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.
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.
Swedish meatballs are Turkish? Last month Sweden posted on its official Twitter account that Swedish meatballs have their origins in Turkey, thereby unleashing a storm of chaos and confusion as Swedes and Swedophiles alike reconsidered the popular national dish, often enjoyed at Ikea furniture stores worldwide. Using this questioning and rethinking of possession, history, and identity as inspiration, write a personal essay about an idiosyncratic trait that seems inextricably tied to your identity. Do those around you associate you with this trait? How might you be perceived differently if one day this characteristic was no longer yours to claim?
What happens when a flower blooms before its pollinator emerges? As global warming transforms the earth’s climate, spring has begun to arrive earlier in certain places. In turn, some plants and animals whose behavioral patterns, such as migratory and reproductive cycles, are triggered by seasonal changes are falling out of step with each other. Think of a time in your life when you have felt out of step with the world around you, perhaps just slightly behind or a little too far ahead. When did you first notice the misalignment and how did you break free of it? Did you need to make an effort to adapt yourself? Reflect on your emotional state during this time, and how the people around you might have helped you through this phase.
“Sometimes my mouth opens up and my mother’s laugh jumps out, a parlor trick.” Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e), 2017) is a meditation on memory and grief that takes the form of fragments, lyric essay, poetry, memoir, reflections, and criticism. At the book’s core is the death of Zambreno’s mother and the author’s piecing together of their relationship and its bearing on her childhood and identity. In the Creative Independent, Zambreno writes about working on the book over the course of thirteen years: “As for what sustained me to keep going with it, I think it was just that itch—to not only figure out why I wanted to write about my mother, but also why I couldn’t.” Think of an inherited trait or a specific aspect of a relationship you have with a parent or guardian figure that seems difficult or impossible to explain. Write a personal essay that attempts to explore this subject by drawing in references to art and literature, old photographs, memories, and other fragmentary materials.
Temperatures in the thirties, driving rain, and headwinds gusting at thirty miles per hour are not ideal weather conditions for a marathon. And yet, approximately thirty thousand people participated in this year’s Boston Marathon slogging through these treacherous conditions. In Matthew Futterman’s essay “What It Was Like to Run the Boston Marathon in a Freezing Deluge” in the New York Times, he writes about the glory of getting to tell the story of this miserable yet epic experience. Write a personal essay about an event from your past in which circumstances beyond your control transformed what would have been a more standard situation into something decidedly more dramatic.
Hobbies and activities often inspire and become an important part of a writer’s life. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, 2008), Haruki Murakami recounts his personal history with running, and draws parallels between his passions for marathons and novels. More recently, in her essay collection, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater (Flatiron Books, 2018), Alanna Okun explores her practices of knitting and crafting, and how they interact with her writing life and overall well-being. This week, try writing an essay about an interest of your own that runs parallel to, or perhaps even informs, your identity as a writer.
“Is it possible to tell a story about getting better that is as compelling as a story of falling apart?” asks Leslie Jamison, speaking about her new memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (Little, Brown, 2018), in “The Infinite World” by Michele Filgate in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a personal essay on a topic or event in your life related to dysfunction or a low point in which you experienced a recovery. Use inspiration from Jamison’s own challenge of narrative structure and focus on a way to use “rigorous, specific, fresh language” to write about recovery.
Edward Albee burst onto the theater scene with his first play, The Zoo Story, a one-act play about two strangers on a bench in New York City’s Central Park. In 2004, nearly fifty years later, Albee added a first act to the play titled Homelife and the two plays are now performed together, as a diptych. Although The Zoo Story was complete in its own right and widely considered a success, Homelife served to deepen the characters and complicate the meaning of the narrative. This week, try writing a prequel to an essay you have already written, and possibly published, even if it was years ago. Is there a first act to add that fleshes out the narrator or a narrative that has more to say now?
“One Life: Sylvia Plath,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., features a selection of the poet’s manuscripts, journals, clothing, and other personal objects, including a typewriter and even a lock of her hair, as well as numerous pieces of Plath’s artwork: collages, drawings, self-portraits, and photographs. The museum also incorporates other types of art and interdisciplinary projects into its Plath programming, such as “I Am Vertical,” a dance performed in December in the museum’s courtyard, created by choreographer-in-residence Dana Tai Soon Burgess and named after one of Plath’s poems. Envision how your own life and work as a writer might be presented in an art museum, and write a lyric essay about this hypothetical exhibit. What objects would be on display? Which e-mails or photographs would help tell your stories? Consider using different forms and conventions, such as lists and fragments.
The “missed connections” section of the classified advertisements website Craigslist has long been a virtual bulletin board to share a memory (i.e. I smiled at you on the train and you smiled back) in hopes that someone would answer back. Write a personal essay recalling a situation in which you may have missed an opportunity to connect with someone, whether a romantic or professional prospect, or a potentially significant person who may have slipped through your fingers. Explore ideas of fate and chance, persistence, lost opportunities, and assertiveness. How have your approaches to meeting new people evolved over time? Are there any missed connections from your past that might be picked up again now, years later?
Have you ever smelled something so sweet it made you smile? The sense of smell, in contrast to vision, sound, and touch, is connected to areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion making it a powerful agent at triggering memories and feelings. Think of a scent, such as an ingredient for a meal, a perfume, or perhaps something from the outdoors or nature, that you associate with a person who has played an integral role in your life. Write a personal essay that explores the intertwining of smell and the resonant memories and emotions you associate with this person.
Earlier this year, a supermarket chain in France held a promotion that slashed prices of Nutella, the popular hazelnut and chocolate spread, by 70 percent causing shoppers in some stores to stampede as they scrambled to snatch up the bargain. Think of one of your favorite food items, perhaps a gourmet good that you treat yourself to only occasionally but wish you could have every day. Write a lyric essay about this item, integrating your personal history and specific memories with references to researched tidbits or fun facts.
“Learning is more like a sport than we think,” writes Jim Sollisch in “Piano Lessons: Do Writers Need a Teacher or a Coach?” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, an essay about the importance of practice when developing creative writing skills, as with any other skill or craft. Think of a former teacher, coach, or mentor who played a part in teaching you a specific skill or subject. What memories do you have of your interactions with this teacher during your period of learning? Write a personal essay that zeroes in on one particular memory and how your emotions during the learning process affected your life in ways beyond the relationship and that teaching moment.
“All actions have reactions,” says one guest on the podcast Heavyweight. In each episode, host Jonathan Goldstein discusses moments from people’s pasts that continue to haunt them and attempts to resolve (or at least learn from) these experiences in some way. In the episode “Julia,” for example, a woman who was bullied in her youth decides to get in touch with her old classmates to get to the bottom of a particular incident. Is there a buried experience from your own past that deserves some consideration? This week, write an essay about a past experience that has impacted you, perhaps a mystery, a grievance, or an argument. You may choose to write about what happened and its significance, or you may want to take the exercise a step further and write directly to someone.
Mary Ruefle’s essay “My Search Among the Birds” takes the form of short diary entries, all relating to birds. The entries each begin with a date and range from simple descriptions (“I saw a bird in the bushes near Dairy Queen. It looked thin to me.”) to more inward reflections (“Although all poets aspire to be birds, no bird aspires to be a poet.”). This week, try taking daily notes on a specific subject that will allow you to observe and be introspective. It could be anything: cellphones, airplanes, mice, socks. See where this act of sustained attention leads you, and craft your entries into an essay.
Adam Sternbergh’s essay “Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation” in the New York Times discusses the concept of the “subway read” as a book that seems especially suitable for reading on a subway train, in the vein of “beach reads,” “airplane reads,” or “cabin reads.” Write a personal essay about the ideal setting for your own writing to be read. Where do you want to take a reader emotionally or mentally, and what might be a desirable physical environment for that interplay? Perhaps it’s a space that aligns comfortably with elements of your writing, or one that provides striking contrasts.
In his memoir Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Random House, 2007), Rob Sheffield centers each chapter around a mix tape from his own life and uses the songs to narrate and explore the love and loss of his wife. This week, try assembling a mix tape of your own. Write down the names of songs that were important to you at a particular time in your life, and build outwards from there to begin an essay. Reflect on that moment when you first heard these songs: Was it on the radio in a car, or on your headphones, or did someone share them with you? Is it the music or the lyrics that stay with you?
Recently, the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejected the White House’s request to loan Vincent van Gogh’s “Landscape With Snow” painting, instead offering to lend Maurizio Cattelan’s functional, solid gold toilet sculpture titled “America.” If you could borrow any work of art from a museum or collection in the world, what would you choose? Write a personal essay describing the piece and your emotional connection to it. Where would you choose to display it and how would its presence feel in your space? Is your choice related to a personal statement or a strictly aesthetic reason?
In 2014, the oldest eel in the world passed away. Ale the eel was 155 years old and had been living in a well in a small fishing town in Sweden, thrown in the well by a young boy when eels were used to keep a house’s water supply clean from insects. That statement may sound like the premise of a fable, or perhaps the beginning of a joke, but in fact it is a true story. Reality abounds with such surprises. This week, seek out a bizarre fact from the news or a historical document and try using it as the starting point for an essay.
Cultures around the world have always developed rituals and traditions to act as guides through all types and stages of interpersonal relationships. Taking inspiration from “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” the title story from the 2001 collection by Alice Munro, choose one of these words and think of a personal habit, routine, or ritual you have developed or participated in as part of a relationship. You might think about or research historical or modern friendship rituals involving bracelets and necklaces, or secret passwords and handshakes. You might find inspiration in considering romance and courtship traditions involving chastity belts, love potions, gentlemen callers—even arranged marriages. Write a short personal essay that delves deep into your experiences and memories, exploring the social conventions and restrictions involved in your navigation of that relationship.
“Yet where else besides windows can we perceive the thin boundaries between our inner and outer realities?” Justin Hocking’s essay “Diving Through Windows” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine is a series of vignettes, quotations, anecdotes, and observations that all revolve literally or metaphorically around windows. Hocking discusses windows in the context of creative perspective, architecture, literature, politics, linguistics, and nature. Choose a symbolic object, perhaps an architectural element, and write an essay comprised of short vignettes that explore a variety of topics currently on your mind.
As writers, we tend to put up a wall between our creative writing (poems, stories, essays) and our more ordinary writing (to-do lists, e-mails). This week, try poking a hole in that wall. Think back and reflect upon an e-mail you received recently that startled you, that brought you unexpected happiness or unexpected pain. Or reflect on a recent to-do list you’ve written for yourself. Write an essay that feels as immediate as these messages or lists. Think about where you were physically and emotionally when you read or wrote these words. What does this say about you in this moment in time?
Poets Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon founded the CDC Poetry Project in response to a Washington Post report that the Trump administration had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using seven words in their official documents for the 2018 budget. The project invites poets to submit poems that use all of the banned words, which include “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “evidence-based.” This week, choose two or more of these words as inspiration for a series of flash essays. Use the immediate energy of short prose to express what comes to mind when you hear these words.
Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallows’ Eve. A number of holidays are celebrated on the evening before as well as the day of the holiday, including many Jewish holidays which begin at sundown on the previous day. Write a personal essay about a particularly eventful or momentous day for you this year that begins with a recounting of the evening before. What details do you decide to emphasize or omit in order to prepare or surprise your reader? Do you create a slow buildup of anticipatory progressions, or is the sense of tension suddenly dropped in by upended expectations?
In preparation for cold winter months, red-toothed shrews are able to shrink their head and brain mass by 20 percent and then regrow it as the weather warms up in spring. With this survival strategy, they expend less energy when food resources are scarce. Does your energy level or your relationship to your body change during certain seasons? Does your body feel, act, or respond differently in the winter? Write a personal essay about measures you’ve taken, whether moderate or drastic, to adjust your body to difficult times or discomfiting temperatures at various points of the year.