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.
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.
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.
To celebrate Valentine’s Day, write a love letter to an inanimate object that explores why you appreciate what you're writing about, what its special qualities are. Title it as you would address the letter: Dear Subway, Dear Keychain, Dear Gloves.
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.
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.