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.
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.
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.
In literature of every genre, some of the most interesting reflection takes place in transit. Write about a time when you were in transit of some kind—on a train, plane, bus, or bike, in a car or even on foot. Write about where you were going and why, and focus on what you were thinking, seeing, and feeling as you moved.
As Tolstoy's axiom goes, "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." Freewrite for ten minutes about each of these premises, then turn one—or both—into an essay.
Describe one of your earliest recollections of fear. What caused you to be afraid? What sensations—physical, mental, emotional—do you recall? How did you react? Next, describe a similar experience you've had as an adult. In what ways have your responses to fear changed since you were young? In what ways have they remained the same?
The erasure is a poetic form created by obscuring words and phrases from an existing text and using those that remain to construct a poem. Apply the erasure to an essay. Make a copy of three or four pages of your favorite essay. Then, using a black marker or Wite-out, compose a short lyric essay by selecting certain words on the pages and erasing the rest.
Write a nonfiction piece of no more than 500 words. It could be anything from a single scene to a complete micro essay—either way, try to utilize the same techniques and structure that you would for a full-length piece. For inspiration, check out Brevity, an online journal dedicated to the art of flash nonfiction.
Research the news for an event or incident that occured during your life or during the life of a close relative. It could be an historic sports event involving your home team, a crime that happened in your town or city, or something else that had a significant effect on the people nearby, such as the building of a major bridge or highway. Write an essay about this event, blending it with anecdotes from your (or your relative's) life that took place during the same time the event occured. Use the personal to elucidate the historic and vice versa.
Write an essay about a small part of the country or the world with which you are intimately familiar. Focus first on the landscape, wildlife, and architecture: What flora and fauna are native to the area? What do the houses and centers of town look like? Then introduce the people: What do they look like? What do they do for a living? Incorporate dialogue into this section, including words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are specific to the area. Using as much detail as possible, bring the place and its language to life.
In Bird by Bird (Pantheon, 1994), Anne Lamott's classic instructional treatise on writing and life, the author says: "Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop. You can't—and, in fact, you're not supposed to—know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing." Keeping this in mind, write the beginnings of an essay whose direction and ending you don't yet know. Start small, focusing closely on a single place, person, or incident, without thinking ahead. Then keep going: Allow the writing to tell the story, and see what develops.
Write about the moment that everything changed. For inspiration, check out Smith Magazine's The Moment (Harper Perennial, 2012), a collection of personal essays about the key experience—"a moment of opportunity, serendipity, calamity, or chaos"—in each of the author's lives, whose effect was revelatory, profound, and life-changing.
Choose a topic that interests you—it could be an animal, a scientific process, or a historical event, for example—and research it. Next, think of an unrelated experience from your life—a particularly memorable moment from childhood, perhaps, or when a loved one passed away—and write an essay on the two subjects. Alternate between short paragraphs of factual reportage on the topic and brief, more lyrical vignettes about the remembered experience, with the end goal of finding a way to relate the two.
In Cheryl Strayed's new memoir, Wild (Knopf, 2012), the author recounts her months-long hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that she took entirely alone after life as she'd known it had fallen apart. "It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along," she says, "one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been." Write about a time when you got a little wild—when you embarked upon something new and challenging, maybe something frightening, or maybe even a little dangerous. Write about the wilderness itself, but also about what brought you there, and who you had become by the time you walked back out of the woods.
Think back to the closet of your youth, and write an essay about what was inside. Let the contents of the closet become a metaphor for who you were as a child, who you might have wished to be, and who you have become.
Research the origins (Latin, Greek, biblical, or otherwise) of your first name and develop an alter ego for yourself based upon those origins. If your name is Alex, for example, whose origin, Alexandros, originates from the Greek root "to defend," your alter ego could be "The Defender." Free-write for twenty minutes from the perspective of that alter ego, writing about anything that comes to mind—and see what kind of patterns, ideas, or thoughts emerge.
In her essay "Total Eclipse" from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Collins, 1982), Annie Dillard recalls traveling to the top of a mountain to witness a total solar eclipse. The darkness she discovered as the sun disappeared, in a world suddenly without light, was incomprehensible and terrifying, but also illuminating. "What I saw," she writes, "what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world." Write about a time when you disappeared into darkness—whether by your own choosing or not—and emerged again into the light, with a new understanding.
Think about big and small regrets you have in your life—things you wish you had done, people you wish you had treated better, directions you wish you'd gone. Draw a chart that represents a hierarchy of your regrets. It can be simple or decorative, straightforward or complex. Then write an essay that explores what you see when you look at it.