We’ve all heard the adage “Show, don’t tell.” But in his latest book, To Show and Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (Free Press, 2013), Phillip Lopate argues that the personal essay is perhaps the one form in which it’s not only permissible, but necessary, to do a little telling. “We must rely on the subjective voice of the first-person narrator to guide us, and if that voice never explains, summarizes, interprets, or provides a larger sociological or historical context for the material, we are in big trouble.” With Lopate’s advice in mind, choose a subject for an essay that you’d like to write. Then make a list of the particular kinds of “telling” you’ll need to do in terms of providing background, research, context, and personal experience. Use this list to guide the writing of a first draft.
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.
Believable, fully developed characters serve to engage readers and strengthen your stories. Choose a character from one of your stories-in-progress or imagine a character about whom you’d like to write. Compose a character sketch based on a day in the life of this character. Explore every detail of what this person does and why throughout one day. What are his or her morning rituals and routines? How does he or she go about choosing clothes? What does this person eat? What does the inside and outside of his or her car look like? How does he or she walk and what does it say about this person? Where does he or she go and why? Use this sketch to inform the revision or writing of a story.
Write a Terza Rima, a poem of three-line stanzas in which the end-word of the second line in the first tercet establishes the rhyme for the first and third lines in the following tercet and so on. The poem can have as many stanzas as you’d like, and the rhyme scheme aba, bcb, cdc, ded, etc. continues through the final stanza.
In the age of Facebook and Twitter, some tenets of the personal essay—confession, self-reflection, and cultural investigation, to name a few—have made their way further into the digital mainstream. Some authors have even written entire books on Twitter. With this in mind, create a series of micro-essays using Twitter as a model. They might be slightly disconnected vignettes or they may work to create a larger, more cohesive story. Either way, keep each individual piece to 140 characters and maintain some form of narrative thread throughout. If you’re feeling adventurous, try to utilize things like hashtags, links, and “Tweetspeak.” If you have a Twitter account, consider posting each piece as you finish.
There are two men sitting in the booth of a diner eating dinner together and talking. A woman sits outside in a parked car, watching them through the window. Who are they? What is their relationship to one another? What are the men discussing? What is the woman thinking? What does she do next? Write a story that opens with this scene and explores these questions.
Write a poem of fourteen lines. Instead of using the first person (I), use only the second person (you).
Write an essay about the year that you were born. Research what was happening politically, socially, and environmentally, both in your town or city and around the world. Place yourself and your family among the events of that year, and try to find out where you fit into the picture of what was happening in the world.
In Writers Recommend, author Alix Ohlin writes: “When I’m in direst need of inspiration, I do what I call ‘sentence stealing.’ I find a sentence from a writer I admire and write it down. ‘In the beginning I left messages in the street.’ Or, ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ Then I write my own version of the sentence, focusing only on its rhythms: by which I mean, replacing a noun with a noun, a verb with a verb. What’s left is a ghostly echo of the original sentence with no relationship to its actual content. And I follow that new sentence wherever it takes me, down the road to an unfolding story.” Using Ohlin’s method, write a story of your own.
Choose a word or phrase you find yourself saying often (e.g. like, totally, hate, really, kind of) and write a poem using it as much as possible, turning it over and over, repositioning it, extending it, playing with its uses and the parts of speech into which it can be shaped.
In the classic essay "Notes of a Native Son," James Baldwin writes about his relationship with his father, against the backdrop of a time of racial violence in America. Write an essay about your relationship with a parent and try to relate it to a larger aspect of the society and culture in which you were raised.
Think about a person from history—Anne Boleyn, Martin Luther King Jr., Cleopatra, Abraham Lincoln—whose story you find compelling. Write a summary of this person's life, charting the ups and downs that made it remarkable. Using this summary as a plot, write a story that is set in the present and features a main character from your imagination.
Choose a poem—a classic work or something you've newly discovered—and memorize it. As you do so, note the rhythms, sounds, and structure that help you remember it. To test your memory, and in honor of National Poetry Month, consider reciting it to a friend in person, leaving a recording of it on a friend's voicemail, or sending an audio file of it to one or more friends via e-mail.
Browse through online newspapers for stories that took place on the same day at least ten years apart. Write an imaginative essay, based on these two stories, that moves back and forth between them and ultimately ties them together.
Take a draft of one of your stories and cut it up into sections no longer than three to four paragraphs each. Reorder these sections and revise the story accordingly, writing transitions and discovering connections that lead to a new cohesive structure.
Make a collage inspired by a working draft of one of your poems, using images from books, photographs, magazines, newspapers, and drawings. You may incorporate words as well. Let the transformation of your poem into another medium inform a revision of the poem on the page.
Write a micro essay of 1,000 words in which you incorporate a series of footnotes. Strive to create the footnotes so that they both propel the essay forward and layer it with meaning.
From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus to Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red, there is a long tradition of fiction about monsters. Write a story of your own in which a monster is the main character. The monster could be based on another monster from literature or popular culture or it could be one from your imagination.
Collect phrases and words that you see throughout the day today. Arrange them on the page, using line breaks where they seem to naturally fall. Next, above the lines you’ve recorded, write words and phrases that are somehow related to those on the page, such as synomyms, antonyms, or words that sound or look similar. Rewrite what you’ve recorded replacing the new words with the old. Use this as the first draft of a poem and continue revising it into a finished draft.
Create a timeline that marks the major events of your life. Analyze it, looking for patterns or events that led to a series of others. Based on what you see, write an essay that explores one period of time—it could be a year, two years, a decade, or more. Think about how that time period informs the narrative of your life that you present to your friends, family, and acquaintances.
You walk into a dimly lit room at a party where you’ve arrived with a friend. The walls of the room are lined with reptile cages. Across the room you see someone you recognize, and when you turn to your friend he or she is gone. What happens next?
Today there are fifteen lines of poetry that will present themselves to you in various ways. Some will be visual, some will be spoken. Look and listen carefully. Take the time to record them. Then refine them and use them to craft a poem.
Write an essay about a story or anecdote from your family lore that has never added up. Imagine various details of or revisions to the story that would make it make more sense.
Write a contemporary adaptation of a fairy tale using first-person narration from the point of view of the villain.
Write a poem in the form of a letter to an imaginary friend in which you ask them for help that begins, Dear Friend. Keeping the person or creature or entity you’re writing to in mind, include details and images that reveal your imaginary friend’s characteristics as you craft your entreaty.
One of the challenges of writing memoir is balancing truth and one’s subjective experience of the past. Write an essay about something that happened in your past that involved family or friends who you trust. Send your essay to one or more of these people, and ask them to read it and to point out any differences between how you presented the event and how they remember it. Use their input to revise the essay.