“‘Not X, but also not not X.’” In a recent piece for the New York Times, Sam Anderson examines a sentence structure pattern that reappears frequently in Keith Gessen’s novel A Terrible Country (Viking, 2018). Anderson notes that many authors tend to repeat sentence structures in a move that reflects a particular worldview or expresses the author’s thought process in some way. Browse through your writing and search for one of your own signature sentence structures. Reflect and write about what this style reveals of your philosophies or how your mind works.
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.
On the TV show Parts Unknown, the late chef and writer Anthony Bourdain traveled the world and sampled cuisines from a variety of cultures. Although the show employed food as its central component, Bourdain was more interested in exploring the customs and histories of the countries he visited and got an outsider’s glimpse of the particular magic that makes each place uniquely itself. Write a personal essay based on an experience when you left your comfort zone for a place, community, or situation that felt different from your own. Your experience could involve travel, as Bourdain’s did, but travel is not required; the unknown often exists in your own backyard.
As it turns out, human beings aren’t the only ones allowing their emotions to cloud their judgment. In a study published last week in Science, researchers reported findings that mice are as likely as people to have a hard time letting go of a task in which they have already invested time, energy, or another resource despite receiving any potential gain. Write a personal essay about a time when you were unable to let go of something, such as a relationship with a person or a comfortable living situation, even if there was no longer a way of moving forward or your energies would have been better spent elsewhere. What emotions were at play while you made the decision to stay put in stagnant circumstances? What happened when you finally let go?
In an interview published earlier this year by Electric Literature, Sofia Samatar discusses the concept of speculative memoir with authors Matthew Cheney, Carmen Maria Machado, and Rosalind Palermo Stevenson, all who have written work that blends memoir with elements of the highly imaginative that is typically reserved for science fiction, fantasy, and fabulist literature. Machado talks about alternating between real events and genre fiction that act as extended metaphor. Stevenson says, “In some ways introducing the imagined is perhaps a way of daring to approach the material.” Think of a specific memory whose particulars seem blurry or difficult to approach. Write a speculative essay or short memoiristic piece in which you approach this memory by inserting a blatantly fictional aspect or character. How does this element of fiction open up new or alternative possibilities for the way you’ve long recalled this event, situation, or relationship?
What do you do to put off important tasks? The social media hashtag #procrastibaking pulls up thousands of posts of goods baked while more pressing matters may have been at hand. Some procrastibakers claim that it’s part of the creative process and can help overcome writer’s block, that the sensory experience and rhythms of following a recipe’s steps can be conducive to warming up to a creative task. Write a personal essay about your own go-to procrastination method. How does your procrastination activity help or hinder your work? Does it do more than satisfy a desire to feel good and enjoy the present while postponing something else?
Scientists published a study in Science magazine earlier this month observing that animals have been sleeping more during the day and increasing nocturnal habits in order to avoid interacting with humans who have steadily encroached upon their habitats and territories. Write a personal essay about a time when you felt the need to change a longstanding routine or habit. Was there a pivotal moment that motivated you to make the change or was it more gradual? How has your own flexibility or adaptability changed over the years?
What were your favorite books to read for pleasure as a child? In the July/August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Christine Ro reports on Alvin Irby’s nonprofit organization Barbershop Books, whose programming creates reading spaces in barbershops to encourage young children to engage with literature. Through the program, Irby hopes to focus on “building boys’ motivation to read and helping them form a self-image as readers.” Write a personal essay about your most treasured and favorite book to read from your youth. What elements of the book resonated with you and encouraged you to take pride in identifying as a reader?
Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood (Henry Holt, 2018) follows an unnamed protagonist as she has conversations, internal and external, about whether to have children. The novel asks questions about what it means to be or not be a mother, and what it means for artists seeking to balance their creative lives with their personal lives. This week, write an essay based on conversations you’ve had with friends or family about parenthood. Reflect on your own, or someone else’s, thoughts and experiences with the struggle to balance the role of parent with the rest of one’s identity. Use the essay to explore what beliefs or attitudes these observations stir in you.
“‘Now I can have a glass of orange juice in the morning and read the newspaper.’” In the New York Times essay “Philip Roth and the Whale,” Nathan Englander recalls Roth, who passed away last month, speaking lightheartedly about his free time upon retiring from writing fiction. If you had an abundance of free time, what are the small activities you would most look forward to enjoying? Write a personal essay about the simple, everyday things you wish you had more time to do, that are often sacrificed to a busy schedule. How are these activities enticing in a way that is different from the excitement of grander plans?
Essays can take the shape of a variety of forms, and experimenting with structure can often lead you into material that may have otherwise been left unexplored. In her essay “The Pain Scale,” for example, Eula Biss borrows the structure of the medical pain scale, which ranges from zero to ten, to divide her essay into eleven short sections. Each section reflects on the subject of pain from personal, philosophical, and scientific perspectives. This week, try writing your own essay using a scale as a structure. You could choose to invent your own scale or use a familiar one such as the pain scale, the Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale, the pH scale, or a musical notation scale.
Swedish meatballs are Turkish? Last month Sweden posted on its official Twitter account that Swedish meatballs have their origins in Turkey, thereby unleashing a storm of chaos and confusion as Swedes and Swedophiles alike reconsidered the popular national dish, often enjoyed at Ikea furniture stores worldwide. Using this questioning and rethinking of possession, history, and identity as inspiration, write a personal essay about an idiosyncratic trait that seems inextricably tied to your identity. Do those around you associate you with this trait? How might you be perceived differently if one day this characteristic was no longer yours to claim?
What happens when a flower blooms before its pollinator emerges? As global warming transforms the earth’s climate, spring has begun to arrive earlier in certain places. In turn, some plants and animals whose behavioral patterns, such as migratory and reproductive cycles, are triggered by seasonal changes are falling out of step with each other. Think of a time in your life when you have felt out of step with the world around you, perhaps just slightly behind or a little too far ahead. When did you first notice the misalignment and how did you break free of it? Did you need to make an effort to adapt yourself? Reflect on your emotional state during this time, and how the people around you might have helped you through this phase.
“Sometimes my mouth opens up and my mother’s laugh jumps out, a parlor trick.” Kate Zambreno’s Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e), 2017) is a meditation on memory and grief that takes the form of fragments, lyric essay, poetry, memoir, reflections, and criticism. At the book’s core is the death of Zambreno’s mother and the author’s piecing together of their relationship and its bearing on her childhood and identity. In the Creative Independent, Zambreno writes about working on the book over the course of thirteen years: “As for what sustained me to keep going with it, I think it was just that itch—to not only figure out why I wanted to write about my mother, but also why I couldn’t.” Think of an inherited trait or a specific aspect of a relationship you have with a parent or guardian figure that seems difficult or impossible to explain. Write a personal essay that attempts to explore this subject by drawing in references to art and literature, old photographs, memories, and other fragmentary materials.
Temperatures in the thirties, driving rain, and headwinds gusting at thirty miles per hour are not ideal weather conditions for a marathon. And yet, approximately thirty thousand people participated in this year’s Boston Marathon slogging through these treacherous conditions. In Matthew Futterman’s essay “What It Was Like to Run the Boston Marathon in a Freezing Deluge” in the New York Times, he writes about the glory of getting to tell the story of this miserable yet epic experience. Write a personal essay about an event from your past in which circumstances beyond your control transformed what would have been a more standard situation into something decidedly more dramatic.
Hobbies and activities often inspire and become an important part of a writer’s life. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, 2008), Haruki Murakami recounts his personal history with running, and draws parallels between his passions for marathons and novels. More recently, in her essay collection, The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater (Flatiron Books, 2018), Alanna Okun explores her practices of knitting and crafting, and how they interact with her writing life and overall well-being. This week, try writing an essay about an interest of your own that runs parallel to, or perhaps even informs, your identity as a writer.
“Is it possible to tell a story about getting better that is as compelling as a story of falling apart?” asks Leslie Jamison, speaking about her new memoir, The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath (Little, Brown, 2018), in “The Infinite World” by Michele Filgate in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Write a personal essay on a topic or event in your life related to dysfunction or a low point in which you experienced a recovery. Use inspiration from Jamison’s own challenge of narrative structure and focus on a way to use “rigorous, specific, fresh language” to write about recovery.
Edward Albee burst onto the theater scene with his first play, The Zoo Story, a one-act play about two strangers on a bench in New York City’s Central Park. In 2004, nearly fifty years later, Albee added a first act to the play titled Homelife and the two plays are now performed together, as a diptych. Although The Zoo Story was complete in its own right and widely considered a success, Homelife served to deepen the characters and complicate the meaning of the narrative. This week, try writing a prequel to an essay you have already written, and possibly published, even if it was years ago. Is there a first act to add that fleshes out the narrator or a narrative that has more to say now?
“One Life: Sylvia Plath,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., features a selection of the poet’s manuscripts, journals, clothing, and other personal objects, including a typewriter and even a lock of her hair, as well as numerous pieces of Plath’s artwork: collages, drawings, self-portraits, and photographs. The museum also incorporates other types of art and interdisciplinary projects into its Plath programming, such as “I Am Vertical,” a dance performed in December in the museum’s courtyard, created by choreographer-in-residence Dana Tai Soon Burgess and named after one of Plath’s poems. Envision how your own life and work as a writer might be presented in an art museum, and write a lyric essay about this hypothetical exhibit. What objects would be on display? Which e-mails or photographs would help tell your stories? Consider using different forms and conventions, such as lists and fragments.
The “missed connections” section of the classified advertisements website Craigslist has long been a virtual bulletin board to share a memory (i.e. I smiled at you on the train and you smiled back) in hopes that someone would answer back. Write a personal essay recalling a situation in which you may have missed an opportunity to connect with someone, whether a romantic or professional prospect, or a potentially significant person who may have slipped through your fingers. Explore ideas of fate and chance, persistence, lost opportunities, and assertiveness. How have your approaches to meeting new people evolved over time? Are there any missed connections from your past that might be picked up again now, years later?
Have you ever smelled something so sweet it made you smile? The sense of smell, in contrast to vision, sound, and touch, is connected to areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion making it a powerful agent at triggering memories and feelings. Think of a scent, such as an ingredient for a meal, a perfume, or perhaps something from the outdoors or nature, that you associate with a person who has played an integral role in your life. Write a personal essay that explores the intertwining of smell and the resonant memories and emotions you associate with this person.
Earlier this year, a supermarket chain in France held a promotion that slashed prices of Nutella, the popular hazelnut and chocolate spread, by 70 percent causing shoppers in some stores to stampede as they scrambled to snatch up the bargain. Think of one of your favorite food items, perhaps a gourmet good that you treat yourself to only occasionally but wish you could have every day. Write a lyric essay about this item, integrating your personal history and specific memories with references to researched tidbits or fun facts.
“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.
“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.