“When I was twelve, I saw a terrible movie called Devil Girl From Mars. And I turned off the television and said to myself, I can write a better story than that. I sat down and began writing my first science fiction story,” says award-winning science fiction author Octavia E. Butler in a 1993 interview for BBC News. Butler, whose work has recently made a resurgence with multiple television and film adaptations, expanded and revolutionized the science fiction genre by writing from the perspective of a marginalized Black woman and celebrating her voice. Is there a film, book, or work of art that you encountered in your childhood that inspired you to start writing? Write an essay that reflects on the impact of this work. Whether through resistance or celebration, how can you trace the development of your artistry back to this first encounter?
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.
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In an interview for the Yale Review, Elisa Gonzalez, author of the debut poetry collection, Grand Tour (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), discusses her relationship with perfectionism as a young poet with senior editor Maggie Millner. “I believed that the book would present itself to me as a kind of perfect object, nothing like all these flawed poems I had lying around,” says Gonzalez. “The gap between the dreamed-of poem and the real poem is painful. It is also, sometimes anyway, a gorgeous private thing, which no one else can ever touch.” Inspired by this reflection of the writing process, write a story in which a burgeoning artist reckons with the kind of art they make. Does this spiritual conflict affect the way they see themselves? How far will they go to be the artist they dream of becoming?
Earlier this month, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, announced its list of winners for their astronomy photographers of the year awards. The photographs, which were published in the Guardian, show various perspectives of observing the cosmos. In the overall winning photograph created by a team of amateur astronomers, a huge plasma arc shines next to the swirling Andromeda galaxy. In the young astronomy photographer category, the Running Chicken Nebula is captured, a diffused glow of crimson, violet, and black gases shining amidst a cluster of white stars. The photographs taken from Earth show the unexpected manifestations of space seen in our sky, as one features rare cloud formations in Hungary and another captures the orbital rotation of stars forming an infinite circle in Lancashire, England. This week write a poem inspired by these photographs that meditates on your place in the universe. For inspiration, read Tracy K. Smith’s poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars.”
For centuries the autumn season has inspired writers to reflect on nature’s cycle of renewal. Temperatures drop, leaves change color and shed, and crops are harvested offering much to contemplate during the season about what it means to live. Poets are continually inspired by the season: Larry Levis writes about the “steadfast, orderly, taciturn, oblivious” yellowing of the leaves in “The Widening Spell of the Leaves;” John Keats reflects on the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in “To Autumn;” and Marilyn Chin recalls how “all that blooms must fall” in “Autumn Leaves.” What comes to mind when observing the changing of seasons? Write an essay that reflects on how the days of autumn affect you.
“Cause that’s all the life of a painter is, the seen and gone disappearing into the air, rain, seasons, years, the ravenous beaks of the ravens. All we are is eyes looking for the unbroken or the edges where the broken bits might fit each other,” writes Ali Smith in her award-winning novel How to Be Both (Pantheon, 2014), in which one half of the book is narrated by the ghost of an Italian renaissance painter. The artist looks at the modern world through fifteenth-century eyes, offering artful descriptions as readers come to understand how the narrator of the other half of the book, a young woman living in present-day England, is connected. What benefit could inhabiting a voice from the past offer to invigorate your use of language? Try writing a short story in the voice of a ghostly visitor from another century. What is new through their eyes?
Sometimes the simplest repetition in a poem can bear enormous results. In Aracelis Girmay’s poem “You Are Who I Love,” many of the stanzas start with the word “you,” creating a tapestry of observations. “You, in the park, feeding the pigeons / You cheering for the bees // You with cats in your voice in the morning, feeding cats,” she writes. The poem begins with simple, charming observations and then the lines bloom with strangeness and urgency in both language and subject matter. “You cactus, water, sparrow, crow You, my elder / You are who I love, / summoning the courage, making the cobbler, // getting the blood drawn, sharing the difficult news,” writes Girmay. This week visit a public space and make a list of image-driven observations of people. Use this list to create a poem that serves as a portrait of this place and its visitors.
In a profile of Annie Dillard by John Freeman, published in the March/April 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author demonstrates the generosity she is known for as a writer and mentor by speaking about how working in a soup kitchen can benefit a writer. “There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise,” writes Dillard in a correspondence with Freeman. “You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing.” Write an essay about a time in which an act of service added meaning to your creative practice. How did this intimate exchange help fuel you as a writer?
This week marks the birthday of famed mystery novelist Agatha Christie, who was born on September 15, 1890. Many of her murder mysteries revolve around their settings, which have made them popular for film adaptations. In Murder on the Orient Express, a murderer is among the passengers of a luxury train trapped in heavy snow; in And Then There Were None, ten strangers on an isolated island die one by one; and in The Body in the Library, a young woman’s body is found dead in a wealthy couple’s house. If you were to craft a murder mystery of your own, where would you set it up? In celebration of Christie’s birthday, write a story centered around a murder. Begin by outlining a cast of suspicious characters, and make sure to leave readers guessing until the end.
In “Tenants,” the opening poem of Hannah Sullivan’s hybrid collection Was It for This (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), the British poet contends with nursing a new baby a mile away from the Grenfell Tower in West London, a high-rise public housing building that tragically caught fire. The poem combines various viewpoints to address how local, public tragedies can affect private lives, such as accounts from firefighters, research from news reports, and descriptions of the building’s “crinkled, corrugated, lacy” façade. This week, research the local news of your city and write a poem centered around a recent headline. How does this news story affect your personal life? Does this exercise help you feel more connected to your community?
While pregnant and struggling with her mental health and a creative block, author JoAnna Novak sought solace in the work and life of abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin, who lived with schizophrenia. In Novak’s memoir, Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood (Catapult, 2023), she recounts the experience of moving to Taos, New Mexico, where Martin lived for decades, to model her life after the painter’s hermetic existence, shutting herself off from the world for introspection and writing. Whose work do you go to when seeking a way forward? Research the biography of a favorite artist—including their creative habits and routines—and write an essay that meditates on what makes their life and work inspirational. Try to find the personal and aesthetic lineages that connect you together. For more from Novak, read her installment of our Ten Questions series.
As technology continues to play a larger role in society, writers are reflecting on the anxieties and unexpected hopes born out of these changes in their work. Cleo Qian, who is featured in “Literary MagNet” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, explores the fear and loneliness experienced in a technology dependent world in her debut story collection, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go (Tin House, 2023). Her stories center around the inner lives of young Asian and Asian American women using technology to cope: one character escapes into dating simulations after her best friend abandons her while another character looks to a supernatural karaoke machine for redemption. Write a short story in which a technological invention plays a major role. How does this reliance connect to your characters’ vulnerabilities?
“Everybody looks at him playing / the machine hour after hour, / but he hardly raises his gold lashes,” writes Thom Gunn in his poem “Bally Power Play,” which appears in his collection The Passages of Joy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982). In the poem, an unnamed speaker describes the movements of a pinball player in a bar with a sense of close watchfulness and adoration. “He is / the cool source of all that hurry / and desperate activity, in control, / legs apart, braced arms apart, / seeming alive only at the ends,” writes Gunn. This week, write a poem that captures a scene in which your speaker is observing someone closely. Consider, as in Gunn’s poem, how descriptive language can create and match the rhythm of a subject’s movements. For more inspiration, read C. K. Williams’s poem “From My Window.”
In “Singing Into the Silence of the State,” an essay from Dark Days: Fugitive Essays (Graywolf Press, 2023) by Roger Reeves, who speaks about his first book of prose in our September/October 2023 issue, many unanswered questions are posed to the reader. “What is the song that can be sung to soothe a fretting child in a bomb shelter?” writes Reeves. “What is the necessity of singing during catastrophe, whether State-created or virus-induced?” Through these questions, Reeves considers how to console his young daughter, himself, and the reader while in the midst of social unrest and a pandemic. Try writing an essay that begins and ends with a question. What are you asking your reader to consider and how can you offer consolation through this shared questioning?
In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law declaring the first Monday of September as a workers holiday after labor unions pushed for recognition of both the contributions and mistreatment of American workers. Some of the laws that protect workers today—the forty-hour workweek, minimum wage, and health coverage—began with celebrating Labor Day. Workplace struggles can inspire great writing, whether it be about feeling stuck in a dead-end job, as in Raven Leilani’s novel Luster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), or real-life experiences, as in Philip Levine’s collection What Work Is (Knopf, 1991), in which the poems offer a portrait of assembly line workers. Write a short story centered around a protagonist’s relationship with a job. Try to tease out the spiritual and physical repercussions of our society’s relationship with work in your fiction.
“Erasure poetry is a reconsideration of an existing text. There was something very satisfying about “reconsidering” The Ferguson Report—striking through whole sections of it, as if undoing the harm that had been done,” says Nicole Sealey in our online exclusive interview about her new book, The Ferguson Report: An Erasure, published by Knopf in August. In the interview, the poet discusses both the difficulty of “prying lyric from a lyric-less document” and how erasure provided access to the words she may not have found on her own. This week, find a seemingly lyric-less document and consider the words that lure you in. Try writing your own erasure poem, rubbing out words for your response to the text. For further inspiration, see this poem from Sealey’s new book.
In her essay “Dear Judy,” published in the New York Review of Books, Melissa Febos writes about her experience watching the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s groundbreaking novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In the essay, Febos describes the companionship Blume’s novel provided through the difficult years of her adolescence. “There was no book I read more often than Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It was almost twenty years old when I encountered it, but still more candid about bodily changes and the feelings they prompted than any other children’s book I had read,” writes Febos. Think of a work of art—be it literature, film, or otherwise—that struck a chord with you in your teens. Write an essay that reflects on how this work did or did not prepare you for the years to come.
“While researching the mechanisms of memory, I uncovered a delightful and, yes, terrifying fact from neuroscience: Each time we recall an event, we change it,” writes Rebekah Bergman in a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series about using the slipperiness of memory to craft fiction. “Every memory I hold onto might just be a story I tell myself. And the more I tell it as a story, the more I forget about the original event.” Is there an event from your past that’s been rewritten by the mechanisms of memory? Try writing a short story inspired by the gaps between your core memories. How can you use the slipperiness of memory to craft the perspective of a character?
The epithalamium, a lyric written and performed for a couple at their wedding ceremony, originated in ancient Greece with the earliest evidence of the form found in the fragments from Sappho’s seventh book in 600 BC. The form remains popular in contemporary poetry with traditional and nontraditional examples such as Jason Schneiderman’s “Stories About Love / Wedding Poem for Ada & Lucas” and poems by Alexandria Hall and Phillip B. Williams. This week, write your own version of an epithalamium. Whether it be for the future wedding of a loving couple you know or one that reflects on the institution of marriage, share your take on the ancient form.
In his 1958 memoir, The House of Life, translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson, critic and scholar Mario Praz catalogues the objects found in the apartment in Rome where he resided for thirteen years. As an avid collector, Praz describes the furniture, pictures, and knickknacks he possesses, all of which have value in his eyes. Each object reveals more about his interior life as Praz connects them to the people he has met and loved. A rose embroidered on a sofa cover triggers the memory of his wife leaving him; he recalls wearing amber beads and an eyeglass when meeting renowned British designer William Morris’s daughter. Inspired by this unique work of literature, write a spatial autobiography of the objects in your home. Take your reader through a tour of your favorite things while weaving into your essay all the memories attached to them.
In his installment of our Ten Questions series, Jamel Brinkley talks about developing the characters of his short story collection Witness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) who are faced with the ethics of being an observer or bystander in a changing New York City landscape. “The collection gathers characters who, in many cases, fail to perceive or fail to act,” he writes. “One challenge was to find ways around their perceptual limitations and deliver stories that were still vivid, sharp, true, and full of feeling.” This week write a story in which a character witnesses a conflict or accident. What does their ability, or inability, to act in the moment say about them?
“For $200: When inheritance begins // What is: in the womb / What is: decades before I announced my father dead / to me,” writes Taylor Byas in the poem “Jeopardy! (The Category Is Birthright),” which appears in her debut collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times (Soft Skull Press, 2023). In this emotional poem, which follows the familiar format of the classic trivia game show referenced in the title, each stanza is framed with a dollar amount and clue in the form of an answer, followed by a list of potential responses in the form of questions. Try writing a poem that turns the format of your favorite game show into a poetic form. Whether you experiment with Wheel of Fortune, Pyramid, or Lingo, what limits of language can you reach when pushing your use of form?
As August rolls on, the last days of summer seem to move faster and faster. Late summer reminds us that the season is coming to an end and fall is just around the corner with shorter days and cooler temperatures. Poet and translator Jennifer Grotz summarizes it well in her poem “Late Summer,” as she writes: “Summer lingers, but it’s about ending. It’s about how things / redden and ripen and burst and come down.” What associations do you make with late summer? From taking a final dip in a lake to enjoying a late sunset during a picnic at the park, write an essay that meditates on a memorable late summer day. What is it about the interstice between seasons that is so evocative?
From lago in Shakespeare’s Othello to Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise, some of literature and cinema’s most dynamic characters are villains. According to a 2020 research paper published in the journal Psychological Science, people may find fictional villains surprisingly likable because they identify with them. Fiction can act as a cognitive safety net, say researchers, allowing readers and viewers to compare themselves to a villainous character and engage with dark aspects of their personalities without questioning their morals. Who are some of your favorite villains? This week consider your dark side and write a story centered around a sympathetic antihero. Try to create a compelling backstory that connects and attracts readers to your character.
In Natasha Trethewey’s “Flounder,” which appears in her debut collection, Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), the speaker of the poem recalls a scene from her memories as a young girl fishing with her aunt. The aunt explains how to spot a flounder, “A flounder, she said, and you can tell / ’cause one of its sides is black. // The other side is white, she said.” The poem ends with a strong image that subtly casts an emotional parallel with the speaker seeing a connection between her mixed-race identity and the flounder: “I stood there watching that fish flip-flop, / switch sides with every jump,” writes Trethewey. Inspired by Trethewey’s precise use of an extended metaphor, write a poem in which you cast a parallel between an animal in the wild and yourself. What characteristics will you draw out?
In the fall of 1997, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, then the editor and associate editor of Seneca Review, respectively, began publishing what they called the lyric essay, pioneering the popular essay form. Tall and D’Agata discussed the appeal of the lyric essay, writing: “We turn to the lyric essay—with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language—to give us a fresh way to make music of the world.” Inspired by their definition of the lyric essay as a form that gives “primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information,” revise a forgotten draft of an essay and turn it into a lyric essay. Try to move by association and connotation, integrating gaps and lyrical language to help the essay bloom.