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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In his sardonic essay “Santaland Diaries,” a reading of which NPR airs every year as a holiday tradition, David Sedaris tells the story of how he, as a struggling writer, spent a season working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York City. In one scene describing the Santaland Maze, Sedaris channels the frustration and dark thoughts many retail workers experience during the holiday season. “I spent a few hours in the Maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn. We were standing near the Lollipop Forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan. Father Christmas or the Devil—so close but yet so far,” he writes. Dip into the dark side of the holiday spirit and write an essay about a year when you experienced a particularly frustrating holiday season. Consider the feelings of stress and cheer that are often at odds at the end of the year.


Whether full of work mixers, gatherings with relatives, community-centered potlucks, or festivities with friends, this time of year is often busy with social events of all kinds. This week write a short story that revolves around a seasonal get-together. Perhaps there are pressures present associated with themes that surface around the end of the year, such as the winter blues, religion, childhood traditions, and social expectations. Is a spare and stark tone more fitting for your story, or is a maximalist, ornate narration more suitable? Are your fictional party scenes imbued with an atmosphere of joy and cozy lights, or chilly temperatures and disappointed hopes, or both? Have fun adding a dash of humor or menace into your convivial gathering.


“Cold, moist, young phlegmy winter now doth lie / In swaddling clouts, like new-born infancy,” writes Anne Bradstreet in the opening lines of her 1650 poem “Winter.” In her seasonal poem, Bradstreet traverses from the month of December to “cold, frozen January,” and finally to “moist snowy February,” cycling through the movements of the sun, the length of day, and the sensation of warmth or chill on the body. Though we often think of winter as one portion of the year’s seasons, how do the individual months of winter feel to you? Write a poem that tracks your personal memories from multiple Decembers, Januaries, and Februaries (or Junes, Julys, and Augusts in the Southern Hemisphere), perhaps thinking of these months as smaller, concentric or overlapping circles within a larger one.


The work of French novelist Édouard Louis concerns itself with capturing the past and its indelible effect on the present, as the author explores the facts of his life through novelistic means. In his first autobiographical novel, The End of Eddy (FSG, 2017), translated by Michael Lucey, Louis details the experience of growing up poor and gay in a homophobic, working-class French town; in History of Violence (FSG, 2018), translated by Lorin Stein, Louis endures a brutal attack and then overhears his sister telling her husband about the assault; and in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations (FSG, 2022), translated by Tash Aw, Louis tells the story of his mother’s moving to Paris to live a new life on her own terms. Inspired by Louis’s autobiographical novels, write an essay that considers a time in your life in which you felt the urge to change or become someone new. Try to capture the intricacies of the past—the difficulties, the hopes, the dreams—through a form that reflects the transformative urgency of that moment.


While a character’s backstory can often provide the engine to a plot, how much backstory is too much? In “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” published in the New Yorker in 2022, Parul Sehgal discusses the prevalence of the “trauma plot,” which relies on a character’s past trauma to move the story forward. Citing examples such as Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life (Doubleday, 2015), Jason Mott’s novel Hell of a Book (Dutton, 2021), and the television series Ted Lasso, Sehgal argues that the trauma plot “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom, and, in turn, instructs and insists upon its moral authority.” In contrast, Sehgal cites instances in which omitting backstory provides an effective air of mystery to a character, or what Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls “strategic opacity.” Taking inspiration from this critique, write a story in which the backstory of your character is kept from the reader. What happens when you resist explanation for a character’s choices? What tools other than backstory can you use to create a dynamic character?


Love poems have a long and storied literary history. “The Love Song for Shu-Sin,” composed in ancient Mesopotamia for use in fertility rituals, is considered by some to be the oldest love poem found in text form. “Song of Songs” from the Old Testament of the Bible celebrates the romantic and sexual love between two people. In more recent times, poets have been testing the limits of the love poem. Nate Marshall’s “palindrome” imagines an estranged lover’s life rewound like a film as the subject becomes “unpregnant” and the speaker “unlearn[s]” her name. In Sharon Olds’s “The Flurry,” two parents discuss how to tell their children they’re getting a divorce. Think of a relationship in your life that resists easy categorization and write a love poem that attempts to capture this complexity. Whether the subject is the distant love of a parental figure or the one who got away, resist the easy associations that come with the emotion and dive into love’s thorny contradictions.


Last month, musician André 3000, best known as one half of the Atlanta hip-hop duo Outkast, released his first solo album, New Blue Sun. The instrumental jazz album features the artist playing flute on songs improvised in real time, a surprising turn for fans of the renowned and reclusive rapper whose last album with Outkast was in 2003. In a recent GQ video interview, the music legend speaks about authenticity as a creator and how he doesn’t feel compelled to rap about anything in his life. “I’m forty-eight years old,” he says. “And things that happen in my life, like, what are you talking about? ‘I got to go get a colonoscopy.’” Write a personal essay about how your own literary output has evolved over the years. How can you connect your creative predilections and urgencies at specific times in your life with the state of your physical body or physical space?


“What creates the vibe of a room? The other people inside it: the combined resonance of their voices,” write authors Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno in the introduction to their collaborative nonfiction book, Tone (Columbia University Press, 2023). A study on the use of tone in literary works, the authors consider how even if a room is empty, “there is a trace in the air of those who have recently left.” Begin a short story that takes place over the course of several scenes set in different places. Jot down notes for what you imagine happened in each environment before your story’s scene takes place there. How might subtle traces of those who have recently left the locale still linger and affect the tone or atmosphere of your story?


The thirteen lines of the late Molly Brodak’s self-titled poem read: “I am a good man. / The amount of fear / I am ok with / is insane. / I love many people / who don’t love me. / I don’t actually know / if that is true. / This is love. / It is a mass of ice / melting, I can’t hold / it and I have nowhere / to put it down.” Through a series of declarative, zigzagging statements, the short poem manages to touch upon a handful of intense emotions—doubt, fear, uncertainty, desperation, and helplessness—all tied together by the eponymous title. This week write a short self-titled poem. How can you bring your own deeply personal responses to questions about your life and relationships under poetic scrutiny in a way that represents your individuality?


In her essay “Memory and Delusion,” which appears in a 2015 volume of previously unpublished works titled Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, Shirley Jackson writes about an occurrence one evening when a ceramic bowl in the room suddenly shatters and each of her guests—a musician, a chemistry teacher, and a painter—has a vastly different response. Jackson imagines that her observations, as well as her guests’ responses, will undoubtedly work their way into her writing, whether describing an exploded house, the complexities of feeling sudden shock, or deep loss. “I will keep the recollection of those scattered pieces, lying on the piano, and someday when I want a mental image of utter destruction the bowl will come back to me in one of a dozen ways,” Jackson writes. This week jot down notes of unusual occurrences you’ve encountered. Use your imagination to make vivid descriptions, while hewing as closely to what you genuinely observed. Save these descriptive gems for a future essay, story, or poem.


“Poetry…is a form of salvation,” writes Najwan Darwish in his foreword to Chaos, Crossing (World Poetry Books, 2022), translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid, the English-language debut of Olivia Elias, a poet of the Palestinian diaspora. “It may not make the pain tolerable, but it keeps the pain from becoming trite, banal,” writes Darwish, pointing to the way artmaking can save, vivify, protect, commemorate, and dignify lives. Adopt this empowering perspective and think back to an experience that brought you pain—perhaps an insecurity or fear, a difficult relationship with a loved one, or a distressing loss—and turn that pain into art by writing a short story that explores the specific, idiosyncratic essence of that memory. How can you use fiction and storytelling to transform your memory, and at the same time, protect its emotional truth?


How well do we know ourselves? Studies done by psychologists over the past several decades have demonstrated that people often process information about the world around them through cognitive biases. The way in which an event is remembered can then lead to biased thinking and decision-making. Positive memory biases cause one to remember events more favorably than they actually were and view their overall past with a rosy outlook, while negative memory biases often occur when recalling an emotional event. Write a poem that approaches one memory from two different cognitive biases, playing with the ways in which an event or situation might be remembered differently depending on how it was experienced. Does this multivalent approach allow you to expand your initial perceptions of what happened?


Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija has a long history of rejecting traditional art objects and instead, cooks and serves food in museums and galleries as a way to construct communal environments and reconfigure the concepts of artmaking and art spaces. How do you view the intersection or overlap between everyday life activities and art? Write a personal essay that explores your own perceptions of how writing and other creative pursuits overlap with your daily living. What art or creativity can be found in the simple act of brushing your teeth or commuting to work? Are there larger themes, such as community, interpersonal relationships, identity, consumerism, and pleasure, that float to the surface when you examine the roots of mundane habits and routines?


In Braudie Blais-Billie’s short story “Hello, My Relative,” published in Evergreen Review and featured in the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Native American Heritage Month reading list, the protagonist is a young poet living a lonely post-college life in New York City, far from where she grew up on a Seminole reservation in South Florida. Cleo works as a cat sitter, allowing her access to vacant homes, which she describes as, “visiting the ghost of someone’s inner world.” As Blais-Billie writes: “The home became a ghost because it was no longer alive when the client was not there to exert force upon the objects, suck in the air, laugh or chew or cry.” Write a short story that begins with a scene describing an unoccupied home. What do the items left behind reveal about the person who lives within its walls?


The American dipper is said to be North America’s only truly aquatic songbird: a small, undistinctive brownish gray bird that chirps a pretty melody nearby river rapids and dives up to twenty feet into the water, even walking underwater along the riverbed to catch tiny fish, larvae, and small insects to eat. Flying fish also straddle multiple elements, launching themselves out of water and gliding through the air to escape predators. Unexpected animal behavior can act as a reminder of our own flexibilities or potential to exceed expectations that might otherwise keep us constrained. This week write a poem about a time when you have been propelled into unexpected territory, like a fish out of water or a bird under water. Is it possible that you might feel in your element while out of your element?


In a recent piece published in the New Yorker, Rivka Galchen writes about a new nature documentary miniseries titled Life on Our Planet, in which dozens of species of dinosaurs and other long-extinct animals are rendered into existence alongside footage of animals still living on the planet today, with the help and expertise of paleontologists and cutting-edge CGI technology. Galchen notes that the effect “does as much to reveal the extraordinary and alien nature of the animals we currently share the world with as it does to make familiar the extinct ones.” Write a pair of short creative nonfiction pieces—one about someone no longer in your life and one about someone still in your life. How can you bring the past into the present and vice versa? Do familiar memories somehow feel alien to you now?


In Adania Shibli’s novel Minor Detail (New Directions, 2020), translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, the second part of the book is narrated by an unnamed Palestinian woman who gives a first-person account of her life in Ramallah in near-present day as she investigates a violent wartime atrocity that occurred in the region in 1949. The character recounts everyday details of her life living under occupation in the West Bank, revealing that “there aren’t many people alive today who remember little details about what life was like before all this, like the detail about the wilting lettuce in an otherwise closed vegetable market, for example.” Write a story that hinges on a before and after. Instead of being explicit about the inciting incident or pivotal occurrence, focus instead on the smaller, everyday details. How can you rely on the seemingly mundane to create a sense of tension?


Action films provide excitement through fight scenes, car chases, explosions, and other high-octane thrills, but emotional conflict is what keeps audiences engaged. Whether it’s the death of a puppy or the bond between a cyborg and a child, emotions fuel the action. In the classic 1997 blockbuster Con Air, Nicolas Cage plays a good-hearted ex-convict waiting for the moment he can reunite with his wife and young daughter when his transport plane descends into chaos as a planned prison break unfurls aboard. Throughout the turbulent turmoil, the protagonist goes to great lengths (at times to a comedic level) to protect and hold onto sentimental objects: a handwritten letter from his daughter and a plush stuffed bunny for her birthday. Consider how action and sentimentality can work together and experiment with inserting an opposing emotion or sensation into a poem you’ve written in the past. How might the contrast emphasize or highlight a previously submerged aspect of the poem?


In an essay published in New York Times Magazine’s Letter of Recommendation series, Ali Jaffe Ramis writes about her love for web browser tabs, which she sees as her own personal curated Internet. “These tabs reflect what’s on my mind. They contain my agenda and provide answers to the mundane questions that demand my attention,” Ramis writes. Select a handful of tabs you have open right now on your computer or cell phone (or if you don’t have any open, pick a few selections from your browser history). Based on your findings, piece together a series of memoiristic anecdotes that recount your Internet browsing tendencies, and then perhaps continue on to expand upon how each specific web page reveals something about your current mindset, or your past or future selves.


For those who observe Daylight Savings Time, one hour is gained in autumn and one hour is lost in spring—though since the cycle repeats, all evens out in the end. But what if an extra hour could be injected into the day, or an hour just fell out of time? This week write a short fiction piece in which time has become elastic, ballooning to allow more to unfold, or vanishing along with missed opportunities. Although the warping of time may seem to lend itself to science fiction, you might try other genre conventions for a challenge—perhaps elements of mystery, historical fiction, horror, romance, or satirical comedy. Is there a logic to adding or subtracting time? Do your characters take advantage in mundane or dramatic ways, or are they hapless in the face of this inexplicable occurrence?


In an essay by Fady Joudah published on Literary Hub, the first section includes his translated lines of a poem by Palestinian author Hiba Abu Nada, written ten days before she was killed in a bombing in Gaza last month: “I shelter you / from wound and woe, / and with seven verses / I shield // the taste of orange / from phosphorus, / the color of clouds / from smoke.” Write a poem that seeks to shield or shelter something you hold dear to your heart—a person, memory, or idea that has deep value to you. You might experiment with verses that maintain a consistent length, or that increase or decrease in size. How can you modulate a balance between a tone of protectiveness and one of “wound and woe?”


In the early 1950s, broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow hosted a radio program titled This I Believe, in which short personal essays written about deep personal convictions and motivations were read on air by a variety of guests. Segments included pieces by Pearl S. Buck, Robert Heinlein, Margaret Mead, and Jackie Robinson, as well as everyday people, on a variety of topics ranging from intimate to worldly, such as freedom, prejudice, caring for the environment, and caring for each other. To add a twist to this idea, write a personal essay that starts with the phrase: “This I once believed.” Think back to a time when you felt strongly about an issue, perhaps related to family bonds, romantic relationships, religion, or world politics, and focus on how your views have transformed over the years. What experiences have influenced your convictions?


“So never mind the darkness, we still can find a way / 'Cause nothin’ lasts forever, even cold November rain,” sings Axl Rose in the Guns N’ Roses 1992 classic rock ballad “November Rain.” Lasting nearly nine minutes long (and reportedly based on a short story by their road manager, writer and journalist Del Rey), guitarist Slash claimed in his autobiography that an even longer eighteen-minute version was once recorded. This week select an epic song that resonates with your current mood and compose a fictional scene that occurs while the tune plays in the background. Do the lyrics drift in and out as the story unfolds? How might the themes in the song mirror, foreshadow, or provide contrast to what’s happening with your characters in your chosen environment?


During the months of October and November, the color orange seems to be everywhere you look: the tree leaves turning burnt sienna, the honeyed glint of autumn sunlight, jack-o’-lanterns set out on stoops and stairways, pumpkin spice flavored beverages, persimmons ripening on trees, Mexican marigolds decorating Dia de los Muertos altars, the multicolored hues of calico corn, the bronze and amber of decorative gourds galore. These golden months are typically associated with a tendency toward slowing down, nostalgia, and moving inward—whether looking within oneself or spending more time indoors. Write a poem that attempts to capture the feeling of this autumnal color. How do its many hues contribute to the elegiac sensations of the season?


In his 1919 essay “Das Unheimliche,” translated from the German as “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud describes and examines the concept of uncanny or eerie feelings and how they can be expressed in the presence of a doppelgänger or a doubling. In this situation, something unexpectedly recurs—a repetition which may seem random, but when given context, takes on significance or meaning. Write a memoiristic anecdote about a time when you observed or experienced an unsettling recurrence. Perhaps you saw, in a short amount of time, the same number, person, or chain of events. Or perhaps you were wandering aimlessly and found yourself on the same street again and again. How were you able to break out of the cycle of duplication? Does it still creep into your mind at inopportune times?