In her collection of essays An Alphabet for Gourmets (Viking, 1949), celebrated food writer M. F. K. Fisher uses such disparate subjects as gluttony, literature, and zakuski (a Russian hors d’oeuvre) as frames for writing about her beliefs on gastronomy, life, and how they’re always connected. In the style of Fisher, choose a subject for a letter in the alphabet—A is for Aging, R is for Rib Eyes, W is for Wanderlust—and write your own essay about the interplay between cooking and eating and your own life.
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.
Ekphrasis is a term commonly applied to poetry, in which a poem describes, or is inspired by, a work of art, often a painting or a sculpture. More broadly, it can be attributed to any genre of writing in response to a work of art. Think of the first film, photograph, painting, or song that left a strong impression on you. Spend some time experiencing it again, and then write an ekphrastic personal essay. Focus on why it resonates with you, and explore the memories, feelings, associations, and observations that surface.
Imagine that you’ve been chosen to be the representative of your neighborhood and tasked to fill a time capsule that will be sealed and buried for one hundred years. Write a letter to future inhabitants who may unearth and open your time capsule. Describe the items you've included and explain their value and importance in the world today. Would you choose technological products, favorites books, or personal photographs or letters? What would you hope to offer the future through your selections?
Think of a song that you would consider a lifelong favorite, even if your love for it now is attributed more to a strong sense of nostalgia than to your current musical tastes. Does hearing the song unexpectedly on the car radio or in a restaurant suddenly transport you to a different time or instantly change your mood? Write a personal essay about the memories you have associated with the song, and how the lyrics might have resonated with a certain significance in your past. How has your understanding and appreciation of the song evolved?
Research a paranormal story or legend native to your community. Write an essay that meditates on its origins, its historical context, how it characterizes your community today, and what reservations or questions it stirs up in you. Whether you’re the deepest skeptic or the most willing believer, how you engage with these supernatural tales can reveal a lot about your mind and imagination.
Write a letter to a friend you’ve lost touch with for at least ten years—perhaps you haven’t spoken to each other because of a falling-out or one of you moved to a new town. What do you remember about the last time you saw this person? Reflect upon the ways in which you have changed and remained the same from who you were ten years ago. Examine the emotions that surface when you think about this old friend and your relationship, and the physical places that your memories take you.
The term "urban legend" refers to contemporary myths often connected to popular culture that are recounted to entertain and/or explain random events. Write an essay using an urban legend as a jumping-off point for probing into what you find entertaining or unsettling. For inspiration, you might consider the stories of Bloody Mary, exploding Pop Rocks, bodily spider infestations, or alligators in the sewer.
Whether or not you believe in astrology, it can be an engaging exercise to contemplate the authority of a prediction based solely on your birthdate. Look up your current horoscope in a newspaper or online, and take note of how the forecast characterizes your astrological sign. Which particular elements of the horoscope’s characterizations do you find yourself immediately agreeing with? If you find yourself mostly in disagreement, what would you predict for yourself instead? Using the second-person voice, write an essay in the form of an astrological forecast. Describe how you foresee the upcoming month in terms of love, finances, home, and spiritual matters, and cite how these predictions are justified by your personality traits. Or, if you’d prefer, write an essay against astrology, pointing out the flaws in such pseudoscientific systems of divination, and examining what it is about your personality that opposes them.
October begins today. Pick a memory, moment, image, object, or idea that holds the essence of the month in your mind. Explore this entity from multiple angles: the visual, literal, historical, and metaphorical. Perhaps it is rooted in nature or childhood, in a color or flavor. Examine your associations with the month and how your perceptions have changed over the years.
This week, think of a television commercial you saw recently, or one that you recall vividly from your childhood. Write an essay exploring why this particular advertisement is still stuck in your head. Did you covet the product being sold? Was there an actress or tagline that evoked a certain feeling or emotion? Does the commercial bring you back to a familiar time or place?
This week, look to the name of your street for inspiration. Or if you prefer, choose the name of a previous street you lived on, or a particularly fascinating street name in your city or town. Is the street designated for a famous person, a defining local feature, or a natural landmark? Are there Dutch, Spanish, or Native American roots to the name? Write an essay about the street’s origin, and how the name might be fitting or outdated. Reflect on the ways you connect with where you live, and how your own history intertwines with the streets names that surround you.
This week, think back to your childhood, and the teachers who taught you through elementary and middle school. Choose one of your former teachers and write a list of his most distinctive characteristics—maybe a bizarre hairstyle, his old blue car, or a rumor you remember about him. Write an essay reflecting on what makes this teacher memorable and significant in your life, what you might say if you bumped into him today. Would either of you have any regrets to discuss?
In Mary Karr's new book, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), she writes that "from the second you choose one event over another, you're shaping the past's meaning." Think of a significant event from your past that you've written about before. Make a list of three other events or changes that were occurring in your life around that same time. Write an essay about one of these "secondary" events, focusing on deriving personal or emotional meaning out of this seemingly less impactful event.
This week, choose a pair of shoes that you own or have owned that has significance to you. Perhaps it's the first pair of dress shoes that you purchased, the well-worn sneakers that you wear over and over again, or a pair of shoes that you've never worn but can't bear to toss out. Write an essay about your connection to these shoes, describing them in detail and thinking about the specific qualities that drew you to them in the first place. What do they say about your personality? Where have they accompanied you already, and where might they take you in the future?
When something major happens in our lives, we often put some time between us and the event before we write about it. But sometimes, when we let too much time pass, the intense emotion of the event fades and is replaced by a more analytic, objective memory of the incident. In order to channel that sense of immediacy, put yourself back at the scene of a significant incident, right in the middle of the action. Something life-changing is happening to you at this very moment. Report on it. Make your statements short, energized, and to the point. Be sure you cover the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of the story. Sensationalize at your discretion. Skim over nitpicky details if necessary in order to get to the heart of the story.
Think of a situation from your past when you were unsure of what to do and wished for someone's advice or opinion. Describe the scenario and ask specific questions about your next course of action, as if you were posing the issue to an advice columnist. Then, write an essay in the form of an advice column response to yourself. Analyze the situation objectively—cite relevant anecdotes, examples, or hypothetical outcomes—and share words of guidance, insight, and encouragement with your past self.
Postcards sent to friends and family from far-off places often have a "Wish you were here!" sentiment. This week, think of someone who's located far away from you, and write a postcard to him or her with the opposite outlook of "Wish I was there!" Explore what exactly it is about "there" that seems so appealing. What are the most striking differences between where you are and where you wish to be? Depict a vivid scenario in just a few, succinct sentences by focusing on sensory descriptions of that distant locale.
The concept of the American road trip has compelled many writers—Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Tom Wolfe, Cheryl Strayed, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few—to pen memoirs or novels exploring themes of exploration, adventure, and discovery. Take inspiration from this map of American literary road trips from Atlas Obscura, and write a short travel essay of your own. Recount your experience whether it’s making the journey from your front door to a neighbor's house, or to a city you’re never explored. Find the balance that feels right for you between observations of physical or geographical details, and the interior landscape of emotions and memories.
This week, pick one thing you personally associate with summer: maybe it's eating a particular flavor of ice cream on a sweltering night, the whirring sound of a ceiling fan as you fall asleep, or the smell of sunscreen. Write an essay inspired by your recollections—think back to your earliest memory of the activity and the people or places connected to it. Reflect on how your relationship to this one summer specific sensation might have evolved over the years, and why it remains so vivid.
Heidi Julavits's book The Folded Clock (Doubleday, 2015) takes the form of a diary, each entry beginning with "Today, I...." This week, write an essay starting with this same phrase, and recount a straightforward event or observation that occurred earlier in the day. Then allow yourself to stray from describing the basic details of that incident, and go on to explore other memories that spring to mind, reflecting on how this event may provide some unexpected clarity to your life.
Virginia Woolf said: "Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works." Think of one thing you've never told anyone before: something you once did and kept secret, or simply a thought you've had that has never been disclosed. Write an essay about your secret. Explore your reasons behind keeping it hidden and why you feel that it’s time for a confession.
What happens when you tell the story of a real event from another person’s point of view? Think of a situation in which you disagreed with someone—it could be a slight difference in taste or a fight with far-reaching consequences—and recount the opposing opinions each of you expressed. In the first-person voice, write an essay about the disagreement from the other person’s perspective. Take into consideration how the words you uttered during the event could be interpreted differently by the other person.
Writer John Berger says: “What makes me write is the fear that if I do not write, something which ought to be said will not be.” This week, make a list of five things that you feel urgently need to be said about current events. Choose one of them and write an essay expressing your personal opinions—recount related anecdotes, share emotions, and reflect on why this matter is important to you.
“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.” These words of wisdom from Special Agent Dale Cooper, a character in David Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks, are extremely important to remember—especially when you feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. Write about your pleasures, guilty or otherwise, and how they enhance your life. If you treat yourself to the same thing every day, like a morning Starbucks latte, does it still feel special? Or has it become more of a habit? Maybe you need to expand your definition of the word present. Sometimes moments of peaceful solitude, like taking a walk to the park during your lunch break or soaking in a hot bath before bed, can be just enough.
We have dictionaries and encyclopedias to provide us with official definitions, but sometimes the personal definitions we construct take precedence. These personal definitions may be created from experiences, memories, the opinions of others, or the truths we've come to discover. This week, choose a word you've created your own definition for and write a personal essay in the style of a dictionary entry. Begin with the pronunciation, the part of speech, and origin of the term. Then go on to state the definition and historical significance of the word.