“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.
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.
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?
“Of course, everyone’s parents are embarrassing. It goes with the territory,” Neil Gaiman wrote in Anansi Boys (William Morrow, 2005), a novel about two brothers who are brought together after the death of their father. Think back to an embarrassing parent-child event from your past in which you were either the child or the parent or guardian figure. Write a personal essay that uses this incident as a pivotal point from which to explore the “territory” of your relationship during that particular time. Did this incident have further repercussions? Does the point of view you’ve chosen allow you to sympathize with or find humor in the innocence of youth or the wisdom of age? What does the situation reveal about your specific parent-child relationship and about parent-child relationships more generally?
What do Ancient Rome, Western Civilization, the History of China, Early Middle Ages, the Civil Rights Movement, U.S. Constitutional History, and Dolly Parton have in common? They’re all the subjects of courses offered this past year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “Dolly Parton’s America: From Sevierville to the World” is a history class that uses Parton’s life as a lens through which to view pop culture in the twentieth century, cultural politics, and the history of the Appalachian region. Choose a local celebrity from your city, region, or state, and write a personal essay that explores the intersection of the pop icon’s cultural context and your own memories of time spent in this locale.
Think of a memory in a beautiful landscape—maybe from a family vacation, or your favorite childhood destination. Now think of a scene from a story, novel, or movie that describes a landscape, and that has stuck with you. What makes these moments special? So many of the memories and stories we share are connected to place—to the landscapes of the Earth and the landscapes of our own imaginations. Write a lyric essay in which you explore the connections between literature, landscape, and your own memories. For inspiration, look at Montreal-based artist Guy Laramée’s newly released collection of sculptures, in which the artist creates landscapes from old books.
“My whole life I’ve been interested in trying to rewrite both war and girl myth,” says Lidia Yuknavitch about her new novel, The Book of Joan (Harper, 2017). “I’m trying to open up an old story so we can look it over again. I believe anything that can be storied can be de-storied and re-storied, and it’s one of the only ways we can retain hope.” In “The Other Side of Burning” by Amy Gall in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Yuknavitch discusses what it was like to reimagine the story of Joan of Arc for the new novel. Think of a myth or a heroine whose story has resonated with you, or that connects to a certain aspect of your identity. Write an essay that actively works to de-story and then re-story, and incorporates a discovery in your own life—perhaps resulting in a new version of an old truth.
As self-driving cars get closer and closer to becoming a reality, the social interaction of driver and passenger may become a thing of the past. Think back to a significant memory you have as the driver or passenger in a motor vehicle. Perhaps it was an adventurous road trip, a taxi ride on a faraway vacation, or in a bus with classmates on your way to a field trip. Write an essay about this event and your role in it. Were you directing the way and in control, or staring dreamily out the window? Was there an argument or a memorable conversation on the journey?
Three current Monopoly board game tokens—the boot, the thimble, and the wheelbarrow—will be cycled out this fall and replaced with a penguin, a rubber ducky, and a T-Rex. Classic board games often get continually updated with new features, and brand new games are constantly created, but most of us have favorites and personal memories of playing board games in the past. Write an essay that focuses on an old board game you’ve held onto, or explores memories of playing, arguing, and competing with friends and family during game nights.
“Thinking thought to be a body wearing language as clothing or language a body of thought which is a soul or body the clothing of a soul, she is veiled in silence,” writes Harryette Mullen in Trimmings (Tender Button Books, 1991). Mia You considers these words and the intersection of the body, language, and fashion in her essay “Sublime Deformations of Nature.” Write your own essay exploring thoughts, experiences, and inspirations on the relationship between language and fashion. How does this influence your ideas on what a body is?
“When I read her the old fairy tales about stepmothers, I worried I was reading her an evil version of myself,” writes Leslie Jamison in a recent essay published in New York Times Magazine. “In the Shadow of a Fairy Tale” explores Jamison’s personal experience as a stepmother through the lens of stepmothers in fairy tales and cultural archetypes. Choose a fairy-tale archetype that feels resonant in some way to you, whether now or in the past. Write an essay examining the various connections between this archetype and its contemporary sociocultural counterpart, which may have resulted in certain expectations and anxieties. In what ways do you fit—and also not quite fit—into the role?
“Let Nature be your teacher,” wrote William Wordsworth in his poem “The Tables Turned.” As spring arrives, seek out changes in the environment around you and jot down some observations: later sunsets, lighter clothing, the pastel colors of budding leaves and flowers, the buzzing and chirping of insects and birds. Write a personal essay that explores your relationship with nature, whether that involves being out in the woods or desert, or interactions with urban wildlife and navigating public transportation in extreme weather conditions. Reflect upon the ways in which the natural world introduces itself into your everyday life and how it affects your moods and emotions. How does the changing light and weather influence your daily rhythms? Are you uplifted and energized by a sense of renewal, or exasperated by pollen and allergies? What has nature taught you about yourself?
Photographer Akasha Rabut has documented the Caramel Curves—New Orleans’s first all-female motorcycle club—in a series of portraits over several years. The club has become a unique pillar of their local community, with some seeing the women as role models. Write an essay meditating on a group or a person from your past who unexpectedly made an impact on your community. Were you personally affected by their actions?
In a 2010 panel discussion at the Paley Center, Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei spoke about his extensive use of Twitter to share about his art and activism. Pressuring Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey to make Twitter’s web interface available in Chinese, Ai stated how well suited it is to the Chinese language, in which each character constitutes an entire word: “With 140 characters in Chinese you really can write a novel.” Taking inspiration from this discussion, write a series of flash creative nonfiction pieces about art, human rights, or the use of social media, each 140 words long. Later, you may want to decide whether the essays function as standalone pieces or a connected series.
In late February, frogs, salamanders, and other amphibians responding to early warm temperatures began migrating from their winter hideouts to vernal pools to begin the spring mating season. Some of the animals were chaperoned to safety by concerned volunteers across trafficked streets late at night in New York and other Northeastern states. Write an essay about a time in your life when you made a big decision or took a leap. Did someone arrive to accompany you or were you on your own? Was your emotional journey guided by a crossing guard who brought you to safety?
Over the course of the last year, Jorge Otero-Pailos, a Columbia University professor and preservation expert, and a group of his graduate students have been collaborating with the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan on a project studying the smell of old books, furniture, and more. The library was built in 1906 by John Pierpont Morgan to house his rare books and art collection, and is one of the premier repositories in the world. Write an essay about a place that you have spent a considerable amount of time in—perhaps somewhere you lived or worked before—and whose smells are curiously linked with your recollection. Describe the emotions and events from that period that those smells conjure up, and the ways in which your memories may have been colored by your preference or distaste of those smells.
Walden, a Game is a new video game to be released this spring that tasks players with activities inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s time spent in solitude and reflection at Walden Pond in nineteenth-century Massachusetts. In the game, the player’s feelings of inspiration “can be regained by reading, attending to sounds of life in the distance, enjoying solitude and interacting with visitors, animal and human.” Write an essay exploring your personal opinions of solitude as exemplified by a memory from a time when you chose to be alone. How, and why, did it help or hinder your emotional state?
Have you ever taken a job you didn’t want in order to support yourself? In “The Meaning of Work,” an episode of NPR’s TED Radio Hour, psychologist Barry Schwartz asks, “Why is it that, for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, the work they do has none of the characteristics that gets us up and out of bed and off toward the office every morning?” Write an essay in which you explore Schwartz’s question by recounting your own work experiences. Has anything surprised you? Consider what your dislike or delight with certain jobs reveals about your own ideas regarding the purpose of work.
Poet, jazz musician, woodcarver, multimedia artist, painter. A variety of hidden talents may in fact lie behind the familiar faces of an apartment building porter, doorman, handyman, or other neighborhood figure. Write an essay about a time when you learned about someone’s secret skill or hidden talent. What are the assumptions that accumulate when you only encounter someone in a professional or public capacity? What might be inspiring or exciting about the idea that anyone—perhaps even everyone—may have a hidden talent?
Cabbages, pumpkins, eggs, sugar, honey, fleas, gazelles, doves—all are terms of endearment lovingly used in different cultures and languages. Think of a pet name you have used for a loved one, or one that has been used for you, and write an essay exploring your memories of the word or phrase’s usage. Is the term connected to a specific story or event? Is it used during particular moods? Does it soothe or ruffle feathers? Consider how these terms reflect a certain aspect of your relationships.
A travel website recently compiled a world map showcasing the slogans of different countries, most of which were created by tourism boards to promote tourism. Take a look at the wide variety of national slogans, or find the slogan or motto of a U.S. city or state you’re familiar with, and write an essay inspired by the phrase. Explore the ways in which the slogan touches upon the projected image or desired impression of your locale, and how it might resonate or conflict with your own memories.
Last month, “bundespraesidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung” was voted Austria’s word of the year, which roughly translated means “postponement of the repeat runoff of the presidential election.” Likewise, words tied to politics such as “xenophobia,” Dictionary.com’s word of the year; Oxford Dictionaries’ term for 2016, “post-truth;” and Merriam-Webster’s plea for users to stop looking up the word “fascism” to prevent it from becoming its word of the year (“surreal” was the eventual winner) reflected what was on everyone’s minds last year. What was your word of the year for 2016? Write a short essay where you explore your interactions with that word and its meaning. Look up the word’s etymology for a deeper exploration.