In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes the punctum as “that rare detail” in a photograph that strikes the viewer. This week, look through old photographs for a detail that captivates your attention. Write about this detail. Why does it draw you in?
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.
This week write about your experience commuting to work. Whether it's the hour-long drive, daily bus route, or your morning walk, try to think about routines you have developed over the years to make your commute productive or enjoyable. If you work from home, you can write about what it's like not having to commute, and how you turn your home environment into a work environment.
Recipes can help bridge generations, reveal unexpected characteristics of a culture, or simply fill an afternoon. Write about a time you had to follow a recipe, whether it was familiar or foreign to you. What was the context? Did you patiently follow the steps or rush through the instructions? Did you improvise? How did the meal turn out?
We’ve all had to pack our belongings into boxes at some point. People move for their jobs, partners, or just to experience a change. This week, reflect on your past moves. Which was your best moving day and which was your worst? What obstacles and challenges (both logistical and psychological) have you faced while moving? What did you learn from the experience?
This week, write about your neighborhood. Try to emphasize its particularities—if you live in a city, this may be the restaurants you frequent, your local newsstand, or the place that begins your commute. If you live in a rural area, it could be the natural world surrounding your home, the roads leading up to your driveway, and the neighbors you’ve known for years. You may wish to begin by making a list of all the features that make your neighborhood memorable.
Most people will sit through dozens of interviews throughout the course of their lives. This week, write a piece reflecting on your own history as an interviewee. When did you sit through your first interview? What was your worst experience in an interview? Do you have any pre-interview routines? This exercise may provide a miniature arc of your career, or it may inspire you to reflect on some previously unexplored memories.
Start with a quotation that stirs you. It can be a passage from a book, a line from a letter, or a statistic from a newspaper. Use this as a springboard for the rest of your writing this week. Do you agree with the quotation? What role does it play in your life? Do you feel indignation at the statistic? Explore your own opinions and values through the words of another writer, or by confronting the implications of a primary source.
Look up the etymology of one of your favorite words and consider its complex and surprising history. The word clue, for instance, developed from the word clew, a ball of thread used to guide a person out of a labyrinth (literally or figuratively). In a page or so, try to weave your personal past with a word while incorporating elements of its etymological development. When did you pick up on a clue that would help you out of a figurative labyrinth?
Though people typically make every effort to appear confident, accomplished, and cheerful to others, we all have flaws and shortcomings. Many people, in fact, are defined on some level by their imperfections. From a fear of flying and substance abuse problems to shopping addiction and weight issues, the inner lives of the people you write about are just as compelling as how they dress or what they say. Write five hundred words about one of your shortcomings, and describe in detail how it affects your life and changed you as a person. Being honest about your life will make you a more empathic writer when characterizing the flaws of others.
As children we unknowingly participate in family traditions. To kids, annual camping trips, making Christmas cookies, and special birthday dinners are simply slices of regular life orchestrated by a benevolent universe. As we become adults, however, our understanding of the universe changes. Family members begin families of their own, and we grow apart from the past while investing more of ourselves into the future of others. Reflect on a family tradition from your childhood. Describe the people, the scene, and circumstances. Bring those who have passed on to life with the power of your words.
Writers often loathe the idea of a New Year's resolution because we constantly make deals and compromises with our creative souls regarding productivity and diligence. Bargaining with our writing vices is a daily battle—one that drives many writers to the precipice of insanity. Sometimes the best resolution isn’t a change in habit, but a change in perspective. Instead of viewing your daily writing regimen as a chore, write six hundred words about why you feel blessed to be a writer. Recall the reasons you became a writer, and detail the reasons to be thankful for the upcoming literary year.
Sometimes the inanimate objects in our lives adopt parts of our beings: a bed assumes the contours of a couple’s sleep, a knitted scarf stretches to accommodate the long neck of a businessman’s windy walks to the subway, a wooden bannister becomes polished by the hands of children running to and from the kitchen. Write five hundred words about a piece of furniture in your home that has somehow incorporated the soul of a person. Focus on textures, sounds, and smells that imbue life into this living object.
“You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying in the road.” This quote from author Richard Price emphasizes the importance and power of details in conveying a larger emotional storyline or the nuances of a complex concept. Reflect on the relationships you’ve had in life—with your family, your friends, or your colleagues—and choose one poignant and definitive memory that involved a sense of loss. Write five hundred words about that loss using carefully selected details to express complicated emotions and interpersonal dynamics.
Conveying how people communicate is a formidable challenge for the creative nonfiction writer because technology has changed—and continues to change—the very fundamentals of human interaction. Describing a series of e-mails or texts relates far less emotional information than depicting a verbal conversation in which a writer can chronicle facial expressions, voice inflections, and other physical details that inform the exchange between characters. But this is our modern reality. Write about an occasion in your life that exemplifies the shortcomings of communicating in the digital age. Capture the sensations of frustration, humor, and confusion that often dramatize miscommunication.
You are not the same person today that you were five years ago. We all change. Creative nonfiction seeks to explore not only the changes we experience as human beings, but also how those changes impact our relationships with family members, friends, and lovers. Our lives are shaped by joy, disappointment, triumph, and loss. Write about someone you love who has changed due to a particular life event. Examine this individual’s shift in attitude, behavior, and demeanor. Write with humanity.
Writing about life from a child’s perspective is challenging. We remember the feelings, thoughts, and concerns we experienced as children, but as writers of creative nonfiction, we must recreate that world and make it accessible to adult readers. Use Thanksgiving Day as a source of inspiration. Watch how the children in your family interact with one another, the adults, the food, and other holiday activities. Write five hundred words that describe Thanksgiving Day from a child's unique point of view.
Keys are a sad part of life. They remind us that the world is untrustworthy and unsafe, and that locks are needed to protect our loved ones and possessions from humanity’s less appealing inclinations. But keys are also filled with memories: a first apartment, a new car, access to a home no longer occupied by a friend. Choose a key from your keychain, or perhaps one abandoned in the back of a kitchen drawer, and write six hundreds about it. Begin with a detailed description of the key and segue into broader, more meaningful thoughts.
We have all experienced Kafkaesque situations in our lives—those moments that are surreal, bizarre, or menacingly illogical, and yet very real. Write about a time when you encountered a Kafkaesque circumstance. Carefully select descriptive words that will effectively represent the complex emotions, weird thoughts, and bouts of confusion that filled your mind and the strange world around you.
Writers share many creative qualities and artistic processes with painters. Both are engaged in the difficult endeavor of portraying oneself through art as an artist. Write six hundred words about you as a writer, manipulating your words and sentences like different brush strokes to create an image of how you perceive your artistic self. Be bold. Be thoughtful. Be candid. Self-portraits are rarely flattering. Art is about truth and true artists never spare themselves.
Halloween costumes reveal much about who we are underneath our contrived, ordinary selves. Think back to your childhood and relive your favorite Halloween costume—why you chose it, what it divulged about you, and how it felt putting on the costume. Something mysterious and compelling happens when we try to be something or someone else. Explore that experience. Write five hundred words.
Everyone has a favorite article of clothing—an inherited wedding dress, a flannel shirt borrowed from an old friend, a warm pair of socks received on Father’s Day. Find an article of clothing that you can’t throw away because of an emotional connection. Write six hundred words describing why this piece of clothing means so much to you, and use it as a source to explore people, time, and how simple objects can possess so much meaning.
People often collect strange things for unknown reasons: ceramic elves from Europe, antique trout fishing lures, bamboo backscratchers from around the world. What we collect often reveals our idiosyncrasies, and therefore our true natures. Recall someone in your life who collected something intriguing or odd. Try to define the attraction, and in the process, bring that person to life.
Our homes are extensions of our souls: the vibrant oil painting of a French villa hanging in the dining room, the tattered couch stained by a child’s bowl of ice cream in the den, the dead, blackened peace lily on an empty bookshelf. Write about the home you were raised in. Focus on the decorations, the furniture, and the items that reveal the most about the people who lived among them. In our homes, everything means something.
We all have scars. Though most do not conjure welcome memories, scars are an important part of our lives—both physically and metaphorically. Scars reveal our vulnerability and human frailty, but also represent our resilience and toughness. Write about a scar you have, how you got it, and what it means to you.
There is truth in medicine cabinets. Despite the lies we tell ourselves and others, our medicine cabinets know us better than anyone. Medicine cabinets are full of worry, memories, encroaching death, and continued life. The prescription bottles, skin moisturizer, and frayed toothbrush reflect our humanity and vulnerability. Study your medicine cabinet. Write an essay about what is in it, and what it says about you.