“Learning is more like a sport than we think,” writes Jim Sollisch in “Piano Lessons: Do Writers Need a Teacher or a Coach?” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, an essay about the importance of practice when developing creative writing skills, as with any other skill or craft. Think of a former teacher, coach, or mentor who played a part in teaching you a specific skill or subject. What memories do you have of your interactions with this teacher during your period of learning? Write a personal essay that zeroes in on one particular memory and how your emotions during the learning process affected your life in ways beyond the relationship and that teaching moment.
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.
“All actions have reactions,” says one guest on the podcast Heavyweight. In each episode, host Jonathan Goldstein discusses moments from people’s pasts that continue to haunt them and attempts to resolve (or at least learn from) these experiences in some way. In the episode “Julia,” for example, a woman who was bullied in her youth decides to get in touch with her old classmates to get to the bottom of a particular incident. Is there a buried experience from your own past that deserves some consideration? This week, write an essay about a past experience that has impacted you, perhaps a mystery, a grievance, or an argument. You may choose to write about what happened and its significance, or you may want to take the exercise a step further and write directly to someone.
Mary Ruefle’s essay “My Search Among the Birds” takes the form of short diary entries, all relating to birds. The entries each begin with a date and range from simple descriptions (“I saw a bird in the bushes near Dairy Queen. It looked thin to me.”) to more inward reflections (“Although all poets aspire to be birds, no bird aspires to be a poet.”). This week, try taking daily notes on a specific subject that will allow you to observe and be introspective. It could be anything: cellphones, airplanes, mice, socks. See where this act of sustained attention leads you, and craft your entries into an essay.
Adam Sternbergh’s essay “Transportive Reading for Underground Transportation” in the New York Times discusses the concept of the “subway read” as a book that seems especially suitable for reading on a subway train, in the vein of “beach reads,” “airplane reads,” or “cabin reads.” Write a personal essay about the ideal setting for your own writing to be read. Where do you want to take a reader emotionally or mentally, and what might be a desirable physical environment for that interplay? Perhaps it’s a space that aligns comfortably with elements of your writing, or one that provides striking contrasts.
In his memoir Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (Random House, 2007), Rob Sheffield centers each chapter around a mix tape from his own life and uses the songs to narrate and explore the love and loss of his wife. This week, try assembling a mix tape of your own. Write down the names of songs that were important to you at a particular time in your life, and build outwards from there to begin an essay. Reflect on that moment when you first heard these songs: Was it on the radio in a car, or on your headphones, or did someone share them with you? Is it the music or the lyrics that stay with you?
Recently, the chief curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City rejected the White House’s request to loan Vincent van Gogh’s “Landscape With Snow” painting, instead offering to lend Maurizio Cattelan’s functional, solid gold toilet sculpture titled “America.” If you could borrow any work of art from a museum or collection in the world, what would you choose? Write a personal essay describing the piece and your emotional connection to it. Where would you choose to display it and how would its presence feel in your space? Is your choice related to a personal statement or a strictly aesthetic reason?
In 2014, the oldest eel in the world passed away. Ale the eel was 155 years old and had been living in a well in a small fishing town in Sweden, thrown in the well by a young boy when eels were used to keep a house’s water supply clean from insects. That statement may sound like the premise of a fable, or perhaps the beginning of a joke, but in fact it is a true story. Reality abounds with such surprises. This week, seek out a bizarre fact from the news or a historical document and try using it as the starting point for an essay.
Cultures around the world have always developed rituals and traditions to act as guides through all types and stages of interpersonal relationships. Taking inspiration from “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” the title story from the 2001 collection by Alice Munro, choose one of these words and think of a personal habit, routine, or ritual you have developed or participated in as part of a relationship. You might think about or research historical or modern friendship rituals involving bracelets and necklaces, or secret passwords and handshakes. You might find inspiration in considering romance and courtship traditions involving chastity belts, love potions, gentlemen callers—even arranged marriages. Write a short personal essay that delves deep into your experiences and memories, exploring the social conventions and restrictions involved in your navigation of that relationship.
“Yet where else besides windows can we perceive the thin boundaries between our inner and outer realities?” Justin Hocking’s essay “Diving Through Windows” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine is a series of vignettes, quotations, anecdotes, and observations that all revolve literally or metaphorically around windows. Hocking discusses windows in the context of creative perspective, architecture, literature, politics, linguistics, and nature. Choose a symbolic object, perhaps an architectural element, and write an essay comprised of short vignettes that explore a variety of topics currently on your mind.
As writers, we tend to put up a wall between our creative writing (poems, stories, essays) and our more ordinary writing (to-do lists, e-mails). This week, try poking a hole in that wall. Think back and reflect upon an e-mail you received recently that startled you, that brought you unexpected happiness or unexpected pain. Or reflect on a recent to-do list you’ve written for yourself. Write an essay that feels as immediate as these messages or lists. Think about where you were physically and emotionally when you read or wrote these words. What does this say about you in this moment in time?
Poets Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon founded the CDC Poetry Project in response to a Washington Post report that the Trump administration had prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using seven words in their official documents for the 2018 budget. The project invites poets to submit poems that use all of the banned words, which include “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” and “evidence-based.” This week, choose two or more of these words as inspiration for a series of flash essays. Use the immediate energy of short prose to express what comes to mind when you hear these words.
Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, All Hallows’ Eve. A number of holidays are celebrated on the evening before as well as the day of the holiday, including many Jewish holidays which begin at sundown on the previous day. Write a personal essay about a particularly eventful or momentous day for you this year that begins with a recounting of the evening before. What details do you decide to emphasize or omit in order to prepare or surprise your reader? Do you create a slow buildup of anticipatory progressions, or is the sense of tension suddenly dropped in by upended expectations?
In preparation for cold winter months, red-toothed shrews are able to shrink their head and brain mass by 20 percent and then regrow it as the weather warms up in spring. With this survival strategy, they expend less energy when food resources are scarce. Does your energy level or your relationship to your body change during certain seasons? Does your body feel, act, or respond differently in the winter? Write a personal essay about measures you’ve taken, whether moderate or drastic, to adjust your body to difficult times or discomfiting temperatures at various points of the year.
In Literary Hub's piece “137 Writers and the Words They’re Best Known For,” Kaveh Akbar lists responses he received from Twitter when asking for words that readers associate with a writer, those that have become their “signature” word. The pairings include Samuel Coleridge and “albatross,” Ross Gay and “gratitude,” Adrienne Rich and “wreck,” and Rebecca Solnit and “mansplain.” Write a short series of micro essays, each one exploring one word you often use in your own writing or speech. How does your repeated usage reflect a persistent preoccupation, an important memory, or evoke an influential person in your life?
In The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris, the eleventh-century Japanese poet and courtier created a series of lists based on her daily life. Her topics included “Hateful Things” (“A carriage passes by with a nasty, creaking noise”), “Elegant Things” (“A pretty child eating strawberries”), “Things That Have Lost Their Power” (“A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air”), and “Things That Should Be Large” (“Men’s eyes”), among others. The list form allowed her to celebrate, or denigrate, details that may have otherwise been passed by unnoticed. This week, take ten minutes to invent and populate a list of your own—the more specific, the better. Make more lists with each day if the spirit strikes you.
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?
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.