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?
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.
“Objects make love visible. They give us an archive, a timeline with clear milestones. They tell a story that would otherwise be almost impossible to see or even narrate,” Jenn Shapland writes in her Literary Hub essay “The Maggie Nelson Test for Lesbian Dating Success.” Shapland explores the value of shared and exchanged objects and artifacts between friends and lovers, with an emphasis on gifting books. Write an essay about a book that you gave or received from someone with whom you’ve had a significant relationship, perhaps at a particularly precarious turning point. Describe the book and set the scene, exploring what the exchange revealed about you and the state of the relationship.
In artist John Baldessari’s “Eight Soups: Corn Soup,” he borrows an image of a Henri Matisse painting of goldfish and writes the words “corn” and “soup” underneath it, while another piece includes a photograph of himself standing beneath a palm tree with a caption that says, “wrong.” In Deborah Solomon’s New York Times piece on Baldessari, who died earlier last month, she writes of a postcard the artist once sent from the Cincinnati Zoo to a friend: “The message bore no discernible relation to the photograph of the tiger cubs. In this way, it resembled his work. Text plus image and many possible paths between them.” As you go about your week, keep an eye out for readymade images—a photograph, a painting, an advertisement—and jot down words that immediately come to mind. Write an essay that uncovers, or makes discernible, the paths between the image and what it conjures up for you.
Can you imagine what the voice of a three-thousand-year-old mummy would sound like? Last week Scientific Reports published a study that describes engineering the voice of Nesyamun—an ancient Egyptian priest and scribe whose coffin’s hieroglyphs describe him as “true of voice”—by combining his 3D-printed mouth and throat with an artificial larynx and using speech synthesizing software. This week write a personal essay about the one long-ago sound you wish to hear, if you could engineer a way. Would you choose the voice of a loved one or important historical figure, the sounds of an extinct animal or bygone technology, or perhaps simply the everyday sounds of a different era?
“Sometimes we feel ‘blocked’ because we started a story in the wrong place or ended in the wrong place,” writes Sarah Ruhl in “Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Find a draft of an unfinished essay or one you’re uncertain about or unsatisfied with, and try starting from a different place. How does this new beginning alter the tone of the piece? Does this shift give new meaning to the true core of the story?
“A person is not just one text but rather an infinite series of texts, none of which could be considered the original,” writes Alejandro Zambra in his Believer magazine essay “Translating a Person.” “A book is, in the best of cases, the text that a person once was or wanted to be, but of course it’s a multiple testament, ambiguous and full of nuances.” Think of someone you have been close to for a long time and the different phases you have known of this person’s life. Write a personal essay that attempts to “translate” this person by following one particular thread. Try using a numbered format as Zambra does in his essay to separate scenes or moments of this life.
When a new year begins, we often think of new beginnings or about trying new things. But is there any value in doing the same thing over and over again? In “The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences” in the New York Times, Leah Fessler writes about the tendency for novelty to wear off and champions the pleasure that can be found in repeating the same experiences again and again. This week, when you’re tempted to try something new, make an effort to partake in an activity that you’ve already done before—perhaps eating a meal you’ve prepared before, rewatching a movie, walking in a familiar neighborhood, or looking at a favorite painting in a museum. Write an essay that explores what you discover the second (or third) time around.
Charles Yu’s new novel, Interior Chinatown (Pantheon, 2020), is formatted as a screenplay—with typewriter font, second-person narration, and camera and scene directions—to reflect the narrative’s examination of the stereotypical roles that have historically been played by Asian American actors and how those roles bleed into lived experience. By writing in this style Yu blurs the lines between the performed character and the authentic self, raising questions about assimilation, artifice, and identity. Take inspiration from Yu’s use of this form and think of a past experience in which you felt required to perform or maintain a certain persona. Write a lyric essay that incorporates scenes written like a script or screenplay. How does the form create a sense of distance or defamiliarization? How might this angle provide you with a new perspective or insight?
Man Repeller is a lifestyle website that “explores the expansive constellation of things women care about” with “the conviction that an interest in fashion doesn’t minimize one’s intellect.” Drawing inspiration from their Outfit Anatomy series, where staff members answer questions about how and why they chose their ensemble on a given day, write a personal essay about what you’re wearing for the day. Study each article of clothing, as well as any accessories, and revisit the myriad of thoughts you had in the process of getting dressed. What do these items communicate about you, and what do they hide? Do your clothes reveal a deeper emotional state?
“I really like the idea of continuing. I don’t like the idea of a dance starting and just being really short,” says choreographer Molissa Fenley in a 2018 interview for BOMB when asked about the heavy dose of endurance required for her pieces. “I find, physically, that the metabolic change that takes place in moving for a long time is really interesting. It opens your brain in different ways.” Write an essay where you consider a time when you continued onward with an act, whether physical, mental, or emotional, to the point of exhilaration or exhaustion. How did pushing onward for an extreme amount of time affect you? Score out the experience from beginning to eventual end.
After the death of a close relative, Itaru Sasaki installed a phone booth in his backyard garden in the coastal town of Otsuchi, a glass enclosure where he could speak into a disconnected rotary phone as a way of processing his grief. After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Sasaki opened his kaze no denwa, roughly translated into “wind phone,” to other community members mourning loved ones. Write a personal essay in the form of a letter or communication to someone no longer in your life. What would you choose to share about your own life and current updates? What feelings, emotions, or sentiments would you want to reiterate to the other person, whether for the hundredth time or for the first time?
“We need to grab the words that have possibility in them and begin using them anew,” writes John Freeman in the prologue to Dictionary of the Undoing (MCD x FSG Originals, 2019). Freeman selects terms from A to Z, from “Agitate,” “Body,” “Citizen,” and “Decency” all the way to “You” and “Zygote,” and writes entries that reclaim, redefine, and expand the definitions of the words to “build a lexicon of engagement and meaning.” Write a lyric essay that borrows this idea, selecting words related to current events of particular importance to you and providing personalized definitions in the form of brief exploratory passages. Reflect on your own experiences, the community around you, and what the future may hold.
This autumn, as you travel to see family, engage in outdoor activities, or plan gifts and meals, pay special attention to the sounds of the season. In “Seeking Silence on a California Road Trip,” National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George W. Stone writes about tracking the sounds he encounters on a summer journey made by airplanes, birds and insects, air conditioners, sand dunes, and crashing waves. “I set out on a 500-mile sound quest that took me from the drumbeat of civilization to nearly noiseless realms. I did not turn on the radio, though occasionally I sang a song that came to mind. I barely spoke; instead I tried to hear whatever came my way.” Jot down notes as you go about your day, then write a personal essay that explores the season’s soundscape. What harmonies do you find between the moments of sound—or noise—and silence?
Earlier this month, art critic Jason Farago wrote a New York Times article advocating for the removal and relocation of the Mona Lisa painting from its place in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Farago argues that the overwhelming popularity and crowding make for untenable viewing conditions, and that the painting itself is perhaps not worth the trouble. Write a personal essay that explores a piece of art—a book, painting, song, film, or live performance—you’ve experienced that left you with a feeling of disappointment. Describe the encounter, and then use the experience as an opportunity to reflect on a comparable work of art that’s underappreciated and deserves more widespread acclaim. How does your emotional response to the artwork affect your preferences?
“I had to write the book for two reasons. The first one was gratitude for all that kept me alive and made life worth living, and the second was vengeance against all that diminishes life,” writes Anne Boyer in an interview about her memoir, The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. Think of an urgent issue in your own life which has provoked in you both feelings of gratitude and vengeance. Write a personal essay that expresses both of these important emotional states. How do you give voice to these feelings in a complex and productive or healing way?
“We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity,” writes Carmen Maria Machado in her new memoir, In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, 2019), about the need to acknowledge the queer community as human beings who are multifaceted and morally complex. Think of someone who at some point has occupied a heroic role in your life and write an essay that attempts to represent all the dimensions of this person. What possibilities are you allowing for when you articulate a person’s flaws or mistakes instead of simply presenting the best version?
Do you believe in ghosts? Browse through the New York Times’ list of haunted hotels and National Geographic’s photo gallery of cemeteries with “views to die for” and think back to a hotel stay or cemetery visit from your own past that might have been tinged with something eerie in the air. Write an essay that centers on this haunting experience. What kind of decorative adornments, distinctive architecture, or imposing weather might have contributed to the mood? Was the tone of the visit tempered by more practical considerations and activities, or did you deliberately revel in the phantasmic atmosphere?
Last week Science journal published a study with the DNA analyses of graves and found objects from prehistoric German households that demonstrates wealth disparities in inhabitants not previously seen. The findings include indications that under the same roof, there were family members who passed down inherited wealth, unrelated individuals not buried with wealth, and nonlocal women who maintained or married into wealth. Consider the beloved and functional items in your home and write a personal essay that examines how these objects express social complexity or class status. How might you be remembered based on your possessions?
“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?
“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.