In a recent New York Times profile by Penelope Green, author Anne Lamott says, “I don’t write stuff I don’t think is universal, if I write about my butt or my body or my, you know, challenges with self-esteem or my raging ego, I know it’s universal.” Jot down a list of personality traits, idiosyncratic beliefs or opinions, or past situations that seem extremely specific to you alone. Upon deeper reflection, is there a possible overlap between any of these topics and circumstances others may be familiar with? Select one of these items and write a personal essay that extends this seemingly personal concern into the realm of the universal.
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.
“Boredom becomes a seeking state. What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged,” says psychologist Heather Lench in an article for Wired about the connection between boredom and creativity. Do you remember the last time you allowed yourself to truly do nothing to the point that you felt bored? Write a personal essay about a time when you had nothing to do and how that inspired you to create something. This could be a childhood memory of inventing a new reality or a more recent experience when you allowed yourself time away from distraction and wrote a new piece. Use this essay to reflect on how silence and inactivity have played a role in your creativity.
“Where would we be without the women who plant their feet, who set their chins, who step forward and never fear the dark?” asks Laird Hunt in his Literary Hub essay “In Gratitude for the Fierce Women of the World.” Hunt describes his high school girlfriend and his grandmother, who both served as fierce female inspiration for him and his novels which center on women who “are making their own story, their own names, their own games.” Write a personal essay about a woman who has had a powerful presence in your life, who inspired you to persevere, to overcome obstacles, to not back down.
In the chapter titled “The One Where Two Women Got Married” in the nostalgic retrospective I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends (Hanover Square Press, 2018), journalist Kelsey Miller writes about the prevalence of homophobic jokes and the depiction of the lesbian couple in the television show Friends. Looking back twenty years later, Miller explores the ways in which the series was a product of its time. Choose a television series that aired ten or twenty years ago that you used to watch, and find a clip or episode to view. Write a personal essay about how your perception of the show has changed with hindsight. Consider what your own opinions of the show were when you watched it the first time around, and then examine how your perspective might have evolved over the years with the culture.
“As a nonfiction writer I tend to write about things when I am still in the midst of them, when I am too close to the subject matter and there is no possible resolution to the thing I am writing about,” writes Steph Auteri in “Writing Partners: Working Together Through Writing and Life” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. What issues or conflicts are you in the midst of struggling with right now? Begin an essay about a subject that you are dealing with at the moment, writing down all the raw emotions without self-editing. Perhaps in a few weeks or months, you can revisit the piece and decide whether to continue working on it from more of a distance.
Think about a place that has served as a sanctuary to you as a writer, whether in the past or present. Perhaps it is somewhere you’ve visited only once, somewhere you return to every year, or somewhere in-between. It could even be a writing retreat or residency. Write an essay about what makes this space so inspiring to you as a writer. Describe the setting using all the senses: You might include a favorite soft-cushioned chair, the aroma of fresh flowers, the colors of the walls, a favorite snack, or the sound of pen to paper. What are the elements that help motivate you to write in this place?
This past August, a couple browsing through a Florida Goodwill store’s secondhand goods found a baseball mitt that was lost by their son forty years earlier when the family lived in their hometown in Ohio. Think of the various belongings you lost as a child. Is there one item in particular whose loss hit you the hardest, or that you find yourself thinking about often? Write a personal essay about several long-lost objects, drawing upon your memories and what the object’s importance expresses about your values. If the objects were to turn up now, would they still hold meaning for you?
Labor Day, a holiday honoring the American labor and trade union movements celebrated on the first Monday in September, is the marker of the unofficial end of summer. Oldfangled fashion etiquette dictates that it also marks the annual cutoff point for wearing certain items of clothing such as white shoes or white pants, along with patterns and materials including seersucker, eyelet, patchwork madras, linen, and canvas. Write a personal essay about a seasonal item that you’re either reluctant to let go of at the end of summer or eager to dig out from the depths of your closet storage for the beginning of fall. Explore how the seasonal clothing you wear is associated with the climate and traditions of your particular geographic region, as well as the emotional ties and memories linked to this annual transition.
“And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.” In “The Chekhov Sentence That Contains Almost All of Life” published in the Atlantic, Gary Shteyngart talks to Joe Fassler about this last line of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story “The Lady With the Dog,” and explains why he believes it expresses a universal truth about all human relationships. Find a favorite final sentence from a prose piece you have long appreciated and write a personal essay about why you find it particularly resonant. How has your reading of it evolved over the years, and what memories surface upon its recollection?
The National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have teamed up to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird, to celebrate and draw awareness to the centennial of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As you go about your daily tasks this week, keep an eye out for the birds that you encounter, whether flying overhead, perched in trees, or underfoot. Write an essay inspired by the feathered friends that fly in and out of your day. What memories or emotions do birds bring to mind? Have they been symbolic of an important moment in your life?
In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Heather Lanier writes: “Don’t settle for your first idea or point, the thing that might have brought you to the page. Let that first point be a jumping-off place to deeper questioning.” Lanier shares an anecdote about starting an essay initially focused on exploring the etymology of a word, and then realizing it was on track to recreate a well-trod argument, a realization which steered her toward a more challenging and uncertain direction. Think of an essay topic that seems like a good idea for exploration, and then seek “the deeper questions, the ones for which you don’t have ready answers” as you write and dive into your topic. Where do you end up when you can’t see where you’re headed?
Can you remember the last time you handwrote a lengthy text? The Magic of Handwriting, an exhibit currently on view at the Morgan Library in New York City, showcases a collection of handwritten documents and autographs acquired by Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago. The exhibition includes intimate inscriptions by Jorge Luis Borges, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde, among others. Write a personal essay about how your own handwriting has changed from childhood, through adolescence and adulthood. What memories are brought to mind when looking at your old handwriting? Perhaps try handwriting the first draft of your essay to help connect back into this practice.
“One of the most surprising responses to my book came from my mother. She said above all what the poems illustrated to her is that anyone can be a monster to any number of people—even if they don’t intend to act in ways that harm,” writes Diana Arterian in an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet. Write an essay about a time when you were caught off guard by a surprising or unusual response to your creative writing, perhaps by someone close to you. How did this unexpected, or unintended, reaction offer a new perspective into your own work?
As part of its 2018 exhibition season focused on the future, the Rubin museum in New York City has a program for visitors to write a letter to an incoming museumgoer. The letter may provide directions or insights that could potentially transform the future visitor’s own museum experience. This week, after completing an activity such as going to an art show, watching a movie, or eating at a restaurant, write a letter to a hypothetical follower in your footsteps. Include your emotional responses and personal memories, and any suggestions or recommendations that might offer guidance for the experience.
What does a rolling lemon gather? Apparently, a mass of viewers. Since photographer Mike Sakasegawa posted a two-minute video of a lemon he saw rolling down a hill in San Diego on Twitter last month, the video has accumulated almost ten million views, and garnered thousands of comments of encouragement and feelings of inspiration. Write a personal essay about a time when you have been cheered up or inspired by a video or photo, perhaps documented by a stranger or from someone you know. What was it about the imagery that provoked this positive response? Explore any memories or associations that might have made your viewing particularly resonant or emotional at that moment.
“‘Not X, but also not not X.’” In a recent piece for the New York Times, Sam Anderson examines a sentence structure pattern that reappears frequently in Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country (Viking, 2018). Anderson notes that many authors tend to repeat sentence structures in a move that reflects a particular worldview or expresses the author’s thought process in some way. Browse through your writing and search for one of your own signature sentence structures. Reflect and write about what this style reveals of your philosophies or how your mind works.
On the TV show Parts Unknown, the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain traveled the world and sampled cuisines from a variety of cultures. Although the show employed food as its central component, Bourdain was more interested in exploring the customs and histories of the countries he visited and got an outsider’s glimpse of the particular magic that makes each place uniquely itself. Write a personal essay based on an experience when you left your comfort zone for a place, community, or situation that felt different from your own. Your experience could involve travel, as Bourdain’s did, but travel is not required; the unknown often exists in your own backyard.
As it turns out, human beings aren’t the only ones allowing their emotions to cloud their judgment. In a study published last week in Science, researchers reported findings that mice are as likely as people to have a hard time letting go of a task in which they have already invested time, energy, or another resource despite receiving any potential gain. Write a personal essay about a time when you were unable to let go of something, such as a relationship with a person or a comfortable living situation, even if there was no longer a way of moving forward or your energies would have been better spent elsewhere. What emotions were at play while you made the decision to stay put in stagnant circumstances? What happened when you finally let go?
In an interview published earlier this year by Electric Literature, Sofia Samatar discusses the concept of speculative memoir with authors Matthew Cheney, Carmen Maria Machado, and Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, all who have written work that blends memoir with elements of the highly imaginative that is typically reserved for science fiction, fantasy, and fabulist literature. Machado talks about alternating between real events and genre fiction that act as extended metaphor. Stevenson says, “In some ways introducing the imagined is perhaps a way of daring to approach the material.” Think of a specific memory whose particulars seem blurry or difficult to approach. Write a speculative essay or short memoiristic piece in which you approach this memory by inserting a blatantly fictional aspect or character. How does this element of fiction open up new or alternative possibilities for the way you’ve long recalled this event, situation, or relationship?
What do you do to put off important tasks? The social media hashtag #procrastibaking pulls up thousands of posts of goods baked while more pressing matters may have been at hand. Some procrastibakers claim that it’s part of the creative process and can help overcome writer’s block, that the sensory experience and rhythms of following a recipe’s steps can be conducive to warming up to a creative task. Write a personal essay about your own go-to procrastination method. How does your procrastination activity help or hinder your work? Does it do more than satisfy a desire to feel good and enjoy the present while postponing something else?
Scientists published a study in Science magazine earlier this month observing that animals have been sleeping more during the day and increasing nocturnal habits in order to avoid interacting with humans who have steadily encroached upon their habitats and territories. Write a personal essay about a time when you felt the need to change a longstanding routine or habit. Was there a pivotal moment that motivated you to make the change or was it more gradual? How has your own flexibility or adaptability changed over the years?
What were your favorite books to read for pleasure as a child? In the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Christine Ro reports on Alvin Irby’s nonprofit organization Barbershop Books, whose programming creates reading spaces in barbershops to encourage young children to engage with literature. Through the program, Irby hopes to focus on “building boys’ motivation to read and helping them form a self-image as readers.” Write a personal essay about your most treasured and favorite book to read from your youth. What elements of the book resonated with you and encouraged you to take pride in identifying as a reader?
Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood (Henry Holt, 2018) follows an unnamed protagonist as she has conversations, internal and external, about whether to have children. The novel asks questions about what it means to be or not be a mother, and what it means for artists seeking to balance their creative lives with their personal lives. This week, write an essay based on conversations you’ve had with friends or family about parenthood. Reflect on your own, or someone else’s, thoughts and experiences with the struggle to balance the role of parent with the rest of one’s identity. Use the essay to explore what beliefs or attitudes these observations stir in you.
“‘Now I can have a glass of orange juice in the morning and read the newspaper.’” In the New York Times essay “Philip Roth and the Whale,” Nathan Englander recalls Roth, who passed away last month, speaking lightheartedly about his free time upon retiring from writing fiction. If you had an abundance of free time, what are the small activities you would most look forward to enjoying? Write a personal essay about the simple, everyday things you wish you had more time to do, that are often sacrificed to a busy schedule. How are these activities enticing in a way that is different from the excitement of grander plans?
Essays can take the shape of a variety of forms, and experimenting with structure can often lead you into material that may have otherwise been left unexplored. In her essay “The Pain Scale,” for example, Eula Biss borrows the structure of the medical pain scale, which ranges from zero to ten, to divide her essay into eleven short sections. Each section reflects on the subject of pain from personal, philosophical, and scientific perspectives. This week, try writing your own essay using a scale as a structure. You could choose to invent your own scale or use a familiar one such as the pain scale, the Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale, the pH scale, or a musical notation scale.