Have you ever taken a job you didn’t want in order to support yourself? In “The Meaning of Work,” an episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, psychologist Barry Schwartz asks, “Why is it that, for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the work they do has none of the characteristics that gets us up and out of bed and off toward the office every morning?” Write an essay in which you explore Schwartz’s question by recounting your own work experiences. Has anything surprised you? Consider what your dislike or delight with certain jobs reveals about your own ideas regarding the purpose of work.
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.
Poet, jazz musician, woodcarver, multimedia artist, painter. A variety of hidden talents may in fact lie behind the familiar faces of an apartment building porter, doorman, handyman, or other neighborhood figure. Write an essay about a time when you learned about someone’s secret skill or hidden talent. What are the assumptions that accumulate when you only encounter someone in a professional or public capacity? What might be inspiring or exciting about the idea that anyone—perhaps even everyone—may have a hidden talent?
Cabbages, pumpkins, eggs, sugar, honey, fleas, gazelles, doves—all are terms of endearment lovingly used in different cultures and languages. Think of a pet name you have used for a loved one, or one that has been used for you, and write an essay exploring your memories of the word or phrase’s usage. Is the term connected to a specific story or event? Is it used during particular moods? Does it soothe or ruffle feathers? Consider how these terms reflect a certain aspect of your relationships.
A travel website recently compiled a world map showcasing the slogans of different countries, most of which were created by tourism boards to promote tourism. Take a look at the wide variety of national slogans, or find the slogan or motto of a U.S. city or state you’re familiar with, and write an essay inspired by the phrase. Explore the ways in which the slogan touches upon the projected image or desired impression of your locale, and how it might resonate or conflict with your own memories.
Last month, “bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung” was voted Austria’s word of the year, which roughly translated means “postponement of the repeat runoff of the presidential election.” Likewise, words tied to politics such as “xenophobia,” Dictionary.com’s word of the year; Oxford Dictionaries’ term for 2016, “post-truth;” and Merriam-Webster’s plea for users to stop looking up the word “fascism” to prevent it from becoming its word of the year (“surreal” was the eventual winner) reflected what was on everyone’s minds last year. What was your word of the year for 2016? Write a short essay where you explore your interactions with that word and its meaning. Look up the word’s etymology for a deeper exploration.
One of the possible origins of the phrase “the elephant in the room,” which generally refers to a problem that is glaringly obvious but willfully ignored, is thought to be Russian writer Ivan Andreevich Krylov’s page-long 1814 fable, “The Inquisitive Man.” In the story, a man visits a museum and recalls seeing a multitude of tiny animals, but not the elephant. Write an essay about a time when you failed to see the idiomatic “elephant in the room”—was it difficult or easy to ignore the issue? Did the people around you help or hinder the situation? What were the consequences of your actions, and what did it reveal about your tendencies in social interactions?
“Surely nothing as simple as a notebook and a pencil could have saved my grandma, just as when things turned darkest for me, my wife had to intervene. Yet I still feel lucky that I became a writer when I did. Because for years those journal pages helped me hold myself together when the world pulled me apart.” In “Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe” in the January/February 2017 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Frank Bures discusses the benefits of expressive writing and the power the practice has to expand one’s sense of self. Over the course of several days, jot down notes exploring your current emotional state. Perhaps these notes will be the start of an essay or an exploration that continues.
“Truth is a matter of the imagination,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin in her 1969 novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. For many writers, artists, and filmmakers in the latter half of the twentieth century, envisioning the truth of the twenty-first century and beyond meant creating dystopian worlds, universes in which human society has adapted its systems to accommodate technological transformations, global climate change, postapocalyptic geographies, and consumerist greed. Consider the 1971 episode of Name of the Game titled “L.A. 2017,” directed by Steven Spielberg; the 1982 film Blade Runner, set in 2019; Stephen King’s 1982 novel, The Running Man, set in 2025; the 1993 film Demolition Man, set in 2032; and William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s 1967 novel, Logan’s Run, set in 2116. Do you remember your childhood fears and visions of what the future would hold? What dramatic changes in society have you witnessed? Write an essay about the hopes, worries, and predictions for the future that are most pressing for you know. Do you have any dystopian predictions for the future? How are your worries a reflection of both your individuality and the larger world?
Ten years ago, James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” passed away on Christmas Day. In a Rolling Stone article from 2007, Gerri Hirshey writes that Brown’s “musical calls to social justice were not as eloquent as Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches. But they were equally heartfelt.” In fact, after Dr. King’s assassination, Brown televised his concert in Boston and urged fans not to “react in a way that’s going to destroy your community.” Write a personal essay that explores a time you experienced music or a musician bringing a community together during difficult times. Did you feel more hopeful?
The winter holiday office party is a tradition celebrated in workplaces of all kinds, and even chronicled in films. Write a personal essay about any sort of festive activity or event that you have attended with your coworkers. Do you consider your coworkers akin to close friends or family, or is your relationship more of a casual acquaintanceship? Has this changed over the years due to an experience or circumstance? Does a holiday office party serve as a setting in which you and your colleagues became closer or distanced?
The holiday shopping craze over Hatchimals may seem unprecedented, but there have been many comparably popular gift toys over the years—including Tickle Me Elmo, Transformers toys, Cabbage Patch Kids, and the Atari game system—with some parents even admitting the possibility that their excitement over procuring the gift might in fact be greater than the child’s excitement to receive it. Write a personal essay about a toy you were given as a gift when you were a child. Why was it important to you? Was your attachment to the toy connected to memories of the gift giver, a festive event, playing with friends, or something else entirely?
In a letter to the Swedish Academy, Bob Dylan explained that he would not be attending this weekend’s Nobel ceremony and banquet to accept the Nobel Prize in Literature because of “pre-existing commitments.” Think of a time you have been unable—or unwilling—to appear at an important event. Was the decision-making process a foregone conclusion, or did you waver? Do you generally take on many commitments or few? Once made, do you stick to them? Use this essay as an opportunity to explore your social priorities, and memories of other times in your life when you’ve been needed in two places at once.
Zadie Smith, author of the new novel, Swing Time (Penguin Press, 2016), considers dancers who have influenced her writing in a recent essay for the Guardian. About Mikhail Baryshnikov, she says: “He has high and low modes, tough and soft poses, but he’s always facing outwards, to us, his audience.” Write an essay that begins with one of your memories of watching a dancer. How does the dancer’s body move through space? Did you feel a connection with the performance and the artist? Were you moved emotionally?
The 1987 John Hughes film Planes, Trains and Automobiles stars Steve Martin and John Candy as a mismatched pair both trying to travel from New York City to Chicago in time for the Thanksgiving holiday in what proves to be a comedic journey filled with bad luck, misunderstandings, and ill-timed coincidences. At its core are two central characters who seem to have philosophical outlooks, priorities, and skills that clash, and whose differentiation occupies much of the screen time and seemingly much of their respective psyches. Write an essay about a time when you were in a difficult situation and at complete odds with another person involved. Did you find yourself dwelling on your differences, and if so, how did that affect the trajectory of the outcome of events? In what ways might your differences have been emphasized by the attraction to larger-than-life oppositions?
“Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it,” writes Marilynne Robinson in her 2004 novel, Gilead. “I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave…to make ourselves useful. It allows us to be generous, which is another way of saying exactly the same thing.” The winter holiday season is often associated with generosity and giving—being generous with one’s home and spirit, and the giving of thanks and gifts. Write a personal essay about a time when you have been the giver or receiver of a great act of generosity. Explore the connection between courage and generosity, reflecting on the exemplary people or events you encountered. What do you find are the greatest emotional challenges to doing something so bravely useful?
As the dust settles from this year’s U.S. presidential election, think of a time in your youth when you participated in a school election or were involved with the student council. Were you optimistic of the changes that could be made? Did you vote with enthusiasm or take part in any protests? Write an essay reflecting on your experiences and what was important to you then, and how this might say something about who you are today.
“Sometimes the humor is a way to mask all that, so the reader won’t know that what I’m writing about is me, or figure out what side of the argument I stand on. Then there’s a risk in just trying to say what you mean to say…. Writing is a risk no matter what.” In a 2015 interview with Chris Jackson for the Paris Review, Paul Beatty, who was awarded the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout last week, speaks about the risks of criticizing and including heated topics in his writing. Think of a topic or stance you are personally drawn to—but also afraid of—writing about. Write a personal essay in which you gradually expose this risky issue or opinion in a humorous way. How can offbeat humor, satire, or a generally funny approach allow you to tackle difficult subjects in a more oblique way?
“He walked warily, stopping often to scan the clouds for clues to an impending downpour...” A recent article in the New York Times explores why the National Weather Service is not able to better predict and track storms like this fall’s Hurricane Matthew, and speaks to a meteorologist and professor of atmospheric sciences about the need for improvement. Write an essay exploring an experience that disrupted plans in your life—perhaps an illness, a breakup, or an unexpected opportunity—that you were not able to predict. How did you respond to the challenge? In retrospect, were there signs or clues of the change to your forecast?
“Self of steam,” “from the gecko,” and “lack-toes intolerant” are examples of the verbal errors that became points of inspiration for editor and writer Daniel Menaker, whose book collaboration with cartoonist Roz Chast, The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), is featured in News and Trends in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Keep your eyes peeled for a verbal error in signs or newspapers, or think back to one you remember encountering in the past—perhaps even song lyrics you once misheard. Write a short essay inspired by the poetry of the mistake noting the memories, images, and idiosyncrasies that allow the error to “make surprising sense” to you.
As creative nonfiction writers, we face the difficult task of trying to capture people we know, often intimately, as characters. Here’s a prompt to help. Pick someone in a piece you’ve been working on. Choose the sense memory that best personifies your relationship with that person, the one moment or event that most purely embodies your particular dynamic. Write it as a scene. From that scene (my mom teaching me to bake bread as a little girl), list the qualities (capable, patient, encouraging) that person embodied and the emotions you felt (reverent, curious, happy). Every time you write a scene with this person, think about how the actions and dialogue exemplify the qualities and emotions on your list. Or if it is a scene in which this person behaves in a surprising way, focus on how the qualities and emotions in that scene are the opposite of your expectations.
This week’s creative nonfiction prompt comes from Sarah Tomlinson, author of the father-daughter memoir, Good Girl (Gallery Books, 2015). Read Tomlinson’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.
This past weekend, the New York Review of Books published an exposé in an attempt to uncover the true identity of the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, provoking anger and criticism from those in support of the writer’s wish to remain anonymous. Have you ever wished for anonymity, or do you imagine that you might in the future? Drawing examples from your own experiences with writing and private versus public life, write a personal essay about the issues at stake in this situation, such as celebrity authors, sexism, and the changing relationship in contemporary culture between artist and audience.
Banned Books Week is an annual celebration led by a coalition of diverse organizations and foundations to encourage awareness of book censorship and recognize the freedom to read. Browse through the American Library Association’s lists of top banned books—organized by decade, classic titles, young adult authors, and more—and select a book you’ve read that strongly resonates with you. Write an essay that examines your response to the censorship or challenging of this book, drawing on your own memories of reading it and exploring the idea of an appropriate audience for this literature.
“I think if you say that art and politics, or religion and politics, mustn’t mix, don’t mix, that is itself a political statement,” novelist Mohsin Hamid said in an interview in the Financial Times in 2011. While there are many writers who choose not to overtly link their creative work to politics, there is also a long history of political art: work that engages with patriotism or protest by poets such as W. H. Auden, Adrienne Rich, Wole Soyinka, and Walt Whitman. Do politics ever figure into your own creative writing? Why or why not? In this presidential-election season, whether you are engaged and informed by politics or try to avoid the topic altogether, take a moment to examine the history of your personal relationship with politics. Write an essay that explores how your interest in or aversion to the topic might have been affected by your childhood upbringing and environment—family, friends, or local groups and organizations—and the reasons behind your choice to either integrate or separate politics from your creative work.
The New York Times series “36 Hours” provides profiles and thirty-six-hour itineraries for must-see sights and spots in cities all over the world. Write your own “36 Hours” piece about the city you live in now, or one in which you became well-acquainted with in the past. Include main attractions, little-known locales, shops to browse, and places to eat or find entertainment, connecting each of your recommendations to a personal anecdote or memory. For some literary locale inspiration, visit our City Guides.
Every year more and more people enroll in continuing education, adult learning, and extension courses covering diverse topics ranging from real estate to metalworking. What’s an elective you missed out on when you were a kid in school, or a skill you’ve always secretly coveted? Write a personal essay about the classes you would want to enroll in if you had the chance to return to school now; or if you’re currently taking courses, what additional subjects are you interested in? Explore what your choices might reveal about your priorities and values, and how this new skill set would fulfill you.