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.
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 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.
Although Garth Greenwell’s books What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and Cleanness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) are two separate works of fiction with distinct stories and forms, they share the same protagonist and setting. The former is a novel that focuses on a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who has a relationship with a young sex worker, while the latter is a collection of linked stories featuring the same character that expands upon his life abroad. The reading experience of each is uniquely individual and immersive, making the follow-up book not a sequel but an expansion. Is there a character from a story you’ve written in the past that you want to revisit? This week, start a new story in which you return to a character of yours and expand their life.
The house in which Nobel Prize–winning poet Tomas Tranströmer lived with his wife was located on the island of Runmarö in Sweden and built in the late nineteenth century by his maternal grandfather, a ship captain who needed a place to rest upon reaching landfall. In Tranströmer’s poem “The Blue House,” he describes the historic house’s exterior as well as its storied past. “It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow,” he writes. Write a poem that serves as a portrait of a place you have lived in. Consider its past tenants, the details of its exterior and interior, and its relationship to your life.
Last weekend the highly anticipated summer blockbuster film Barbie premiered. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the film has already earned praise for the attention to detail paid in the costumes, playhouses, and collector’s items, conjuring memories for many of their time spent playing with the iconic doll. Inspired by the resurging popularity of Barbie dolls, write an essay about your favorite childhood toy. Was it one you played with in secret or with friends? If you still have the toy, what has made you hold on to it? If you gave it away, was that a difficult process for you?
Films and TV shows are known for their memorable theme songs, but music can be a powerful tool for characters on the page as well. “When it comes to a specific character, I often look for a theme song that fits either their personality or some aspect of their nature,” writes Amiee Gibbs, author of the novel, The Carnivale of Curiosities (Grand Central Publishing, 2023), in her installment of our Writers Recommend series. “The Cure’s ‘Burn’ and ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ perfectly complimented two of my leads, and it felt right having the same musical artist represent and define them in my mind.” This week, pick a theme song for a character and build a story around the lyrics and music. How can a song supply mood and conflict for a character?
In his poem “Self-Portrait at Twenty,” Gregory Orr demonstrates the short, personal lyric he’s known for and captures a moment in time in his life. Rather than include details about what occurred when he was twenty, Orr presents a series of stark, detailed images that create a sense of foreboding for what the year had in store for him. The poem begins with the lines: “I stood inside myself / like a dead tree or a tower.” Then, later in the poem, he writes: “Because my tongue / spoke harshly, I said: / Make it dust.” Take inspiration from Orr’s poem and write a self-portrait poem that captures what you felt at a specific age. Try to avoid revealing narrative details and instead, use your sense of imagery to allow the reader in to your state of mind.
In her essay “On Killing Charles Dickens,” published in the New Yorker, Zadie Smith recounts her relationship with the timeless author and his influence on her historical novel, The Fraud, forthcoming from Penguin Press in September. In the essay, Smith begins by describing her resistance to writing a historical novel and discusses the unavoidable influence of Dickens on her childhood and her research. Ultimately, she concedes to his influence and tells herself: “I know he often infuriates you, but the truth is you never could have written this without him.” Consider a writer who has had a powerful influence on your writing and start an essay about your relationship. Do you find it necessary to concede to their influence?
Record-breaking global temperatures have already been recorded this year in the first weeks of summer. In a recent CNN report, Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, estimated that these temperatures are the warmest “probably going back at least 100,000 years.” How do you think extreme heat could affect the way we go about our daily lives and treat one another? Write a story in which a group of characters is forced to deal with a difficult decision on the hottest day of the year. Do they become more exasperated and desperate because of the heat?
In a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series, Megan Fernandes describes a writing exercise centered around breath that she assigns to her students. “I tell my students to take out their phones and record themselves saying ‘I love you’ over and over again in a single breath, noting the time,” she writes. By counting the number of times this phrase is said in one breath, the students can calculate how long their lines are and how many stanzas their poems will contain. This week try Fernandes’s writing exercise to find the natural line length of your own breath and write a poem guided by the capacity of your lungs.
“Oftentimes, when I would perform at poetry readings, I’d tell these little stories about what inspired a poem (such as growing up in a restaurant and being locked in the meat freezer),” says Jane Wong in an interview for PEN America’s PEN Ten series about her debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City (Tin House, 2023). “I started to realize that these little poem ‘intros’ were insights into much larger stories—stories that go beyond my own family, my own relationships.” This week, inspired by Wong’s generative writing practice, return to an old draft of a poem, story, or essay, and begin a new essay that looks deeper into the backstory of that work. What did you leave unsaid?
Storytelling is an art form, but there appears to be some science involved as well. In an episode for NPR’s Morning Edition news radio program, social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports on what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert found when researching whether people preferred hearing stories about shared experiences or novel experiences. What Gilbert and his colleagues discovered was that people much preferred stories about familiar experiences, so much so that at your next dinner party, he recommends spending “less time talking about experiences that only you've had and more time talking about experiences that your listeners have also had.” Inspired by this behavioral research, write a story set during a dinner party in which conflicts arise from the stories shared by guests. Will an easily bothered guest become embittered by the swell of unamusing stories?
This week marks the birthday of the iconic Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who would have turned 119 on July 12. Known for his historical epics, political manifestos, and love poems, Neruda’s incisive and joyful odes were often dedicated to ordinary objects making them approachable yet surreal. In “Ode to My Socks,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly, Neruda describes his covered feet as “two fish made / of wool, / two long sharks / sea-blue.” In “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Robinson, Neruda describes a dead tuna fish as “a dark bullet / barreled / from the depths.” Inspired by Neruda’s electric, surreal images, write an ode to an ordinary object in your life. Whether it be a bookshelf, a desk, or a coat, think expansively about how to honor and describe this praiseworthy item.
“I want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner…but as a reader,” writes Anne Carson in her essay “Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” which appears in her book Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (Knopf, 2005). With careful research and introspection, Carson writes about all the ways writers discuss sleep in their work, uncovering her own fraught relationship to it along the way. The essay combines the forms of literary criticism and personal essay—offering close readings of the works of Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, and others, while burrowing deeper into emotions. Inspired by Carson’s mixing of forms, choose a topic that eludes you—perhaps dreams, fashion, or love—and write a personal essay that uses research to gain a deeper understanding of it. What will you praise?
Summer vacations and travel often provide adventure, conflict, and reflection whether in real life or in a fictional story. In Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), a family sets off on a road trip from New York to Arizona in the heat of the summer and tensions rise as they collide with news of an immigration crisis on the southwestern border of the country. In Alejandro Varela’s short story “The Caretakers,” the protagonist rides the subway in New York City on a balmy day after visiting his aunt in the hospital and reflects on family, friendships, and race. Write a short story with a pivotal scene set in a moving vehicle on a hot day. How will your story use travel as a theme?
Independence Day, colloquially known as the Fourth of July in the United States, is the annual celebration of nationhood commemorating the passage of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For centuries, poets have offered deeply personal perspectives on what it means to celebrate their country, including Alicia Ostriker in her poem “The History of America,” in which she writes: “Murdering the buffalo, driving the laggard regiments, / The caring was a necessary myth…” and Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem “No Explosions,” in which she writes: “To enjoy / fireworks / you would have / to have lived / a different kind / of life.” This week write a poem reflecting on your relationship to nationhood. What contradictory feelings surface when you consider your citizenship? For further inspiration, check out the Poetry Foundation’s selection of poems for the Fourth of July.
“Crushes map life over with meaning and joy, and I’d always choose heartbreak over boredom,” writes Alexandra Molotkow in “Crush Fatigue,” an essay published in Real Life magazine, in which she discusses the effects amorous crushes have had on her life and psyche. The essay focuses on the word limerence, meaning the “condition of cognitive obsession,” and uses psychoanalytic theory to offer an understanding of the power of infatuations. Think back to your last crush and catalog the symptoms you remember experiencing. Write an essay that looks back on this time from a distance and consider what you’ve learned from your limerence. Would you be willing to fall deep into infatuation again?
In Nicole Krauss’s short story “Seeing Ershadi,” published in the New Yorker in 2018, a ballet dancer becomes obsessed with the actor Homayoun Ershadi, who plays Mr. Badii in the iconic Iranian film Taste of Cherry directed by Abbas Kiarostami. The story takes a turn when the protagonist travels to Japan with her dance company and sees Ershadi in a crowd, then follows him believing she must save the actor from the suicide he commits in the film. With a vividly convincing narrative voice, Krauss’s story embodies the impact great art can have, how a performance can haunt a viewer into seeing their life in a new light. This week, try writing a story that captures the relationship between a viewer and a work of art. What haunts your protagonist into reassessing something in their life?
In his fourth poetry collection, Chariot (Wave Books, 2023), Timothy Donnelly uses form to contain the expansiveness of philosophical and artistic inquiry. Each poem is confined to twenty lines and uses long, syntactically complex sentences to connect seemingly disparate things: from the Milky Way to the polluted green color of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, and the blue of periwinkles and rainclouds to the ordinariness of a Staples office supply store. Inspired by Donnelly’s use of form and connection, flip through a few books from your shelves and write down all the nouns you encounter. Then write a twenty-line poem that attempts to connect these words as seamlessly as possible using your unique perspective.
In the foreword to Once a City Said: A Louisville Poets Anthology, published by Sarabande Books this week, editor Joy Priest recounts driving from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Houston at the height of the pandemic in the summer of 2020. At one point she stops in Richmond, Virginia, and drives down Monument Avenue with “its parade of Confederate statues lining the street’s median,” and later, in Louisville, Kentucky, notes how “the streets were filled with smoke, flash-bangs, and tear gas, not just over the murder of George Floyd but also over the murder of one of our own by Louisville police: Breonna Taylor.” Write an essay structured around a road trip in which the places you visit are central to the essay’s subject. Consider the history of the places you have visited as well as the encounters you have had there.
Sandy and Danny’s summer nights in Grease, Tony and Maria on a fire escape in West Side Story, Joe and Princess Anne’s single day together in Roman Holiday—the summer romance is a common trope in film and literature for good reason. In an article for the online therapy company Talkspace, therapist Cynthia V. Catchings notes that summer is a time “to escape from routine and open up to new people and experiences.” A welcome uptick in the production of serotonin due to the increase in sunlight, the relaxed school and work schedules, and the ubiquity of breezy summer clothing all account for feeling good and at ease. Inspired by fun summer flings, write a short story in which two characters experience a whirlwind affair. Play with the conventions of this trope and try upending the expectations associated with a romantic story.
“If you haven’t taken the Amtrak in Florida, you haven’t lived,” writes Megan Fernandes in her poem “Letter to a Young Poet,” which appears in her third collection, I Do Everything I’m Told, published by Tin House this week. The poem’s title borrows from Rainer Maria Rilke’s renowned collection of letters to a young poet seeking his guidance, published in 1929. Fernandes’s poem addresses a nameless “you” while simultaneously revealing details about the speaker, producing a sense of intimacy that presents two sides of a correspondence, its lines swerving associatively, as the pieces of advice turn increasingly lyrical. “It’s better to be illegible, sometimes. Then they can’t govern you,” writes Fernandes. “Sleep upward in a forest so the animal sees your gaze.” Taking inspiration from the lyrical techniques evident in this poem, write a poem of your own that offers advice to a younger version of yourself. Instead of simply giving your younger self practical advice, how can you propose a new way to see?
In her installment of our Ten Questions series, Emma Cline talks about the imagery that first inspired her latest novel, The Guest (Random House, 2023). “The first time I saw an East Coast beach, I was so struck by the mildness of the landscape, a long stretch of dunes and the warm water and mint grasses. It looked surreal to my California eye, and I knew I wanted to write about that landscape,” says Cline. Can you recall visiting a landscape that felt entirely new to you? Write an essay that offers details of this place and your experience with it. Try to identify the feelings it conjured in you and what made it feel new.
“It was true what Mrs. Berry said: No one expected to see an old woman in a muscle car, a convertible Mustang with polished chrome bumpers, a hood scoop, and an engine that ran with a throaty hum that we could feel in that soft place just below our stomachs as she pulled alongside us one day on our walk home from school,” writes John Fulton in the first sentence of his short story “Saved,” which appears in his collection The Flounder (Blackwater Press, 2023). Consider Fulton’s nuanced description of his character and how this opens the story and write a long first sentence describing disparate aspects of a new character. What unexpected act does your protagonist experience to open your first scene?