“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.
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.
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.
In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Cathy Park Hong discusses the writing process for her first nonfiction book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2020), in an interview by Dana Isokawa. Hong talks about patching together “scenes, personal anecdotes, analyses of books, vents about things” and how this eventually developed into a form. “I began mixing and matching these paragraphs the way you would put together stanzas for a poem, and that’s how I arrived at a modular form.” Write a personal essay that revolves around an important belief, opinion, or question. Begin accumulating different paragraphs that contribute to your argument, and then collage them together, perhaps using other texts and facts from research. What’s your organizing principle in providing shape to this structure?
“Doctor, you say there are no haloes / around the streetlights in Paris / and what I see is an aberration...” In the Paris Review’s “Poets on Couches” video series, Maya C. Popa reads Lisel Mueller’s “Monet Refuses the Operation” and speaks about how the poem brings her comfort. In the poem, Mueller imagines a conversation between a doctor and the painter Monet, who pushes back against having surgery to correct his cataracts, which may just be the source of his artistic vision. Write an essay where you express your unique vision of the world. Was there a moment in your life when you had to fight to be true to yourself?
Happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise have been named by twentieth-century psychologists as our basic human emotions, but what about other types of feelings? In her first essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, published in February by One World, Cathy Park Hong writes that “minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” Hong writes that minor feelings are related to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s idea of ugly feelings, which are “non-cathartic states of emotion.” Think about a time when you have felt cognitive dissonance with the state of current events or between your personal reality and how the larger world perceives you. Write a personal essay that explores the experience of minor feelings, such as boredom or irritation or envy, that lead to no cathartic outlet or breakthrough. What do you find when you trace these feelings to larger sociocultural or historical forces?
“September 3: (Lord’s day.) Up; and put on my colored silk suit very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair, for fear of the infection,” writes Samuel Pepys in his diary about the Great Plague of 1665 in London, excerpted in Lapham’s Quarterly. This week start writing short, daily journal entries about your observations and feelings about the current coronavirus pandemic. How have your small, everyday routines been affected by the crisis? How have new habits popped up? Record your tangential musings along with feelings of loss, helplessness, anger, humor, or hope as they arise.
“I have to remind myself that the possibility of everything ending up okay is no more outlandish than any worst-case scenario I can conjure,” writes Lilly Dancyger in her essay “My Book Comes Out Next Year. Do I Even Still Believe in Next Year?” at Electric Literature. “If I can imagine a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I tell myself, I should also be able to imagine something like stability.” While acknowledging the precariousness of making plans during this uncertain time, write a personal essay about your hopes for next year. What comes to mind when you allow for the possibility that accomplishing small, controllable tasks today can have a bearing on the possibilities you might be working toward for next year? Reflect on how you have dealt with anxiety or panic in difficult times in your past, and how you might carry some of that knowledge to the present moment.
“I sometimes find talking about a piece of visual art can help illuminate certain abstract ideas,” says Jessi Jezewska Stevens, author of the debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), in a BOMB magazine interview by Kristina Tate. “I am drawn to visual art as a tool of writing about perception and the fragility of perception.” Take a cue from Stevens’s way of connecting writing and visual art, and write a lyric essay inspired by a particular painting or work of art that you find resonant. What kind of inferences can you make about the artist’s ways of perception from looking at the work? How can you connect this with the ways you perceive the world?
This month, TIME magazine unveiled their 100 Women of the Year project, which shines a light on influential women from the past century who have been overshadowed by their past Man of the Year covers. Choose a woman who has played an important role in your life—someone you have been close to for many years, or an acquaintance or celebrity whose words or actions have affected you in a significant way—and think of one year that was particularly affected by your encounter. Write a personal essay that details your memories of an inciting incident, and that celebrates the impact of this woman. Browse through TIME’s new covers for inspiration.
“On the average Tuesday morning most people are waiting in more than one way: waiting to get to their stop, but also waiting for news, for inspiration, for intervention, for a promotion, for a diagnosis, for breakfast,” writes Jordan Kisner in “Attunement” from her debut collection, Thin Places: Essays From In Between (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). In the essay, Kisner writes about phases of her life spent in suspension, waiting for God, an epiphany, meaning, and for clarity of conviction to “come crashing through the ceiling.” Write a personal essay about a time when you waited for something philosophical, spiritual, or emotional to reveal itself, perhaps juxtaposing it with another memory of waiting for something more practical and tangible. Was there clarity that made it worth the wait?
In the Paris Review Daily’s Eat Your Words series, Valerie Stivers creates recipes inspired by food references in literature. Writing about her favorite Hilda Hilst novel, Letters From a Seducer (Nightboat Books, 2014), translated from the Portuguese by John Keene, Stivers mentions the eccentric ways food is incorporated into the text: “Blouses smell of apples; people sell clams, oysters, coconuts, hearts of palm, dried meat; a penis is a giant chorizo or a ‘wise and mighty catfish’ or a strawberry.” Write an essay that incorporates the shapes, smells, textures, and connotations of food in an unexpected way. What comes to your mind when considering the skins, peels, fat, seeds, flesh, pulp, nubs, and bones from your meals?
In the New York Times Letter of Recommendation series, Durga Chew-Bose writes about the value of getting an assortment of things framed after moving to an apartment in Montreal. “Some of us are born a little mournful, and we spend our lives discovering new traditions for housing those ghosts we’ve long considered companions. Framing, I’d venture, is central to this urge. It gives memories a physique.” Think of a memory that continues to haunt you like a ghost. Write a personal essay that uses a frame technique—the telling of a story within a story—to give the narrative a fixed structure. Tell the story of your memory, framed at the beginning and end with your current state of mind. What is revealed by the juxtaposition of this story embedded within another?