“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?
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.
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.
“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 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?