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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“Erasure poetry is a reconsideration of an existing text. There was something very satisfying about “reconsidering” The Ferguson Report—striking through whole sections of it, as if undoing the harm that had been done,” says Nicole Sealey in our online exclusive interview about her new book, The Ferguson Report: An Erasure, published by Knopf in August. In the interview, the poet discusses both the difficulty of “prying lyric from a lyric-less document” and how erasure provided access to the words she may not have found on her own. This week, find a seemingly lyric-less document and consider the words that lure you in. Try writing your own erasure poem, rubbing out words for your response to the text. For further inspiration, see this poem from Sealey’s new book.


In her essay “Dear Judy,” published in the New York Review of Books, Melissa Febos writes about her experience watching the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s groundbreaking novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In the essay, Febos describes the companionship Blume’s novel provided through the difficult years of her adolescence. “There was no book I read more often than Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It was almost twenty years old when I encountered it, but still more candid about bodily changes and the feelings they prompted than any other children’s book I had read,” writes Febos. Think of a work of art—be it literature, film, or otherwise—that struck a chord with you in your teens. Write an essay that reflects on how this work did or did not prepare you for the years to come.


“While researching the mechanisms of memory, I uncovered a delightful and, yes, terrifying fact from neuroscience: Each time we recall an event, we change it,” writes Rebekah Bergman in a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series about using the slipperiness of memory to craft fiction. “Every memory I hold onto might just be a story I tell myself. And the more I tell it as a story, the more I forget about the original event.” Is there an event from your past that’s been rewritten by the mechanisms of memory? Try writing a short story inspired by the gaps between your core memories. How can you use the slipperiness of memory to craft the perspective of a character?


The epithalamium, a lyric written and performed for a couple at their wedding ceremony, originated in ancient Greece with the earliest evidence of the form found in the fragments from Sappho’s seventh book in 600 BC. The form remains popular in contemporary poetry with traditional and nontraditional examples such as Jason Schneiderman’s “Stories About Love / Wedding Poem for Ada & Lucas” and poems by Alexandria Hall and Phillip B. Williams. This week, write your own version of an epithalamium. Whether it be for the future wedding of a loving couple you know or one that reflects on the institution of marriage, share your take on the ancient form.


In his 1958 memoir, The House of Life, translated from the Italian by Angus Davidson, critic and scholar Mario Praz catalogues the objects found in the apartment in Rome where he resided for thirteen years. As an avid collector, Praz describes the furniture, pictures, and knickknacks he possesses, all of which have value in his eyes. Each object reveals more about his interior life as Praz connects them to the people he has met and loved. A rose embroidered on a sofa cover triggers the memory of his wife leaving him; he recalls wearing amber beads and an eyeglass when meeting renowned British designer William Morris’s daughter. Inspired by this unique work of literature, write a spatial autobiography of the objects in your home. Take your reader through a tour of your favorite things while weaving into your essay all the memories attached to them.


In his installment of our Ten Questions series, Jamel Brinkley talks about developing the characters of his short story collection Witness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) who are faced with the ethics of being an observer or bystander in a changing New York City landscape. “The collection gathers characters who, in many cases, fail to perceive or fail to act,” he writes. “One challenge was to find ways around their perceptual limitations and deliver stories that were still vivid, sharp, true, and full of feeling.” This week write a story in which a character witnesses a conflict or accident. What does their ability, or inability, to act in the moment say about them?


“For $200: When inheritance begins // What is: in the womb / What is: decades before I announced my father dead / to me,” writes Taylor Byas in the poem “Jeopardy! (The Category Is Birthright),” which appears in her debut collection, I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times (Soft Skull Press, 2023). In this emotional poem, which follows the familiar format of the classic trivia game show referenced in the title, each stanza is framed with a dollar amount and clue in the form of an answer, followed by a list of potential responses in the form of questions. Try writing a poem that turns the format of your favorite game show into a poetic form. Whether you experiment with Wheel of Fortune, Pyramid, or Lingo, what limits of language can you reach when pushing your use of form?


As August rolls on, the last days of summer seem to move faster and faster. Late summer reminds us that the season is coming to an end and fall is just around the corner with shorter days and cooler temperatures. Poet and translator Jennifer Grotz summarizes it well in her poem “Late Summer,” as she writes: “Summer lingers, but it’s about ending. It’s about how things / redden and ripen and burst and come down.” What associations do you make with late summer? From taking a final dip in a lake to enjoying a late sunset during a picnic at the park, write an essay that meditates on a memorable late summer day. What is it about the interstice between seasons that is so evocative?


From lago in Shakespeare’s Othello to Darth Vader in the Star Wars franchise, some of literature and cinema’s most dynamic characters are villains. According to a 2020 research paper published in the journal Psychological Science, people may find fictional villains surprisingly likable because they identify with them. Fiction can act as a cognitive safety net, say researchers, allowing readers and viewers to compare themselves to a villainous character and engage with dark aspects of their personalities without questioning their morals. Who are some of your favorite villains? This week consider your dark side and write a story centered around a sympathetic antihero. Try to create a compelling backstory that connects and attracts readers to your character.


In Natasha Trethewey’s “Flounder,” which appears in her debut collection, Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), the speaker of the poem recalls a scene from her memories as a young girl fishing with her aunt. The aunt explains how to spot a flounder, “A flounder, she said, and you can tell / ’cause one of its sides is black. // The other side is white, she said.” The poem ends with a strong image that subtly casts an emotional parallel with the speaker seeing a connection between her mixed-race identity and the flounder: “I stood there watching that fish flip-flop, / switch sides with every jump,” writes Trethewey. Inspired by Trethewey’s precise use of an extended metaphor, write a poem in which you cast a parallel between an animal in the wild and yourself. What characteristics will you draw out?


In the fall of 1997, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata, then the editor and associate editor of Seneca Review, respectively, began publishing what they called the lyric essay, pioneering the popular essay form. Tall and D’Agata discussed the appeal of the lyric essay, writing: “We turn to the lyric essay—with its malleability, ingenuity, immediacy, complexity, and use of poetic language—to give us a fresh way to make music of the world.” Inspired by their definition of the lyric essay as a form that gives “primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information,” revise a forgotten draft of an essay and turn it into a lyric essay. Try to move by association and connotation, integrating gaps and lyrical language to help the essay bloom.


Although Garth Greenwell’s books What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and Cleanness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) are two separate works of fiction with distinct stories and forms, they share the same protagonist and setting. The former is a novel that focuses on a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who has a relationship with a young sex worker, while the latter is a collection of linked stories featuring the same character that expands upon his life abroad. The reading experience of each is uniquely individual and immersive, making the follow-up book not a sequel but an expansion. Is there a character from a story you’ve written in the past that you want to revisit? This week, start a new story in which you return to a character of yours and expand their life.


The house in which Nobel Prize–winning poet Tomas Tranströmer lived with his wife was located on the island of Runmarö in Sweden and built in the late nineteenth century by his maternal grandfather, a ship captain who needed a place to rest upon reaching landfall. In Tranströmer’s poem “The Blue House,” he describes the historic house’s exterior as well as its storied past. “It has stood for more than eighty summers. Its timber has been impregnated, four times with joy and three times with sorrow,” he writes. Write a poem that serves as a portrait of a place you have lived in. Consider its past tenants, the details of its exterior and interior, and its relationship to your life.


Last weekend the highly anticipated summer blockbuster film Barbie premiered. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the film has already earned praise for the attention to detail paid in the costumes, playhouses, and collector’s items, conjuring memories for many of their time spent playing with the iconic doll. Inspired by the resurging popularity of Barbie dolls, write an essay about your favorite childhood toy. Was it one you played with in secret or with friends? If you still have the toy, what has made you hold on to it? If you gave it away, was that a difficult process for you?


Films and TV shows are known for their memorable theme songs, but music can be a powerful tool for characters on the page as well. “When it comes to a specific character, I often look for a theme song that fits either their personality or some aspect of their nature,” writes Amiee Gibbs, author of the novel, The Carnivale of Curiosities (Grand Central Publishing, 2023), in her installment of our Writers Recommend series. “The Cure’s ‘Burn’ and ‘Charlotte Sometimes’ perfectly complimented two of my leads, and it felt right having the same musical artist represent and define them in my mind.” This week, pick a theme song for a character and build a story around the lyrics and music. How can a song supply mood and conflict for a character?


In his poem “Self-Portrait at Twenty,” Gregory Orr demonstrates the short, personal lyric he’s known for and captures a moment in time in his life. Rather than include details about what occurred when he was twenty, Orr presents a series of stark, detailed images that create a sense of foreboding for what the year had in store for him. The poem begins with the lines: “I stood inside myself / like a dead tree or a tower.” Then, later in the poem, he writes: “Because my tongue / spoke harshly, I said: / Make it dust.” Take inspiration from Orr’s poem and write a self-portrait poem that captures what you felt at a specific age. Try to avoid revealing narrative details and instead, use your sense of imagery to allow the reader in to your state of mind.


In her essay “On Killing Charles Dickens,” published in the New Yorker, Zadie Smith recounts her relationship with the timeless author and his influence on her historical novel, The Fraud, forthcoming from Penguin Press in September. In the essay, Smith begins by describing her resistance to writing a historical novel and discusses the unavoidable influence of Dickens on her childhood and her research. Ultimately, she concedes to his influence and tells herself: “I know he often infuriates you, but the truth is you never could have written this without him.” Consider a writer who has had a powerful influence on your writing and start an essay about your relationship. Do you find it necessary to concede to their influence?


Record-breaking global temperatures have already been recorded this year in the first weeks of summer. In a recent CNN report, Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woodwell Climate Research Center, estimated that these temperatures are the warmest “probably going back at least 100,000 years.” How do you think extreme heat could affect the way we go about our daily lives and treat one another? Write a story in which a group of characters is forced to deal with a difficult decision on the hottest day of the year. Do they become more exasperated and desperate because of the heat?


In a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series, Megan Fernandes describes a writing exercise centered around breath that she assigns to her students. “I tell my students to take out their phones and record themselves saying ‘I love you’ over and over again in a single breath, noting the time,” she writes. By counting the number of times this phrase is said in one breath, the students can calculate how long their lines are and how many stanzas their poems will contain. This week try Fernandes’s writing exercise to find the natural line length of your own breath and write a poem guided by the capacity of your lungs.


“Oftentimes, when I would perform at poetry readings, I’d tell these little stories about what inspired a poem (such as growing up in a restaurant and being locked in the meat freezer),” says Jane Wong in an interview for PEN America’s PEN Ten series about her debut memoir, Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City (Tin House, 2023). “I started to realize that these little poem ‘intros’ were insights into much larger stories—stories that go beyond my own family, my own relationships.” This week, inspired by Wong’s generative writing practice, return to an old draft of a poem, story, or essay, and begin a new essay that looks deeper into the backstory of that work. What did you leave unsaid?


Storytelling is an art form, but there appears to be some science involved as well. In an episode for NPR’s Morning Edition news radio program, social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports on what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert found when researching whether people preferred hearing stories about shared experiences or novel experiences. What Gilbert and his colleagues discovered was that people much preferred stories about familiar experiences, so much so that at your next dinner party, he recommends spending “less time talking about experiences that only you've had and more time talking about experiences that your listeners have also had.” Inspired by this behavioral research, write a story set during a dinner party in which conflicts arise from the stories shared by guests. Will an easily bothered guest become embittered by the swell of unamusing stories?


This week marks the birthday of the iconic Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who would have turned 119 on July 12. Known for his historical epics, political manifestos, and love poems, Neruda’s incisive and joyful odes were often dedicated to ordinary objects making them approachable yet surreal. In “Ode to My Socks,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly, Neruda describes his covered feet as “two fish made / of wool, / two long sharks / sea-blue.” In “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Robinson, Neruda describes a dead tuna fish as “a dark bullet / barreled / from the depths.” Inspired by Neruda’s electric, surreal images, write an ode to an ordinary object in your life. Whether it be a bookshelf, a desk, or a coat, think expansively about how to honor and describe this praiseworthy item.


“I want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner…but as a reader,” writes Anne Carson in her essay “Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” which appears in her book Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (Knopf, 2005). With careful research and introspection, Carson writes about all the ways writers discuss sleep in their work, uncovering her own fraught relationship to it along the way. The essay combines the forms of literary criticism and personal essay—offering close readings of the works of Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, and others, while burrowing deeper into emotions. Inspired by Carson’s mixing of forms, choose a topic that eludes you—perhaps dreams, fashion, or love—and write a personal essay that uses research to gain a deeper understanding of it. What will you praise?


Summer vacations and travel often provide adventure, conflict, and reflection whether in real life or in a fictional story. In Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), a family sets off on a road trip from New York to Arizona in the heat of the summer and tensions rise as they collide with news of an immigration crisis on the southwestern border of the country. In Alejandro Varela’s short story “The Caretakers,” the protagonist rides the subway in New York City on a balmy day after visiting his aunt in the hospital and reflects on family, friendships, and race. Write a short story with a pivotal scene set in a moving vehicle on a hot day. How will your story use travel as a theme?


Independence Day, colloquially known as the Fourth of July in the United States, is the annual celebration of nationhood commemorating the passage of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For centuries, poets have offered deeply personal perspectives on what it means to celebrate their country, including Alicia Ostriker in her poem “The History of America,” in which she writes: “Murdering the buffalo, driving the laggard regiments, / The caring was a necessary myth…” and Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem “No Explosions,” in which she writes: “To enjoy / fireworks / you would have / to have lived / a different kind / of life.” This week write a poem reflecting on your relationship to nationhood. What contradictory feelings surface when you consider your citizenship? For further inspiration, check out the Poetry Foundation’s selection of poems for the Fourth of July.