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 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.
“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?
“A cliché is thoughtless, whereas love is thoughtful. A cliché reproduces ideas originating in the culture, not in lived experience; it is antithetical to love because whereas love is alive, a cliché is dead. It’s an empty husk,” writes Sarah Gerard in “On Falling in Love With Your Characters” published in Literary Hub, an essay that explores the writing process of her second novel, True Love (Harper, 2020), as she experienced the end of one love and the beginning of another. Write a personal essay that examines a cliché about love, or a conventional cultural “truth” that is often associated with love. How has this played out in your own life, with your own past or present experiences of love?
In “What We Found in Writing: Authors on Creativity in Quarantine” in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, thirteen authors describe their experiences of writing and not writing during the past several months of quarantine. Ada Limón writes: “What struck me, almost immediately, is that fear was more incapacitating than despair. I could surrender to a hopelessness and still make something. Even if it felt like a last gasp of my own humanity or love or tenderness, I could still write it. However, if I focused on fear, I was always silenced.” Write a personal essay that examines how your own creativity has ebbed and flowed during this time. Are there things that have been easier or more difficult to write about? Where have you found inspiration? What has been unexpected?
This week, take a look at a photo essay by Jared A. Brock of one hundred well-known authors in their writing spaces and write a personal essay about a particular spot where you have written a significant amount of work. Perhaps the space is at a desk in the same corner you’ve retreated to for years, or a specific seat on a certain bus during a commute, or a summer cabin you visited a handful of times years ago. What was one writing project you worked on in that space that you remember particularly well? Describe your mindset in that space versus outside of it. Incorporate the sounds, smells, and other details needed to create a sensorial experience of the space.
“Search YouTube with the word ‘commercials’ and the decade of your choosing, and you will find hundreds of compilations, including transfers of old broadcasts,” writes Eve Peyser in “In Vintage TV Ads, a Curious Fountain of Hope (and Cheese)” in the New York Times, about her habit of watching old television commercials in order to “make believe that I live in a world I never got to inhabit but is still familiar.” Browse through some old commercials from the decade of your choice, and write a personal essay that explores how the viewings lead you to thoughts about the past and the future. What emotions are evoked as you think about broader themes such as the passing of time, the omnipresence of consumerism, and the trends and values of different eras?
“What’s in your guts, in your muscles, in your blood?” asks Sarah Bellamy in her Paris Review essay “Performing Whiteness” in which she uses her experience as a stage director to examine the ways in which racial trauma and sentiments are manifested in our physical bodies. “Bodies arrive written with racial scripts that inform the meaning of gesture, stillness, and movement onstage.” Write a personal essay in which you focus on the way you move your body in the world and how those physical gestures and subtle movements inform who you are. What kind of tension, freedom, joy, strength, or weakness do you feel? How can you connect those sensations with bodies throughout history that have resembled yours?
Inside the Actors Studio, hosted for twenty-two seasons by the late James Lipton, began as a craft seminar for students of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York. Now a well-known network television show, famous actors, writers, and directors are interviewed, and a questionnaire is submitted to the guest. This list of ten questions, meant to reveal deep truths about one’s psychology, includes: “What is your favorite curse word?” “What sound or noise do you hate?” and “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Write an essay where you explore one or more of these queries. Are there any misconceptions about yourself revealed in the process?
“If you’re like me, you may have a tendency to skim over historical passages,” writes Layli Long Soldier in a recent Literary Hub essay about instincts, memory, and the violent history of the United States. “I don’t know why I do this and I don’t like my habit. But I ask you, warmly, to return to accounts from our Lakota ancestors, quoted previously. Take your time. Because, in their words, you may sense an old, yet very present energy.” Begin with a bit of research into a historical event connected to your personal history, taking care to think about the contexts and biases present in any history. Write an essay that allows for gaps, contradictions, and memories to seep in, as you use your instincts to draw connections between the past, present, and yourself. What can you discover or sense when you take your time with a historical text?
Conceptual artist Christo, who died on Sunday, was known for his large-scale environmental pieces mostly created in partnership with his wife Jeanne-Claude and involving the cooperation of many others—including politicians, legal workers, landowners, environmental groups, engineers, and city administrators—and often taking decades to complete. In a 1972 New York Times article, Christo said: “For me esthetics is everything involved in the process—the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people. The whole process becomes an esthetic—that’s what I’m interested in, discovering the process. I put myself in dialogue with other people.” Find a personal essay you wrote in the past, or perhaps one you never finished, and work on adding a new layer that incorporates all of the people and things that have to be in place for you to do your creative work. You might include documents, photographs, found text, or other ephemera in your piece.
In Tracy O’Neill’s new novel, Quotients (Soho Press, 2020), one character says to another: “When the luck is good, the answer is not why. It is yes.” Over the years countless authors—and their characters—have shared a range of perspectives on the notion of luck, many of them leaning toward skepticism or wariness. Emily Dickinson wrote: “Luck is not chance— / It’s Toil— / Fortune’s expensive smile / Is earned.” In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy wrote: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” And in The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.” Write a personal essay about a time when you experienced a stroke of luck, good or bad. Has the significance of luck in your life changed over time?
“I reached toward the mask, toward my friend, trying to keep away from her at the same time—both of us a little bit nervous, a little bit scared (I’ve never before noticed that “scared” and “sacred” are so close),” writes Ross Gay in “The Joy of Caring for Others,” one of fourteen New York Times pieces in which writers describe what is currently bringing them joy. In the series, Aminatou Sow writes about “The Joy of Perfecting the Sexy Selfie,” Max Read writes about “The Joy of Consuming an Obscene Number of Calories Before Noon,” and Jenna Wortham writes about “The Joy of Regrowing My Scallions—Yes, Regrowing My Scallions.” Write your own “Joy of…” essay, zeroing in on joy found in unexpectedly mundane or previously suspect corners. What is simple and what is complex about this pleasure?
“The tendency in western cultures is to value finished objects, to put a price on them and to preserve them. In other cultures, such as in the islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, value lies not in the physical object, but in knowing what it means and how it is made.” In Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans, and Their Threads (Strange Attractor Press, 2016), Eleanor Morgan writes about how cultural attitudes about spiders and their silk is dependent on how those cultures value objects and their making. Think about an object you’ve made in the past—a meal, a birthday card, a piece of furniture, an article of clothing, a poem. Write a personal essay that excavates and examines the value of not the physical object, but the process of its making.
“However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us,” writes John Berger in “The White Bird,” his 1985 essay on aesthetics. Write a personal essay that examines a moment or particular object that you found beautiful during a difficult time in your life. What was this beauty in despite of? Describe the physical and emotional environment that surrounded this object or incident. How did this beauty change your perspective on your situation or on what was going on in the wider world?
“The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to pay attention,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum in a recent Paris Review essay. This phrase is repeated throughout the piece as Koestenbaum floats from one memory to another and suggests that a writer should “revisit books to which we have ceased paying sufficient attention, books we have failed adequately to love” and “play with words and to keep playing with them—not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage, and awakening conscience.” Write an essay about your personal perspective on the role of a writer today. Allow for a fluctuating and expansive definition, one that can accommodate not-writing, playfulness, contradictions, and elasticity.