“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.
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. For weekly writing prompts delivered via e-mail every Friday morning, sign up for our free newsletter.
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.
When a new year begins, we often think of new beginnings or about trying new things. But is there any value in doing the same thing over and over again? In “The Unexpected Joy of Repeat Experiences” in the New York Times, Leah Fessler writes about the tendency for novelty to wear off and champions the pleasure that can be found in repeating the same experiences again and again. This week, when you’re tempted to try something new, make an effort to partake in an activity that you’ve already done before—perhaps eating a meal you’ve prepared before, rewatching a movie, walking in a familiar neighborhood, or looking at a favorite painting in a museum. Write an essay that explores what you discover the second (or third) time around.
Charles Yu’s new novel, Interior Chinatown (Pantheon, 2020), is formatted as a screenplay—with typewriter font, second-person narration, and camera and scene directions—to reflect the narrative’s examination of the stereotypical roles that have historically been played by Asian American actors and how those roles bleed into lived experience. By writing in this style Yu blurs the lines between the performed character and the authentic self, raising questions about assimilation, artifice, and identity. Take inspiration from Yu’s use of this form and think of a past experience in which you felt required to perform or maintain a certain persona. Write a lyric essay that incorporates scenes written like a script or screenplay. How does the form create a sense of distance or defamiliarization? How might this angle provide you with a new perspective or insight?
Man Repeller is a lifestyle website that “explores the expansive constellation of things women care about” with “the conviction that an interest in fashion doesn’t minimize one’s intellect.” Drawing inspiration from their Outfit Anatomy series, where staff members answer questions about how and why they chose their ensemble on a given day, write a personal essay about what you’re wearing for the day. Study each article of clothing, as well as any accessories, and revisit the myriad of thoughts you had in the process of getting dressed. What do these items communicate about you, and what do they hide? Do your clothes reveal a deeper emotional state?
“I really like the idea of continuing. I don’t like the idea of a dance starting and just being really short,” says choreographer Molissa Fenley in a 2018 interview for BOMB when asked about the heavy dose of endurance required for her pieces. “I find, physically, that the metabolic change that takes place in moving for a long time is really interesting. It opens your brain in different ways.” Write an essay where you consider a time when you continued onward with an act, whether physical, mental, or emotional, to the point of exhilaration or exhaustion. How did pushing onward for an extreme amount of time affect you? Score out the experience from beginning to eventual end.
After the death of a close relative, Itaru Sasaki installed a phone booth in his backyard garden in the coastal town of Otsuchi, a glass enclosure where he could speak into a disconnected rotary phone as a way of processing his grief. After the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Sasaki opened his kaze no denwa, roughly translated into “wind phone,” to other community members mourning loved ones. Write a personal essay in the form of a letter or communication to someone no longer in your life. What would you choose to share about your own life and current updates? What feelings, emotions, or sentiments would you want to reiterate to the other person, whether for the hundredth time or for the first time?
“We need to grab the words that have possibility in them and begin using them anew,” writes John Freeman in the prologue to Dictionary of the Undoing (MCD x FSG Originals, 2019). Freeman selects terms from A to Z, from “Agitate,” “Body,” “Citizen,” and “Decency” all the way to “You” and “Zygote,” and writes entries that reclaim, redefine, and expand the definitions of the words to “build a lexicon of engagement and meaning.” Write a lyric essay that borrows this idea, selecting words related to current events of particular importance to you and providing personalized definitions in the form of brief exploratory passages. Reflect on your own experiences, the community around you, and what the future may hold.
This autumn, as you travel to see family, engage in outdoor activities, or plan gifts and meals, pay special attention to the sounds of the season. In “Seeking Silence on a California Road Trip,” National Geographic Traveler editor in chief George W. Stone writes about tracking the sounds he encounters on a summer journey made by airplanes, birds and insects, air conditioners, sand dunes, and crashing waves. “I set out on a 500-mile sound quest that took me from the drumbeat of civilization to nearly noiseless realms. I did not turn on the radio, though occasionally I sang a song that came to mind. I barely spoke; instead I tried to hear whatever came my way.” Jot down notes as you go about your day, then write a personal essay that explores the season’s soundscape. What harmonies do you find between the moments of sound—or noise—and silence?
Earlier this month, art critic Jason Farago wrote a New York Times article advocating for the removal and relocation of the Mona Lisa painting from its place in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Farago argues that the overwhelming popularity and crowding make for untenable viewing conditions, and that the painting itself is perhaps not worth the trouble. Write a personal essay that explores a piece of art—a book, painting, song, film, or live performance—you’ve experienced that left you with a feeling of disappointment. Describe the encounter, and then use the experience as an opportunity to reflect on a comparable work of art that’s underappreciated and deserves more widespread acclaim. How does your emotional response to the artwork affect your preferences?
“I had to write the book for two reasons. The first one was gratitude for all that kept me alive and made life worth living, and the second was vengeance against all that diminishes life,” writes Anne Boyer in an interview about her memoir, The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog. Think of an urgent issue in your own life which has provoked in you both feelings of gratitude and vengeance. Write a personal essay that expresses both of these important emotional states. How do you give voice to these feelings in a complex and productive or healing way?