dragon, which represents strength and independence; followed by the year of the snake, which represents curiosity and wisdom. Write an essay that reflects on the animal associated with your birth year and how it relates to your personality. Can you find any similarities? As an added challenge, consider the animals associated with your family members and whether these signs hold true to their qualities.
In a recent installment of our Writers Recommend series, Janine Joseph, author of Decade of the Brain (Alice James Books, 2023), writes about finding solace in computer scientist Neal Agarwal’s the Deep Sea website. Scrolling down the website, Joseph discovers animals and plant life at varying depths of the ocean, including the wolf eel, the chain catshark, and the terrible claw lobster. In the ocean’s midnight zone, where “creatures survive by their own light,” she finds inspiration in “what can and might exist at those disappearing depths.” Write an essay that meditates on the mysteries and profundities of the ocean. Does its depth inspire awe and wonder as it does for Joseph, or does it strike fear in you?
In a Q&A with Kaveh Akbar by Claire Schwartz, published in the September/October 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the poet reflects on the image of a salad spinner in his long poem “The Palace.” He writes: “I have a salad spinner in my kitchen, and we use it. Every time I see it, I’m like, ‘What a ghoulish thing to have—this thing that spins lettuce.’ I can’t think of anything more useless, a more damning indictment of our relative comfort.” What central everyday objects remind you of your relative comfort, or lack thereof? Write an essay that uses concrete images to reflect on the pleasures of your daily life. Do you ever feel shame about these pleasures?
“I needed to be lonely, it turns out, more than belonging, more than home, more than love. There was no plot of land, no village, town, city, country, in which I belonged,” writes Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Diane Seuss in her essay “On Not Belonging,” published in the inaugural issue of Through Lines Magazine. In the essay, Seuss explores what she learned from the moments in her life when she didn’t feel like she belonged, weaving in and out of topics such as an experience at an artists’ colony, her kinship with writer James Baldwin, and grieving the death of her father. Inspired by Seuss’s relatable and lyrical essay, write an essay that traces your history with belonging. When has not belonging sharpened your creative intuition?
The days leading up to a new year commencing often bring mixed feelings of reflection to the surface making it difficult to want to write at all. In “Twelve Reasons You Should Keep Writing,” which appears in the January/February 2023 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Sarah Ruhl writes: “Sometimes I forget why I should keep writing. I hope you make a list of your own.” Ruhl then lists brief, evocative, and personal reasons to persist with writing, which include, “Write for your daughter. Write for your son. If they don’t exist, write for the dream of them,” “Write to thank the books you love,” and “Write for God. The cave. The envelope.” Inspired by Ruhl, write a list essay of your own that considers all the reasons that keep you writing.
In his article “Why Did Borges Hate Soccer?” published in the New Republic in 2014, Shaj Mathew uncovers the reasons the iconic Argentinean writer hated soccer so much that he even scheduled a lecture to conflict with Argentina’s first game of the 1978 World Cup. Mathew observes that what Borges was troubled with was the link from soccer fan culture to “the kind of blind popular support that propped up the leaders of the twentieth century’s most horrifying political movements.” Taking into consideration this year’s controversial FIFA World Cup in Qatar, write an essay that examines your relationship to a popular sport. Is there an element of fandom that unsettles you?
“Writers often talk about stakes, and they mostly mean the stakes within the piece: what’s at stake for the protagonist, whether fictional or not. Yet for me, the stakes that matter most—the stakes that shape the work profoundly—are those the author faces while writing,” writes Joy Castro, founding editor of the Machete series published by Ohio State University Press, in a recent installment of our Agents & Editors Recommend series. Castro encourages writers to take “bold, huge, scary risks” and “trust that your readers are as intelligent and soulful as you are.” Inspired by Castro’s advice, write an essay that considers your relationship to risk in life and your creative work. Do you take leaps or keep your feet on the ground?
Each year Oxford Languages names a Word of the Year that reflects the “ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the past twelve months” based on thorough analysis of statistics and data, but for the first time this year’s choice was open to a public vote. More than 300,000 people cast their vote and the overwhelming winner is “goblin mode,” a slang term defined as “a type of behavior which is unapologetically self-indulgent, lazy, slovenly, or greedy, typically in a way that rejects social norms or expectations.” Write an essay about a time you have gone into “goblin mode.” Was the period of unapologetic behavior necessary for you to recharge?
In “Finding Comfort and Escape in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking” published on Literary Hub, A. Cerisse Cohen writes about the impact the iconic cookbook had on her relationship with cooking during the pandemic when she moved from New York City to Missoula, Montana. Cohen not only discovers that “bad food is often the result of impatience,” but also finds a transformational lesson behind the patient, careful labor behind Hazan’s dishes indicating to her the many ways through which people take care of one another. Write an essay about your relationship to cooking and the impact it has had on other aspects of your life. Are there lessons you’ve learned from preparing an ambitious dish?
In “Ten Ways of Being in the Weeds With Your Novel, and Ten Ways Out,” the latest installment of our Craft Capsule series, Blake Sanz writes the essay in second-person, addressing the many struggles and frustrations one can encounter when drafting a piece of writing. “You’ve pulled out a minor character and decided that the whole story should be told from her point of view. You’ve begun to write it that way, only to discover that this idea doesn’t work either,” he writes. Inspired by Sanz’s journey, write an essay that takes the reader through the challenges you faced in drafting a work of your own. What discoveries did you make, small and large, as you moved through versions of this piece?
In the opening pages of Hilton Als’s memoir My Pinup: A Paean to Prince (New Directions, 2022), the Pulitzer Prize–winning author reflects upon a confessional joke in Jamie Foxx’s 2002 stand-up special, I Might Need Security, in which the comic meets the iconic musician Prince for the first time and is so overcome that he can’t look him in the eye. “Being enthralled—or, more accurately, frightened and turned on by Prince and what his various looks said about an aspect of black male sexuality—was that something only comedians could talk about?” writes Als. Inspired by this reflection, write a personal essay about an encounter with an icon who shifted something within yourself. What excited or frightened you?
“How to choose // persimmons. This is precision. / Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted. / Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one / will be fragrant. How to eat: / put the knife away, lay down newspaper. / Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat,” writes Li-Young Lee in his evocative poem “Persimmons,” in which he uses the autumnal fruit as a way to speak on a number of personal subjects, such as his memories of a sixth grade teacher, his relationship with his wife, and his father’s blindness. Inspired by Lee’s poem, write a lyric essay about a favorite fruit that conjures sensorial memories. Let yourself be surprised by the direction of your associations.
The Day of the Dead holiday is traditionally celebrated on the first two days of November, a time for families to remember and honor their dearly departed. The festivities have increasingly become more global but date back to the eleventh century and hold great significance for Mexico’s Indigenous communities. Public places and homes are filled with altars and offerings to commemorate loved ones with their favorite things, including traditional dishes and treats as well as elaborate decorations. Inspired by the celebratory spirit of the Day of the Dead, write an essay that explores how you remember your ancestors. Does this holiday reframe your understanding of grief and loss?
“Once you know what a book contains, why read it again? Because literature is not information. It’s an atmosphere, a location, a space, a landscape you can enter, with its own weather and light that can be found nowhere else,” writes Sofia Samatar in a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series. Samatar argues for rereading favorite books and discovering in the experience why readers continue to return. She writes: “Every piece of writing calls a particular world into being, an environment through which a reader moves.” Pick a favorite text, whether a single essay or a whole book, and take notes on your feelings as you reread it. Then write an essay using these notes that reflects on this experience of rediscovery.
In his essay “How to Pass the Time on a Holiday Commemorating the Destruction of Your Ancestors,” published by Literary Hub in 2015, Indigenous poet Tommy Pico confronts the reality of the history of Thanksgiving and what it means for him: “You’re maybe only a little bit aware of it for a small part of today, in between the family or the baking or the turkey. It might be a twinge. But that twinge is where I live.” In the conclusion of the essay, Pico offers a summary of how he spends the holiday—making pie with his friends, writing poems, and drinking dirty martinis—and provides readers a chance to reflect on what it means to ask how a Native American celebrates Thanksgiving. Inspired by the duality in Pico’s essay, write a personal essay about how the history of Thanksgiving affects the way you experience the holiday today.
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 was awarded to French author Annie Ernaux for what the Nobel Committee calls “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.” This skill is exemplified in her book The Years as she tells her life story spanning over sixty years in an unconventional manner, using the choral “we” and sometimes shifting into the third person. Reflecting on the voice of her book, Ernaux writes: “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we,’ as if now it were her time to tell the story of the time-before.” Write an essay in the third person that focuses on a span of time in your life. How does this formal choice affect how you consider writing personally and collectively?
Last month, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey delivered the annual Windham-Campbell lecture “Why I Write” at Yale University. In considering the theme of the lecture, Trethewey recalls the familial, poetic, and cultural influences that inspired her to become a poet, weaving personal stories with reflections on history and literature. “I’ve needed to create the narrative of my life, its abiding metaphors, so that my story would not be determined for me,” says Trethewey. This week, ask yourself why you write and write a personal essay that searches for your response. What is the story you want to tell?