We have all experienced Kafkaesque situations in our lives—those moments that are surreal, bizarre, or menacingly illogical, and yet very real. Write about a time when you encountered a Kafkaesque circumstance. Carefully select descriptive words that will effectively represent the complex emotions, weird thoughts, and bouts of confusion that filled your mind and the strange world around you.
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.
Writers share many creative qualities and artistic processes with painters. Both are engaged in the difficult endeavor of portraying oneself through art as an artist. Write six hundred words about you as a writer, manipulating your words and sentences like different brush strokes to create an image of how you perceive your artistic self. Be bold. Be thoughtful. Be candid. Self-portraits are rarely flattering. Art is about truth and true artists never spare themselves.
Halloween costumes reveal much about who we are underneath our contrived, ordinary selves. Think back to your childhood and relive your favorite Halloween costume—why you chose it, what it divulged about you, and how it felt putting on the costume. Something mysterious and compelling happens when we try to be something or someone else. Explore that experience. Write five hundred words.
Everyone has a favorite article of clothing—an inherited wedding dress, a flannel shirt borrowed from an old friend, a warm pair of socks received on Father’s Day. Find an article of clothing that you can’t throw away because of an emotional connection. Write six hundred words describing why this piece of clothing means so much to you, and use it as a source to explore people, time, and how simple objects can possess so much meaning.
People often collect strange things for unknown reasons: ceramic elves from Europe, antique trout fishing lures, bamboo backscratchers from around the world. What we collect often reveals our idiosyncrasies, and therefore our true natures. Recall someone in your life who collected something intriguing or odd. Try to define the attraction, and in the process, bring that person to life.
Our homes are extensions of our souls: the vibrant oil painting of a French villa hanging in the dining room, the tattered couch stained by a child’s bowl of ice cream in the den, the dead, blackened peace lily on an empty bookshelf. Write about the home you were raised in. Focus on the decorations, the furniture, and the items that reveal the most about the people who lived among them. In our homes, everything means something.
We all have scars. Though most do not conjure welcome memories, scars are an important part of our lives—both physically and metaphorically. Scars reveal our vulnerability and human frailty, but also represent our resilience and toughness. Write about a scar you have, how you got it, and what it means to you.
There is truth in medicine cabinets. Despite the lies we tell ourselves and others, our medicine cabinets know us better than anyone. Medicine cabinets are full of worry, memories, encroaching death, and continued life. The prescription bottles, skin moisturizer, and frayed toothbrush reflect our humanity and vulnerability. Study your medicine cabinet. Write an essay about what is in it, and what it says about you.
Attics are often the most compelling rooms in our homes. Attics are where we store important parts of the past that are only tenuously connected to the immediate present. Visit your attic, rummage around the dusty boxes, and find something that belonged to one of your parents. Bring it to your writing desk. Start writing.
In many ways you are everyone who came before you. Your uniqueness is your own spin on the DNA of your ancestors. Spend several minutes sitting quietly in front of a mirror. Reflect. Other than you, whom else do you see? Write 500 words about how you feel toward these people you’ve never met but who are part of you. Their story is yours, too.
Social media has changed human interaction. Twitter, Facebook, and other digital platforms force us to create versions of ourselves that often misrepresent our true feelings and situations. This disconnect can interfere with our relationships and even distort our own identities. Write about a time when social media added turmoil to your life. Explore the difference between who you are online, and who you are at the dinner table.
Creative nonfiction isn’t only about the past. History is always happening. Right now, at this very instant, your life is passing. What is happening in your life? What are your worries? Your problems? Your fears and loves? Imagine yourself eleven years from now, and imagine what your perspective might be on your current situation. Write about your life from the year 2024. Time may heal all wounds, but now is the best time to document your bleeding.
A threadbare T-shirt. A stained cookbook. A folded 1989 Yankees ticket. We all refuse to part with items that hold sentimental value. Write about something you own that would be trash to another person. Delve beyond mere memories and explore what—the time, the people, the circumstances—that item represents. Write five hundred words.
“There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor.” This observation by Oscar Wilde reminds us that no one is unaffected by money. Money heats our stoves, stitches our wounds, and clothes our children. Yet, people can perceive money—like art and religion—very differently. Think of a moment in your family history when money created tension. Focus on how individuals spoke, listened, and acted. Write objectively.
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.
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.