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.
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.
Homes often feel like they contain the energy of those who live there. Once the occupants are gone, whether they've moved on to another home or passed away, the house may suddenly feel vacant, even when the furnishings and decor remain. This week, write about a home or place so special you would consider it sacred, and how you felt when that space underwent a significant change. Recall fond memories and the absence experienced in that space.
This week, write a map leading to where you live. Start as close or far from your home as you wish and trace the paths, obstacles, and landmarks that lead you to your door. Think about who you're creating this map for and when they would have an occasion to use it. How would you describe the geography of your neighborhood to someone who's never been there? Consider the elements that are special to you and make where you live feel like home. For inspiration, read David Connerley Nahm's installment of Writers Recommend.
In Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Holmes says, “Any truth is better than infinite doubt.” This week, take a moment to reflect on what have become your personal truths, based on your own investigation and experience. Perhaps, as Christopher McCandless did in the Alaskan wilderness, you've discovered that “happiness is only real when shared.” Explore what you stand for, what you value, and how you measure your life experiences. Then express these thoughts in a personal essay.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde remarks, "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." As we grow older, it is inevitable that we start noticing patterns of behavior or little quirks that remind us of our parents or guardians. Is there anything that you do that reminds you, or others, of the person who raised you? Perhaps you've perfected her bubbly giggle, or her signature side-eye glance. Maybe you've inherited her talent for crossword puzzles, or the way she bursts into song at any moment? Write a personal essay about those reminiscent traits that impact who you are today.
In Medieval Gaelic and British culture, bards were poets and musicians who were employed to commemorate the stories of their patrons. Imagine you are a bard, and you have been hired by a friend or family member to recant a particular tale of bravery, loyalty, or heroism. Perhaps your best friend just trained to run a marathon, or your brother got all A's on his finals. Then write your piece and regale your “patron” with it the next time you see him or her. Make your language dramatic and lyrical, and incorporate some meter or rhyme if you like. For examples, revisit Shakespeare's work, or read the lyrics of some of Bob Dylan's popular songs, like "Tangled Up In Blue."
When was the last time you looked through old pictures? This week, set aside some time to revisit photographs of yourself from the past. Pick one and write an essay from the point of view of your younger self. Try to recall what you were feeling in that moment. Have your feelings changed over the years?
This week, think back to the most memorable meal you've ever had. What made it so unforgettable? Perhaps it was the food, the company, the setting, the occasion, or an awkward moment. Write a personal essay about this meal and the symbolism surrounding it.
This week, think about the things you find beautiful. Make a list of the items, structures, scents, and scenes that you find particularly appealing. Are there any entries on that list that might be considered unusual? For example, some people find the smell of gasoline pleasant or a high-voltage neon shade of pink alluring, while others are attracted to industrial architecture. Pick one of these entries and write about why you find it so beautiful.
Sometimes you need to finish writing your piece before you can give it a proper title. This week, pick the title first and write your personal essay around it. If something doesn't immediately come to mind, try and model your title after one of your favorite stories, books, albums, or movies. Then, free write for twenty minutes on anything and everything that your title brings to mind. At the end, organize your notes and use them as a framework for your personal essay.
British writer Will Self advises, “Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea forever.” This week, try carrying a notebook around with you. If you take notes on an electronic device, like your computer or mobile phone, try using old-fashioned pen and paper. At the end of the week, compile your notes into an essay about your day-to-day reflections.
While building our vocabularies, we often learn new words based on the rest of a sentence or passage we’re reading. This can lead to some made-up definitions that can go uncorrected for years, even decades. This week, write an essay about a word or phrase that you thought you completely understood, yet recently found out meant something different. Has the habit of using this word become ingrained in your everyday speech? Do you prefer your own definition to the official one?
Is it necessary to be vulnerable if you want to become closer with someone? This week, write an essay that gives advice to those looking to be more open with the people they know. Use your personal experience to discuss whether vulnerability has helped create stronger connections, or if an alternative experience offered positive results for tighter bonds.
This week, write an essay using exactly one hundred words. Pick a concept you’ve been thinking about recently, like daylight savings time, or a personal story someone’s reminded you of recently, like when you learned to ride a bike. It doesn’t take long to write one hundred words, but you must make every one of them count.
“Let it be known: I did not fall from grace. / I leapt / to freedom.” The ending of Ansel Elkin’s poem "Autobiography of Eve" is packed with confidence. Write an essay reflecting on a time when you felt a similar sense of empowerment. Maybe you ended a stifling relationship, or went back to school to train for a new career? Write about the initial fear and the certitude of your actions.
The term “ultracrepidarianism,” or the habit of giving opinions and advice on issues outside one’s scope of knowledge, comes from a comment made by Greek artist Apelles to a shoemaker who criticized one of the artist’s paintings. The phrase “Sutor, ne ultra crepidam,” essentially means that the shoemaker should not judge beyond his own soles. This week, write an essay on the value of voicing opinions regardless of your expertise on the subject matter.
Forgiving someone can be difficult, and at times might seem impossible. We’ve all been asked to overlook mistakes, understand the blunderer’s side of the story, and trust that her intentions were pure. But when was the last time you listened to your own pleas and forgave yourself? If there’s something from the past that still upsets you, write a letter to yourself asking for forgiveness. If you feel you’ve achieved inner peace over an issue, write about what the journey was like to get to that state of mind.
The interplanetary travel nonprofit Mars One is holding a competition for those eager to be the first humans to live on Mars. One of the finalists has said, “If I die on Mars, that would be an accomplishment.” Would you ever volunteer for such a mission? Do you have what it takes to survive on a desolate, desert planet? Write about how you’d feel if you got the opportunity to leave Earth. What would you miss, and what would you be glad to leave behind?
This week, write about a time when you were out of your element, immersed in a community or culture that you felt was very different from your own. Observe your own behavior as an anthropologist would. Write about how this relocation and disorientation affected the way you reacted to the people around you, and caused you to reflect on yourself.
The recent announcement that the shell of Cadbury’s crème egg will no longer be made with their signature dairy milk chocolate has been met with great dismay by those who count the confection among their favorite treats. Has one of your favorite treats undergone a similar alteration? Maybe your local pizza place changed up their classic marinara sauce, or the coffee shop where you get your daily latte now uses a sweeter brand of soy milk. Write about why this alteration had an effect on your life and what you did to overcome the change.
How important is stability to you? Sometimes comfort and routine can stifle creativity, but too much risk and uncertainty may create anxiety. Write a personal essay examining how stable your life seems and whether you think the level of stability could be adjusted. Now might be the time to finally settle down and get to work, or to set off into uncharted territory. Tap into your instincts and listen to them.
It’s been said that the difference between a master and a beginner is that, “the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.” Whether it’s brewing coffee exactly the way you like it, or earning your black belt in a martial art, learning something new takes focus and dedication. Think about something you have mastered and write about the process you underwent to add this new skill to your repertoire.
There's only so much you can carry with you before the weight becomes unbearable. Take a moment to think about all the things you haul around with you. First, focus on your physical burden. What do you keep inside your messenger bag, purse, pocketbook, or backpack? How much does it weigh? What do these things mean to you—and why do you keep them within reach every day? Consider carrying only the absolute necessities and write about how your load has been lightened. Then try to do the same thing with your mind. Write down everything that you feel has been cluttering up your thoughts lately. Now that you've written it down, give yourself permission to stop thinking about these things. Take a deep breath and turn to a clean page.
Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said, “I like to compare the holiday season with the way a child listens to a favorite story. The pleasures in the familiar way the story begins, the anticipation of familiar turns it takes, the familiar moments of suspense, and the familiar climax and ending.” What would you compare the holiday season to? This week, write a personal essay on the momentum of the winter holidays and how they carry you through to the new year.
An old song goes: “Make new friends but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.” Does making new friends come naturally to you, or is it easier said than done? Do you use social media sites like Facebook to make new connections, or do you prefer to meet new people at social events? This week, write a personal essay reflecting on how you get to know people, and how they become a part of your life.