Nonfiction Prompts

Allow me first to direct you to the page where there are some useful notes about what nonfiction is.

Okay. Let’s begin. Keep in mind that any of the following could be a quick-hitter of, say, 750 words or so — and/or they can all be tricked out to take up 2,500 words or more.

750-Word Autobiography. Back in the day, we used to ask CW applicants to include an “autobiography” in their portfolio — though, for some reason, we asked them to write it in third person. (?!)

Approximately 96.37% of all applicants started this assignment something like this:

On [birthdate], [name] was born in [place of birth], and [gender appropriate possessive pronoun] parents were very happy…

And then they proceeded to give a warp-speed chronological account of their lives up to the present moment.

Give or take.

Luckily, I’m not asking you to do that. I am asking you to write an essay about yourself in 500 – 750 (Behn’s essay below is 748) words of well-crafted nonfiction prose that says something fundamental (i.e., True, Essential) about who you are in the here-and-now. Try to focus on a specific place or object or rite of passage (or perhaps some combination thereof) — as opposed to trying to tell your entire life story.

Here’s an example: Robin Behn’s “Instrumental.”

Fan Letter. In 1903, a 19-year-old student named Franz Kappus wrote what amounted to a fan letter to his favorite poet. He also sent him some of his own poems, asked him if he’d let him know what he thought. The poet in question was Rainer Maria Rilke, who was A) making a name for himself as a rising star in the world of poetry at that time and is B) now considered one of the most important/influential poets of the 20th century. What resulted from Kappus’s initial letter — much to Kappus’s delight and surprise — was a back-and-forth correspondence that lasted five years and ultimately became Letters to a Young Poet. (If you want to, you can read the letters on-line here.)

I want you to take a page from Franz Kappus’s book and write a letter to a living artist you admire. Doesn’t have to be a poet. Could be a novelist or a story writer. Could be a musician or a dancer or a director. Etc. And this person doesn’t even have to be famous — Rilke had published a couple of books by the time he received Kappus’s letter, but he wasn’t Rilke yet. (Kappus knew of him mostly because they went to the same school, though they weren’t there at the same time.) The artist you choose doesn’t have to be a megastar. Just as long as this artist’s work inspires you in a real way in the here and now.

What should you write? Write about your own creative life. Explain what this weird place called ASFA is and why you’re here. Ask questions. Ask for advice. Explain how and why this artist’s work inspires you. Try to engage this person as a fellow artist, albeit one who’s (probably) older and more experienced. This is a place for you to engage the voice of the essayist. Aim to create a compelling persona whose questions are as valid/vibrant/provocative as your assertions.

Think about points of connection you share with this artist. In Kappus’s case, he attended the same school Rilke had attended and they were both mentored by the same teacher. But you don’t need to have that close a connection.

Consider this interview with the musician Glen Hansard who, when he met Bob Dylan, engaged him in conversation about their shared love of Woody Guthrie. If you can’t think of a particular connection, feel free to go in search of one. Hint: interviews, reviews, bios, and liner notes are good places to start. You don’t HAVE to find such a connection but the chances are, if this person’s work moves you in a real way, this sort of connection is probably there somewhere.

Explanatory Essay. Write an essay that explains how something works or how something happened. Take the opportunity to be humorous and/or ironic.

Experiential Essay. Write about a unique experience you’ve had, preferably something you did with the express intention of writing about it later. Don’t do anything dangerous or illegal.

Food Essay. Evoke place (and/or the character of a real life person or persons) through writing about food.

Travel Essay. Write an essay about a trip to some noteworthy place that’s foreign to you. Keep in mind that “noteworthy” is a bendy term. A lobster festival in Maine is noteworthy. Paris is noteworthy. So is Andalusia, Alabama.

Photo Essay. Make a photo essay of a relatively common place — someplace a lot of other people wouldn’t really find beautiful. Write an in-depth companion essay-ish shard sort of thing, in which you bombard the page with all your linguistic/lyrical powers. Make it “artsy.” Make it beautiful.

Family Essay. Write a family story, preferably one that has more than one version. Try to express — explicitly or implicitly — what role this story plays in your family’s identity.

Place Essay. Write a personal essay that evokes a particular place and that fully characterizes the people in it.

  • Pick a place where you have some history but where you can also return for a while to sit and observe (AKA: notice and document). Try, also, to find a place that is peopled.
  • In the process of this noticing, evoking, and characterizing, try to reveal something about yourself — but do it obliquely. Don’t come right out and say it. Instead, try to let the things you notice and the way you convey them do the work of this personal revelation.
  • Also: maybe this is a lyric essay?

Profile Essay. Let’s start with an example. From the NYT. It’s about singer/songwriter Katell Keineg. Our world abounds in profiles, especially on television, especially of people who are considered celebrities. You encounter them all the time.

Your task is to profile somebody who isn’t a celebrity. Someone in your general sphere of existence. The first trick is to notice an interesting person — what’s interesting about this person? what do you think you already know about her/him? what do you want to know more about? Then spend time with this person. Preferably on different occasions, in different settings. Write about the experience. Period. That’s it.

  • It’s okay — in fact, it’s encouraged — for you to be in this essay too.
  • You don’t have to tell this person’s entire life story — in fact, it’s discouraged. Focus. Tell a specific story that captures something essential about who this person is.
  • Please do include actual quotes from this person. (A tape recorder would be a big advantage.) The rules of dialogue apply. Fold it into the narrative.