Mankind has often wrestled with the relationship between fate and self-determination. Write about a time in your life when your inner strength and perseverance changed the outcome. Next write about a time in your life when you believe fate played a role. Then write an essay about how this complex dynamic is manifested in your characters and creative nonfiction.
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.
Sit quietly at your writing desk and look at an old photograph of a relative who has passed on. Examine the person's face. Study the person's expression. Analyze the person's posture. What about this person still lives on through your family? What about this person still lives on through you? Write without editing your thoughts.
The wind can toss a greasy napkin down a city street, stir dead leaves in the corner of an abandoned tool shed, or propel an ancient sailboat across an ocean. Every wind has unique and varied sounds, smells, and textures. Think of a moment in your life when the wind was particularly prevalent. Describe the wind as if it were a character with a distinct personality—strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. How did that wind influence your thoughts and feelings, and why was it so memorable? Write 500 words.
In writing, food never lies. Aunt Mary passes the peas, revealing a missing wedding ring. A brother's pained gaze at a nearby glass of wine exposes his alcoholism. At the head of the table, a feeble grandfather's gravy-splattered scowl condemns his spoiled family's inability to comprehend war. Write an essay about a family meal. Begin with the seating arrangements. Without using any dialogue, use details about the meal to bring to life each family member and the family as a collective whole.
When writing about our own lives it is tempting to tamper with the truth. We worry about what our fathers, daughters, and even strangers will think of our weak moments. Don’t be afraid. Vulnerability creates trust. Your words are only part of the literary experience. As David Sedaris said in an interview in the Louisville Courier-Journal, “Writing gives you the illusion of control, and then you realize it's just an illusion, that people are going to bring their own stuff into it.” Have faith in your readers. Identify a poor decision or embarrassing moment in your life. Write an essay about it. Don’t censor your words or thoughts and don't write with anyone else—including your critical self—in mind. Get out of your own way. Be honest. Be funny if possible. But be real.
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” So Joan Didion begins her famous essay “Goodbye to All That,” about arriving in—and eventually leaving—New York City. Write about a time when you left something—a city, a country, a job, or a lover. Include details about how things began, but focus most of your attentions on how they ended. For inspiration, read or revisit Didion’s essay, originally published in her essential collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968).
In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between (Da Capo Press, 2012), Lee Gutkind writes that there are two sides to creative nonfiction: the personal, as found in memoirs and personal essays, and the "big idea"—a public topic, the kind often tackled in literary journalism—each of which tends to attract a different audience. The ideal piece, Gutkind writes, is one that offers both, one that explores a big idea from an intimate perspective. "Writers who can choose a public subject and give it a personal treatment are establishing a 'universal chord': reaching out and embracing a large umbrella of readership." This, he writes, is the creative nonfiction writer’s mission. Choose a "big idea" that interests you—a certain kind of food, a style of music, a political issue, a specific sport—and write down everything you know about the subject. Do further research and record everything you find. Then write an essay, including anecdotes about why the subject interests you, and try to strike that universal chord.
In “Why We Write: Tilted Naked Weirdo” (Poets & Writers Magazine, July/August 2013), Nancy Méndez-Booth writes that by allowing herself to explore her “uglies”—the weirdest, most uncomfortable, or embarrassing parts of her life—she has been able to find her truest voice. “Writing honestly makes me feel stripped and exposed,” she writes. “I put everything I’d rather hide right on the page for the world to see. It horrifies me.” Write an essay about your own uglies—the strange, the silly, the discomfiting and weird—the parts of your life that few people know but you.
"This is one of the few stories I’ve written for myself, about myself," wrote the late Sean Rowe in the introduction to his essay about his experiences in jail, "An Insider’s Guide to Jailhouse Cuisine: Dining In," which was originally published in Oxford American and reprinted in the third volume of The Best Creative Nonfiction. “That’s a dangerous practice. It’s dangerous because the more personal you get in a story, the harder it is to stay honest. Here I think I pulled it off, but at a price: I had to reveal things I’m not proud of to get at something bigger than me.” Write an essay about something—or a host of things—you’ve done that you’re not proud of. Be honest about what you did, what consequences you faced, and how you feel about it now. What lessons did you learn about yourself, and about life, that you can pass on to your readers?
In A Chance Meeting: The Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, nonfiction author Rachel Cohen investigates the relationships and interactions between various writers—Henry James and William Dean Howells; Carl Van Vechten and Gertrude Stein; Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore—and while the book relays actual encounters, many of the unknown details (what clothes were worn, what the subjects were thinking) are imagined. Write a letter to one of your favorite writers, living or dead, telling him or her about your work, your life, and how their writing has influenced you. Then write an imagined response, from the writer to you.
Spend a few moments looking around your kitchen, office, or bedroom, and gather any found objects (not including books, magazines, or journals) that contain text: post-it notes, receipts, a piece of mail, the packaging of food or household products. Freewrite for fifteen minutes, recording as many words and phrases from the objects as you can, and taking note of any connections, associations, or themes that may arise. Then write an essay about what you find.
Often found in the work of Elizabethan and Romantic poets, anaphora—a Greek word meaning “the act of carrying back”—is the repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive lines, sentences, fragments, or verses. Write a short anaphoric essay beginning each sentence with the same word or phrase.
Make a list of the physical objects you carry with you: a wallet and phone, a journal and pen, medications and mementos. Then make a list of the non-objects you carry: memories, ideas, dreams, scars (literal or figurative), the people or places of your past. Once you've created both lists, write an essay that incorporates and investigates the items on each. Why do you carry these things? What do they mean to you? Do the physical items relate to the mental ones? Use "These are the things I carry" as your opening line.
In his recent New Yorker article on writing and revision, “Draft No. 4” (April 29, 2013), nonfiction writer John McPhee recommends drawing boxes around any word that “does not seem quite right” as well as those “that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” Then, he writes, consult the dictionary—not the thesaurus—to find better words. While the thesaurus can be useful, McPhee writes, it can also be dangerous, often muddling a word’s meaning. The dictionary, on the other hand, not only offers a host of alternatives but can also spark new inspiration. Revisit an essay that’s ready for a new draft. After circling all words and phrases that could use work, dig deep into the dictionary to see what new words—and what new meaning—may arise.
Think about your life in relation to the seasons. What is your favorite season and why? During which season were you born? How did you feel as a child about each season? Have significant events happened during one season over the others? How do you see the world around you change at the start of each season? Use these musings to fuel an essay about one or all of the seasons.
We’ve all heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” But in his latest book, To Show and Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013), Phillip Lopate argues that the personal essay is perhaps the one form in which it’s not only permissible, but necessary, to do a little telling. “We must rely on the subjective voice of the first-person narrator to guide us, and if that voice never explains, summarizes, interprets, or provides a larger sociological or historical context for the material, we are in big trouble.” With Lopate’s advice in mind, choose a subject for an essay that you’d like to write. Then make a list of the particular kinds of “telling” you’ll need to do in terms of providing background, research, context, and personal experience. Use this list to guide the writing of a first draft.
In the age of Facebook and Twitter, some tenets of the personal essay—confession, self-reflection, and cultural investigation, to name a few—have made their way further into the digital mainstream. Some authors have even written entire books on Twitter. With this in mind, create a series of micro-essays using Twitter as a model. They might be slightly disconnected vignettes or they may work to create a larger, more cohesive story. Either way, keep each individual piece to 140 characters and maintain some form of narrative thread throughout. If you’re feeling adventurous, try to utilize things like hashtags, links, and “Tweetspeak.” If you have a Twitter account, consider posting each piece as you finish.
Write an essay about the year that you were born. Research what was happening politically, socially, and environmentally, both in your town or city and around the world. Place yourself and your family among the events of that year, and try to find out where you fit into the picture of what was happening in the world.
In the classic essay "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin writes about his relationship with his father, against the backdrop of a time of racial violence in America. Write an essay about your relationship with a parent and try to relate it to a larger aspect of the society and culture in which you were raised.
Browse through online newspapers for stories that took place on the same day at least ten years apart. Write an imaginative essay, based on these two stories, that moves back and forth between them and ultimately ties them together.
Write a micro essay of 1,000 words in which you incorporate a series of footnotes. Strive to create the footnotes so that they both propel the essay forward and layer it with meaning.
Create a timeline that marks the major events of your life. Analyze it, looking for patterns or events that led to a series of others. Based on what you see, write an essay that explores one period of time—it could be a year, two years, a decade, or more. Think about how that time period informs the narrative of your life that you present to your friends, family, and acquaintances.
Write an essay about a story or anecdote from your family lore that has never added up. Imagine various details of or revisions to the story that would make it make more sense.
One of the challenges of writing memoir is balancing truth and one’s subjective experience of the past. Write an essay about something that happened in your past that involved family or friends who you trust. Send your essay to one or more of these people, and ask them to read it and to point out any differences between how you presented the event and how they remember it. Use their input to revise the essay.
Read through your past writings—drafts of essays, journal entries, letters, stories—looking for themes or images that are repeated. Choose one of these and write an essay about it, exploring as much of it as you can. Incorporate your personal connection to it, as well as outside sources, such as definitions in the dictionary, historical information, and/or cultural and literary references. The idea is to dive deeply into this theme or image to discover the root of your obsession with it.