“Search YouTube with the word ‘commercials’ and the decade of your choosing, and you will find hundreds of compilations, including transfers of old broadcasts,” writes Eve Peyser in “In Vintage TV Ads, a Curious Fountain of Hope (and Cheese)” in the New York Times, about her habit of watching old television commercials in order to “make believe that I live in a world I never got to inhabit but is still familiar.” Browse through some old commercials from the decade of your choice, and write a personal essay that explores how the viewings lead you to thoughts about the past and the future. What emotions are evoked as you think about broader themes such as the passing of time, the omnipresence of consumerism, and the trends and values of different eras?
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.
“What’s in your guts, in your muscles, in your blood?” asks Sarah Bellamy in her Paris Review essay “Performing Whiteness” in which she uses her experience as a stage director to examine the ways in which racial trauma and sentiments are manifested in our physical bodies. “Bodies arrive written with racial scripts that inform the meaning of gesture, stillness, and movement onstage.” Write a personal essay in which you focus on the way you move your body in the world and how those physical gestures and subtle movements inform who you are. What kind of tension, freedom, joy, strength, or weakness do you feel? How can you connect those sensations with bodies throughout history that have resembled yours?
Inside the Actors Studio, hosted for twenty-two seasons by the late James Lipton, began as a craft seminar for students of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York. Now a well-known network television show, famous actors, writers, and directors are interviewed, and a questionnaire is submitted to the guest. This list of ten questions, meant to reveal deep truths about one’s psychology, includes: “What is your favorite curse word?” “What sound or noise do you hate?” and “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?” Write an essay in which you explore one or more of these queries. Are there any misconceptions about yourself revealed in the process?
“If you’re like me, you may have a tendency to skim over historical passages,” writes Layli Long Soldier in a recent Literary Hub essay about instincts, memory, and the violent history of the United States. “I don’t know why I do this and I don’t like my habit. But I ask you, warmly, to return to accounts from our Lakota ancestors, quoted previously. Take your time. Because, in their words, you may sense an old, yet very present energy.” Begin with a bit of research into a historical event connected to your personal history, taking care to think about the contexts and biases present in any history. Write an essay that allows for gaps, contradictions, and memories to seep in, as you use your instincts to draw connections between the past, present, and yourself. What can you discover or sense when you take your time with a historical text?
Conceptual artist Christo, who died on Sunday, was known for his large-scale environmental pieces mostly created in partnership with his wife Jeanne-Claude and involving the cooperation of many others—including politicians, legal workers, landowners, environmental groups, engineers, and city administrators—and often taking decades to complete. In a 1972 New York Times article, Christo said: “For me esthetics is everything involved in the process—the workers, the politics, the negotiations, the construction difficulty, the dealings with hundreds of people. The whole process becomes an esthetic—that’s what I’m interested in, discovering the process. I put myself in dialogue with other people.” Find a personal essay you wrote in the past, or perhaps one you never finished, and work on adding a new layer that incorporates all of the people and things that have to be in place for you to do your creative work. You might include documents, photographs, found text, or other ephemera in your piece.
In Tracy O’Neill’s new novel, Quotients (Soho Press, 2020), one character says to another: “When the luck is good, the answer is not why. It is yes.” Over the years countless authors—and their characters—have shared a range of perspectives on the notion of luck, many of them leaning toward skepticism or wariness. Emily Dickinson wrote: “Luck is not chance— / It’s Toil— / Fortune’s expensive smile / Is earned.” In No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy wrote: “You never know what worse luck your bad luck has saved you from.” And in The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.” Write a personal essay about a time when you experienced a stroke of luck, good or bad. Has the significance of luck in your life changed over time?
“I reached toward the mask, toward my friend, trying to keep away from her at the same time—both of us a little bit nervous, a little bit scared (I’ve never before noticed that “scared” and “sacred” are so close),” writes Ross Gay in “The Joy of Caring for Others,” one of fourteen New York Times pieces in which writers describe what is currently bringing them joy. In the series, Aminatou Sow writes about “The Joy of Perfecting the Sexy Selfie,” Max Read writes about “The Joy of Consuming an Obscene Number of Calories Before Noon,” and Jenna Wortham writes about “The Joy of Regrowing My Scallions—Yes, Regrowing My Scallions.” Write your own “Joy of…” essay, zeroing in on joy found in unexpectedly mundane or previously suspect corners. What is simple and what is complex about this pleasure?
“The tendency in western cultures is to value finished objects, to put a price on them and to preserve them. In other cultures, such as in the islands of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, value lies not in the physical object, but in knowing what it means and how it is made.” In Gossamer Days: Spiders, Humans, and Their Threads (Strange Attractor Press, 2016), Eleanor Morgan writes about how cultural attitudes about spiders and their silk is dependent on how those cultures value objects and their making. Think about an object you’ve made in the past—a meal, a birthday card, a piece of furniture, an article of clothing, a poem. Write a personal essay that excavates and examines the value of not the physical object, but the process of its making.
“However it is encountered, beauty is always an exception, always in despite of. This is why it moves us,” writes John Berger in “The White Bird,” his 1985 essay on aesthetics. Write a personal essay that examines a moment or particular object that you found beautiful during a difficult time in your life. What was this beauty in despite of? Describe the physical and emotional environment that surrounded this object or incident. How did this beauty change your perspective on your situation or on what was going on in the wider world?
“The writer’s obligation in the age of X is to pay attention,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum in a recent Paris Review essay. This phrase is repeated throughout the piece as Koestenbaum floats from one memory to another and suggests that a writer should “revisit books to which we have ceased paying sufficient attention, books we have failed adequately to love” and “play with words and to keep playing with them—not to deracinate or deplete them, but to use them as vehicles for discovering history, recovering wounds, reciting damage, and awakening conscience.” Write an essay about your personal perspective on the role of a writer today. Allow for a fluctuating and expansive definition, one that can accommodate not-writing, playfulness, contradictions, and elasticity.
In the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Cathy Park Hong discusses the writing process for her first nonfiction book, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning (One World, 2020), in an interview by Dana Isokawa. Hong talks about patching together “scenes, personal anecdotes, analyses of books, vents about things” and how this eventually developed into a form. “I began mixing and matching these paragraphs the way you would put together stanzas for a poem, and that’s how I arrived at a modular form.” Write a personal essay that revolves around an important belief, opinion, or question. Begin accumulating different paragraphs that contribute to your argument, and then collage them together, perhaps using other texts and facts from research. What’s your organizing principle in providing shape to this structure?
“Doctor, you say there are no haloes / around the streetlights in Paris / and what I see is an aberration...” In the Paris Review’s “Poets on Couches” video series, Maya C. Popa reads Lisel Mueller’s “Monet Refuses the Operation” and speaks about how the poem brings her comfort. In the poem, Mueller imagines a conversation between a doctor and the painter Monet, who pushes back against having surgery to correct his cataracts, which may just be the source of his artistic vision. Write an essay where you express your unique vision of the world. Was there a moment in your life when you had to fight to be true to yourself?
Happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise have been named by twentieth-century psychologists as our basic human emotions, but what about other types of feelings? In her first essay collection, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, published in February by One World, Cathy Park Hong writes that “minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.” Hong writes that minor feelings are related to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai’s idea of ugly feelings, which are “non-cathartic states of emotion.” Think about a time when you have felt cognitive dissonance with the state of current events or between your personal reality and how the larger world perceives you. Write a personal essay that explores the experience of minor feelings, such as boredom or irritation or envy, that lead to no cathartic outlet or breakthrough. What do you find when you trace these feelings to larger sociocultural or historical forces?
“September 3: (Lord’s day.) Up; and put on my colored silk suit very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since but durst not wear, because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it; and it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any hair, for fear of the infection,” writes Samuel Pepys in his diary about the Great Plague of 1665 in London, excerpted in Lapham’s Quarterly. This week start writing short, daily journal entries about your observations and feelings about the current coronavirus pandemic. How have your small, everyday routines been affected by the crisis? How have new habits popped up? Record your tangential musings along with feelings of loss, helplessness, anger, humor, or hope as they arise.
“I have to remind myself that the possibility of everything ending up okay is no more outlandish than any worst-case scenario I can conjure,” writes Lilly Dancyger in her essay “My Book Comes Out Next Year. Do I Even Still Believe in Next Year?” at Electric Literature. “If I can imagine a post-apocalyptic wasteland, I tell myself, I should also be able to imagine something like stability.” While acknowledging the precariousness of making plans during this uncertain time, write a personal essay about your hopes for next year. What comes to mind when you allow for the possibility that accomplishing small, controllable tasks today can have a bearing on the possibilities you might be working toward for next year? Reflect on how you have dealt with anxiety or panic in difficult times in your past, and how you might carry some of that knowledge to the present moment.
“I sometimes find talking about a piece of visual art can help illuminate certain abstract ideas,” says Jessi Jezewska Stevens, author of the debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), in a BOMB magazine interview by Kristina Tate. “I am drawn to visual art as a tool of writing about perception and the fragility of perception.” Take a cue from Stevens’s way of connecting writing and visual art, and write a lyric essay inspired by a particular painting or work of art that you find resonant. What kind of inferences can you make about the artist’s ways of perception from looking at the work? How can you connect this with the ways you perceive the world?
This month, TIME magazine unveiled their 100 Women of the Year project, which shines a light on influential women from the past century who have been overshadowed by their past Man of the Year covers. Choose a woman who has played an important role in your life—someone you have been close to for many years, or an acquaintance or celebrity whose words or actions have affected you in a significant way—and think of one year that was particularly affected by your encounter. Write a personal essay that details your memories of an inciting incident, and that celebrates the impact of this woman. Browse through TIME’s new covers for inspiration.
“On the average Tuesday morning most people are waiting in more than one way: waiting to get to their stop, but also waiting for news, for inspiration, for intervention, for a promotion, for a diagnosis, for breakfast,” writes Jordan Kisner in “Attunement” from her debut collection, Thin Places: Essays From In Between (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). In the essay, Kisner writes about phases of her life spent in suspension, waiting for God, an epiphany, meaning, and for clarity of conviction to “come crashing through the ceiling.” Write a personal essay about a time when you waited for something philosophical, spiritual, or emotional to reveal itself, perhaps juxtaposing it with another memory of waiting for something more practical and tangible. Was there clarity that made it worth the wait?
In the Paris Review Daily’s Eat Your Words series, Valerie Stivers creates recipes inspired by food references in literature. Writing about her favorite Hilda Hilst novel, Letters From a Seducer (Nightboat Books, 2014), translated from the Portuguese by John Keene, Stivers mentions the eccentric ways food is incorporated into the text: “Blouses smell of apples; people sell clams, oysters, coconuts, hearts of palm, dried meat; a penis is a giant chorizo or a ‘wise and mighty catfish’ or a strawberry.” Write an essay that incorporates the shapes, smells, textures, and connotations of food in an unexpected way. What comes to your mind when considering the skins, peels, fat, seeds, flesh, pulp, nubs, and bones from your meals?
In the New York Times Letter of Recommendation series, Durga Chew-Bose writes about the value of getting an assortment of things framed after moving to an apartment in Montreal. “Some of us are born a little mournful, and we spend our lives discovering new traditions for housing those ghosts we’ve long considered companions. Framing, I’d venture, is central to this urge. It gives memories a physique.” Think of a memory that continues to haunt you like a ghost. Write a personal essay that uses a frame technique—the telling of a story within a story—to give the narrative a fixed structure. Tell the story of your memory, framed at the beginning and end with your current state of mind. What is revealed by the juxtaposition of this story embedded within another?
“Objects make love visible. They give us an archive, a timeline with clear milestones. They tell a story that would otherwise be almost impossible to see or even narrate,” Jenn Shapland writes in her Literary Hub essay “The Maggie Nelson Test for Lesbian Dating Success.” Shapland explores the value of shared and exchanged objects and artifacts between friends and lovers, with an emphasis on gifting books. Write an essay about a book that you gave or received from someone with whom you’ve had a significant relationship, perhaps at a particularly precarious turning point. Describe the book and set the scene, exploring what the exchange revealed about you and the state of the relationship.
In artist John Baldessari’s “Eight Soups: Corn Soup,” he borrows an image of a Henri Matisse painting of goldfish and writes the words “corn” and “soup” underneath it, while another piece includes a photograph of himself standing beneath a palm tree with a caption that says, “wrong.” In Deborah Solomon’s New York Times piece on Baldessari, who died earlier last month, she writes of a postcard the artist once sent from the Cincinnati Zoo to a friend: “The message bore no discernible relation to the photograph of the tiger cubs. In this way, it resembled his work. Text plus image and many possible paths between them.” As you go about your week, keep an eye out for readymade images—a photograph, a painting, an advertisement—and jot down words that immediately come to mind. Write an essay that uncovers, or makes discernible, the paths between the image and what it conjures up for you.
Can you imagine what the voice of a three-thousand-year-old mummy would sound like? Last week Scientific Reports published a study that describes engineering the voice of Nesyamun—an ancient Egyptian priest and scribe whose coffin’s hieroglyphs describe him as “true of voice”—by combining his 3D-printed mouth and throat with an artificial larynx and using speech synthesizing software. This week write a personal essay about the one long-ago sound you wish to hear, if you could engineer a way. Would you choose the voice of a loved one or important historical figure, the sounds of an extinct animal or bygone technology, or perhaps simply the everyday sounds of a different era?
“Sometimes we feel ‘blocked’ because we started a story in the wrong place or ended in the wrong place,” writes Sarah Ruhl in “Writer’s Block: Variations on a Superstition” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Find a draft of an unfinished essay or one you’re uncertain about or unsatisfied with, and try starting from a different place. How does this new beginning alter the tone of the piece? Does this shift give new meaning to the true core of the story?
“A person is not just one text but rather an infinite series of texts, none of which could be considered the original,” writes Alejandro Zambra in his Believer magazine essay “Translating a Person.” “A book is, in the best of cases, the text that a person once was or wanted to be, but of course it’s a multiple testament, ambiguous and full of nuances.” Think of someone you have been close to for a long time and the different phases you have known of this person’s life. Write a personal essay that attempts to “translate” this person by following one particular thread. Try using a numbered format as Zambra does in his essay to separate scenes or moments of this life.