In Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction authors Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd describe how in "The White Album," an autobiographical essay by Joan Didion about the 1960s, Didion "uses her own responses to the times as a means of trying to capture a broad truth about events." Choose a period in your life, and write an essay about loosely related events you experienced that together offer insight into a certain time or place.
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.
In honor of the 100th anniversary on February 1 of New York City's famed Grand Central Station, write an essay about a time in your life when you travelled—it could be daily travel, such as the commute to and from a job; seasonal travel, such as heading to a beach community every summer; or a vacation, such as a trip to a foreign country. Focus on what compelled you to go and the transition of leaving one place and arriving in another.
Think about an important conclusion or insight that you've had at some point in your life but that took time to fully realize. It could be anything—the need to end a relationship, the decision not to pursue a certain career, or the hard truth about a life challenge. Write an essay structured around the many moments that led you to your final conclusion or insight. Consider using headings for each section, such as The First Time I Realized X, The Second Time I Realized X, etc.
Think about a choice you made in your life that led to specific consequences or outcomes. Explore the alternative reality that could have been if you'd made a different choice in an essay that begins If I hadn't...
Choose a topic with currency that you feel personally connected to and want to explore through writing. Research statistics, facts, and events related to it. Weave these with personal anecdotes that are also related. For example, if the topic is gun control, write an essay that combines statistics about how many people own guns in the United States, factual stories about incidents of gun violence, and personal anecdotes about how you learned to hunt growing up. Strive to explore the complexity of the topic.
Think about an aspect of your life story and rewrite it, telling the tale from another angle or perspective. For example, if your family always considered you to be a difficult teenager, write about other interpretations of your behavior. Or if you've always been considered successful, write about the fear of failure that lurks beneath the facade. Find a way to reconstruct an aspect of your personal narrative that explores the complexity of who you are.
Write an essay about a trip that you've taken during which you were in search of something. What were you in search of—family connection, relaxation, adventure? What did you find? Was it what you expected?
In the January/February 2013 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, memoirist Debra Gwartney offers guidance on how to write about traumatic experience. "When the action is hot, write cool," Gwartney says. "Stand back. Let your prose breathe. Don't try to convince the reader to feel a certain way—avoid yanking on the easy emotion. Instead, trust the language you've selected, the images you've constructed, the relevant detail, and give the reader plenty of room to reach the feeling independently." Write an essay about a traumatic experience from your life or the life of someone close to you, following Gwartney's advice.
Choose a subject that has cultural currency: consumerism, American decline, Internet overload, trends in pop culture, celebrity fascination; take a position on it; and write an essay that explores that position. Read Christy Rampole's New York Times essay "How to Live Without Irony" as an example. For more examples, read Best American Essays Series editor Robert Atwan's "The Top 10 Essays Since 1950" in Publishers Weekly.
Write a scene about a very specific experience using only sensory imagery to describe what happened. For instance, if you're writing about being in a car accident, describe the sounds of the glass shattering and the crunching metal, the smell of smoke as the airbag deploys, the feeling of your body being thrown back and forth. Try to avoid referring to the event explicitly or including any narrative buildup ("I was driving a Dodge Neon when the accident happened"). Focus instead on the moment itself, and on what you see, smell, hear, and feel in order to build the scene.
Write about something that has been passed down through your family for generations. It can be anything from an appreciation for music to a healthy appetite, or even a political bias. Explore both the positive and negative implications, exploring how this inheritance has shaped you.
Write an essay about your memories of Thanksgivings past, how your family celebrated the holiday and what it means to you now and why.
Write an essay about your relationship to food. Consider the following questions: Do you see food as merely sustenance or as emotional comfort? What is your favorite meal and why? Were you a picky eater as a kid? Which foods do you detest and why?
Write an essay about the five things that scare you the most. Structure it with numbered section headings that include each thing, such as 1. Fire, 2. Death, 3. Failure, etc.
One of the most dangerous pitfalls of creative nonfiction can be chronology, and some of the best essays are written in a nonlinear fashion. Think of a story that you know by heart--maybe a memory from your childhood, of finding first love, or of the birth of a child--and try to retell it without using typical chronologically. Start from the end and work your way back, or alternate between scenes of present and past. The result should be an essay that keeps the reader always moving but never quite sure of what comes next.
Write about a time when you traveled to a place where you didn't speak the language—either literally or figuratively. It could have been a foreign country or simply a different city, state, or group of people among which you felt like an outsider. As an ethnographer might write about a different culture, focus on how the people around you spoke and behaved, how you felt as you listened and observed, and the ways in which you were able—or ultimately unable—to assimilate and communicate.
Revision is often the hardest part of writing—and, some writers say, a craft all its own. As an exercise in this craft, revisit an essay you've written and try to both significantly cut down the length and restructure the piece, while maintaining the story. We tend to tell stories as they occurred in life, but a narrative can often become mired in chronology. As you restructure, move things around, play with the order, and don't be afraid to get experimental. As for trimming the length, take Faulkner's timeless editorial advice: "In writing, you must kill all your darlings."
Sometimes our dreams tell a story about our lives. Think about a dream you’ve had—it could be a recent one, one that you recall from your past, or one that recurs. Write down the details of the dream as descriptively as your memory allows, focusing on imagery, narrative, characters, and any odd or distinct details you can recall. Once you’ve written a description, freewrite about what the images, characters, and details remind you of from your waking life. Then, using the material you've generated, write a short essay about the dream. What do you think it meant? What experiences or emotions did it represent? Did it seem real or otherworldly? How did it made you feel upon waking? For future dream analysis exercises, keep a dream diary by your bed and record your dreams first thing each morning.
Some of the best stories and essays revolve around the author's hometown. Spend fifteen minutes freewriting about the town or city in which you grew up. Focus on the people, the places, the landscape, and the memories surrounding them. Where was your favorite place to eat? Who were the most interesting characters? What did you do with your family and friends? What did the school look like? Where did you go when you wanted to run away?
Extreme experiences can significantly alter our perspective on life. Write an essay about a time when you faced a near-death experience, or believed you were in serious danger. Consider the following questions: How did you react immediately? How did you respond later? In retrospect, do you wish you'd reacted differently when it happened? What from the experience do you still carry with you?
Now that fall has almost arrived, ruminate about all that happened over the summer. Choose a moment or a scene that you distinctly remember and freewrite about it. What took place? Who was involved? Is it important? If not, why did you remember it? How did it make you feel? Review your freewriting and transform what you discover into an essay that transcends the subject at hand, so that it has universal appeal to readers.
Compose a table of contents for your life. Include titles, subtitles, sections, and chapters that outline a period—or the entirety—of your life. Once you've finished the table, write a brief summary for each section.
Using the advice column as your form, write about a problem or challenge you have faced. Addressing a fictional recipient who is facing the same issue, offer your best advice on how to handle the situation. For inspiration, check out the Rumpus's advice column, "Dear Sugar," penned by creative nonfiction writer Cheryl Strayed.
The letter is one of the earliest and most widely practiced forms of the personal essay: It tells a story about the author's life; it poses questions; and, perhaps most important, it's a way of connecting to a reader. Write a letter to someone you know, keeping the basic tenants of the personal essay in mind. The letter should be about you, but should also somehow address a larger question or idea. For inspiration, check out Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road (Grossman, 1970), a collection of letters that documents her years-long correspondence and relationship with the owners of Marks & Co., a bookstore in London.
The summers of youth—and the unparalleled magic carried with them—have inspired many great works of literature. In "Once More to the Lake," E. B. White's classic coming-of-age essay about the August when he was twelve, the author writes: "Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end." Write an essay about being a child in the summertime. It may be about one particular moment or one particular summer, or about the season as a whole. For inspiration, read White's essay or Ray Bradbury's semi-autobiographical novel about summer and youth, Dandelion Wine.