Writing Prompts & Exercises

The Time Is Now

The Time Is Now offers three new and original writing prompts each week to help you stay committed to your writing practice throughout the year. We also curate a list of essential books on writing—both the newly published and the classics—that we recommend for guidance and inspiration. Whether you’re struggling with writer’s block, looking for a fresh topic, or just starting to write, our archive of writing prompts has what you need. Need a starter pack? Check out our Writing Prompts for Beginners.

Tuesdays: Poetry prompts
Wednesdays: Fiction prompts
Thursdays: Creative nonfiction prompts

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In a 1789 letter, Benjamin Franklin wrote the phrase, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Franklin was reflecting on the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, which he said promised to be durable, as well as his own ailing health and mortality. This week write a personal essay that riffs off this proverb, reflecting on your own worldview about what can be certain. You might start off with the prompt: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and ______.” Tell the story of how you arrived at your own ideas about what you can always count on, whether good or bad. What past experiences, encounters, or memories seem to reinforce your belief?


Spring ephemerals are plants—generally wildflowers native to deciduous forests such as tulips, daffodils, crocuses, and hyacinths—that bloom only for a very short period in the early spring during the brief window of time when the sun’s light and warmth can extend to the forest floor while the trees have bare branches. Once the overhead canopy is full for the season, the flowers usually die back to dormancy with only their underground parts intact for the remainder of the year. Write a short story that revolves around the theme of an occurrence with a similarly limited time span—and one that happens only rarely. Does knowledge of its fleeting nature compel your characters to perceive or value it in different ways? Is there the possibility of a reoccurrence, however infrequently?


“Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything—but a few things, which I will tell,” writes Mary Oliver about her partner Molly Malone Cook in her book Our World (Beacon Press, 2009), which celebrates their life and home together in Cape Cod through Oliver’s essays and Cook’s photography. Write a poem about someone you have known for a long time, but who is no longer in your life. Begin first by forming two lists: one list for the things you knew about this person and a second list of what you did not know. Select several items from each list and compose a poem that paints a portrait through the lens of your relationship. What are the things that were shared, imparted, revealed, and hidden?


The human tendency to anthropomorphize may come with risks great or small, but could there also be benefits? Last month, Indigenous leaders of New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands signed a historic treaty granting legal personhood to whales, with the hope that the bestowal will lead to negotiations with Polynesian governments to enforce greater protective rights for the animals, which hold a position of sacred cultural importance. This week, write a personal essay that reflects on a moment, memory, or encounter that propelled you to project humanlike qualities onto an animal, whether a pet, insect, pest, or country critter. Do your personal beliefs about personhood collide or align with arguments about humanity and nature, or different types of sentience and consciousness?


In the 1989 science fiction thriller film The Abyss, a search and rescue team descends thousands of feet into the depths of the ocean after a U.S. nuclear submarine mysteriously sinks in the Caribbean Sea. The word abyss could refer to both the oceanic zone that lies in perpetual darkness and to the more general space of mystery, fear, and awe in the face of the seemingly infinite expanse that the crew encounters, including an encounter with an alien being. Write a story that revolves around characters who find themselves in conflict with something deeply unknown and unfathomable. How might feelings of isolation surface or be exacerbated in such a situation? Play around with the pacing and order and quantity of revealed information to create a feeling of suspense.


In the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant, a visually impaired group has gathered around an unfamiliar creature to them, each encountering by touch a different part of the animal. Although there are different interpretations of the parable, a poem by nineteenth-century poet John Godfrey Saxe describes how the first of the six men falls upon the elephant and exclaims that the animal is nothing but a wall, the second feels the tusk and disagrees saying the animal is like a spear, the third approaches the squirming trunk and calls the animal snakelike, and another feels the ear and states that the animal is like a fan. The story points at the limits of subjective truths and what is lost by only seeing one side of something. Write a poem that explores a single item, image, or action through a prism of different potential truths. Experiment with expressing contradictions and coexisting truths.


How do you tell the tale of your nose, lips, teeth, eyes, brows, and cheeks? This week, study yourself closely in a mirror, and write a memoiristic essay that relays the backstories of your facial features. Are there elements that have shifted, scarred, or been modified in some way with orthodontics, makeup, surgery, or the natural processes of aging? Have there ever been parts of your countenance that you’ve disliked or preferred, and has that changed over time? Take a long, hard look at yourself and reflect on the memories that come up and how your facial expressions and textures have evolved. You might decide to cover just one or two features, or be inspired to cover each part of your face and how they all have a story.


This spring brings a rare occurrence of cicadas to the eastern United States: the simultaneous emergence of two separate broods, Brood XIII (the seventeen-year cycle Northern Illinois Brood) and Brood XIX (the thirteen-year cycle Great Southern Brood). Though otherwise harmless to humans, male cicadas serenade females at a range of up to ninety decibels, making for a pretty noisy season. In celebration of this double brood, write a short story set against the backdrop of an infrequent or unusual natural occurrence. How can you play with the imagery or symbolism of the phenomenon to expand on what your characters are experiencing? Do their actions reflect or contrast in some way with what’s happening in the background environment?


“I read Call It in the Air, / Ed’s book about his painter sister & her death / at 44, like Billie Holiday, & I start to consider / 44. No. Not the death, just the conch of it, / how it whorls & opens, limelights / —44 limelights a woman,” writes Shamala Gallagher in her poem “‘The New York Times’ Says Aloe Is a Hoax,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. The lines in the poem shift from lightness to darkness, and the image of recursion and spiraling reappear as the speaker allows her mind to wander freely after a long day. Write a poem that experiments with a recurring shape that you’ve observed. Consider the connotations or associations with this shape, whether it be a number, ray of light, or plant. How might a simple form inspire you to think about the shape of time in your life?


Day Jobs, an exhibition currently on display at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center in California, examines the impact of day jobs on artists. Showcasing the work of three dozen visual artists, the accompanying catalogue offers first-hand accounts of how their employment in places like a frame shop, hair salon, and museum helped inform their creativity. The exhibit deconstructs the romanticized image of the artist and draws attention to how one’s economic and creative pursuits are often intertwined. Write a personal essay that considers how one of your day jobs unexpectedly influenced your own writing projects. How might something undertaken because of financial necessity also provide valuable ideas to explore in your art?


Sheila Heti’s new book, Alphabetical Diaries, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February, is just that—rearranged sentences in order from A to Z made up of the author’s diaries kept over the course of a decade. By placing previously composed sentences into this structure, patterns emerge, and unexpected juxtapositions reveal fresh connections that form a new kind of narrative. “Basically it’s a crazy year, that’s what Claire said, this is going to be a crazy year. Be a pro, Lemons said. Be a woman. Be an individual, he suggested. Be bald-faced and strange. Be calm,” Heti writes. Take this idea of reordering your writing and use sentences from a story you’ve written in the past to create a new story. Experiment with different constraints, whether alphabetizing or grouping by another type of category, perhaps using recurring images or places. See where these arrangements take you.


Anne Carson’s 2017 poem “Saturday Night as an Adult,” which had a viral moment on X last summer, is structured as a short block of text recounting observations and thoughts around a dinner date with two couples. “We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We overdress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens,” writes Carson. “We eat intently, as if eating were conversation.” While the existential despair may seem tragicomic, Carson conveys an honest vulnerability that touches upon disappointment at the potential smallness of life. Write a poem that builds upon your observations of a mundane social encounter in order to capture larger concerns on your mind, perhaps using sharp, terse statements as Carson does in her poem. Is there humor to be found in these minute details?


In her groundbreaking 1962 book, Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson foretold of “a spring without voices.” Documenting the harmful effects of chemical pesticides used in the agricultural industry, her book sparked an awakening to the environmental crisis in the 1960s and 1970s and launched a movement that brought about the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” she writes. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” Write an essay that begins by examining how the environment, whether natural or manufactured, has molded you. Then consider how you have modified your surrounding environment—the nature of your world.


With Saint Patrick’s Day around the corner, you might be feeling as if luck is everywhere you look: in four-leaf clovers, Shamrock Shakes, horseshoes, a rabbit’s foot, and the number seven. Or perhaps everything is just a coincidence, or predetermined by destiny. In a 2008 Guardian essay critiquing Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables, Adam Thirlwell writes: “In this gargantuan novel, everything seems utterly improbable. Every plot operates through coincidence. Normally, novelists develop techniques to naturalize and hide this. Hugo, with his technique of massive length, refuses to hide it at all. In fact, he makes sure that the plot’s coincidences are exaggerated.” Thirlwell notes Hugo’s classic novel straddles the ideas of lucky coincidence and predetermination. Based on your personal beliefs about luck, coincidence, and destiny, write a story in which a plot unfolds according to a series of consequential encounters, discoveries, and mistakes. How do your own convictions about these ideas affect your characters’ decision-making and the overall philosophy of your story?


For one year, fans of Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl enjoyed watching him fly freely around New York City and become, for many city dwellers, a feathered symbol of liberation. Released from his cage at the Central Park Zoo by a vandal, zoo officials were initially concerned for his survival, but Flaco quickly learned to hunt prey and move about the city. His fans grew, and for them, Flaco began to represent resilience and the ability to embark on a new chapter of life, a gesture at the potential of rewilding. Sadly, Flaco died in February after apparently striking a building on the Upper West Side. This week, write a poem that incorporates a subject that signifies qualities of freedom and hope for you personally. Consider strengths and weaknesses, and address both in your poem.


A new immersive installation by artist Cauleen Smith uses scent, sight, and sound to explore the work of the late poet Wanda Coleman, widely considered the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles. Smith turned to Coleman’s work to help reacquaint her with the city after a sixteen-year absence. “L.A. is a shy one, a real one, and a terrible beauty,” Smith writes in the liner notes to an EP in the listening room of the exhibit. “You can’t really see how gorgeous it is in a drive-by, you have to sit with the banality, the horrors, the wildness of the city until it begins to become legible.” Select a poet who writes about your town, city, or region, and write a personal essay that reflects on their perspectives and your own. How can reading another writer’s observations and emotions about your hometown provide a refreshing lens to what might otherwise seem familiar?


When a group of strangers gathers in one setting, whether in a horror story, mystery, or in real life, the situation makes for a great premise. In The Extinction of Irena Rey (Bloomsbury, 2024), the debut novel by author and translator Jennifer Croft, eight translators from eight different countries arrive at an author’s house located in a primeval Polish forest to begin their work when the author disappears. As they investigate the author’s whereabouts while attempting to continue their work, rivalries and paranoia begin cropping up. Write a story that revolves around a group of unacquainted people, all confined in one location. Experiment with different modes of dialogue, setting description, and point of view. How will their secrets be revealed?


“Because curfews of / Because strip search at the checkpoint into / Because grandmother’s undergarments splayed on / Because two men with guns on the way to / Because grandmother saves plastic Coke liters to / Because the water could without notice be,” writes Jessica Abughattas in her poem “Litany for My Father” published by Split This Rock. The poem consists of twenty-two lines, which, all but the last line, begin with the word “because” and end abruptly, as if in mid-thought. The lines build into a powerful expression of loss and a sublimated sense of intense sorrow, how powerless one can feel in grief. Write a poem that makes use of omission or erasure in this way, taking into consideration how the format might influence your subject or theme. How does this repeated absence of words achieve emotive force?


In a recent essay in the New York Times Magazine, Mireille Silcoff explores the evolving concept of subcultures and how teenagers today are primarily engaged with subcultural aesthetics (such as Preppy, Messy French It Girl, Dark Academia, and Goblincore) popularized on social media, “a fleeting personal pleasure to be had mainly alone.” Silcoff argues that there is no longer a shared experience and work to get into a scene, and that “subcultures in general—once the poles of style and art and politics and music around which wound so many ribbons of teenage meaning—have largely collapsed.” Write a personal essay about a subculture you were engaged with long ago or more recently. Detail your introduction to the scene, the behaviors, styles, and accessories that accompanied it, and its positioning within society at large. How did this sense of belonging inform who you are today?


Maggot, Humvee, Peg, Swap-Out, Baggy Eyes, Creaky, Fast Forward, Extra Eye. These are all nicknames of characters found in Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Demon Copperhead, whose title itself is the nickname of Damon Fields who narrates the coming-of-age story set in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia. In an early chapter of the book, Damon talks about how prominent nicknames are in his town and that even his mother no longer uses his real name. “Some name finds you, and you come running to it like a dog until the day you die and it goes in the paper along with your official name that everybody’s forgotten,” says Damon. Write a short story in which a group of characters have colorful nicknames for each other. Start with a list of names and consider the power dynamics at play for those who use and bestow the nicknames.


“I wanted to think freely, let my mind wander, follow ideas (and phrases) wherever they might go,” said the late poet Lyn Hejinian in a 2020 interview for the Wheeler Column at the University of California in Berkeley, where she was a professor and John F. Hotchkis Chair Emerita. “For a while—but not for very long—I used poetry to express my adolescent angst and longings, but very soon I recognized the banality and the limits of that. It wasn’t self-expression I was seeking but loss of self.” Inspired by Hejinian, who died at the age of eighty-two on February 24, write a poem that avoids a preconceived intention of style or thematic experience, and instead allow these elements to emerge as you let your mind wander. How might language, in the abstract as the material of your thinking, lead to a new mode of expression or representation?


Doing laundry, washing dishes, grocery shopping, vacuuming, running out to the bank—do the chores ever end? Perhaps not, but there are small delights and incidental pleasures to be found in all the errands to be completed: a breath of fresh air, the feel of a tidy home, running into a friend, an interesting exchange with a stranger, or a long-forgotten memory that surfaces. This week write a personal essay that focuses on a single mundane task you regularly carry out and expand on the activity by looking at it from a variety of angles. Consider who taught you how to complete the chore, obscure observations, bodily movements, happenstance, and societal relevance. Can the chore become more?


Our Daily News series reports a recent New Yorker article telling the story of how a bartender in Manchester came across a novel from the 1930s and tracked down the rights for the book in order to get it back in print. Thanks to Jack Chadwick’s discovery, Caliban Shrieks by Jack Hilton will be republished in March by Vintage Classics in the United Kingdom. This week write a short story in which your character comes across an out-of-print book and finds adventure while tracking down the whereabouts of its author. Do plot points from the mysterious book come into play in your tale?


Drawing on a wealth of botanical vocabulary, Canadian poet Sylvia Legris explores themes of nature in her new book, The Principle of Rapid Peering, forthcoming in April from New Directions. In the book, the title of which is derived from early-twentieth-century ornithologist Joseph Grinnell’s study on the behavior of birds around food, Legris categorizes birds as either “those who wait passively for food to approach them” or rapid-peering active-seekers “whose target[s] of desire [are] stationary.” She writes: “The rapid-peerer’s eyes turn / as the head changes position. // The eyes focus the beak, / the instrument of capture. // ... The head follows the feet, / quick moves, to, fro. // Feet with an intelligence of texture, / bark, branch, gravel, soil.” Browse through nature guides or encyclopedias in search of unique animal attributes, specifically looking for evocative terminology with potentially expansive interpretations. Then write a poem that both touches on the term’s original meaning and imagines a new interpretation connecting to a personal experience or memory.


To celebrate publishing our two-thousandth writing prompt, spend some time this week jotting down a list of the most significant milestones of your life so far. Reflect on both traditional milestones, such as school or education-related achievements and relationship or family developments, as well as other hard-won goals that might be related to creative pursuits or something considered unconventional. You might also choose to focus on an important event that occurred unexpectedly and set your life in a new, progressive direction. Write an essay that expands upon one or more of these milestones. In what ways has your outlook on life evolved over the years, from before the event, immediately after, and then many years later?