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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If you could spend a night at any museum, which would you choose, and why? The French publisher Editions Stock has a series of books that begins with this premise—each author selects a museum, arrangements are made for an overnight stay, and a book is written about the experience. In Jakuta Alikavazovic’s Like a Sky Inside, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, she spends a night at the Louvre in Paris, where childhood memories of visits with her father are vividly recalled. “From March 7 to 8, 2020, I spent the night in the Louvre, alone. Alone and at the same time anything but,” writes Alikavazovic. Write a poem that imagines a night at a museum of your choosing, anywhere in the world. What memories will you excavate from this imagined, solitary experience?


Although the origin of the term is unknown and can be defined in many ways, a chosen family is made up of a group of people who choose to embrace, nurture, and support each other despite conventional understandings of biological or marital relationships. Oftentimes a chosen family is formed to take the place of a biological family, however, in some cases, these relationships are formed to expand a family. Write a personal essay about a relationship you have with a chosen family member. How did you first meet? Was there a particular incident that catalyzed what would become an inextricable bond? Has your commitment to each other been tested in ways big or small? Reflect on past memories and experiences you have had with this special person and how your relationship has evolved over the years.


In the 1968 science fiction film Planet of the Apes, which is based on French author Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel and has spawned several sequels and a recent reboot, a crew of astronauts crash-lands on a planet ruled by apes who have developed an advanced and hierarchical civilization, complete with systems of governance, labor, scientific research, and a military force. In this far-off place, humans have been reduced to mute primitive beings who are subjugated and kept captive as workers for the primates. Write a speculative story that takes place in another universe with a premise revolving around a role reversal. What are the rules and governing structures of the society that you invent? You might decide to approach your narrative with a tone of horror, satire, or comedy to emphasize your perspective on stereotypical assumptions and social expectations.


“I love these raw moist dawns with / a thousand birds you hear but can’t / quite see in the mist. / My old alien body is a foreigner / struggling to get into another country. / The loon call makes me shiver. / Back at the cabin I see a book / and am not quite sure what that is.” In these eight lines that comprise Jim Harrison’s poem “Another Country,” which appears in his final collection, Dead Man’s Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), the late poet moves between observations about a natural outdoor setting and the speaker’s own bodily presence, arriving in the final two lines at a sentiment that expresses a feeling of defamiliarization at the seemingly mundane sight of a book. This week write a poem that explores the concept of being so absorbed in one environment or circumstance that to behold a different scene is like traveling to a strange and unknown realm.


A recent study in Scientific Reports journal revealed that, for possibly the first time, a nonhuman wild animal was seen using plant medicine to heal an active wound. In a rainforest in Indonesia, a Sumatran orangutan was observed ripping off leaves from a climbing vine plant, chewing them, and applying the plant sap to treat a wound on his face, which then healed after a few days. Write a personal essay on the theme of self-healing. Think about experiences when you’ve witnessed another person perform this task, or particularly resonant memories that pertain to your own past behavior. What are the primary emotions present throughout this process? What instances of self-treatment or self-medication in film, art, or literature created an impression on you?


Take inspiration from the concept of a campus novel—which takes place in and around the campus of a university and often involves the intertwined dynamics of students, professors, and conventions about learning and power—and write a story that engages with a school setting, whether prominently situated in the context of the plot or used for a particular scene. Some recent additions to the campus novel canon include Elif Batuman’s The Idiot (Penguin Press, 2017), Xochitl Gonzalez’s Anita de Monte Laughs Last (Flatiron Books, 2024), Kiley Reid’s Come and Get It (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2024), and Brandon Taylor’s Real Life (Riverhead Books, 2020). Will you include a character who is a student, teacher, administrative staff member, custodial worker or caretaker, or possibly an alumni revisiting the past? Consider the multitude of ways the incorporation of an educational environment might permeate the atmosphere of the narrative.


“The day the last friend / dies / we sit alone. / A visitor / from outer space / tries hard / to summon us. / Someone says / EAT DEATH. / I fish around for answers / but the questions / still won’t come,” writes Jerome Rothenberg, who passed away in April, in his poem “The Last Friend.” Included in his collection of one hundred poems, A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris (New Directions, 2022), the poem presents a list of statements and observations, many of which refer to death or dying in some personal way, though the connections are enigmatic and the logical progression is oblique. Try your hand at writing a poem that mentions its subject directly, but which also deliberately obfuscates or remains ambiguous in its intentions. How might using the “I” as a witness include the reader into your point of view?


The New York City culture and news website Gothamist recently asked New Yorkers about their thoughts on sidewalk etiquette in the crowded, bustling streets of their beloved city. What are the rules, who has the right-of-way, and who should yield? Respondents focused on always walking to the right of the sidewalk and to “move quickly and never stop.” One thoughtful respondent considered the cultural differences of sidewalks used for recreational strolls versus commuting. But the overall consensus was that among nine-to-fivers, tourists, parents with kids, dogwalkers, bicyclists, and groups, seniors deserve the right-of-way. Write an essay about the unwritten rules or etiquette you have observed in your daily surroundings. How have these common practices adapted to fit the needs of different people? Do they evolve over time as social norms change? Consider some of your own experiences with how public etiquette has helped or hindered harmonious community life.


The term sub rosa means “under the rose” in Latin and refers to something said or done in private. The rose has been associated with secrecy since ancient times, a decorative symbol often carved and painted in places like meeting rooms, banquet halls, and confessionals as reminders of confidentiality. This week write a short story that revolves around a conversation or discussion that occurs sub rosa in an enclosed space. Does a certain detail get leaked out or overheard? How might the secretive nature place a burden on your characters? Consider the ways in which the atmosphere and tone of your story feel distinctive in the time and space of your sub-rosa conversation versus the scenes that take place before or after the talk.


In the anthology Another Room to Live In: 15 Contemporary Arab Poets (Litmus Press, 2024) edited by Omar Berrada and Sarah Riggs, multinational and multilingual poet-translators challenge foundational narratives and rework mythologies through poetic expression. Yasmine Seale’s poem “Conventional Wisdom (Arabic Saying Translated Twenty Ways)” is composed of translations of an ancient aphorism expressing the inextricable place of poetry within Arab cultural heritage. Each line presents a variation on the truism: “Poetry is the record of the Arabs / The art of poetry is Arabs, collected / Good poetry is a list of Arabs / To speak in verse is to remain in Arab memory / To surpass another poet is the Arab odyssey.” Write a poem inspired by this idea of translating a proverb or maxim—either from another language or from English into English. How might you creatively interpolate different “translations” of the saying by incorporating connotations and riffing on free associations and personal experiences?


In a recent interview with Aria Aber for the Yale Review, when asked his thoughts on the responsibility of the poet, Jackson Prize–winning poet Fady Joudah says, “I often think that the responsibility of the poet is to strive to become the memory that people may possess in the future about what it means to be human: an ever-changing constant. In poetry, the range of metaphors and topics is limited, predictable, but the styles are innumerable. Think how we read poetry from centuries ago and are no longer bothered by its outdated diction. All that remains of old poetry is the music of what it means to be human.” Write a creative nonfiction piece that presents your personal theory of the responsibility of a writer or an artist. To construct an expansive approach, you might use observations about how different creative disciplines overlap in their goals, or consider what has remained resonant as the arts make their mark throughout various eras.


In honor of Earth Week, write a scene that revolves around a character who experiences an unexpected moment in a natural environment that produces a sensation of wonder, perhaps an unusual encounter with wild flora or fauna. You might contrast the elements of this scene with others in your story in which the character is interacting solely with humans or only attuned to the sounds, rhythms, and sights of city life and densely packed civilization. Is the occurrence mind-bogglingly quick and then reflected upon in hindsight, or does time slow down in the scene? How do you manage or manipulate the pacing and rhythm of your prose to draw attention to the emotional and psychological response of the character?


In Sharon Olds’s poem “May 1968,” the speaker recounts the memory of spending the night with other protesting students, who lay down their bodies on a New York City street at a university’s campus gates in order to obstruct the mounted police force that had been called in. While “spine-down on the cobbles,” she observes the city and surrounding scenery—the soaring buildings and the police and horses’ bodies—as she gazes upward, thinking about the state of her pregnant body. Write a poem this week from the vantage point of lying face-up, “from dirt level.” What circumstances bring you into this position? How does this upward point of view transform what you see, and how you feel about your own body?


More, please? Or, no more, please? In The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without (Avid Reader Press, 2024), John Oakes recounts his personal experience conducting a weeklong fast and examines the practice’s history and place within a wide range of religions and philosophies. The book also explores the act of self-deprivation and the potential transformative benefits of subtracting rather than adding to one’s life. “The act of fasting…won’t stop routine, but impedes it for a bit, signifying a shift and a determined unwillingness to follow standard operating procedure,” writes Oakes. Use this idea to consider your personal relationship with consumption—of food, conversation, media, clothes, space—and write a personal essay that reflects on what you might otherwise take for granted.


In “Table for One,” a short story from Korean author Yun Ko-eun’s new collection of the same name, translated by Lizzie Buehler and published by Columbia University Press in April, a surreal quality seeps into the tale of a lonely office worker who enrolls in a course to make solitary dining easier. Tips from the course include: “Target corner tables rather than those in the middle. Seats at the bar are also good. Hang your coat or bag on the chair facing you and take advantage of tools like a book, earphones, a cell phone, or a newspaper.” The fantastic element of the story lies less in the oddity of the premise than in the narrator’s meticulously recounted neuroses and detailed rendering of processes that become seemingly cyclical. Write a scene that focuses on your character’s minute observations as they attempt to overcome something debilitating. Does the situation lend itself to a quirky or dark sense of humor?


“Where is the homeland / to lay a cradle for the dead / Where is the other shore / for poetry to step across the end point / Where is the peace / that lets the days distribute blue sky...” In Sidetracks, forthcoming in May from New Directions, the Chinese poet Bei Dao begins his book-length poem with a list of twenty-five enigmatic questions that dance around mythological, philosophical, and existential subjects. In Jeffrey Yang’s translation, the speaker’s questions lack the end punctuation of the original text, with question marks omitted. Through these unanswered questions, the poet conjures loss and nostalgia. Loosely following this structure, write a prologue to a poem that poses a series of questions gesturing toward your most pressing uncertainties. While Bei Dao’s lines are mysterious and mystical, allow your poem the tone and allusions that feel instinctive to you.


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?