While some people vow not to make any resolutions for the New Year, others are busy drawing up fresh goals—often involving self-improvement measures such as diet and exercise regimens; reading more; picking up a new language or hobby; or improving a financial situation. For 2016, turn your gaze outward and write a list of three resolutions, each focused on a different person in your life. It may be a close friend or family member, or someone you come into contact with on a daily basis but with whom you are only superficially acquainted—a neighbor, coworker, mail carrier, or coffee-shop barista. Write a trio of short essays in which you imagine what you can add to your encounters with each person in the coming year to invigorate your interactions. Predict how small gestures can potentially propel you into a dynamic new direction.
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.
“I didn’t want to write a biography…. But I fell in love.” Terese Svoboda writes about her experience working on a biography of poet Lola Ridge in “The Art of Biography: Falling In and Out of Love” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Who would you choose if your next project was a biography of a historical figure? Write an essay about the personal traits or accomplishments that draw you to this person, and explore the ways in which your fascination with him or her may reveal insights about your own character.
Banded Woolly Bear caterpillars that live in the Arctic have such short feeding periods that they cycle through several years of freezing solid in the winter where their bodies produce a natural antifreeze substance that thaws in the spring. They feed in the summer and then emerge as moths. Write an essay in which you examine your own basic seasonal rituals, such as winter reading or spring cleaning. How do they relate to your survival skills? Have your habits adapted to fit your needs and goals?
What’s your greatest fear, your singular phobia? Is it heights, snakes, or spiders? Write an essay that investigates your phobia—not its subject, but the fear itself—across history, culture, and science. Can treatises on your fear be located in ancient texts? Or do you suffer a more modern affliction, one that says as much about you as it does about our present day? Treat the subject as a nucleus around which you can spin research, criticism, and personal perspective.
Call Me Ishmael is an innovative, multi-platform project founded by Logan Smalley and Stephanie Kent, and featured in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. Readers can call a phone number, leave a message relaying a story of how a particular book has been life-changing, and visitors to a website can access over a thousand of these recorded stories. Write a personal essay you might want to record about a book that has changed your life in a small or big way. What was it about this book that impacted or inspired you? What was unique about your reading experience that you would wish to pass on to others?
The holiday season often means traveling short or long distances to spend time with family and friends. You might find yourself in a car, bus, train, subway, plane, or perhaps even a combination of several modes of transportation. Write a personal essay about an experience you’ve had while in transit during the holidays. Were there particular memories that surfaced as you looked out a bus window at the passing scenery? Did an unexpectedly funny or fascinating conversation take place with others who happened to be riding with you?
Sometimes the food we disliked as children—spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, raw fish, dark chocolate—we end up finding a taste for later in life. Or we end up getting tired or bored eating the same family dishes over and over, only to discover that, years later, we want to re-create them ourselves when we are in search of feel-good comfort food. Think of a specific dish or food that you used to hate but now love, or vice versa, and write a short essay about how your perceptions of it evolved over time. Describe the physical location, the atmosphere, and the people that you associate with the food, and how those elements might have changed. What do you remember about your emotional state when you ate this dish long ago? What aspects of this specific food induce your sense of nostalgia? How might your change in taste reflect other aspects of your life that have also been transformed?
Write a short personal essay about your relationship with a family member whom you feel is especially different from you. Explore a few memories or observations from your shared experiences over the years. Are there feelings of insecurity or other emotions that are brought up when you consider your differences? How do the disconnects affect your sense of identity and place within your family? Are you able to detect any common bonds?
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.
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.