“Through the act of writing, I was able to find out what I knew about these things, what I was able to know, and where the limits of knowing lay….” In the preface to his new essay collection, Known and Strange Things (Random House, 2016), which is excerpted in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Teju Cole speaks about the way writing deepened his interests in photography, literature, music, travel, and politics. Choose a broad subject that you’ve long been interested in, perhaps related to arts and culture, nature and science, language and travel, or politics and technology. Write an essay that explores the history and evolution of your personal knowledge about the subject, and where you feel the limits of your knowledge lie.
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.
The Pageant of the Masters is a tableaux vivants—or “living pictures”—event held every summer at Laguna Beach’s Festival of the Arts in Southern California. The long-running tradition features hundreds of costumed volunteers who stand still for ninety-second intervals posing in elaborate re-creations of masterpieces of art. Write an essay describing the artwork—classical or contemporary—you would choose to “live” in. What would your role and pose be? Who would be your supporting cast of posers? What narration and music would accompany your tableau vivant?
If a statue in your likeness were to be someday erected in your honor, would you want to be rendered realistically, cartoonishly, or in abstract? Do you envision a marble bust or a whimsical woodcarving or perhaps to be cast in bronze? In what pose or action would you want to be commemorated? Write an essay describing what you imagine as the most suitable representation and location for your hypothetical statue, and include an examination of the reasons for your specifications. For inspiration, read about the recent hubbub over a Lucille Ball statue.
This Summer Olympics season, many U.S. fans look forward to cheering on the country’s swimming, gymnastics, and decathlon athletes. In other countries, the most closely watched competitions are sports like canoeing, handball, rugby, table tennis, and trampoline. Look over the list of sports at the Rio Olympic Games, and choose one you’ve had an established connection with, or one that seems newly fascinating. Write an essay that explores your attraction to this sport. What are your opinions about the extreme athleticism and discipline of the competitors? How do your memories of past Olympics differ from today’s games?
Last month, French president Francois Hollande’s hair made the news when it was revealed that its maintenance requires a personal, on-call hairdresser who is paid a salary equivalent to almost eleven thousand dollars per month. Write an essay about the care—whether it’s a lot, a little, or none—that you put into your own hair. Do you prioritize practicality or aesthetics? Have there been phases in your life when you had particularly memorable haircuts? Are your hairstyles representative of that time in your life?
In the “First Fiction” feature in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Yaa Gyasi, author of the debut novel Homegoing (Knopf, 2016) says, “I was interested in the idea that people can inherit something invisible. These invisible inheritances could be personal, small, familial, like someone’s tendency toward rage or compassion in difficult circumstances, but they could also be large and political, a historical inheritance that is not tied to family per se, but to an entire generation of people who lived before you.” Write an essay about something invisible that you’ve inherited—it can be a personality trait or habit, or a larger cultural inheritance from ancestors. Conclude your essay with a conjecture about what invisible inheritance—however big or small—you and your generation may be passing on to the future world.
Summer eating competitions in New York earlier this month included both the long-running hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, and a kale eating contest in Buffalo. Imagine that you have to consume one type of food for a ten-minute all-you-can-eat contest—what food would you choose? Write a short essay about how you would prepare physically and psychologically, and recount your favorite memories that involve this food.
The new animated film The Secret Life of Pets explores the idea that when human owners are away, household pets shed their conventional façades and get into all sorts of mischief. Think about a pet you’ve owned or one you’ve been acquainted with through someone else, a movie, or a book. Write an essay that first notes the pet’s most readily apparent, idiosyncratic traits and habits, then imagines its secret life. What does the secret life you’ve imagined for the pet reveal about your own behavior when nobody's watching?
The Irukandji jellyfish, mostly found off the coast of Australia, are the most poisonous box jellyfish, and at one cubic centimeter, also the smallest. Another distinguishing feature is its sting, which produces what scientists call a “feeling of impending doom,” partially caused by venom triggering hormones connected to anxiety. Write a personal essay about a time in your past in which you felt intensely anxious about a situation, and were unfailingly convinced of a negative outcome. What were the circumstances and external factors that led you to this perspective? Did you overcome your fears and emerge from the other side with a new outlook?
Every summer there’s that one song—or maybe two—that you just can’t escape at barbecues, pool hangouts, beach bonfires, on car radios, and in air-conditioned malls. Eventually you find your memories of that summer are inseparable from the ubiquitous song. Write an essay about a recent summer and the song that played throughout the season that stuck with you. You might decide to take a closer look at the lyrics of the song, and recount specific events and memories to help you process their harmonious connection.
For a couple of months this past spring, anyone in the world with a phone connection could dial a Swedish phone number and “be connected to a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden” for a brief chat about anything under the sun. The Swedish Tourist Association created the “Swedish Number” to draw interest in the country by allowing everyday Swedes to act as ambassadors of that nation. Choose a country you’ve never visited before but are interested in, and write a personal essay exploring what you would ask if given the opportunity for a ten-minute chat with one of its citizens. Then turn the focus on yourself, speculating on the specific reasons for your curiosity. Would you instinctively approach the conversation as an opportunity for a political discussion or a personal one? What would you say if you were called to be an ambassador of your own country?
The Brady Bunch, Married With Children, The Simpsons, Leave It to Beaver, Freaks and Geeks, That ‘70s Show. These television sitcoms, and others, have provided us with many memorable father characters over the years. Choose a favorite TV dad, past or present, and write an essay that explores the reasons behind your choice. What does your chosen sitcom dad reveal about your personality? Are there aspects of this character’s behavior that reflect the kind of guidance you wished you had growing up?
From cities across the globe come reports of increasingly untraditional and casual fashion choices when it comes to getting married: brides in New York City who opt to wear wedding pants instead of a gown, and couples in Beijing showing up to the marriage registration office wearing “sleeveless shirts and shorts, or slippers.” Write a personal essay that examines the progression of your own clothing choices. Have you gone through phases when your outfits—whether influenced by a job, emotional state, or cultural shifts—were formal or informal, plain or adorned, monochromatic or colorful?
Our favorite actors and musicians often seem larger than life because they are able to produce powerful performances using personae that may or may not belie their more mundane, daily existence. Someone might always be the demanding diva or the goofy comedian on screen and live up to that reputation, or be the complete opposite once out of the public eye. Write a personal essay about one of your favorite celebrities, current or past. Describe the circumstances around your earliest encounters with this person's star quality, taking into account the elements of that celebrity image that were particularly striking or resonant for you. If you were to meet this person and have a heart-to-heart conversation, what would you share or hope to discover? How might your admiration change?
Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard has been celebrated for her ability to use natural events as doorways into spiritual contemplation, as in her essay “Total Eclipse.” Write an essay about the most impressive natural event you’ve witnessed. It could be grand, like a tornado skirting the edge of a midwestern town, or more humble, though no less impactful, like a spider approaching prey caught on its web. What questions and realizations did this event spur in your mind? Why has it remained in your memory? What does it say about your relationship to nature?
Last month, a team of field research scientists discovered a new desert line drawing, or geoglyph, of “an animal sticking out the tongue” in the Nazca region of Peru, believed to be located on an ancient pilgrimage path to a ceremonial center. Think about the markers that guide you on your own often-traveled routes: physical signposts that you pass on the way to a favorite restaurant, a loved one’s home, place of worship, or perhaps a natural lookout or meditation spot. Write a personal essay exploring how these markers may be a significant element of the journey to your destinations.
In a recent public poll, over 120,000 online voters suggested “Boaty McBoatface” as the name for a British polar research ship only to be disappointed when the Science Ministry in Britain decided to name the vessel instead after naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. Write an essay about a name you’ve bestowed upon a person, a car, a stuffed animal, a plant, a kitchen appliance, or anything else. Recount the story behind the naming, and think about how it reflects your own sensibilities.
Many people were overjoyed to learn several weeks ago that Inky, an octopus at the National Aquarium of New Zealand, had escaped from his tank, wiggling through a drainpipe in the floor that eventually led him out into the ocean. NPR reporter Scott Simon commented, “it's hard not to note that Inky chose to bolt from surroundings in which he was safe, secure, and hand fed, for the dangers of an open sea that teems sharks, seals, and whales that might eat him. Inky chose liberty over security.” Write a personal essay about a time when you chose freedom, whether via a daring escape or by bravely walking away, from a lifestyle you weren’t satisfied with that may have seemed like a safer, more stable route. Were there risky obstacles to overcome? What are your thoughts about your decision in hindsight?
Think of a work of art—a film, book, painting, or song—that has received significant critical acclaim, but that you cannot stand. That you might, in fact, hate. Write an essay exploring why this work grates against your aesthetic sensibilities. Approach this not as a hatchet job, but an honest, probing examination of the work and why you believe it falls short. Consider what your distaste may reveal about your own sense of art and what the critical praise reveals more generally about our arts culture.
In “Recovering the Classics” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Vatner reports on the project by San Francisco companies DailyLit and Creative Action Network, along with other community partners, to revitalize interest in classic novels by creating new, eye-catching cover designs. Choose a classic novel you’ve read in the past with a book cover you find particularly memorable. Write a short essay examining the features that make the design striking, drawing upon the relationship between the artistic style of the cover and the novel’s contents. Does the design resonate with your own aesthetic sensibilities?
To celebrate the presentation of the Paris Review’s lifetime achievement award to Lydia Davis, her twenty-word story, “Spring Spleen,” was printed on the label of bottles of mouthwash. Write a few very short pieces of creative nonfiction totaling no more than twenty words that could each fit onto a small bottle label. Taking a cue from Davis’s story, incorporate elements of both nature and social behavior.
April 2016 marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. Write a personal essay that reflects on your first or most memorable encounter with Shakespeare’s work, whether reading or watching a film adaptation of one of his plays, or hearing a recitation of one of his sonnets. For inspiration, visit Folger Shakespeare Library’s website where others have shared their favorite Shakespeare stories.
Industry is one of the greatest factors contributing to the unique character of a place. Deep coal mines and narrow hollers made much of Appalachia feel like an isolated labyrinth. Western Pennsylvania’s steel mills, with their raging blast furnaces and endless soot, created a real-life inferno. The logging industry turned the Pacific Northwest into a land ruled by mist, danger, and falling giants. What industries have shaped the people and landscape of your home? In an essay, explore the philosophical implications an industry can have on towns and the character and psyche of its inhabitants.
Several years ago, after searching for more than two decades, Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz and his team found what is likely the San Nicolas Island cave, which had been inhabited by the Native American woman who inspired the popular 1960 novel by Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins. Choose a favorite book that is inspired by, or references, factual events and write an essay about what draws you to the topic. Include any further historical digging—whether at an archaeological site or in a library—that you might find particularly engaging. What is it about the specific subject matter that resonates with your personal interests or your own life experiences?
As we fall into the rhythm of daylight savings time with its additional hour of sunlight in the evenings, think about what it means to you to have a longer day. Is the extra hour of light a reminder of the unstoppable passage of time, or does it fill you with eager anticipation of springtime activities? Do you find yourself immediately motivated to begin new projects or spend more time outdoors? Write a personal essay meditating on how the yearly cycles of sunlight and seasons affect how you view the passage of time, and what large or subtle changes these patterns bring to your lifestyle and emotional state.