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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Drawing on a wealth of botanical vocabulary, Canadian poet Sylvia Legris explores themes of nature in her new book, The Principle of Rapid Peering, forthcoming in April from New Directions. In the book, the title of which is derived from early-twentieth-century ornithologist Joseph Grinnell’s study on the behavior of birds around food, Legris categorizes birds as either “those who wait passively for food to approach them” or rapid-peering active-seekers “whose target[s] of desire [are] stationary.” She writes: “The rapid-peerer’s eyes turn / as the head changes position. // The eyes focus the beak, / the instrument of capture. // ... The head follows the feet, / quick moves, to, fro. // Feet with an intelligence of texture, / bark, branch, gravel, soil.” Browse through nature guides or encyclopedias in search of unique animal attributes, specifically looking for evocative terminology with potentially expansive interpretations. Then write a poem that both touches on the term’s original meaning and imagines a new interpretation connecting to a personal experience or memory.


To celebrate publishing our two-thousandth writing prompt, spend some time this week jotting down a list of the most significant milestones of your life so far. Reflect on both traditional milestones, such as school or education-related achievements and relationship or family developments, as well as other hard-won goals that might be related to creative pursuits or something considered unconventional. You might also choose to focus on an important event that occurred unexpectedly and set your life in a new, progressive direction. Write an essay that expands upon one or more of these milestones. In what ways has your outlook on life evolved over the years, from before the event, immediately after, and then many years later?


While the origins of the phrase “the one that got away” may come from the sport of fishing, and how the biggest and best would-be catch seems to always escape, the phrase can also refer to a past love, one that was lost to the whims of fate. Oftentimes this lost love is a source of regret or nostalgia, as is the case in Katy Perry’s song which takes the phrase as its title and reflects on a relationship from the “summer after high school.” Write a scene in a short story that sees one of your main characters recounting a lost love. Does the character encounter something that reminds them of their long-ago amour or does the reminiscence set off a further chain of consequences?


“You have changed me already. I am a fireball / That is hurtling towards the sky to where you are,” begins Dorothea Lasky’s “Poem to an Unnameable Man” from her 2010 collection, Black Life. The poem’s speaker regales their addressee with the projected story of their intense connection, as Lasky incorporates cosmic imagery, a confessional tone, and grandiose language combined with an intimate, idiosyncratic voice. This week write a poem that traverses the galaxy and addresses someone or something you feel tethered to, as if you’re “hurtling towards” them. As you write, play around with figurative language that points to both sizable and smaller, nuanced observations.


“Why do we dream? Because it’s the only mechanism our brain has for sorting through all the myriad associations it discovers and deciding which ones are potentially of value,” says Robert Stickgold, professor and director of the Harvard Center for Sleep and Cognition and coauthor of When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep, in his TEDx Talk on the purpose of dreams and how sleep sews together the pieces of our memories. Write an essay that begins with the description of a dream you’ve had recently, recounting it in as much detail as you can remember. Then expand and explore how the conflicts and emotions brought up by your dream might be connected to another time in your life when you experienced something similar. What do you think your brain was trying to figure out?


This year’s Lunar New Year begins on February 10 and celebrates the year of the dragon. Festivities vary in different cultures, however in Chinese traditions, they begin with the first new moon of the year and culminate with the full moon two weeks later. The two-week period allows for time to travel and visit with family, celebrate and gather with friends, set a new tone for the year, anticipate the forthcoming spring season, and make merry with food and drink. Write a story that takes place during a two-week stretch of time, perhaps revolving around a festive event. How does the restrictive length of time create a sense of urgency or tension?


“In writing the sonnets of frank, the form was a rescue raft, a lifeline, the safety net beneath the trapeze act. I liked how it equalized every event, relationship, song, or story that the individual sonnet might take on,” says poet Diane Seuss in a 2022 Publishers Weekly interview with Maya C. Popa about her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, in which she explores with brutal frankness her personal history and themes of death, illness, addiction, and love. Inspired by Seuss, write two fourteen-line sonnets with vastly different subjects. In using a specific form to create a sort of equalizing force between topics, how do the minor victories and upsets of mundane occurrences find balance with the heavier ups and downs of your life?


What does a Bill look like? What about a Michael? As the U.S. primary election season progresses, an innocuous excerpt from Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s 2012 memoir, Can’t Is Not an Option, has resurfaced on social media and news outlets. In the book, Haley writes that when she began dating her husband, he went by his first name Bill, but she decided that he didn’t look like a Bill and found his middle name Michael suited him better, and he became known as Michael. Write a personal essay that revolves around your sentiments about your own given name. Have you ever thought about changing it? Do you think you’ve taken on certain personality traits because of it, or in spite of it?


In his essay published in the Evergreen Review, Younis B. Azeem writes from his viewpoint as a young student newly arrived in New York from Pakistan about the culture of smoking cigarettes. “Among the few indisputable facts of the world, right below gravity and above the moon landing, is that cigarettes will kill you,” he writes. “In America that belief translates into a two-part statement, the second one unsaid, where it’s declared that cigarettes will kill you before anything else does. This right here, this inherent first-world privilege is something that all the best efforts of Big Tobacco cannot undo.” Azeem asserts that in other places in the world, there are hazardous living conditions much more likely to be the cause of death than smoking. Write a short story in which a newcomer posits an unexpected, iconoclastic, or unusual opinion. How does this create a disruption to your other characters’ everyday lives?


“Like a snail with a shell of sticks //  — she loads them on her back — //   Like a camel with a hump of sticks //  — on her back, on her back — // Like a horse with a knight of sticks and a stick for a sword,” writes Valzhyna Mort in her poem “In the Woods of Language, She Collects Beautiful Sticks” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In her description of this poem, Mort explains how an inability to write another poem she was working on made her “feel homeless in language and in poetry” and that writing this poem became “a bit of homemaking” for her. Write a poem that reflects your own process when your mind wanders away from writing and you must find a way back into the home of language. Does it involve the vocabulary of domesticity, construction, or helpful creatures?


In a recent New York Times article titled “January’s Secret: It’s the Best Month,” journalist Steven Kurutz makes a case for the first month of the year. Not usually a fan favorite with its short days and cold weather, Kurutz points out the month’s many unsung advantages: post-holiday relaxation, less crowded streets, the reassuring feeling of getting back into routine, and how the blissfully uneventful stretch of weeks can offer a calming break from social obligations. This week write an essay about your favorite month of the year. Even if it’s one that revolves around a holiday or exciting seasonal offerings, take some time to reflect on the unsung pleasures of the month.


Epiphany is a religious day of celebration commemorating the visit by the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus with their gifts, observed in January. Originating from the Greek word meaning “manifestation,” in a work of literature, an epiphany generally consists of a different sort of appearance—a moment that seems to suddenly illuminate the truth, one that oftentimes changes the course of a character’s life. Write a scene in a new or ongoing short story in which your main character experiences such a dawning realization. What is the catalyst for this discovery? How does this newfound insight transform their subsequent actions or interactions with another character or a future decision?


Do you recall cold, quiet nights with the muffled silence of snow and the whisper of the wind, or the banging clang of heating pipes and the constant drumming of a heavy rainstorm rumbling in the winter? Depending on one’s locale, the sounds of the season can present a range of tones, from the euphonic to the cacophonic, from peaceful and calming to abrasive and exasperating. Write a poem that captures the sonic spectrum of your surroundings at this time of year, perhaps experimenting with punctuation, various line lengths and spacing, and onomatopoeia to reflect all the textures of your auditory experience.


Journalist Zahra Hankir’s book, Eyeliner: A Cultural History (Penguin Books, 2023), traces the lineage of eye makeup from its ancient Egyptian origins to contemporary times, zigzagging across a wide-ranging swath of globalism, fashion, and celebrity—from Nefertiti to Amy Winehouse—while relating the implications of the cosmetic accessory to themes of feminine performance and Orientalism. Choose an accessory or stylistic embellishment that has played some role in your own life, or perhaps one that is culturally pervasive or resonant. Consider your relationship to this seemingly frivolous item and write a personal essay about its relevance and connection to your identity. How might you connect the dots to larger social issues and historic moments in time?


Twentieth-century artist Isamu Noguchi worked across many disciplines—costume and stage design, landscape architecture, drawing, ceramics, and furniture—and is renowned for his wide-ranging and experimental sculptures. Noguchi was influenced by many subjects from Greek mythology, Biblical figures, ancient architecture and archaeology, natural phenomena, artists and musicians, and animals and plants. One of his sculptures titled “Gregory” is named after the protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who shape-shifts into a giant insect. Browse through Noguchi’s online catalogue raisonné to find a sculpture that catches your eye and write a story inspired by the artwork. Feel free to go beyond a literal interpretation, perhaps using the piece’s title as a launchpad for a surrealist or Kafkaesque tale.


What’s going to be popular in 2024? Trend forecasters are busy making predictions for the fads of the near future, from what we’ll wear to what we’ll eat. The Food Network predicts the rise in popularity of white chocolate, the expansion of boba tea flavors in desserts, and sake becoming the “it” drink, while Food & Wine magazine reports on fashionable food brand-related merch, ruffle-edged Cresto di Gallo as the “pasta shape of the year,” herbal liqueurs, and sweet and sour as the reigning flavor. Write a poem about a past, current, or future food trend. Are you on board or skeptical? Have fun with food vocabulary and play around with sounds and rhythms that match your selection.


In Rumaan Alam’s 2020 novel, Leave the World Behind, which was recently adapted into a feature film, two families are stuck in a home in rural Long Island during a sudden and unexplainable time of apocalypse. Amid the chaos caused by large-scale blackouts, technology on the fritz, animals running amok, characters suddenly falling ill, and the possibility of terrorist attacks, the most terrifying thing seems to be the unknowability of what and who might be besieging their lives and the world as they know it. Write an essay about your fears of the unknown. What do you find terrifying and, on the flip side, what provides you a sense of reassurance and comfort? Reflect on the delicate balance of how you navigate the world as you know—and don’t know—it.


In a recent New York Times article, technology reporter Kashmir Hill wrote about spending the month of December on a break from her smartphone by switching to a flip phone. The decision stemmed from the realization of her phone addiction, mindlessly spending hours of screen time on it and checking it over a hundred times a day. With time away from her smartphone, Hill noted improved sleep, better communication with her friends and husband, more books read, more time spent outdoors, less stress, and more enjoyment in the moment. Write a short story in which your characters are affected by their phone usage. How do their habits and addictions reveal truths about their personalities and interactions with other characters? How might you incorporate technology like text messaging, social media, photography, and smartphone apps creatively in your prose or formatting?


Every year, Project Censored, an anti-censorship and media literacy advocacy organization, releases their State of the Free Press yearbook, highlighting the past year’s most significant independent journalism. This year’s book, published in December by Seven Stories Press, emphasizes the dangers of corporate media and the shuttering of community newspapers, which leave many communities without a reliable source of local information. Do some digging online or at a local library for a news story in your city from the past year, perhaps something that didn’t make national news. Write a poem inspired by your experience of zeroing in on the value of something small, ordinary, and regionally specific.


Two iconic personifications of the passage of time frequently appear at the start of a year: Baby New Year, a diapered baby wearing a top hat and sash displaying the upcoming year, and Father Time, an elderly bearded man often accompanied by a scythe and an hourglass. As we’re all pressed to return to work with renewed energy and begin the year with replenished resolve, take some time to reflect on the endings that coincide with these beginnings and write a personal essay on the theme of conclusions and closure. What routines or activities do you turn to that help bring you closure?


Last month, a long-lost art amusement park called Luna Luna was resurrected in Los Angeles, with rides and attractions created and designed by contemporary artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Joseph Beuys, Salvador Dalí, Sonia Delaunay, Keith Haring, David Hockney, and Roy Lichtenstein. The interactive artworks were commissioned in the 1980s for an amusement park in Hamburg, Germany but were put away in storage, lost and forgotten for decades. This week write a story in which something that was created for another era suddenly resurfaces and provides whimsical joy to a new audience. How might you mark the passing of time and all that occurred during the years when the item was forgotten and left to languish? Is there a heightened sense of tension and anticipation, and long-awaited appreciation, for the creations?


For the past fifty years, the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in New York City has hosted its annual New Year’s Day Marathon, a day of readings and performances that has grown into a twelve-hour-long event with over a hundred artists and writers given a few minutes on stage. In a Washington Post article about last year’s gathering, poet Jameson Fitzpatrick explained that she was there to “bear witness to poetry’s being alive. Reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.” Write a short poem that captures the exuberant potential of verse, one that celebrates its own form and would be exciting to read in front of an audience. Consider how diction, sound, rhythm, and subject matter might collide to create a sensation of language teeming with vitality.


The end of a year is often a time when we take stock of all that’s unfolded in the twelve months that have just passed. Popular top ten lists cover a wide range of experiences—such as the best music albums, books read, meals cooked, restaurant outings, films watched, museum visits, and sporting events—and looking back at photos from the year helps recall favorite moments with friends and loved ones. This week jot down a year-end list, selecting a topic whose items bring you particular joy as you recount what’s made it onto your top five or top ten roundup. Use this list to create a lyric essay loosely chronicling the year through one lens, writing a paragraph for each of your chosen items.


In many places around the world, from Coney Island to New Zealand to South Korea, there are groups of people who convene on the first of January to take a “polar bear” swim, plunging into frigidly icy waters to celebrate a new beginning. Participants will often wear fun accessories, such as wintry caps, warm gloves, and boots, or coordinate silly costumes, and some gatherings are annual fundraisers for charity. Write a short scene that involves a group of people gathering to participate in a New Year’s tradition, one that incorporates both acquaintances and strangers. Who among those present is eagerly looking for a fresh start? How do your characters’ personalities vary based on how they participate in this shared experience?


Last month, the Journal of Great Lakes Research reported findings from a study of goldfish—the common East Asian carp often kept as pets—found in the wild, likely released into local lakes and rivers by their former owners. When removed from constricting fish bowls and flake-based diets, the fish grew to nearly a foot-and-a-half long and were able to reproduce quickly, destroying local marine ecosystems. Write a poem about something in your life that has ballooned out of proportion in an unexpected way. This might be a relationship with someone, an aspect of a job or extracurricular activity, or a household object that has transformed into an increasingly epic collection. Has the growth been slow and gradual or haphazardly speedy? At what point do you think enough is enough?