In O. Henry’s 1905 short story “The Gift of the Magi,” a young woman is in desperate need of the perfect Christmas present for her husband one day before the holiday. The two have fallen on hard times and find themselves with little money and only a pair of prized possessions: Della’s long brown hair and Jim’s gold watch. Della ends up selling her hair to buy a watch-fob chain for Jim, only to discover during the gift exchange that Jim has sold his watch to buy her combs for her formerly long hair. Think of a time when you’ve made a significant personal sacrifice in order to bestow a gift or act of generosity, or when someone else has done the same for you. Write an essay about the emotional journey involved in committing to such an act of kindness and selflessness. What feelings of conflict or uncertainty accompanied the situation, and what outcomes made the sacrifice worth it?
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 his experimental memoir, I Remember (Angel Hair Books, 1970), Joe Brainard begins every paragraph with the phrase, “I remember.” By repeating this simple form again and again, Brainard is able to uncover memories previously buried beneath other memories: “I remember my grade school art teacher, Mrs. Chick, who got so mad at a boy one day she dumped a bucket of water over his head. I remember one very hot summer day I put ice cubes in my aquarium and all the fish died. I remember after people are gone thinking of things I should have said but didn’t.” Try borrowing Brainard’s construction for your own experimental essay. Follow the beads of memory and see if they lead you somewhere surprising.
With the current trend of online clothing delivery services, computer algorithms and staff stylists can pair a subscriber’s predilections with clothing options delivered to the front door. If you were to outsource your fashion choices to someone else, who would it be? Write a personal essay on your dream personal stylist, perhaps choosing a historical figure, celebrity, or best friend with an enviable wardrobe. Which elements of this person’s aesthetics would you want to co-opt, and what would you specify about your own preferences to ensure your sartorial needs are amplified instead of overshadowed? Are there notable personality traits or characteristics of this person that might filter through in the clothing choices made for you?
In “The Art of Reading James Baldwin: The Truth of Our Pain” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, William Giraldi quotes Baldwin’s 1962 essay “The Creative Process”: “Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself.” Think of a current social issue you have conflicting feelings about, and write a personal essay that approaches the issue as you might a lover’s quarrel. While sharing your own specific experiences and emotions, how might you aim to reveal a piece of society to itself in a tender and loving way? From a lover’s point of view, what kind of stipulations, exceptions, or assumptions might strengthen or weaken your argument?
In Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a mysterious narrator recounts committing the murder of an old man, all the while insisting on his own sanity. In order to hide the body, the narrator dismembers and buries the corpse beneath the floorboards, but continues to hear the dead man’s beating heart. The terror and madness that the increasingly loud beating wreaks on the narrator’s psyche throughout the rest of the story is seen as a manifestation of guilt. Think about a situation in the past when you have felt guilty about something you’ve said, done, or witnessed. How did the guilt manifest? Was there a secret involved? Was there an eventual confession or resolution? Write an essay about this memory, focusing on the immediate emotions and any bodily response or flights of imagination that may have resulted.
A bar napkin on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. shows the now famous Laffer Curve, a mathematical curve economist Arthur Laffer sketched that convinced President Ford to cut tax rates in 1974. Recently it was revealed that it is not the original bar napkin, but a copy Laffer later recreated as a keepsake. The Smithsonian put the napkin on display in 2015, but at the time of the meeting more than forty years ago, Laffer was a young professor and nobody suspected anything especially momentous was occurring. Imagine that decades into the future, the Smithsonian will be acquiring a relic or souvenir from your own life that has taken on historical importance. What would the object be? Write an essay exploring mementos you’ve kept over the years in hopes that these objects might be of importance in the future.
“You can always tell prettiness from beauty. Beauty arises from contradiction, even when it’s under the surface. Any report of experience will be contradictory. And part of the reportage is to include those contradictions,” says Chris Kraus in a conversation with Leslie Jamison for Interview magazine. Write a personal essay exploring the idea that an underlying contradiction is intrinsic to the value of beauty. What are some images, scenes, or emotions in your own life or in art you’ve encountered that you found to be beautiful, and what contradictions might lie within them? How can you effectively integrate contradictions into your own reportage to explore true beauty?
“Something about series finales, it’s about ending, but ending with an opening,” says Durga Chew-Bose, author of Too Much and Not the Mood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), in an interview with the Creative Independent about her habit of watching the series finale of a television show before sitting down to write. Revisit a personal essay you wrote in the past that ends with a solid sense of closure. Then, try out Chew-Bose’s technique and watch the series finale of a popular television show before settling down to write a new ending for your essay, one that hints at a new beginning.
Last Friday was the autumnal equinox, one of two times each year when the lengths of day and night in both hemispheres are equal because the sun is directly over the earth’s equator. Jot down several of your favorite memories of experiences that took place this summer during daylight hours, and then several that took place during the darkness of night. Look through your lists and select one daytime memory and one nighttime memory that share an element in common, such as geographical location, people present, or mood. Taking inspiration from the binary nature of the equinox, write a personal essay that focuses half on your daytime memory and half on your nighttime memory, and explores the connections between the two.
In the New York Times Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation series, writers focus their essays around mundane objects and activities that they personally cherish but feel are underappreciated by society as a whole: Aleksandar Hemon recommends skiing, Meghan Daum recommends the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles, Joshua Cohen recommends alternative search engines, Sheila Heti recommends sick days, Jia Tolentino recommends Cracker Barrel restaurants, Sarah Manguso recommends acupuncture, and Karl Ove Knausgaard recommends chewing gum. Write a letter of recommendation for an item, experience, or habit that others don’t seem to especially value, but which you enjoy immensely. Present your encounters and memories to advocate for the subject.
Earlier this year scientists published a study in the journal Nature detailing the first time genes with serious disease-causing mutations have been successfully edited in human embryos to produce healthy mutation-free embryos. Write a personal essay about the moral and ethical implications of gene-editing science as it continues to progress. In a hypothetical time when these advances might be a part of routine medical procedures, what decisions would you make for yourself and your family and loved ones? Read National Geographic’s “5 Reasons Gene Editing Is Both Terrific and Terrifying” for more insight.
Many people associate drinking apple cider with popular fall activities in the northern and eastern United States, such as apple picking and leaf peeping, but few likely know it is New Hampshire’s official beverage. The state approved the official designation in 2010 following a petition submitted by fourth-grade students. In fact, more than half the states in this country have official beverages, a trend started by Ohio, which made tomato juice its official beverage in 1965, and followed by Massachusetts (cranberry juice) and Florida (orange juice). Many other states (Wisconsin, New York, Vermont, and Oregon among them) selected milk. Write a personal essay or manifesto under the premise of petitioning for your own beverage of choice. Support your argument with personal memories, anecdotes, and research.
In a New York Times review of three recently reissued books by English-born artist and author Leonora Carrington, Parul Sehgal describes Carrington’s habit of writing in rudimentary Spanish or French, an example of exophony, the practice of writing in a language that is not the writer’s native tongue. Sehgal also recounts Samuel Beckett, who after adopting French, stated in a letter: “More and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothingness) behind it.” Write a short essay about a particularly resonant memory. Then try rewriting the same memory either in another language, even if you only have a basic knowledge of it, or in a style of English that has been “torn apart” and defamiliarized. Do you find this practice freeing or limiting? Which elements of the memory and your storytelling are drastically altered, and what remains consistent throughout both versions?
“First you live through the experience. Then you find out what it meant. Then you write.” Joyce Maynard’s essay “Patience and Memoir: The Time It Takes to Tell Your Story” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine emphasizes the importance of the passage of time and reflection as a vital part of the process of memoir writing. Write a memoiristic essay about an event or situation from your distant past. Was this a subtle experience that became more significant with time or an experience that instantly changed your life? What had to happen before you could gain enough distance for insights to be revealed? How might the meaning of this experience potentially continue to evolve in the future?
In a new program that debuted earlier this month, the majority of employees at a technology company in Wisconsin agreed to have microchips implanted into their hands, which allow them to swipe into the office building and purchase food at the cafeteria. Many of the employees see the program as an opportunity to participate in cutting-edge technology that they believe will be standard protocol in the near future. Given the choice, would you opt in or opt out? Write a personal essay about your perspective on this issue, perhaps exploring how your opinion about the incorporation of technology into everyday life may have changed over the years, and your feelings about the prospect of integrating technology into your body.
”I live in and think about cities a lot. When I think about intersectionality, I always see a literal intersection,” Rebecca Solnit said in a recent interview in the Nation. “Let’s hang out on the corner. Let’s meet at the intersection.” Intersectionality describes the interconnectedness of social categories, which may overlap to create systems of advantage and disadvantage. Jot down some notes on two or more social identities with which you identify, perhaps related to race, class, gender, religion, or age. Envision these categories meeting at a literal intersection or city street corner. Write a personal essay inspired by this image. Consider each category and how those categories interact and build on one another when they meet. Draw on memories and experiences you’ve had that exemplify or magnify your reality within these identities.
In times of conflict, we often experience an instinct for self-preservation. Last month, a truck transporting thousands of hagfish in Oregon was involved in a collision that resulted in the eel-like creatures spilling out and releasing massive amounts of slimy mucus onto the highway and cars. In their natural deep-sea habitat, one of the functions of the slime-spewing is as a defense mechanism, clogging the gills of attacking predators. Think of a time when you’ve responded in a stressful situation with a defense mechanism of your own. Write an essay about the encounter, exploring your emotional responses and aspects of your personal history that may have contributed to your instinctive reaction.
“To stand in this library again is a profound experience, a return to a wellspring of story and encouragement, here where many of the librarians knew me by name when I was a shy kid who’d walk home with a stack of seven books, one to devour each day before exchanging them for the next stack,” writes Rebecca Solnit in an essay about returning to her childhood public library, adapted for Literary Hub from a talk at Novato Public Library in California. Write an essay that reflects on your own experiences visiting libraries, whether long ago or more recently. Taking inspiration from Solnit’s essay, feel free to wander from metaphysical associations to books and reading, to personal memories tied to physical spaces, to the geographical and cultural history of the library’s locale.
As a part of an interactive installation by artist Aman Mojadidi, three repurposed pay phones have been installed in New York City’s Times Square to transmit oral histories focusing on immigrant experiences. Anyone can enter into a phone booth and choose from a collection of seventy stories recorded by New Yorkers from a variety of countries, told in a variety of languages. What memories or anecdotes do you have about immigration or migration, feelings of belonging and displacement, or storytelling over long distances? Write a personal essay in the style of an oral history, as if you’re relaying a story over the phone to a faraway friend.
“We cannot write about death without writing about life. Stories that start at the end of life often take us back to the past, to the beginning—or to some beginning...” writes Edwidge Danticat in an excerpt from The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story (Graywolf Press, 2017), which is featured in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a personal essay that attempts to grapple with death and starts with the end, but then circles around to hope and beginnings. You might choose to write about a loved one you have lost, the end of a relationship, or explore your beliefs and questions about your own mortality. Search for the story of hope that exists in the examination of the beginning and what will be missed after the end.
Burgers, hot dogs, barbecue ribs, mac and cheese, apple pie…. What immediately comes to mind when you think: American food? Whether you’re influenced by pop culture and media, regional specialties, or your own family and cultural traditions, write a personal essay inspired by one or two of your favorite American dishes. Recount some of your favorite memories associated with this food. What about the dish makes it distinctly American?
Earlier this month, professional climber Alex Honnold completed a free-solo climb of the nearly three thousand-feet-high El Capitan cliff in Yosemite National Park in less than four hours. The accomplishment, done alone and without any safety gear, is considered almost impossible. J. B. MacKinnon writes in the New Yorker, “After twelve years of regularly climbing ropeless, he seems able to simply turn off his body’s fear response.” Write an essay about what you would dream of accomplishing if you could turn off your body’s fear response. What have you been afraid of in the past and been able to overcome? What do you consider possible and impossible in your future, and how might Honnold’s feat change your thinking?
A mission to launch a spicy, crispy fried chicken sandwich into orbit is scheduled to begin this week, as a joint venture between KFC and space tech company World View. The historic flight is partly a publicity stunt to celebrate the fast food chain’s launch of the Zinger sandwich in the United States, but will also explore what can be sent or accessed in the stratosphere. From the first human in space and then on the moon, to the first Mars landing, and the first space tourist, there have been innumerable milestones in space exploration since the mid-twentieth century. Choose one key moment that is especially iconic to you and write an essay about that memory. What was happening at that point in your life and how did the idea of exploring the unknown make you feel about your own potential?
“When does a war end? When can I say your name and have it mean only your name and not what you left behind?” Some of the first and most influential relationships in our lives are with those in our biological or chosen family. Yet, it is not always easy to tell our loved ones what we are feeling in the moment. Write an epistolary, lyric essay that is addressed to a particular family member and that reflects on your relationship with that person. For inspiration, read more from “A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read” by Ocean Vuong.
Only sixty-nine copies of a book are published by Icelandic micro press Tunglið, and only on the night of a full moon. Any copies not sold that same night are then burned by founders Dagur Hjartarson and Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson. In the spirit of the poetic logic behind the press (named after the Icelandic word for the moon), think of something in your life that feels particularly ephemeral and write a letter to yourself exploring your perspective on its fleeting nature. What makes it feel impermanent? In contrast, what elements—relationships, objects, emotional truths—feel everlasting to you?