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The Time Is Now

The Best Books for Writers

From the newly published to the invaluable classic, our list of essential books for creative writers.

The most important and underrated factor in a writer’s success is discipline. Talent and luck always help, but having a consistent writing practice is often the difference between aspiring writers and published writers.

The advice we hear from agents, editors, and authors alike is always the same: Focus on the writing. However, finding the time and inspiration to write is not always easy. That’s where creative writing prompts and exercises can help. Writing prompts provide writers with a starting place, an entry point into their writing practice. Sometimes creative writing prompts and exercises result in a workable draft of a story or poem. Other times, they may lead to what can seem like a dead end. But having to generate ideas, being pushed in a direction where you wouldn't normally go in your writing, and just plain putting pen to paper is often enough to provide that crucial dose of inspiration.

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.

Creative Nonfiction Prompts

Writing exercises to help you generate well-crafted narratives.

F is for Food Writing

posted 11.26.15

In her collection of essays An Alphabet for Gourmets (Viking, 1949), celebrated food writer M. F. K. Fisher uses such disparate subjects as gluttony, literature, and zakuski (a Russian hors d’oeuvre) as frames for writing about her beliefs on gastronomy, life, and how they’re always connected. In the style of Fisher, choose a subject for a letter in the alphabet—A is for Aging, R is for Rib Eyes, W is for Wanderlust—and write your own essay about the interplay between cooking and eating and your own life.

Work of Art

posted 11.19.15

Ekphrasis is a term commonly applied to poetry, in which a poem describes, or is inspired by, a work of art, often a painting or a sculpture. More broadly, it can be attributed to any genre of writing in response to a work of art. Think of the first film, photograph, painting, or song that left a strong impression on you. Spend some time experiencing it again, and then write an ekphrastic personal essay. Focus on why it resonates with you, and explore the memories, feelings, associations, and observations that surface.

Time Capsule

posted 11.12.15

Imagine that you’ve been chosen to be the representative of your neighborhood and tasked to fill a time capsule that will be sealed and buried for one hundred years. Write a letter to future inhabitants who may unearth and open your time capsule. Describe the items you've included and explain their value and importance in the world today. Would you choose technological products, favorites books, or personal photographs or letters? What would you hope to offer the future through your selections?

Sad Songs Say So Much

posted 11.5.15

Think of a song that you would consider a lifelong favorite, even if your love for it now is attributed more to a strong sense of nostalgia than to your current musical tastes. Does hearing the song unexpectedly on the car radio or in a restaurant suddenly transport you to a different time or instantly change your mood? Write a personal essay about the memories you have associated with the song, and how the lyrics might have resonated with a certain significance in your past. How has your understanding and appreciation of the song evolved?

Paranormal Investigation

posted 10.29.15

Research a paranormal story or legend native to your community. Write an essay that meditates on its origins, its historical context, how it characterizes your community today, and what reservations or questions it stirs up in you. Whether you’re the deepest skeptic or the most willing believer, how you engage with these supernatural tales can reveal a lot about your mind and imagination.

Letter to an Old Friend

posted 10.22.15

Write a letter to a friend you’ve lost touch with for at least ten years—perhaps you haven’t spoken to each other because of a falling-out or one of you moved to a new town. What do you remember about the last time you saw this person? Reflect upon the ways in which you have changed and remained the same from who you were ten years ago. Examine the emotions that surface when you think about this old friend and your relationship, and the physical places that your memories take you.

Urban Legend

posted 10.15.15

The term "urban legend" refers to contemporary myths often connected to popular culture that are recounted to entertain and/or explain random events. Write an essay using an urban legend as a jumping-off point for probing into what you find entertaining or unsettling. For inspiration, you might consider the stories of Bloody Mary, exploding Pop Rocks, bodily spider infestations, or alligators in the sewer.

Written in the Stars

posted 10.8.15

Whether or not you believe in astrology, it can be an engaging exercise to contemplate the authority of a prediction based solely on your birthdate. Look up your current horoscope in a newspaper or online, and take note of how the forecast characterizes your astrological sign. Which particular elements of the horoscope’s characterizations do you find yourself immediately agreeing with? If you find yourself mostly in disagreement, what would you predict for yourself instead? Using the second-person voice, write an essay in the form of an astrological forecast. Describe how you foresee the upcoming month in terms of love, finances, home, and spiritual matters, and cite how these predictions are justified by your personality traits. Or, if you’d prefer, write an essay against astrology, pointing out the flaws in such pseudoscientific systems of divination, and examining what it is about your personality that opposes them.

My Own Private October

posted 10.1.15

October begins today. Pick a memory, moment, image, object, or idea that holds the essence of the month in your mind. Explore this entity from multiple angles: the visual, literal, historical, and metaphorical. Perhaps it is rooted in nature or childhood, in a color or flavor. Examine your associations with the month and how your perceptions have changed over the years.

Television Commercial

posted 9.24.15

This week, think of a television commercial you saw recently, or one that you recall vividly from your childhood. Write an essay exploring why this particular advertisement is still stuck in your head. Did you covet the product being sold? Was there an actress or tagline that evoked a certain feeling or emotion? Does the commercial bring you back to a familiar time or place?

Street Name

posted 9.17.15

This week, look to the name of your street for inspiration. Or if you prefer, choose the name of a previous street you lived on, or a particularly fascinating street name in your city or town. Is the street designated for a famous person, a defining local feature, or a natural landmark? Are there Dutch, Spanish, or Native American roots to the name? Write an essay about the street’s origin, and how the name might be fitting or outdated. Reflect on the ways you connect with where you live, and how your own history intertwines with the streets names that surround you.


posted 9.10.15

This week, think back to your childhood, and the teachers who taught you through elementary and middle school. Choose one of your former teachers and write a list of his most distinctive characteristics—maybe a bizarre hairstyle, his old blue car, or a rumor you remember about him. Write an essay reflecting on what makes this teacher memorable and significant in your life, what you might say if you bumped into him today. Would either of you have any regrets to discuss?

Reshaping the Past

posted 9.3.15

In Mary Karr's new book, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), she writes that "from the second you choose one event over another, you're shaping the past's meaning." Think of a significant event from your past that you've written about before. Make a list of three other events or changes that were occurring in your life around that same time. Write an essay about one of these "secondary" events, focusing on deriving personal or emotional meaning out of this seemingly less impactful event.


posted 8.27.15

This week, choose a pair of shoes that you own or have owned that has significance to you. Perhaps it's the first pair of dress shoes that you purchased, the well-worn sneakers that you wear over and over again, or a pair of shoes that you've never worn but can't bear to toss out. Write an essay about your connection to these shoes, describing them in detail and thinking about the specific qualities that drew you to them in the first place. What do they say about your personality? Where have they accompanied you already, and where might they take you in the future?

Breaking News

posted 8.20.15

When something major happens in our lives, we often put some time between us and the event before we write about it. But sometimes, when we let too much time pass, the intense emotion of the event fades and is replaced by a more analytic, objective memory of the incident. In order to channel that sense of immediacy, put yourself back at the scene of a significant incident, right in the middle of the action. Something life-changing is happening to you at this very moment. Report on it. Make your statements short, energized, and to the point. Be sure you cover the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of the story. Sensationalize at your discretion. Skim over nitpicky details if necessary in order to get to the heart of the story.

Dear Me

posted 8.13.15

Think of a situation from your past when you were unsure of what to do and wished for someone's advice or opinion. Describe the scenario and ask specific questions about your next course of action, as if you were posing the issue to an advice columnist. Then, write an essay in the form of an advice column response to yourself. Analyze the situation objectively—cite relevant anecdotes, examples, or hypothetical outcomes—and share words of guidance, insight, and encouragement with your past self.


posted 8.6.15

Postcards sent to friends and family from far-off places often have a "Wish you were here!" sentiment. This week, think of someone who's located far away from you, and write a postcard to him or her with the opposite outlook of "Wish I was there!" Explore what exactly it is about "there" that seems so appealing. What are the most striking differences between where you are and where you wish to be? Depict a vivid scenario in just a few, succinct sentences by focusing on sensory descriptions of that distant locale.

Road Trip

posted 7.30.15

The concept of the American road trip has compelled many writers—Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Tom Wolfe, Cheryl Strayed, Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name a few—to pen memoirs or novels exploring themes of exploration, adventure, and discovery. Take inspiration from this map of American literary road trips from Atlas Obscura, and write a short travel essay of your own. Recount your experience whether it’s making the journey from your front door to a neighbor's house, or to a city you’re never explored. Find the balance that feels right for you between observations of physical or geographical details, and the interior landscape of emotions and memories.


posted 7.23.15

This week, pick one thing you personally associate with summer: maybe it's eating a particular flavor of ice cream on a sweltering night, the whirring sound of a ceiling fan as you fall asleep, or the smell of sunscreen. Write an essay inspired by your recollections—think back to your earliest memory of the activity and the people or places connected to it. Reflect on how your relationship to this one summer specific sensation might have evolved over the years, and why it remains so vivid.

Today, I

posted 7.16.15

Heidi Julavits's book The Folded Clock (Doubleday, 2015) takes the form of a diary, each entry beginning with "Today, I...." This week, write an essay starting with this same phrase, and recount a straightforward event or observation that occurred earlier in the day. Then allow yourself to stray from describing the basic details of that incident, and go on to explore other memories that spring to mind, reflecting on how this event may provide some unexpected clarity to your life.

Secret Life

posted 7.9.15

Virginia Woolf said: "Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works." Think of one thing you've never told anyone before: something you once did and kept secret, or simply a thought you've had that has never been disclosed. Write an essay about your secret. Explore your reasons behind keeping it hidden and why you feel that it’s time for a confession.

I Said, You Said

posted 7.2.15

What happens when you tell the story of a real event from another person’s point of view? Think of a situation in which you disagreed with someone—it could be a slight difference in taste or a fight with far-reaching consequences—and recount the opposing opinions each of you expressed. In the first-person voice, write an essay about the disagreement from the other person’s perspective. Take into consideration how the words you uttered during the event could be interpreted differently by the other person.

An Urgent Matter

posted 6.25.15

Writer John Berger says: “What makes me write is the fear that if I do not write, something which ought to be said will not be.” This week, make a list of five things that you feel urgently need to be said about current events. Choose one of them and write an essay expressing your personal opinions—recount related anecdotes, share emotions, and reflect on why this matter is important to you.

Give Yourself a Present

posted 6.18.15

“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.” These words of wisdom from Special Agent Dale Cooper, a character in David Lynch’s television series Twin Peaks, are extremely important to remember—especially when you feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. Write about your pleasures, guilty or otherwise, and how they enhance your life. If you treat yourself to the same thing every day, like a morning Starbucks latte, does it still feel special? Or has it become more of a habit? Maybe you need to expand your definition of the word present. Sometimes moments of peaceful solitude, like taking a walk to the park during your lunch break or soaking in a hot bath before bed, can be just enough.


posted 6.11.15

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.  

Sacred Spaces

posted 6.4.15

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.


posted 5.28.15

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.

Personal Truths

posted 5.21.15

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.


posted 5.14.15

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.


posted 5.7.15

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." 

Old Photographs

posted 4.30.15

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?

Memorable Meal

posted 4.23.15

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. 

Finding Beauty

posted 4.16.15

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.  

Start With a Title

posted 4.9.15

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.


posted 4.2.15

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.

Context Clues

posted 3.26.15

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?


posted 3.19.15

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. 

One Hundred Words

posted 3.12.15

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.


posted 3.5.15

“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.


posted 2.26.15

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.


posted 2.19.15

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.

Life on Mars

posted 2.12.15

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?

Armchair Anthropologist

posted 2.5.15

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.  

Messing With Your Favorites

posted 1.29.15

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.


posted 1.15.15

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.


posted 1.8.15

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. 

Lighten Up

posted 1.1.15

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.

The Holiday Season

posted 12.25.14

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. 

Making New Friends

posted 12.18.14

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. 

A Day in the Life

posted 12.11.14

This week, look at a day in your life through the eyes of an ancestor. How would your grandmother react to the e-mails you get at work? How would your great-great-grandfather navigate modern public transportation? Write a diary entry in the voice of someone from an earlier generation. Consider the cultural norms of the time period your ancestor grew up in as well as his or her personality. Focus on the surprising similarities in your daily lives for a challenge.

Shopping Season

posted 12.4.14

First we had “Black Friday.” Then came “Cyber Monday,” and now, “Gray Thursday.” Holiday shopping is unavoidable, and these deal days have almost achieved a holiday status all their own. This week, write a short personal essay about your attitude towards holiday shopping. Do you look forward to it, or do you dread it? Do you plan to finish your shopping all at once, or do you space it out and plan ahead? 


posted 11.27.14

Thanksgiving is a holiday of abundance, good will, good company, and most importantly, good food. We all have our favorites—that platter or dish we set strategically in front of us and hope nobody asks us to pass. This week, write about the one item in your Thanksgiving feast that you look forward to every year. Is it something you make? If not, who usually makes it? Is it a secret family recipe? In an age when most dishes can be purchased or made on any day of the year, take a moment to reflect on how certain dishes become special. 

Poetry Prompts

Creative guidance for writing poems and experimenting with forms.

At Dawn

posted 11.24.15

As winter approaches, the days are getting shorter and shorter making it a perfect time to write an aubade, a poem set at dawn. Though its tradition is rooted in love poetry, modern masters like Philip Larkin have used the form to muse on the darker side of sunup. Whether in the tradition of John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” or Larkin’s “Aubade,” write your own version that explores how the early hours spin your imagination.

Vocabulary Bank

posted 11.17.15

In “Mermaids and Matryoshkas: The Secret Life of a Poetic Sequence” by Sandra Beasley in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Matthea Harvey talks about "harvesting words from the dictionary... to create the vocabulary bank for new poems." Grab a dictionary, flip through it, and put your finger down on a random page. Record the word you land on and go to the next page and write down the word that appears at the same spot, repeating until you have accumulated a vocabulary bank to work from. Write a poem by constructing surprising associations, perhaps thinking of familiar words in an unexpected way, or drawing a personal connection to a new term.

Eavesdropping on the World

posted 11.10.15

In Writers Recommend, Camille Rankine shares that her ideas and inspiration come from “eavesdropping on the world.” This week, collect phrases from overheard conversations, the radio, TV, or magazine articles. When you have a quiet moment, read over your notes and pick one quote that especially sparks your imaginative impulses. Write a poem that uses the found quote as a first line. Explore your immediate reactions and emotions, and allow those feelings to develop the tone of the lines that follow.

Choice Words

posted 11.3.15

This week, listen to a poem new to you—by a contemporary poet or a bygone poet—and jot down the words, phrases, and images that are most striking or memorable to you. Then write your own poem inspired by this list of words. How do you transform someone else's poetic intuition and choices into a work that demonstrates your personal idiosyncrasies and specific aesthetic sense?


posted 10.27.15

After All Hallows’ Eve comes All Saints’ Day. The good news: Hagiography is a treasure trove of unique material for poems. Write a poem in the voice of a famous saint who has returned for this day. What would he or she make of the modern world? Would the remnants of present-day Halloween festivities leave the saint perplexed, mystified, even horrified? Challenge yourself to make the common rituals of modern life seem foreign and charged with possible meaning.

Literary Obsessions

posted 10.20.15

In “Selected Poems: Looking Back on a Lifetime of Writing” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Donald Hall writes, "A grumpy stranger asked me, 'What do you write about anyway?' I blurted out, 'Love, death, and New Hampshire.'" What would you blurt out if you were asked the same question? Write a poem that draws upon your top three thematic obsessions, whether you instinctively reach for these topics each time you start writing, or enjoy revisiting this material in your work. What fresh insights might the juxtaposition of these three subjects in a single poem bring to light?

Red Planet

posted 10.13.15

In recent years, NASA scientists have found a steadily increasing amount of evidence that liquid water once existed on Mars. These discoveries could lead to scientists’ quest to confirm that the planet has hosted life. Write a poem in which you explore the mysterious possibilities of the red planet, extraterrestrial life, the galaxies and constellations, or the notion of human colonies on other planets. Focus on examining the emotions that emerge when you contemplate the vast unknowns of outer space.

Perfect Strangers

posted 10.6.15

“Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself,” said author Mohsin Hamid in a 2012 interview. Think about a stranger with whom you recently crossed paths. It could be the person who bagged your groceries, stood in front of you in line at the post office, or simply walked by you on the street. What type of situation can you imagine this stranger experiencing? Which emotions or feelings would you project onto this stranger? Write a poem about this imagined event from the stranger's perspective. Concentrate on digging deeply into your own private observations and personal history to capture what sensations might be echoed in another person’s experience.

Ode to Autumn

posted 9.29.15

In “To Autumn,” John Keats personifies the season through descriptions of landscape and life in agrarian England. Write an ode that personifies a modern vision of autumn. Use characteristics of contemporary life: perhaps a new school year, a harvest we no longer see, football and its violence, costumes and horror, or our obsession with pumpkin spice. Explore what these aspects reveal about our present-day relationship to nature and the seasons. Does the idyllic character of Keats’s poem endure?

On the Hunt

posted 9.22.15

Richard Wilbur says about inspiration, "A poem comes looking for me rather than I hunting after it." Quickly make a list of the first five things that pop into your head, "looking" for you. It may be a striking image, a phrase, or a memory of someone from your past that has resurfaced unexpectedly. Use one of the items on your list as a source of inspiration and write a poem examining why this subject occupies your mind. As you write, continue to hunt for some clarity.

New Supplies

posted 9.15.15

As kids, the prospect of getting new school supplies always seemed to brighten back-to-school woes. This week, imagine what you would pack in a backpack to prepare yourself for the school of life. Make a list of five "supplies" that you can picture yourself using every day—they can be practical tools, made-up magic potions, or even intangible thoughts or mantras. Write a poem in which you describe the supplies with concrete details, exploring how having each one easily accessible at all times would vastly improve your prospects.

On the Big Screen

posted 9.8.15

Choose a memorable character from a movie—someone from an old Western or a James Bond film, for example—and write a poem inspired by this on-screen persona. What are the most striking aspects of her style or demeanor? Focus on connecting specific details, like a certain way of walking or talking or dressing, to her emotional state to create a lyrical portrayal of this larger-than-life character.

Loud or Quiet

posted 9.1.15

Do your poems tend to be loud or quiet? Try your hand at switching up your writing's volume. Write a poem that's noisy and full of hard consonants and cacophonous sounds, or write a calmer poem that whispers with a softer rhythm and smoother pacing. Perhaps you can transform your piece by altering capitalization or punctuation, or by italicizing. When you increase or decrease the levels in your poem, are the types of images or emotions that come to mind drastically different?

Blue Cow

posted 8.25.15

In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Dean Young talks about his earliest recollection of writing a poem as a child and the realization that, "you could make up reality with language.... You could write the words blue cow, for example, and there'd be a blue cow." Make a list of five vivid but nonsensical phrases describing things that don't exist in reality. Then, choosing one of the phrases to use as a first line, write a poem that is unrestrained by fact or conventional logic. Rather than focusing on consistency or reason, allow your imagination to quickly zigzag from one surprising image, sound, or emotion to the next.

Legend Has It

posted 8.18.15

Epic poems, like Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, chronicle the tales of heroes set against the backdrop of historical events. They are often lengthy, and typically include narratives featuring superhuman feats, wild adventures, and stylized language. While we usually equate epic poetry with ancient times, the form has also been used by modern poets. From Lord Byron's comic use of the epic form in Don Juan, to Ezra Pound's The Cantos and Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, this form has been used throughout the ages. Try your hand at writing the beginning of an epic poem. Choose a hero and a quest, and then set sail on a lyric journey. Write in dactylic hexameter, as Homer did, or use your own meter. After all, it's your adventure!

Two Poets, One Poem

posted 8.11.15

This week, encourage someone close to you to collaborate on writing a poem. Together, choose a subject—it can be a shared experience, a mutual friend or loved one, or a place familiar to you both—and then separately, write a short poem on the chosen subject from the first-person perspective. Finally, work together on the editing process, combining the two poems by interweaving lines and stanzas, and formulating a collective rhythm. For inspiration, read "Two Fathers" by Lois Baer Barr and Ellen Birkett Morris.

Desert Island

posted 8.4.15

If you found yourself stranded on a desert island, what would you most want to have with you? Make a list of ten things—anything from books, music, and photos, to people, pets, or food—and then write a poem with the items in your order of importance. Include the reasons why you can’t live without each item. Are there specific memories attached to certain items that persuaded you to choose them?

Dog Days

posted 7.28.15

The "dog days" of summer typically refer to the hottest days around July and August. The term originates with the ancient Romans who associated this time of year with the brightest star Sirius—also known as the Dog Star—rising and setting in sync with the sun, supposedly making the days hotter. Explore other natural occurrences that coincide with summer—fire rainbows, foxfire, midnight sun—and write a poem in tribute to the hottest days of the year.

A New Direction

posted 7.21.15

Poet and translator George Szirtes says: "Nobody reads a poem to find out what happens in the last line. They read the poem for the experience of travelling through it." This week, choose a short poem—it can be one of your own or someone else’s—and cross out the last line. Read it again now without its last line, and imagine how the poem might take a different turn at this juncture. Write a continuation of the poem, allowing it to travel to an entirely new conclusion.

Genre Poetry

posted 7.14.15

Choose a genre for a poem: science fiction, fantasy, romance, thriller, noir, or historical—perhaps the one that seems the furthest from your usual subject matter. Experiment with vocabulary typically associated with that genre. Perhaps words like “android” or “femme fatale” might offer unexpected inspiration.

Sensory Details

posted 7.7.15

This week, imagine you have been deprived of one of your senses for a year, and then suddenly regained it. What specific sensations might you have missed and be eager to experience again? Write a poem about the longing and appreciation for this sense, focusing on creating fresh and unexpected phrases and descriptions. For example, if you choose the sense of taste, how might you express the sweetness of something without using the word sweet?

Landmark Poem

posted 6.30.15

Poets laureate traditionally compose and present ceremonial verse for official events and occasions, like a commemoration to the opening of a bridge or the unveiling of a monument. Write a poem dedicated to a familiar landmark as if you were introducing it to the world. You might research the actual historical significance, or invent a completely made-up history. What unexpected facts—real or imagined—would you include for future generations to learn about this particular landmark?


posted 6.23.15

The tanka is a type of classical Japanese poem, most popularly known in its five-line form, with syllable counts of 5/7/5/7/7. In ancient Japanese tradition, the short poetic lines were exchanged between lovers in the morning, after spending an evening together. This week, try your hand at writing a tanka. Start with a concrete image or object you closely associate with a loved one. Then create a dramatic shift in thought or emotion to express the speaker's personal response. For inspiration, read examples of the tanka compiled by the Academy of American Poets.

Be Kind

posted 6.16.15

"There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind." Take to heart Kurt Vonnegut's words, from his 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine, and spread some kindness through your poetry. Pick someone you admire and write a poem to this person about all the things you want to say to him or her, no matter how personal or embarrassing. Try to avoid focusing on physical appearance or material possessions, and instead celebrate the personality traits or the fond memories you’ve shared. Consider sharing your poem with this person, or at least say some of the lovely things you’ve written to him or her. Kind words have such power; they can lift your spirits, boost your self-esteem, and even change your life—and your poem.

Favorite Sounds

posted 6.9.15

This week, concentrate on the sounds of words and pick four or five words that you love to hear and pronounce. Don't worry about whether these words are complex or commonplace, just focus on the way they sound when spoken aloud. Then using one as the title, incorporate these favorite words into a poem. Create a narrative if you wish, or allow yourself to focus completely on sound as you piece together your poem. Consider the similarities between the words you've chosen, in terms of their meaning and their internal music.


posted 6.2.15

Consider someone you've been thinking about recently and write a poem as a tribute to her. Perhaps she did you a much-appreciated favor, paid you an unexpected visit, or just popped into your head as you went about your daily tasks. Take some time to consider what this person means to you and why you're thankful to have her in your life. Examine the bond between the two of you, and why you are important to each other.  

Making Connections

posted 5.26.15

Sometimes seemingly unrelated notions have surprising similarities. This week, take some strips of paper and write down the names of objects, places, and people. Throw them in a hat and draw out two at random. Then write a poem attempting to connect the two things you've selected. Perhaps you pick out "fireworks" and "lavender," or "honeybees" and "B. B. King"—stretch your imagination to its limits when considering their potential relationship. 


posted 5.19.15

“They are everywhere—those sunflowers with the coal heart center,” Eve Alexandra muses in her poem “Botanica.” A symbol of loyalty and longevity, sunflowers are considered among the happiest of flowers, and provide energy in both nourishment and vibrancy. Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Gustav Klimt famously represented these flowers in works of art, and they have cropped up in poems by William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. This week, incorporate sunflowers into a poem. Consider their bright yellow coloring, their sturdy stalks, and their delicious seeds.  

Made of Glass

posted 5.12.15

Cervantes's short story The Glass Graduate recounts the tale of a man who was poisoned by a quince, intended to be an aphrodisiac, that brought about the delusion that his body was made of glass. This week, write a poem from the perspective of someone who believes his limbs could shatter with the slightest touch, and will not let others near him. Think about what would cause someone to think this way, and the limitations attached to this mindset.

Digital Poetry

posted 5.5.15

Digital poetry is a form of electronic literature that incorporates the use of computers to display and interact with the work. Heavily influenced by concrete and visual poetry, digital poetry includes use of hypertext, computer generated animation, coding, and holograms. This week, look into some of the digital poems in the Electronic Literature Collection and brainstorm how you'd create one of your poems digitally. If you have programming skills, or know someone who does, put your plan into action and create your own piece of electronic literature!

Musical Inspiration

posted 4.28.15

Music and poetry both use sounds and lyrical passages to stir up emotion. This week, put on a piece of classical or instrumental music with a pen and paper nearby. While listening, jot down any ideas that come to you, any emotions you experience, any images you see. Once the piece ends, play it from the beginning and start writing a poem that embodies the music. Let your syntax mirror the music's movement, your sounds blend and layer like the instruments in an orchestra, and your themes evoke the story within the piece of music you've chosen.


posted 4.21.15

This week, construct a poem as if the words that comprise it are three-dimensional. Imagine their shape, their heft -- how you must manipulate them in space to build your poem. Then print words on index cards or construct three-dimensional shapes out of cardboard and sculpt your poem with the words and shapes you've chosen.

Erasure Poetry

posted 4.14.15

This week, try creating your own erasure poem. First, select a page of text. This could be from a book, newspaper, computer printout, advertisement—anything that's handy. Then, take a pencil and circle the words in the text that will comprise your poem and draw a line through all the words you want to exclude. Take a thick black marker and color over the words you had drawn a line through, leaving the circled words untouched. For inspiration, read from Austin Kleon's book Newspaper Blackout (Harper Perennial, 2010). 


posted 4.7.15

Robert Frost wrote “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in one night while looking out the window by his desk. This week, allow yourself a moment to gaze out the window. Write a poem reflecting on what you see by creating a narrative around it. From the mailman dropping off a package across the street to the stray cat lounging on your sunlit porch, pick a character to observe and meditate on his or her perspective.

Spontaneous Poetry

posted 3.31.15

Surprise a friend or loved one with a spontaneous poem today. Perhaps you've been very busy and haven't spoken to a friend in a while. Write her a little poem to catch her up on what's been going on with you and drop it in the mail. Or maybe your grandmother is in need of some cheering up. Read her a few lines over the phone to make her laugh. Don't put too much thought into rhyme scheme or structure; just go with the flow.

Equinox Eclipse

posted 3.24.15

It is rare for a solar eclipse to occur on the same day as the spring equinox, which is exactly what happened last Friday. Astrologers predicted this day would bring forth a major turning point in our lives, the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new phase. This week, write a poem about what you think this rare event might symbolize. For inspiration, read about how eclipses have been viewed throughout history, and what our ancestors might have thought about this occurrence.

Virtual Friendship

posted 3.17.15

These days, friendships are often formed over the Internet. Have you corresponded with someone via a social networking site or dating site who you’ve never met in person? This week, write a poem about what you imagine meeting this person would be like. If you’ve never seen a picture of him or her, write about what you think this person looks like based on how he or she writes. 

Make it Happen

posted 3.10.15

This past Sunday was International Women’s Day. The theme for 2015 was “Make it Happen,” a slogan encouraging effective action for advancing and recognizing women. This week, write a poem celebrating the achievements of women. Write about the accomplishments of women in your community, or a woman you think deserves recognition for her strength of character and outstanding achievements. 

See the Light

posted 3.3.15

“It was so overwhelming.… It’s hard to put into words because, for the first time in thirty-three years, I’m seeing light.” Jerry Hester is the first patient in North Carolina to receive the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, the world’s first FDA-approved device that restores vision to the blind. This “bionic eye” helps people with retinis pigmentosa recognize light. This week, try to put into words the experience of seeing light for the first time after years of darkness. 


posted 2.24.15

“When you cut into the present, the future leaks out,” William S. Burroughs stated about the cut-up technique. This method of writing poetry uses the cutting and layering of pieces of printed text to reveal meaningful insight. This week, take a printed work of writing and tear it apart. Then reassemble it in a fashion that communicates something deeper. With some clever rearranging, these cut-up words and phrases will reveal their own message.  


posted 2.17.15

This week, write a poem about your name. When you were born, you were given a name before beginning to develop a sense of self. Have you grown into your name, or have you always resisted it? Knowing who you are today, where you’ve come from, and where you see yourself going, would you choose a different name for yourself?

From the Heart

posted 2.10.15

The ancient Greeks believed that the heart is the seat of everything, not only emotion but reason as well. The Romans then developed an entire theory around the circulatory system, concluding that the heart is where emotions take place, while rational thought occurs in the brain and passions originates in the liver. Today, despite developments in medicine and technology, the heart is still used as the universal symbol for love. This week, write a poem about your theory of where love originates. If you feel it comes from the heart, write about why you think this idea has endured for so long. 

Last Line/First Line

posted 2.3.15

Go to your bookshelf and pick out one of your favorite books. It doesn't have to be a poetry collection—any book will do. Write down the first line and the last line of the book. Use the last line of the book as the first line of your poem. Then, write until the first line of the book makes sense to use as the end of your poem. Use the lines as guides for a start and finish, but give your poem a unique theme, different from the original book.


posted 1.27.15

This week, the Northeast was pummeled by a sizable winter storm that accumulated many ominous names. This week, write a poem about an imaginary, absurdly catastrophic blizzard. You can call it whatever you like, but here are some suggestions to help guide you: "snowmageddon," "snowzilla," and the bone-chilling "snownado." What is special about this storm, giving it the potential to be the storm of the century?


posted 1.20.15

There are certain words and phrases that are always used when discussing head colds, migraines, sprained ankles, and other ailments. This week, write a poem about an illness or injury without using the medical language commonly associated with it. For example, if you’re writing about a sinus infection, try avoiding the diagnostic terms “pressure” and “congestion,” and instead describe the symptoms using more metaphorical language. Have fun with it, like Ogden Nash did. 


posted 1.13.15

January can be a harsh month for most parts of the world. The wind howls over the frozen ground, through bare branches and near-deserted streets, fogged windows blurred as though forming a barrier to keep the icy world at bay. On days like these, how do you kindle the fire inside of you? What keeps you going, warms your spirits, and insulates you from the creeping chill? Write a poem to serve as kindling—verses with the power to comfort and warm your heart.

I Have

posted 1.6.15

The holidays are over and the year is new. Now it’s time to take stock of what you have—what you’re starting with and what you will build from. First, read the late poet Tomaž Šalamun’s “I Have a Horse," and then write a list poem of your own. Begin each line with “I have . . . .” Write about the things that are important to you, the possessions you couldn’t live without, and the curious items you’ve acquired that you can’t bear to throw out. 

Looking Ahead

posted 12.30.14

"Poetry forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action," wrote the late poet Audre Lorde in her essay "Poetry Is Not a Luxury." "The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives." As the New Year begins, heed Lorde's message. Poetry is the means by which we build a future, not just for ourselves, but also for the world at large. Take a moment now to think big. Write down all the hopes you have for the year to come and weave them together into a poem. Keep this poem with you as a guide—read it when you feel you're drifting off course.

Bad Holiday Gifts

posted 12.23.14

Year after year, we receive gifts from family members that we only see on holidays. These gifts are sometimes inappropriate. Perhaps you’re vegan and someone gives you a leather wallet, or you keep getting sugar-scented soaps and lotions and you don’t have the heart to say that you’d prefer something else. This week, pick a gift and write a poem about how you felt after receiving it. Here is your opportunity to be honest, so let it all out. 

Collaborative Poem

posted 12.16.14

As the weather turns colder and the days grow shorter, it may be a nice time to gather some friends and write together. This week, try writing a renga, or “linked poem.” The first poet begins by writing a stanza that is three lines long and contains seventeen syllables. The next poet adds the second stanza, a couplet with seven syllables per line. The third stanza repeats the structure of the first, and the fourth mimics the second, and so on, until the poem comes to an end. To make sure the poem has a narrative arc, each poet writes his or her new stanza by referring to the stanza immediately preceding it. 

Whimsical Creature

posted 12.9.14

This week, write a whimsical, nonsensical poem about a creature you’ve dreamt up. Try to let go of the meanings associated with the words you use every day when describing this creature. Instead, use words as springboards for weird associations, as colors in a vast mural. Let your mind run wild and hang on for the ride. For inspiration, read Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” 

Secret Keeper

posted 12.2.14

Sometimes keeping a secret can seem like the most daunting task in the world. This week, write a poem to someone about a secret you’ve been wanting to tell him or her. Play with metaphor, perhaps leaving the subject open to interpretation. 

Fiction Prompts

Suggestions for devising plots and creating compelling characters.

Holiday Soliloquy

posted 11.25.15

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves explores the inner lives of its six characters through a sequence of connected soliloquies. Try writing a story using only soliloquies. Choose a scene that involves multiple characters, like a Thanksgiving dinner or a holiday party, and move between their inner monologues, building the setting and plot through each character’s unique thoughts and observations. When layered together, the different streams of consciousness will create the world in which these characters live.

Roll of the Dice

posted 11.18.15

In a recent conversation with President Obama, Marilynne Robinson observes that "people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice." This week, select a work-in-progress and add a new character to the story. Maybe it’s a stranger who gets involved in the plot, or someone from your protagonist’s past who suddenly shows up. You might decide whether this new character makes things easier or more difficult for your protagonist, or you might remain undecided as you write and see where this new relationship takes the story.

Fictitious Dish

posted 11.11.15

In Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature's Most Memorable Meals (Harper Design, 2014), Dinah Fried’s photographs are inspired by passages from some of her favorite classic and contemporary works of literature. Create a reversal of Fried's project by imagining the fictitious life story behind a meal. Look through some photos of complete meal spreads from different time periods, countries, and types of establishments and choose a photograph that piques your storytelling instincts. Develop a unique character, setting, and situation inspired by the food, tableware, and mood in the photograph.


posted 11.4.15

Development team Bit Byterz is currently in the process of completing creation of Memoranda, a video game inspired by twenty of Haruki Murakami's short stories. The game employs Murakami's trademarks of bizarre surrealism and characters who are in search of something they’ve lost. Continue this chain of inspiration by writing a short story revolving around an object or person—or even something more conceptual—that has been lost. Allow your scenes to unfold as a series of puzzles and problems to solve, as your main character journeys to locate the lost item.

On Holiday

posted 10.28.15

This week, create your own unique holiday, then write a piece of flash fiction about it. Include any traditions or customs that may be involved, and the story behind them. Is the main event a special feast, a bacchanalia, or a time to let loose an alter ego? Is it a day of celebration or contemplation? Explore what this holiday represents for the people who observe it.

Spine Tingler

posted 10.21.15

Vladimir Nabokov said, “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.” Try your hand at writing a spine-tingling tale. You might create a feeling of mystery or unease by introducing a creepy premise in the first sentence, or decide to lull the reader into a sense of security with a few run-of-the-mill details before unleashing an element of horror. For inspiration, read Nabokov's short story, "The Visit to the Museum."

Nobel Prize Invitation

posted 10.14.15

Last week, the 2015 Nobel Prize recipients were announced, awarding a writer, scientific researchers, and peace advocates from around the world whose areas of work range from molecular cell DNA repair to political mediation in Tunisia. Write a short story in which your main character finds himself invited to the Nobel Prize award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. What preconceived notions might he have about the festivities and winners? Is he star-struck, mildly impressed, or ambivalent? Does he have dubious plans beyond celebrating with the recipients and guests?

Stream of Unconsciousness

posted 10.7.15

Though in many ways the act of writing can be considered an exercise in control—over everything from plot arc to characters to the weather in your setting—what happens when you take a more passive position and relinquish control, allowing a story to emerge from your unconscious mind? Many scientists, spiritualists, and artists have reported on “automatic writing,” in which a person steers clear of putting any conscious intention behind the words that are put down. Try your hand by first writing about what comes to mind immediately: perhaps the changing colors and textures of autumn leaves outside, or everyday details about upcoming holidays and visiting family. Try not to pause or edit yourself. Gradually let your mind progress into an associative stream of consciousness. Take a look at what you’ve written and, using your favorite elements, write a short short story with a seasonal theme, allowing it to be nonsensical, absurd, or surreal.

The Raker

posted 9.30.15

Autumn leaves are a pleasurable part of the season, until it’s time to rake them up. Write a story about a character who rakes her neighbors’ lawns for extra cash. Have her deliver a short narrative about each home she visits. Delve into how these narratives relate to one another and whether they are intertwined. Do they reveal a greater story about the neighborhood that has been hidden until now? Does your narrator uncover secrets about her neighbors or her home?

Natural Disaster

posted 9.23.15

Recent wildfires in California and an earthquake and tsunami in Chile are potent reminders of how destructive forces of nature can be upon modern civilization. Out of catastrophe, however, we see acts of bravery, generosity, and compassion. Write a short story that takes place in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Examine the ways in which your main character's psychological and physical strength might be tested under the circumstances.

Future Species

posted 9.16.15

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a new species in the early human lineage: Homo naledi. Write a short story that takes discovery into the future by imagining a character who is of a new human species from the next millennium. What useful adaptations or physical differences might she have developed in order to survive an advanced environment? Would the progression of technology alter the need for long fingers or certain emotions?

Emotional Robot

posted 9.9.15

Designed by the French robotics company, Aldebaran, Pepper the robot is able to read emotions and respond accordingly, and has the ability to learn over time. Write a short story imagining that your protagonist has somehow acquired one of these highly sought-after robots. What plans or hopes does he have for Pepper? Will having the robot turn out to be a nightmare or a dream come true?

Personified Emotions

posted 9.2.15

In the recent animated film, Inside Out, the main character’s mind is steered by five personified emotions—anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. Imagine a scene in which your main character suddenly feels one of these emotions intensely. Jot down a list of colors, sensations, and personality traits you associate with this emotion. For example, if you choose anger, you might find yourself thinking of the color red, heat, erratic gestures and movements, and loud noises. Write a short story in which this emotion completely overtakes your character’s personality, using vivid sensory details to match the atmosphere and tone.


posted 8.26.15

In the ​game of telephone, a sentence is whispered down a line from person to person until the last person says the sentence out loud, which oftentimes turns out to be humorously different, and distorted by misunderstandings, from the original. Write a short story that opens with a dialogue between two characters talking on the phone. After the conversation is finished, imagine that one character has completely misheard or misinterpreted something the other character has said. What are the consequences? Is the chain of events that the error sets off tragic or funny, relatively insignificant or life-changing?

Going Solo

posted 8.19.15

When the weather turns warm and the pace of life relaxes, it's a natural time to think about traveling. Whether you set off on a rambling road trip across the country, or catch a plane to a distant land, being away from home always feels like an adventure. But what happens if the person you planned to take a trip with can't go at the last minute? Write a story about this scenario, and have your main character decide to take the trip alone. How does this person handle traveling solo? What obstacles does she encounter? Maybe she decides to document the trip for the person who couldn't make it by writing diary entries, or perhaps she sends a postcard home every day. Write about the effect of this experience on the traveler's self-confidence and sense of independence.

Deus Ex Machina

posted 8.12.15

In modern storytelling, a deus ex machina is a plot device in which a dramatic and oftentimes contrived occurrence suddenly saves the day or solves a seemingly impossible problem.​ This week, write a short story using this device in the form of a character, object, or newfound ability. How will you manipulate the pacing to create the most effective sense of surprise? Consider the tone of the story, perhaps incorporating tragedy and comedy, as you lead up to the unexpected turn of events.

All Grown Up

posted 8.5.15

This week, think back to the most memorable books you read as a child, and pick one of your favorite children's book characters, such as Harriet the Spy or Curious George. Write a story that places the character into adulthood. What are the character’s distinctive traits that remain consistent? Would this well-known character be able to solve his or her grown-up problems in the same way?

Conflicting Evidence

posted 7.29.15

Penelope Lively says, "History is in fact not so much memory as it is an examination of conflicting evidences. And this is the same for a fictional purpose: in any scene there can be as many accounts of a scene as there were people present." This week, write two separate accounts of a scene in which a crime is unfolding, witnessed by two people who are standing side by side looking out the same window. How might two individuals be compelled to notice different details? What might this reveal about their personalities and emotional states?

Uncharacteristic Behavior

posted 7.22.15

What happens when you've created and written a character who is so thoroughly realized that he or she is always, well, in character? This week, write a scene in which your character is caught doing or saying something shockingly out of character. What event or realization has caused this atypical behavior, and what is your character's response to being confronted about it? Will the consequences be immediate and dramatic, or gradual and subtly psychological?

Fashion Statement

posted 7.15.15

Coco Chanel famously said, "Fashion has to do with the ideas, the way we live, what is happening." This week, focus on the way one of your characters gets dressed: Does he throw on the first thing he sees, or will it take hours for him to get ready? Is a typical outfit an accurate representation of his personality, or more of a disguise? Write a scene describing your character’s clothing in detail, and what is revealed about his demeanor through his attire.


posted 7.8.15

Keep your ears open this week, and write down an intriguing phrase that you overhear. This might be a snippet of a sentence exchanged between two people talking, a few words spoken by someone on the phone next to you, or even part of a loudspeaker announcement. Spend some time imagining what led up to that remark. Then write the rest of the story making the overheard phrase your last sentence.

Mundane Moments

posted 7.1.15

This week, jot down a list of five actions you perform on a daily basis—maybe it's tying your shoes, getting off at a certain bus stop, buying a cup of coffee, or brushing your teeth. Choose one of these mundane moments and write a scene in which a character is in the middle of performing this everyday task. Then bring in an element of the fantastic: Does an extraterrestrial or a doppelgänger appear? Is the character suddenly transported into the past or future? Explore the possibilities of what can occur when the ordinary collides with the extraordinary.

Romantic Landscape

posted 6.24.15

In Elegy for a Dead World, a creative-writing video game featured in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, players write stories and poems while traversing through deserted worlds inspired by the poetry of Shelley, Keats, and Byron. This week, find fictional inspiration by choosing a Romantic poem and writing down, in complete sentences, the mood or atmosphere. Describe the visual landscape that you imagine, then create a scene and introduce characters.

Don't I Know You?

posted 6.17.15

You know that weird notion that sometimes surfaces when you meet new people—that feeling that you already know them, but can’t remember why or how? Write a scene for a story about two people who both experience the same déjà vu upon meeting, with a plot driven by their need to figure out how they know each other. Use this opportunity to add an element of magical realism to your story. Perhaps they were married in a past life, or maybe they met in a dream. Once they solve the puzzle, how does this impact their lives going forward? Do they even believe the answer, or do they agree it’s too far-fetched?

Unfamiliar Acquaintances

posted 6.10.15

Every so often, we run into people we recognize but can't quite place. Perhaps you catch sight of a strangely familiar face at your favorite coffee shop, and then later at a diner while visiting family out of town, and are puzzled by the coincidence. Write a story in which two of your characters keep crossing paths, either accidentally or because of particular circumstances. What keeps them from properly introducing themselves? Could they become good friends, or will they become adversaries?  

Specialty Dishes

posted 6.3.15

Cooks usually have a specialty dish that is made with pride—one that is requested by friends and family for special events and holiday gatherings. This week, write about a character who is known for his or her specialty dish. It could be as basic as chocolate chip cookies, or perhaps he or she has invented an original dish with unheard-of ingredients. Has this character's culinary genius been influenced by a family member? Is this cook a raw talent?

Picture a Story

posted 5.27.15

Take some time this week to discover the work of a well-known photographer. Whether you visit an exhibition at a museum or peruse the internet, look for photographs that capture your imagination. Examine a photograph closely and write the story you see in the frame. Rely heavily on descriptive language and offer details of the composition through your writing. What did the photographer keep in focus?


posted 5.20.15

This week, write a story in which one of your characters gets lost in an unfamiliar location with no one around to help him. How did he end up in this situation? Perhaps his car breaks down in the middle of the desert, or he's adrift in the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck and is the lone survivor. Is he able to find his bearings? Does he manage to get to safety? Consider the perils of being stranded in an unforgiving and potentially dangerous environment.   

Alternate Future

posted 5.13.15

Did one of your characters have a major turning point in her past? Is this event or decision crucial for this character's development? This week, take a scene you're stuck on and rewrite it as if that turning point had never occurred, and an alternate option was chosen. If your character moved to London because she was transferred by her company instead of moving back to her parents' house in Florida, how would this outcome deepen the evolution of this character? Think about what this character needs to face—what shortcomings, fears, and hindrances she needs to overcome—and force her to come to terms with these obstacles.

Found Object

posted 5.6.15

This week, have a character stumble upon an abandoned object that is oddly out of place. Perhaps a wedding ring is spotted dangling from a tree branch on an afternoon hike, or a stack of family photographs is found stuffed in a handbag for sale at a thrift store. Write this scene into one of your stories. Does your character recognize this item? Does he or she keep it, or try to find the owner? Consider how this scene might help develop your character or unexpectedly affect the main plot of your story.

Switch it Up

posted 4.29.15

This week, think about what types of stories you write most often and the elements you tend to use when building your story. Then, write a story in a genre you've never tried before being sure not to employ any of your usual techniques. If your stories don't often include romantic themes, make romance a main plot point. Instead of always writing in the first person, try third person omniscient. Even if you've already discovered your favorite style of writing, it's good to dust off other instruments in your literary arsenal every now and then.

Written for You

posted 4.22.15

Sometimes we pick up a book or read an article at the exact moment it's so needed. This week, write a story in which one of your characters is going through a difficult time and picks up a book that changes his outlook. Have your character become so connected with the book that he feels like it was written for him. Who knows, maybe it was?

Pretend to be Your Friend

posted 4.15.15

Do you have a buddy that also enjoys writing? This week, write something in the voice of your friend. Ask her for a particular topic to focus on, or just let your imagination run wild. It may be fun to have your friend do the same for you and swap stories once you’re both finished.  


posted 4.8.15

C. S. Lewis used a wardrobe, J. M. Barrie used the second star to the right, and Lewis Carroll used a rabbit hole—each a gateway to another world. This week, pick an object that is important to you and transform it into a portal to an alternate world. Write a story about someone discovering the portal and adjusting to life where everything is foreign. Take into consideration where this secret passage is located and what it feels like to pass through it.  

Fools Gold

posted 4.1.15

Gold is one of the most valuable metals on this planet. People have been unearthing it, stashing it, and fighting over it for centuries. This week, write a story about a character who creates a large amount of imitation gold so convincing it passes for real gold. What circumstances compelled him to produce this form of counterfeit currency? What will he do with his “fool's gold?”  

New Town

posted 3.25.15

Have you been writing about a character who seems stuck? Shake things up a bit and have him move to a new town. It could be the next town or the next state over. Make the new setting just different enough to make your character an outsider to the residents, but familiar enough that he feels he should fit right in.

Alternative Words

posted 3.18.15

Just as we often have a favorite t-shirt, sandwich, or brand of coffee, we also have favorite words; the ones we use in everything we write without even realizing it. Think about why you use these words so often. Is it because they reflect your personal writing style, or because it’s become a habit? This week, read carefully through one of your stories, circling the words that keep popping up. Then explore different options for expressing the same sentiment. 

Animal Story

posted 3.11.15

We can imagine that animals have a very different concept of life than we do. To a lobster gazing through the glass of his tank at humans in a seafood restaurant, the world looks very different. An ant, whose average life expectancy is sixty days, most likely does not fear death the way humans do. This week, write a story from the perspective of your favorite animal. Watch Tim Seibles read his poem “Lobster for Sale” for inspiration.

Complicate It

posted 3.4.15

Children’s stories are often allegorical and presented in a straightforward manner. This week, take your favorite children’s story, fairy tale, or myth and complicate it. Use the original as a jumping-off point to introduce wild elements, unlikely back stories, and off-center characters.

From Screen to Page

posted 2.25.15

So many great films have been released over the past year, many of which have been adapted for the screen from works of fiction and creative nonfiction. This week, think of a movie you love that isn’t based on a book and try to write a short story version of it. Examine the types of shots used, the lighting, how scenes are staged, and try to translate these visuals into the structure of your story. For inspiration, read this article in Electric Literature


posted 2.18.15

This week, dream up some technical advancement and incorporate it into the story you’re working on. It could be an improvement on something in use today, like smartphones or television sets, or it could be something completely new. Perhaps one of your characters is prescribed an experimental new medication that improves his memory. Write about how this new technology affects him and the potential impact it has on society as a whole. 

Personal Assistant

posted 2.11.15

Is one of your characters overwhelmed by all the tasks she needs to do on a daily basis? Have her hire a family member as a personal assistant. Maybe her retired father or grandmother needs a part-time job. Write about the kinds of things she would have the assistant do for her, and all the wacky situations that result from this new relationship.

New Sport

posted 2.4.15

This week, have one of your characters become disillusioned with football (or another major sport) and inspired to invent a new sport. The possibilities are endless. Think of what the objective will be, whether or not it will be team-based, what sort of equipment or arena will be necessary, and so on. Imagine a world in which this new sport catches on and becomes more popular than any other sport in history.

Glitter Bomb

posted 1.28.15

"Glitter bombing" is an act of protest in which activists throw glitter on specific targets at public events. You can also "glitter bomb" people through the mail. Many websites offer to ship your enemies spring-loaded letters filled with the invasive craft supply, for a nominal fee. This week, write a scene in which one of your characters gets glitter bombed. Consider the location, the method used, the perpetrator, and how this character would respond to being covered in glitter. Was this act just a harmless prank, or something more serious? 

Going Backwards

posted 1.21.15

In the story you’re writing, is one of your characters confronting a major obstacle? Think reasonably about the obstruction, and whether your character is equipped to push on through. Some obstacles can’t be overcome without retreating back to the start. What does your character notice now that he or she missed before? What side streets and detours were not on the map the first time around? Write about this unexpected journey. 

Awkward Mistake

posted 1.14.15

This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character. You know the kind, in which you suddenly find yourself apologizing for walking in on a private conversation, and when backing out of the room, you knock over an expensive vase. Or perhaps an innocent typographical error causes an incredible uproar that, even once corrected, isn’t quickly forgotten. Use this mistake to forward the main plot, introduce a subplot, or inject some lighthearted slapstick into your narrative.

Time Switch

posted 1.7.15

Do you have a time period you routinely set your stories in? This week, choose a story you’re struggling with and reimagine it in a different decade or century. Perhaps setting your story further in the past will help you get your point across in a more engaging way. Maybe placing your main character in the future will enable him or her to accomplish a goal that would otherwise be unfeasible. Although it can be easy to become fixated on a certain era, think about the story holistically and consider how the setting can help direct your writing. 

Digging Deep

posted 12.31.14

Strong characters are key elements in any well-constructed story. You may have clearly illustrated their history, occupation, likes, and dislikes, but to make them truly compelling you must have a basic understanding of these characters' psyches. Choose a story you've written and make a list of the characters you don't really know yet. Next to each name, jot down notes about what that character's aspirations and motivations are. How do these characters see the world? Who are the people they look up to, want to impress, or model themselves after? Where do these characters want to be in the next five years—or in the next fifty? Will they reach their dreams, or are they destined to get sidetracked? Let this information serve as a reference when you are deciding how a character should react in a situation, or how the plot should progress.

Childhood Bedroom

posted 12.24.14

This week, pick a character and write a passage describing the childhood bedroom he or she grew up in. Consider the smells, the angle of sunlight through the blinds, the faint murmer of the television in the living room. What secrets are hidden under the floorboards, or etched in the closets? If the house still stands, and his or her family still lives there, have your character return for a visit.

Library Setting

posted 12.17.14

Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” Libraries are fascinating places, full of knowledge and mystery. Think of a library you’ve been to in the past. It could be the local library you went to as a kid to look at picture books, or a library you visited once to kill time. Take this library and use it as the setting for the beginning of a new story. Consider the librarian on duty, the regulars, the dark corners, and old books with strange, scribbled notes. What brings people to this library? What are they trying to find?

Learning to Cook

posted 12.10.14

It has never been easier to learn how to cook with culinary shows on television, tutorials on the internet, and an abundance of cookbooks and food blogs specializing in all sorts of cuisines. This week, write a scene in which one of your characters has sparked an interest in cooking. Does cooking come naturally to her, or is it difficult for her to master? Does she set lofty goals, like winning a competition?

World of Toys

posted 12.3.14

Do you remember how you used to play with toys as a child? If you sat down today with your blocks, your old train set, or your favorite doll, the way you’d interact with these toys would probably be very different than when you were five or six years old. This week, try and enter the mind of a child crouched on the living room floor, building a world fueled by imagination, and translate it into a short story. Think of the weird names kids give to their toys, and the strange logic that comes from the innocence of trying to grasp mature concepts. Good examples can be found in The Lego Movie, which came out earlier this year.

Lincoln Michel

posted 11.25.15

“When in doubt, go further, deeper, weirder. Take the elements that make your story unique and double down on them. There's a tendency in writing..."

J. Ryan Stradal

posted 11.19.15

“Like most writers, I prefer to write in silence, but I’m not always free to enable it. Sometimes circumstances pull you on the road, out of the house..."

Tracy O'Neill

posted 11.12.15

“Often when two of my characters are in a room together, they’ll reach a point at which neither wants to converse with the other anymore. They’ve talked and talked,..."

Camille Rankine

posted 11.05.15

“I write best from a place of stillness and quiet. I also live in New York City, a place known for neither of those things. That means I tend do a lot of writing in the middle of the night...."

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