In her essay “Why Do We Keep Telling Sister Stories?” published on Electric Literature, writer and filmmaker Tia Glista reflects on the surplus of stories in literature, visual art, and film that revolve around the dynamics of sisters, ranging from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to the reality show series Keeping Up With the Kardashians. In the essay, Glista writes about growing up without sisters and how these stories guided her ideals of femininity. “I found surrogate sisters in pop culture; the Olsen twins’ bevy of straight-to-VHS buddy movies taught me how to plan slumber parties and inspired every fashion choice that I sported in kindergarten,” writes Glista. Write an essay that reflects on the kinds of stories you grew up with and how they connect to who you are today.
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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According to a 2022 YouGov online poll, half of Americans consume true crime content, and one in three say they consume it at least once a week. Popular podcasts such as Serial as well as television shows and streaming series such as Unsolved Mysteries and Dahmer are proof of the continuing trend. The suspenseful genre invites enthusiasts into the lives of serial killers, kidnappers, law enforcement, and in some cases, the victims of the crimes. The poll showed that many enjoy the genre for the sense of suspense and excitement, but also to understand criminals and their motivations. This week, write a story inspired by true crime dramas. Whose perspective will you write from?
“I love to take an object made all but invisible by its mundanity—an egg-shaped container of pantyhose, a lawn chair turned on its side—and break it open to expose the full dimensions of the human vulnerability it carries,” writes Danielle Blau in her Craft Capsule essay “Somewhere Somebody Is Doing Something Right Now,” in which she explores how she creates characters for her poems. Write a poem that attempts to expose the full dimensions of an object and how it offers a reflection of a person, whether yourself or another character. What is the significance of this object and how does it exemplify human vulnerability?
In a video featured in the Poets & Writers Theater, Hilton Als reads from his essay “Tristes Tropiques,” which appears in his book White Girls (McSweeney’s, 2014), recounting the story of how he was named after his mother’s best friend’s child who died at birth. “The minute I was born I was not just myself, but the memory of someone else,” reads Als. How did you get your name? Write an essay that tells the story behind your name. Examine the metaphorical and historical meanings of your name and allow your feelings to carry you through the essay’s unfolding.
In a recent New York Times article, reporter Gina Kolata writes about a series of medical discoveries and family secrets surrounding eighteenth-century German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. An international group of researchers published a paper last month after DNA analysis of what were known to be strands of Beethoven’s hair. Their report debunks many long-held myths about the composer including his cause of death, how he lost his hearing, and his living descendants. Inspired by this scientific and historical drama, write a story in which a scientific discovery reveals intimate secrets about a famous person. With the steady rise of genetic research being conducted, consider the intersection between science and personal history.
“What I adore is not horses, with their modern / domestic life span of 25 years. What I adore / is a bug that lives only one day,” writes Natalie Shapero in her poem “Not Horses,” published in the November 2013 issue of Poetry magazine. Shapero redirects the reader from horses to the short lifespan of a bug within the first few lines of the poem and in doing so creates a humorous tension between the title and the body of the poem that adds character to the unique speaker. This week write a poem that moves quickly from one subject to the next. Consider how your mind shifts from one thought to another and carry that tone forward into the poem.
In “Dedications and Acknowledgments: The Art of Giving Thanks,” published on the Poets & Writers website in 2019, author Sloane Tanen discusses ways to offer gratitude to the people who help writers make books. Although some acknowledgment pages take the form of demonstrating how well connected a writer is, the pages can also be a space for writers to look back on how writing a book is more than just a solitary act. As an exercise, try making a list of all the writers, teachers, friends, family members, and favorite foods that contribute to your betterment as a writer. Then, write an essay that gives thanks and digs into the details of how these specific people and things have helped you become the writer you are today.
In response to a series of pension reforms by French president Emmanuel Macron, municipal waste collectors began a strike earlier this month, leaving over 10,000 tons of trash to collect on the streets of Paris. Viral videos have documented the City of Light transformed into a strange landscape of black bags, abandoned toilets, strewn furniture, and cardboard boxes. This week, write a story in which a set of events triggers a city’s landscape to change dramatically. The setting can be based on real events or surrealistic, as with Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Balloon,” published in the New Yorker in 1966.
In Ada Limón’s poem “Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds,” which appears in her collection Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015), the speaker moves through the memories of exes and accidents, including how a friend is obsessed with plane crashes: “He memorizes the wrecked metal details, / the clear cool skies cut by black scars of smoke. / Once, while driving, he told me about all the crashes: / The one in blue Kentucky, in yellow Iowa. / How people go on, and how people don’t.” Write a poem about a specific detail or unexpected obsession of a loved one. How does this trait color the memories you have with that person?
In the popular apocalyptic video game and HBO series The Last of Us, a zombifying fungus has destroyed the world. Although there are destructive types of fungi, in forest habitats they can be quite beneficial. Fungi intertwine with the roots of trees underground and connect individual plants to form a network they use to communicate and transfer water, nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals. Older, more seasoned trees in a forest, sometimes referred to as “mother trees,” use these fungal connections to send needed nutrients to younger saplings, much like the ways in which humans care for those in need. Inspired by the interdependence of forest habitats, write an essay that reflects on the metaphorical ramifications of this nurturing relationship. Is there a parallel you can find in your own life?
Adam Mars-Jones’s novel Box Hill: A Story of Low Self-Esteem (New Directions, 2020) explores a relationship between two men: naive eighteen-year-old Colin and his decade-older lover Ray. Told from the point of view of Colin, whose self-deprecating remarks diminish his image and idolize his partner, readers are brought into his view of the world. In one scene, Colin refers to his partner’s sweat as “an elixir” and his own as “no more than a waste product.” Mars-Jones uses Colin’s unique voice to develop his character as well as mimic his role in his relationship with Ray, setting up his emotional arc. Inspired by this narrative technique, write a story in which your narrator has an extreme view of themselves, whether narcissistic or self-deprecating. What effect does this have on how your story develops?
In Charif Shanahan’s poem “Colonialism,” which appears in his second collection, Trace Evidence, out this week from Tin House Books, the poet captures a tense and tender moment of childhood rebellion in which the young speaker runs across a bustling four-lane street in Casablanca as his mother rushes after him, spanks him, and says: “Why / Would you do that to me?” Another poem from the book depicts a child in a department store fleeing and hiding from his mother as she searches and calls out for him. The poet’s rebellious, authoritative voice electrifies scenes from childhood while exploring themes of mixed-race identity, queerness, and belonging. Can you recall a childhood memory that, in hindsight, is tied to your identity? Write a poem that captures this scene in which you see a latent part of yourself on display. Try to draw a line, as Shanahan does, connecting your past self to your present self.
For the last sixty years, the Chicago River has been dyed green in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. The tradition was begun by the city’s plumbers in an effort to identify leaks in pipes but stuck and even inspired other cities. Unique traditions enrich a city’s identity and there is no shortage of odd and entertaining ones. In Chandler, Arizona, there is an ostrich-themed carnival; in Boise, Idaho, onlookers gather to watch a giant potato descend at the countdown to the new year; and for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, local bakeries make king cakes with tiny plastic babies hidden inside. Write an essay about a tradition that is uniquely celebrated in your hometown. Describe in detail the origin and longevity of this beloved custom.
In the period of late antiquity, the ides of March was typically the day when citizens in Rome celebrated New Year’s festivals, such as the feast of Anna Perenna, honoring the goddess of long life and renewal, and Mamuralia, a ceremony in which an old man wearing animal skins was beaten with sticks and exiled from the city, symbolizing the shedding of the old year. Many may now associate the day with the ominous phrase from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar: “Beware the ides of March.” Taking inspiration from these myths and rituals, write a story in which a powerful figure is celebrated and then meets their demise. How will you flesh out this character’s personality while setting up the rise and fall of their reign?
“Fish / fowl / flood / Water lily mud / My life // in the leaves and on water,” writes Lorine Niedecker in “Paean to Place,” a long lyric poem that meditates on the region of southern Wisconsin where she was born and lived most of her life. Written in short sections, the poem goes in and out of memories and pastoral descriptions of marshlike landscapes, altogether serving as a testament to the impact a place can have on one’s poetic sensibilities. This week write a pastoral ode to the landscape you grew up in. Whether an urban sprawl or a rural town, try to use the poem’s form and idiosyncratic language to paint a portrait of your experience in this formative place.
“I have always understood myself to be a person who does not go to writers conferences,” writes former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan in her essay “I Go to AWP,” published in Poetry magazine in 2005. Ryan recounts the many stages of anxiety, wonder, exhaustion, and satisfaction she felt attending the Association of Writers and Writers Programs’ annual conference in Vancouver that year. Organized like journal entries, each section of the essay is a rare and personal glimpse into this storied weekend of writerly activities. Inspired by Ryan’s experience, write an essay about how you have felt, or might feel, attending a popular event surrounded by your peers. Take the reader moment by moment through the anticipation and excitement.
In the film Tár, written and directed by Todd Field and starring Cate Blanchett, a world-renowned orchestra conductor is caught in a scandal surrounding a series of sexual abuse allegations. The Oscar-nominated film uses persuasive world-building and parallels to news stories surrounding cancel culture, the #MeToo movement, and the culture of artistic fame—including an integral scene with a cameo by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik—to create a realistic portrayal of a complicated character. This week, write a fictional story that attempts to convince the reader that the events actually happened in real life. For further inspiration from uncanny depictions of reality in fiction, read Miranda July’s short story “Roy Spivey.”
Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a series of letters in elegiac couplets during his exile from Rome called the Tristia. The poems capture Ovid’s final days in Rome, as well as his journey overseas to Tomis on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea, and are addressed to various figures including his wife, loyal and disloyal friends, and he even composes his epitaph. “I who lie here, sweet Ovid, poet of tender passions, / fell victim to my own sharp wit,” writes Ovid, translated by Peter Green in The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters (University of California Press, 2005). Inspired by this epic elegy, write a poem from the perspective of someone in exile. What does your speaker long for, and how does exile force them to voice unspoken concerns?
During the pandemic, a popular pastime has been rewatching favorite shows, from recent offerings to classics. According to an article published in Reader’s Digest, this trend can be traced to the concept of status quo bias: the idea of maintaining one’s current or previous decision. Psychologists also note that we tend to stick with what’s familiar to ease anxiety and avoid disappointment and stress. This week write an essay about rewatching your favorite shows. Do you encounter something new each time or find comfort in reliving the same emotions?
In a short essay for Literary Hub’s “Craft of Writing” newsletter, novelist Rebecca Makkai argues that setting is the most underutilized tool in fiction. Makkai explains that a setting should “give the reader enough ambience and context that they can extrapolate a world” as well as take an active part in offering characters something to react to and “trap characters together, destabilize them, provoke change, or provide refuge, urgency, or danger.” Keeping this definition in mind, draft a short story by starting with a clear and time-specific setting. Try to delineate the time period, the physical location, and the relationship this setting has to your protagonist so it can make an impact on your story.
In “When I See Stars in the Night Sky,” Joy Priest writes an ode to the late iconic singer Whitney Houston, tethering her memory to the stars in the sky. “It’s 1988 Her head / Thrown back against a black backdrop She is the only thing / glowing So distant from us in the universe,” writes Priest. The poem then moves into the personal connection the speaker has with the singer. “I love myself / because of her,” writes Priest. Inspired by this poem, write an ode to your favorite musician placing them, as Priest does, in a specific moment in time.
In 2011, Oakland-based artist Alexis Arnold began making art from the discarded books and magazines she continually came across on the street. Arnold transformed the scrapped volumes into sculptures by growing crystals on them. Some of the books she has crystallized include Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, as well as encyclopedias and dictionaries. The results evoke, as Arnold describes it, “geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory.” Inspired by the rapidly changing landscape of print media, write an essay that reflects on your first memories with books and print magazines. Do they remain precious to you? For more on Arnold’s art, read “The Written Image: Crystallized Books” in the March/April 2023 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.
In the latest installment of our Ten Questions series, Colin Winnette discusses the inspiration behind his surreal dystopian novel Users (Soft Skull, 2023), which follows a troubled technology designer mired in a controversy surrounding a virtual-reality program he creates. When looking for ways to shape the book, Winnette was struck by a series of tweets by entrepreneur, and cofounder and former CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey about his ten-day silent meditation retreat in Myanmar. “There was something so striking to me about the then-leading personality behind one of the noisiest places to exist online making such a dogged pursuit of silence,” says Winnette. This week write a story set in a silent retreat in which tensions start to rise. How will you sustain the story’s conflict despite there being little to no dialogue?
“I don’t call it sleep anymore. / I’ll risk losing something new instead,” writes Natalie Diaz in her poem “From the Desire Field,” which appears in her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). The poem speaks from the mind of someone unable to fall asleep who attempts to find a sense of relief through their insomnia. “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden,” she writes. Emotions then begin to move away from the tension of not being able to sleep into sensuality and passion. This week write a poem that revolves around what it feels like to experience insomnia. What do you do when you can’t fall asleep?
“Drenched by a summer downpour or softened by spring rain, I have felt an aspect of freedom,” writes Ama Codjoe in her essay “An Aspect of Freedom,” included in the anthology A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars (Milkweed Editions, 2023) edited by Erin Sharkey. In the essay Codjoe explores her relationship with rain through the lens of freedom, using personal anecdotes, historical events, and photographs taken during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “In the rain, or in the ocean, or in a flood of people singing freedom songs and calling the names of our unjustly killed, I feel a part of nature, a part of nature’s self, which may be anything that gives nourishment and everything that breathes,” writes Codjoe. In expectation of the upcoming fertile season, write an essay that explores your relationship with spring rain. As you write, take inspiration from Codjoe’s essay and consider the question: When do you feel most free?