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.
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.
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.
In an essay published in the New Yorker in 2011, Jhumpa Lahiri wrote, "Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, 'Listen to me.'" Jot down a list of several personal beliefs, contemporary topics, or ideas that you feel an especially strong need to express volubly—from the personal to the political, the spectacular to the mundane, the all-encompassing to the minute. Write a personal essay about one of these issues, reflecting on how you arrived at your opinions by first discussing the idea with other people and listening to what they had to say, and then making your own, more specific conclusions. Provide anecdotes from conversations, events, situations, or words you have read or overheard. Make sure that your unique personality and voice are showcased in what you've decided is worthy of being shouted from the rooftops.
“A Book Sanctuary in the Rockies” by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine details the project of Jeff Lee and Ann Martin to create a network of three residential libraries, which will be home to tens of thousands of books and will host writers- and artists-in-residence. The libraries will be located in the Rocky Mountain region in and around Denver, Colorado with many of the books, projects, and community partners focused on land, environment, and the West. Write an essay about what your vision of a residential library would be if you were to create one. What might your theme or focus be, and your inspiration? What rural, urban, or suburban space would you want to offer to writers-in-residence at your library?
What was your worst subject in school? Write an essay about that subject and why you found it so difficult. Does the experience still influence the way you process information? Have you developed a passion for what you once couldn’t crack? Use this prompt to study your own approaches to learning, and how your mind and personality may have changed over time.
Go outside, with only yourself. Find an isolated bench. Or stay near and settle into a chair at home. Or climb the rungs to the roof and take your place above the city. Sit. No phone, no laptop. Nothing but you and you. For about thirty minutes or so, sit and do nothing. And when you’ve been there long enough to settle into yourself, to feel the voice that’s deepest inside you, the one that only you know, the one that only you hear, go and take up the page or turn on the screen. Listen. Start an essay from that hidden voice.
This week’s creative nonfiction prompt comes from Jill Talbot, author of The Way We Weren’t (Soft Skull Press, 2015). Read Talbot’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.
Fatimah Asghar says, “I write for the people who come before me and the people who might come after me, so that I can honor them and create space for what is to come.” Write a personal essay about who, or what, you write for. Is there a specific audience or philosophical goal that you aim to reach? What space do you hope to see created in the literary world for future writers and yourself?
The State of the Union is an annual address in which the President of the United States delivers a speech to Congress on the condition of the country and reports on plans, priorities, and recommendations for the future. Choose an arena or environment that you preside over in some way, such as a bedroom, office cubicle, spot in the backyard, or table at a café. Then, write a personal essay in the form of a speech addressing the state of things in your chosen entity—describe the current conditions and announce any plans you have for the future.
Borat, RuPaul, and Ziggy Stardust are some well-known and colorful alter egos whose identities have served a purpose for their creators. Have you ever imagined or assumed an alternate identity? Write an essay about this character—or who this character could be, if you’re imagining for the first time—and where she stands in relation to your own psyche and personality. What does this second self allow you to express, and why?
While some people vow not to make any resolutions for the New Year, others are busy drawing up fresh goals—often involving self-improvement measures such as diet and exercise regimens; reading more; picking up a new language or hobby; or improving a financial situation. For 2016, turn your gaze outward and write a list of three resolutions, each focused on a different person in your life. It may be a close friend or family member, or someone you come into contact with on a daily basis but with whom you are only superficially acquainted—a neighbor, coworker, mail carrier, or coffee-shop barista. Write a trio of short essays in which you imagine what you can add to your encounters with each person in the coming year to invigorate your interactions. Predict how small gestures can potentially propel you into a dynamic new direction.
“I didn’t want to write a biography…. But I fell in love.” Terese Svoboda writes about her experience working on a biography of poet Lola Ridge in “The Art of Biography: Falling In and Out of Love” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Who would you choose if your next project was a biography of a historical figure? Write an essay about the personal traits or accomplishments that draw you to this person, and explore the ways in which your fascination with him or her may reveal insights about your own character.
Banded Woolly Bear caterpillars that live in the Arctic have such short feeding periods that they cycle through several years of freezing solid in the winter where their bodies produce a natural antifreeze substance that thaws in the spring. They feed in the summer and then emerge as moths. Write an essay in which you examine your own basic seasonal rituals, such as winter reading or spring cleaning. How do they relate to your survival skills? Have your habits adapted to fit your needs and goals?
What’s your greatest fear, your singular phobia? Is it heights, snakes, or spiders? Write an essay that investigates your phobia—not its subject, but the fear itself—across history, culture, and science. Can treatises on your fear be located in ancient texts? Or do you suffer a more modern affliction, one that says as much about you as it does about our present day? Treat the subject as a nucleus around which you can spin research, criticism, and personal perspective.
Call Me Ishmael is an innovative, multi-platform project founded by Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent, and featured in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Readers can call a phone number, leave a message relaying a story of how a particular book has been life-changing, and visitors to a website can access over a thousand of these recorded stories. Write a personal essay you might want to record about a book that has changed your life in a small or big way. What was it about this book that impacted or inspired you? What was unique about your reading experience that you would wish to pass on to others?
The holiday season often means traveling short or long distances to spend time with family and friends. You might find yourself in a car, bus, train, subway, plane, or perhaps even a combination of several modes of transportation. Write a personal essay about an experience you’ve had while in transit during the holidays. Were there particular memories that surfaced as you looked out a bus window at the passing scenery? Did an unexpectedly funny or fascinating conversation take place with others who happened to be riding with you?
Sometimes the food we disliked as children—spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, raw fish, dark chocolate—we end up finding a taste for later in life. Or we end up getting tired or bored eating the same family dishes over and over, only to discover that, years later, we want to re-create them ourselves when we are in search of feel-good comfort food. Think of a specific dish or food that you used to hate but now love, or vice versa, and write a short essay about how your perceptions of it evolved over time. Describe the physical location, the atmosphere, and the people that you associate with the food, and how those elements might have changed. What do you remember about your emotional state when you ate this dish long ago? What aspects of this specific food induce your sense of nostalgia? How might your change in taste reflect other aspects of your life that have also been transformed?
Write a short personal essay about your relationship with a family member whom you feel is especially different from you. Explore a few memories or observations from your shared experiences over the years. Are there feelings of insecurity or other emotions that are brought up when you consider your differences? How do the disconnects affect your sense of identity and place within your family? Are you able to detect any common bonds?
In her collection of essays An Alphabet for Gourmets (Viking, 1949), celebrated food writer M. F. K. Fisher uses such disparate subjects as gluttony, literature, and zakuski (a Russian hors d’oeuvre) as frames for writing about her beliefs on gastronomy, life, and how they’re always connected. In the style of Fisher, choose a subject for a letter in the alphabet—A is for Aging, R is for Rib Eyes, W is for Wanderlust—and write your own essay about the interplay between cooking and eating and your own life.
Ekphrasis is a term commonly applied to poetry, in which a poem describes, or is inspired by, a work of art, often a painting or a sculpture. More broadly, it can be attributed to any genre of writing in response to a work of art. Think of the first film, photograph, painting, or song that left a strong impression on you. Spend some time experiencing it again, and then write an ekphrastic personal essay. Focus on why it resonates with you, and explore the memories, feelings, associations, and observations that surface.
Imagine that you’ve been chosen to be the representative of your neighborhood and tasked to fill a time capsule that will be sealed and buried for one hundred years. Write a letter to future inhabitants who may unearth and open your time capsule. Describe the items you've included and explain their value and importance in the world today. Would you choose technological products, favorites books, or personal photographs or letters? What would you hope to offer the future through your selections?
Think of a song that you would consider a lifelong favorite, even if your love for it now is attributed more to a strong sense of nostalgia than to your current musical tastes. Does hearing the song unexpectedly on the car radio or in a restaurant suddenly transport you to a different time or instantly change your mood? Write a personal essay about the memories you have associated with the song, and how the lyrics might have resonated with a certain significance in your past. How has your understanding and appreciation of the song evolved?
Research a paranormal story or legend native to your community. Write an essay that meditates on its origins, its historical context, how it characterizes your community today, and what reservations or questions it stirs up in you. Whether you’re the deepest skeptic or the most willing believer, how you engage with these supernatural tales can reveal a lot about your mind and imagination.