The letter is one of the earliest and most widely practiced forms of the personal essay: It tells a story about the author's life; it poses questions; and, perhaps most important, it's a way of connecting to a reader. Write a letter to someone you know, keeping the basic tenants of the personal essay in mind. The letter should be about you, but should also somehow address a larger question or idea. For inspiration, check out Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road (Grossman, 1970), a collection of letters that documents her years-long correspondence and relationship with the owners of Marks & Co., a bookstore in London.
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.
Write a story in which one of the following objects triggers a flashback: a child’s keyboard, a bag of Werther’s Original Caramels, a taxidermied animal, a bar of lavender soap, or an old travel brochure.
In his poem “Refrigerator, 1957” (originally published in the New Yorker, July 28, 1997), Thomas Lux writes about a jar of “lit-from-within red” maraschino cherries that, as a boy, he never ate from. Write a poem about something that you longed for when you were younger, but was always off-limits.
Write a poem whose title is “Preface to________.” Fill in the blank. Is the poem a preface to a love note? A preface to a confession? Write the poem as if it were an introduction to another written work.
The summers of youth—and the unparalleled magic carried with them—have inspired many great works of literature. In "Once More to the Lake," E. B. White's classic coming-of-age essay about the August when he was twelve, the author writes: "Summertime, oh summertime, pattern of life indelible, the fade proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweet fern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end." Write an essay about being a child in the summertime. It may be about one particular moment or one particular summer, or about the season as a whole. For inspiration, read White's essay or Ray Bradbury's semi-autobiographical novel about summer and youth, Dandelion Wine.
Write a story in which you present no detailed descriptions of the characters, major or minor. The information the reader gleans about the characters in the story—their motivations, their gender, their personalities, even their looks—must be conveyed entirely through what they say. Observe how this reliance on dialogue changes the way you go about structuring the story.
Write an epistolary poem in which you apologize to the recipient of the letter. Read “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams and “I Had Just Hung Up From Talking to You” by Jessica Greenbaum for two examples.
In literature of every genre, some of the most interesting reflection takes place in transit. Write about a time when you were in transit of some kind—on a train, plane, bus, or bike, in a car or even on foot. Write about where you were going and why, and focus on what you were thinking, seeing, and feeling as you moved.
Revise a story by rewriting the story in the opposite order from which it first appeared. Start with the ending, and find your way back toward the original opening. Restructure the story so this new order makes sense.
Read James Richardson’s aphorisms or “ten-second essays." Pick one that resonates with you, and use the aphorism as an epigraph or starting off point for a poem.
In June 2012, Matthew and Michael Dickman released Fifty American Plays (Poems) (Copper Canyon Press), a book of poem-plays about the fifty American states. Choose a state (or region or country outside of the United States) that you feel a deep connection to and write a poem about it. Give the reader a sense of the landscape and mood you associate with the place. As an additional challenge, try to convey a sense of the location without ever naming it in the poem.
As Tolstoy's axiom goes, "All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." Freewrite for ten minutes about each of these premises, then turn one—or both—into an essay.
Write a piece of flash fiction in the style and form of a recipe. In composing the preparation steps, reveal bits of the fictional recipe-writer’s life. Try to give the reader a sense of the person behind the recipe by giving an emotional dimension to the instructions. For inspiration, read Steve Himmer’s “How to Make Potato Salad.”
Describe one of your earliest recollections of fear. What caused you to be afraid? What sensations—physical, mental, emotional—do you recall? How did you react? Next, describe a similar experience you've had as an adult. In what ways have your responses to fear changed since you were young? In what ways have they remained the same?
Write a story in which only five minutes pass between the beginning of the story and the end. Experiment with the ways in which you can draw out these five minutes, through interior monologue, flashbacks, switching between different points of view, and other storytelling techniques.
In her essay “The Art of Finding” originally published in American Poet in 2006, Linda Gregg advises poets to be more attuned to the physical world and to find concrete images that possess a special vibrancy. Gregg writes about how she asks her students to keep “a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things.” Try this exercise for one week, and at the end of the week, use two images from your journal in a poem.
Write a story in which the central relationship is between a human and a machine. The machine can be a common household item, such as a toaster, or something imagined and altogether more sinister.
Write a poem that begins with a description of a photograph you have in your possession. Delve into the memories evoked by the photograph, or reveal what personal significance the photograph has for you. For inspiration, read Natasha Trethewey’s “History Lesson.”
Writing fiction in the first-person plural is notoriously tricky. Challenge yourself to write a short story—or a section of a short story—from the first-person plural. Read Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” for insight on how a collective narrator can enhance a story and/or produce unexpected effects.
In a 2008 Paris Review interview with Kay Ryan, she explains her neologism “recombinant rhyme”—a craft technique of stashing “rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middle.” According to Ryan, “snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem” allows her to “get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.” Take a poem of yours that could use more musicality, and revise it to include recombinant rhyme.
The erasure is a poetic form created by obscuring words and phrases from an existing text and using those that remain to construct a poem. Apply the erasure to an essay. Make a copy of three or four pages of your favorite essay. Then, using a black marker or Wite-out, compose a short lyric essay by selecting certain words on the pages and erasing the rest.
Write a nonfiction piece of no more than 500 words. It could be anything from a single scene to a complete micro essay—either way, try to utilize the same techniques and structure that you would for a full-length piece. For inspiration, check out Brevity, an online journal dedicated to the art of flash nonfiction.
Write a story in which the protagonist is "perfectly ordinary" (however you choose to define "ordinary") in every way except for one obvious trait. Follow how this one trait sets in motion the story’s central conflict or turn.
Choose one of your poems that needs revision. Give it to five friends and ask each of them to create an audio version of it by reading it into your telephone answering machine or recording themselves reading it and sending you the audio file. Listen to the five audio versions for places where the rhythm or musical qualities of the poem fall away or sound flat. Use these readings to revise the poem.
Research the news for an event or incident that occured during your life or during the life of a close relative. It could be an historic sports event involving your home team, a crime that happened in your town or city, or something else that had a significant effect on the people nearby, such as the building of a major bridge or highway. Write an essay about this event, blending it with anecdotes from your (or your relative's) life that took place during the same time the event occured. Use the personal to elucidate the historic and vice versa.