In his essay “How to Pass the Time on a Holiday Commemorating the Destruction of Your Ancestors,” published by Literary Hub in 2015, Indigenous poet Tommy Pico confronts the reality of the history of Thanksgiving and what it means for him: “You’re maybe only a little bit aware of it for a small part of today, in between the family or the baking or the turkey. It might be a twinge. But that twinge is where I live.” In the conclusion of the essay, Pico offers a summary of how he spends the holiday—making pie with his friends, writing poems, and drinking dirty martinis—and provides readers a chance to reflect on what it means to ask how a Native American celebrates Thanksgiving. Inspired by the duality in Pico’s essay, write a personal essay about how the history of Thanksgiving affects the way you experience the holiday 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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The traditional tarot deck can be divided into two sections: the minor and major arcana. The former focuses on quotidian details, while the latter reveals the bigger picture of one’s life. Composed of twenty-two cards, the major arcana tells the story of life’s endless cycles, beginning with the first card of the Fool, symbolizing naivety and new beginnings, and ending with the last card of the World, representing all of life’s major achievements and stages. As we move closer to ushering in a new year, write a short story that begins with the end of one cycle in your character’s life and concludes with the beginning of a new one. What does the journey between these two life stages look like? Explore the inner life of your protagonist as they find their way toward a new path.
In his essay “The Medium of the English Language,” published in Poetry magazine in 2014, the poet and critic James Longenbach, who died in July at the age of sixty-two, wrote about the ways in which the English language was his medium, the way that “the medium of Giorgione’s Tempest is ‘oil on canvas.’” Longenbach wrote: “How can art be something made of words, the same words used for newspapers and parking tickets? Unlike the media most commonly associated with visual and sonic artistry, words are harnessed by most people during almost every waking moment of their lives.” Taking inspiration from Longenbach’s essay, write a poem that reflects on how your everyday language becomes the medium for your poetry. Do you see a link between how you use language to communicate in your daily life and how you use it to communicate in a poem?
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2022 was awarded to French author Annie Ernaux for what the Nobel Committee calls “the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements, and collective restraints of personal memory.” This skill is exemplified in her book The Years as she tells her life story spanning over sixty years in an unconventional manner, using the choral “we” and sometimes shifting into the third person. Reflecting on the voice of her book, Ernaux writes: “There is no ‘I’ in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only ‘one’ and ‘we,’ as if now it were her time to tell the story of the time-before.” Write an essay in the third person that focuses on a span of time in your life. How does this formal choice affect how you consider writing personally and collectively?
Have you ever tried to tell a story in reverse order? In the latest installment of our Ten Questions series, E. M. Tran discusses the challenges she faced while writing her debut novel, Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 2022), which moves backward in time. “I had to shift my mindset,” says Tran. “Tension and narrative movement can still accumulate when you go backward. It just looked different, and I had to really get comfortable with that when I was writing.” This week, write a story that moves backward in time. Start with the ending and guide the reader back to the origins of your character’s journey.
“Each poem or song has a genealogy of sorts. When I speak with singers from our ceremonial ground about a song, they tell you who taught you the song, where the song came from, who has the authority to sing/speak it,” writes former U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo in her Blaney Lecture “Ancestors: A Mapping of Indigenous Poetry and Poets” delivered in 2015 at Poets Forum in New York City. “The meanings make a map that sometimes connect you to a lonely serviceman in Japan, or to the journey over the Trail of Tears, from what is now known as Alabama to Indian Territory, or Oklahoma.” Inspired by Harjo’s words, write a poem that traces the genealogy of your poetry. Try starting with a list or a family tree to uncover the storytellers who have inspired you.
Last month, former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey delivered the annual Windham-Campbell lecture “Why I Write” at Yale University. In considering the theme of the lecture, Trethewey recalls the familial, poetic, and cultural influences that inspired her to become a poet, weaving personal stories with reflections on history and literature. “I’ve needed to create the narrative of my life, its abiding metaphors, so that my story would not be determined for me,” says Trethewey. This week, ask yourself why you write and write a personal essay that searches for your response. What is the story you want to tell?
What can we learn from a single conversation? In Richard Bausch’s short story “Aren’t You Happy for Me?” the protagonist Ballinger speaks to his daughter Melanie over the phone. The conversation, which increases in stakes and tension as it progresses, centers around both parties needing to share life-altering news: Melanie is pregnant and planning to marry an older man while Ballinger and his wife are planning to separate. The story is told with very little narration and is almost entirely written in dialogue. This week try writing a story that takes place over the course of a phone call. Consider what is said and unsaid in the dialogue and how this creates tension between your characters.
In Derrick Austin’s poem “Jesus Year,” he creates a portrait of his life on the occasion of his thirty-third birthday. Instead of leaning toward the more familiar images of birthday cakes or candles, Austin begins by describing his immediate surroundings: “My clogged sink coughs up foul water. / My skeletal philodendron,” he writes. The poem then offers more about his life; family members, a cerulean sweater worn through a winter without work, memories of the last time he smoked a cigarette. Taking inspiration from Austin, write a poem that paints a portrait of your life. Try to color the poem with unexpected images to offer a complete picture.
In “Oral History,” an essay published in Astra Magazine online, Yiyun Li recounts when she was invited by her child’s third grade class to share a story of what her life was like in the third grade. Instead of telling the true story of a teacher’s cruel punishment of a fellow student and the betrayal and ostracism she experienced as a result, she fabricates a story about the lantern festival she attended. Li writes: “How else could I have contributed to their education? Had I chosen to tell them a true story, I would have inflicted cruelty, too.” Inspired by Li’s decision, write a personal essay about a time you chose to conceal the truth to protect someone. What were the circumstances behind this decision, and what were you trying to protect them from?
In a recent episode of the science podcast Ologies, host Alie Ward speaks with Cole Imperi, founder of the School of American Thanatology and a leading expert on death, dying, and grief. Ward talks about her experience with her father’s death and asks Imperi about the Kübler-Ross model, also known as the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Imperi discusses the common misconception that these stages are experienced by all in a linear order, and that in fact, many may not experience all the stages and some may switch from one stage to another and return to one again. This week, write a story in which a character grieves over the loss of something or someone. Use the Kübler-Ross model as inspiration to plot out your character’s development.
In Ross Gay’s poem “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” neighbors gather around “the canopy / of a fig its / arms pulling the / September sun to it” and relish in the riches of the tree’s bounty, an uncommon occurrence for a typical city street corner. Gay writes, “soon there were / eight or nine / people gathered beneath / the tree looking into / it like a / constellation pointing / do you see it.” This week, inspired by autumn as the season of the harvest, write a poem in which you describe a joyful scene centered around a fruit-bearing plant or tree. How does this experience serve as an escape from the worries of your daily life?
Following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Twitter user @aardvarsk tweeted: “I am tired of being a part of a major historical event.” The tweet gained over 60,000 retweets and 263,000 likes, and like anything popular these days, eventually turned into a meme. The expression, and versions of it, have spread online over the past two years noting the fatigue of many living through this time of multiple pandemics, war, and political and economic instability. Write an essay that reflects on the exhaustion of living through major historical moments. Consider how people a century ago were feeling and what might be said of the 2020s in the future.
In an essay featured in the September/October 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Evison writes about the banning of his 2018 novel, Lawn Boy, and the morning he found out that parents were protesting the inclusion of his novel in a Texas high school library. Evison awoke to several threatening messages on his social media accounts which included one that read: “There’s a special place in hell for people like you. I hope you burn.” This week, write a story from the perspective of a writer whose book is banned and targeted by a group of parents and local politicians. In what unexpected way is your protagonist’s life changed by this sudden fame?
In her poem “The Quiet,” which appears in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, Jorie Graham disrupts traditional expectations of a poem by aligning the text to the right of the page. Graham creates an atmosphere of tension by describing a metaphysical storm, and later in the poem, a literal one. She writes: “as wind comes up and we feel our soul turn frantic / in us, craning this way and that, yes the soul can twist, can winch itself into knots, / why not, there is light but no warmth.” This week, write a poem that creates visual tension by aligning the text to the right. Is there a storm in your life that could serve as inspiration?
In “The Enduring Allure of Choose Your Own Adventure Books,” an essay published in the New Yorker this week, Leslie Jamison writes about her childhood obsession with Choose Your Own Adventure books and how they offered readers the chance to inhabit more daring versions of themselves. The essay is written like a Choose Your Own Adventure story, with the end of each section offering a choice to continue reading or to jump to another section. Inspired by Jamison’s essay, write a personal essay in the form of a Choose Your Own Adventure story. What choices will you allow your readers to make, and how will these choices affect the trajectory of what is revealed?
The Venice International Film Festival in Italy is the world’s oldest film festival and is a marker for the year’s most celebrated accomplishments in cinema. There is always glitz and glamour on the red carpet, but this year the media focused on rumors of tension between the costars of the film Don’t Worry Darling, harkening back to old Hollywood and the gossip and alleged rivalry between stars such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Marilyn Monroe. This week write a short story in which gossip creates tension between your characters. How will your characters react once they become the talk of the town?
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsule series, Gregory Orr writes about the use of sounds and sound patterns in poems to produce a textural sonic experience. The essay begins by discussing four lines from Theodore Roethke’s poem “Root Cellar,” which Orr uses to exemplify how sound can “create a dense composition that is the sonic equivalent of intense odors and textures.” This week write a poem that illustrates through sound the smells, noises, and tactile experiences of a place from your childhood. Follow Orr’s advice to find what brings you pleasure in the music of words and use it in your poem.
On August 29, 1952, American composer and music theorist John Cage premiered his most famous and controversial piece 4’33”, a three-movement piece written for any instrument or combination of instruments in which the score instructs silence for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. In an interview that appears in Richard Kostelanetz’s 1988 book Conversing With Cage, Cage says of the audience for this first performance: “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement.” Write an essay inspired by this iconic piece of music. Try listening to the natural and ambient sounds of your writing environment and explore the moments in your life in which silence has been meaningful.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention, in which natural and cultural sites around the world are considered and added to a list to protect and preserve their heritage. There are currently over one thousand legally protected sites, which include the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Mount Fuji in Japan, Canaima National Park in Venezuela, and Victoria Falls in Zambia. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage list and write a story that takes place at one of these protected sites. Read through the site’s history for ideas on how to weave this setting into your story.
“Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again,” writes John Murillo in his poem “Variations on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop,” which appears in his collection Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry (Four Way Books, 2020), in which he directly quotes from and expands upon Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art.” Using his own perspective, Murillo explores the theme of loss and uses intimate life details to make each event feel distinct, sometimes measuring one against the other as Bishop does in her poem. He writes: “Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s / crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass.” This week, write a poem that directly responds to a favorite poem of yours. Try writing a variation of a line or directly quoting from the poem to get started.
In the anthology Nonwhite and Woman: 131 Micro Essays on Being in the World (Woodhall Press, 2022) edited by Darien Hsu Gee and Carla Crujido, which is featured in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, writers express the many facets of being a woman of color in poems and essays, all of which are three hundred words or less. The pieces navigate topics ranging from immigration, colorism, and financial struggles to family, food, and friendship. Inspired by these themes, write a micro essay that illustrates how your identity affects the way you move in the world. What creative approaches will you use to compress your thoughts into three hundred words or less?
In a recent thread on Twitter, author Rebecca Makkai begins a discussion on words that make prose awkward in fiction, starting with the use of “as” in a sentence such as: “‘Hey there,’ I said as I got up as I turned on the lights.’” Other awkward words Makkai lists include “temporal hinge words” like “after” and “while,” the overuse of “that” in a sentence, and the use of gerunds, especially as dialogue modifiers. The last tip Makkai offers is a useful one: “I promise you, if you control + F through your work just on the words ‘as’ and ‘that’ and take out 90% of them, you’ll be so happy.” Try using this advice to revise a draft of a short story you’re working on. Remove some of the narrative devices listed in Makkai’s tweets and see how the rhythm of your story’s language changes.
“Up late scrolling / for distraction, love, hope, / I discovered skew dice. // In the promotional video / you see only a mathematician’s hands, / like the hands of god,” writes Catherine Barnett in “2020,” a poem published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. As a way of illustrating the loneliness felt during the early days of the pandemic, the poem focuses on the central image of skew dice, a set of irregularly shaped dice that are mirror images of each other. Write a poem that revolves around one central object. Try to be detailed about its uses and origins. Let the poem guide what the image of this object represents for you.
In this week’s installment of our Craft Capsules series, Nuar Alsadir taps into her experience as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, arguing that “the most direct way for others to connect with your writing is by connecting with the emotion you feel in relation to the work.” Alsadir shares a lesson she learned while attending clown school as research for her book Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation (Graywolf Press, 2022). As a woman on stage described her love of eating chicken feet, the class laughed “because we could sense the enjoyment she felt as she imaginatively enacted the process on stage.” This week, write an essay in which you describe an activity that truly gives you pleasure. Allow the genuine emotion you experience to guide the language of the essay.