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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Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a series of letters in elegiac couplets during his exile from Rome called the Tristia. The poems capture Ovid’s final days in Rome, as well as his journey overseas to Tomis on the Romanian coast of the Black Sea, and are addressed to various figures including his wife, loyal and disloyal friends, and he even composes his epitaph. “I who lie here, sweet Ovid, poet of tender passions, / fell victim to my own sharp wit,” writes Ovid, translated by Peter Green in The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters (University of California Press, 2005). Inspired by this epic elegy, write a poem from the perspective of someone in exile. What does your speaker long for, and how does exile force them to voice unspoken concerns?


During the pandemic, a popular pastime has been rewatching favorite shows, from recent offerings to classics. According to an article published in Reader’s Digest, this trend can be traced to the concept of status quo bias: the idea of maintaining one’s current or previous decision. Psychologists also note that we tend to stick with what’s familiar to ease anxiety and avoid disappointment and stress. This week write an essay about rewatching your favorite shows. Do you encounter something new each time or find comfort in reliving the same emotions?


In a short essay for Literary Hub’s “Craft of Writing” newsletter, novelist Rebecca Makkai argues that setting is the most underutilized tool in fiction. Makkai explains that a setting should “give the reader enough ambience and context that they can extrapolate a world” as well as take an active part in offering characters something to react to and “trap characters together, destabilize them, provoke change, or provide refuge, urgency, or danger.” Keeping this definition in mind, draft a short story by starting with a clear and time-specific setting. Try to delineate the time period, the physical location, and the relationship this setting has to your protagonist so it can make an impact on your story.


In “When I See Stars in the Night Sky,” Joy Priest writes an ode to the late iconic singer Whitney Houston, tethering her memory to the stars in the sky. “It’s 1988           Her head /             Thrown back against a black backdrop     She is the only thing / glowing       So distant              from us in the universe,” writes Priest. The poem then moves into the personal connection the speaker has with the singer. “I love myself / because of her,” writes Priest. Inspired by this poem, write an ode to your favorite musician placing them, as Priest does, in a specific moment in time.


In 2011, Oakland-based artist Alexis Arnold began making art from the discarded books and magazines she continually came across on the street. Arnold transformed the scrapped volumes into sculptures by growing crystals on them. Some of the books she has crystallized include Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession and Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, as well as encyclopedias and dictionaries. The results evoke, as Arnold describes it, “geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory.” Inspired by the rapidly changing landscape of print media, write an essay that reflects on your first memories with books and print magazines. Do they remain precious to you? For more on Arnold’s art, read “The Written Image: Crystallized Books” in the March/April 2023 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.


In the latest installment of our Ten Questions series, Colin Winnette discusses the inspiration behind his surreal dystopian novel Users (Soft Skull, 2023), which follows a troubled technology designer mired in a controversy surrounding a virtual-reality program he creates. When looking for ways to shape the book, Winnette was struck by a series of tweets by entrepreneur, and cofounder and former CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey about his ten-day silent meditation retreat in Myanmar. “There was something so striking to me about the then-leading personality behind one of the noisiest places to exist online making such a dogged pursuit of silence,” says Winnette. This week write a story set in a silent retreat in which tensions start to rise. How will you sustain the story’s conflict despite there being little to no dialogue?


“I don’t call it sleep anymore. / I’ll risk losing something new instead,” writes Natalie Diaz in her poem “From the Desire Field,” which appears in her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). The poem speaks from the mind of someone unable to fall asleep who attempts to find a sense of relief through their insomnia. “Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden,” she writes. Emotions then begin to move away from the tension of not being able to sleep into sensuality and passion. This week write a poem that revolves around what it feels like to experience insomnia. What do you do when you can’t fall asleep?


“Drenched by a summer downpour or softened by spring rain, I have felt an aspect of freedom,” writes Ama Codjoe in her essay “An Aspect of Freedom,” included in the anthology A Darker Wilderness: Black Nature Writing From Soil to Stars (Milkweed Editions, 2023) edited by Erin Sharkey. In the essay Codjoe explores her relationship with rain through the lens of freedom, using personal anecdotes, historical events, and photographs taken during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. “In the rain, or in the ocean, or in a flood of people singing freedom songs and calling the names of our unjustly killed, I feel a part of nature, a part of nature’s self, which may be anything that gives nourishment and everything that breathes,” writes Codjoe. In expectation of the upcoming fertile season, write an essay that explores your relationship with spring rain. As you write, take inspiration from Codjoe’s essay and consider the question: When do you feel most free?


In “When the Novel Swiped Right,” Jennifer Wilson, a contributing essayist for the New York Times Book Review, tracks the effect dating apps have had on contemporary literature. In the essay, Wilson points to writers who have creatively used dating apps as a narrative device, such as Sally Rooney, Brandon Taylor, and Sarah Thankam Matthews, and encourages more writers to take advantage of how the apps “make possible encounters among characters who might not otherwise come into contact by virtue of differences in age, race, or class.” This week, write a story that involves two unlikely people meeting on a dating app. What do they discover as they get to know each other?


Oftentimes it’s the underrated things in life that make the perfect inspiration for a poem. In “For the Poet Who Told Me Rats Aren’t Noble Enough Creatures for a Poem,” Elizabeth Acevedo rises to the title’s challenge by honoring the “inelegant, simple,” and tenacious animal that is often hunted down. In “St. Roach,” Muriel Rukeyser writes to the humble cockroach and captures the moment in which the speaker reaches out and touches one. This week write a poem inspired by an animal that might be considered vermin and reflect on why you might fear or avoid this creature.


Valentine’s Day is commonly known as a day to express affection for loved ones with greetings and gifts, but its origin remains a bit of a mystery. Some suggest that the holiday dates back to Lupercalia, a Roman festival to ward off evil spirits and infertility that was later banned in the fifth century, while others have said that the true origin of the day is related to a priest named Valentine who was martyred circa 270 CE by emperor Claudius II. According to one legend, the priest signed a letter “from your Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter. Other accounts tell the story of St. Valentine of Terni, a bishop who secretly married couples to spare husbands from war. What is your personal history with Valentine’s Day? Using these origin stories as inspiration, write an essay that explores your memories of this holiday of love.


Depths of Wikipedia is a popular series of social media accounts dedicated to posting obscure facts published on the free online open-source encyclopedia Wikipedia. Posts include Jimmy the Raven, a raven actor who appeared in hundreds of films including The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life; Mr. Ouch, a hazard symbol developed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association with children’s safety in mind; and the dinkus, a typographic symbol consisting of a line of asterisks often used as section breaks in a text. This week write a story that incorporates one of these curious Wikipedia facts into your plot.


If you had the chance to send a poem into space, what would you say? Last week, the Library of Congress announced a collaboration with NASA to send a poem written by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón into space. The poem will be dedicated to NASA’s Europa Clipper mission and engraved on the spacecraft which will travel 1.8 billion miles to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa to gather detailed measurements and determine if the moon has conditions suitable for life. In honor of this momentous occasion, write a poem dedicated to a celestial body of your choice. Explore the galactic neighborhood with NASA’s interactive map of our solar system.


Every year on February 2, thousands of spectators visit Punxsutawney, a small town in Pennsylvania, to watch whether a groundhog sees his shadow or not. The first Groundhog Day celebration at Gobbler’s Knob was held in 1887 and the tradition predicts how long the winter season will last. Similar superstitious traditions connected with animals include the ancient Greek art of ornithomancy, the practice of reading omens from the actions of birds, and the Woollybear Festival in Ohio, in which fuzzy woolly bear caterpillars predict the winter forecast. Do you participate in any superstitious traditions? Write an essay that reflects on your relationship to any rituals or superstitions you believe in.


“On stage, bodies in motion paired with words deliver both language and emotion. I have that same hope for the novel I’m struggling to write,” writes Kathryn Ma in a recent installment of our Writers Recommend series about the impact watching live theater has on her writing. “Dialogue travels, reaching me in the dark. I’m not taking down notes, but my ear is. If I’m open and lucky, the magic might follow me home.” This week write a story in which your character is moved by watching a live theatrical performance. What is the play about? How does the performance taking place on stage mirror the struggles your character is enduring?


In Rachel Mannheimer’s debut book, Earth Room (Changes Press, 2022), the book-length narrative takes the reader to places such as Los Angeles, Berlin, the Hudson Valley, and Mars. Some of the settings are used in a straightforward and narrative way, but others act as a sort of emotional backdrop against which intimate relationships and observations on sculpture, performance art, and land art can be examined. Inspired by Mannheimer’s original use of place, write a poem titled after a city. Try to challenge yourself by exploring the emotional and psychological undertones you associate with that place.


According to the Chinese zodiac, 2023 is the year of the rabbit, which symbolizes longevity, peace, and prosperity. The zodiac is a repeating cycle of twelve years, and each year is represented by a different animal with symbolic traits. Next year will be the year of the dragon, which represents strength and independence; followed by the year of the snake, which represents curiosity and wisdom. Write an essay that reflects on the animal associated with your birth year and how it relates to your personality. Can you find any similarities? As an added challenge, consider the animals associated with your family members and whether these signs hold true to their qualities.


Noah Baumbach’s film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Sam Esmail’s forthcoming film adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, HBO’s miniseries adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven—novels with apocalyptic themes are appearing on screen more and more. Whether through satire or stark realism, this suspenseful setting allows writers to explore profound themes of survival, friendship, trust, hope, and resiliency. Inspired by apocalypse novels, write a short story that imagines the end of a modern civilization. Will you lean more toward satire, realism, or another form of expression entirely?


In a recent installment of our Agents & Editors Recommend series, Kristina Marie Darling, editor in chief of Tupelo Press, suggests taking risks with form in order to stand out from other poetry manuscripts. “Do something interesting with the space of the page,” writes Darling. “Be creative with how language is laid out on the page. Take risks with typography. Use white space as a unit of composition.” This week approach the page like a canvas. Let the visual element of your poem help tell the story and expand your language.


In a recent installment of our Writers Recommend series, Janine Joseph, author of Decade of the Brain (Alice James Books, 2023), writes about finding solace in computer scientist Neal Agarwal’s the Deep Sea website. Scrolling down the website, Joseph discovers animals and plant life at varying depths of the ocean, including the wolf eel, the chain catshark, and the terrible claw lobster. In the ocean’s midnight zone, where “creatures survive by their own light,” she finds inspiration in “what can and might exist at those disappearing depths.” Write an essay that meditates on the mysteries and profundities of the ocean. Does its depth inspire awe and wonder as it does for Joseph, or does it strike fear in you?


It’s awards show season for the film and television industry, but behind the camera are all the hardworking folks that make these shows happen. From florists arranging dramatic centerpieces, to chauffeurs driving celebrities from venue to venue, to the graphic designers of the envelopes holding the winners’ names—each individual helps make these one-night-only events possible. Consider what happens behind the scenes at one of these massive events and write a story from the perspective of someone working for an awards show. Imagine the mounting pressure throughout the night, the unexpected responsibilities that may arise, and the difficult celebrities one might encounter for the details in your story.


Award-winning and former U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic, who died last week at the age of eighty-four, was best known for his surrealist and often devastatingly funny poems. His poem “The Voice at 3 A.M.” reads in its entirety: “Who put canned laughter / Into my crucifixion scene?” In “Eyes Fastened With Pins,” Simic depicts a scene in which death is looking for “Someone with a bad cough, / But the address is somehow wrong, / Even death can’t figure it out.” Inspired by Simic, write a poem that mixes dark humor with a serious subject matter. How does integrating humor help balance and enliven the voice in your poem?


In a Q&A with Kaveh Akbar by Claire Schwartz, published in the September/October 2021 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the poet reflects on the image of a salad spinner in his long poem “The Palace.” He writes: “I have a salad spinner in my kitchen, and we use it. Every time I see it, I’m like, ‘What a ghoulish thing to have—this thing that spins lettuce.’ I can’t think of anything more useless, a more damning indictment of our relative comfort.” What central everyday objects remind you of your relative comfort, or lack thereof? Write an essay that uses concrete images to reflect on the pleasures of your daily life. Do you ever feel shame about these pleasures?


The multitude of popular astrology apps—such as Co–Star, the Pattern, and Time Passages—exemplifies how the ancient study of celestial bodies predicting what happens on Earth is still very relevant. Many rely on astrological readings for career and dating advice, financial decisions, spiritual guidance, and even for what books to read. Write a short story in which a character relies on astrology to make a major life decision. How does their relationship to this divinatory practice change once things are set in motion?


In David Kirby’s poem “The Hours,” published in the latest issue of the Bennington Review, the poet reflects on a subject that feels more significant at the start of a new year: the presence of time. “I’m going to rely on you hours to lead me, / to open one door after another and beckon / me through. Look it’s time to make lunch. / Look, it’s time to go back to work. Look, / it’s time to rub cat Patsy’s belly again,” he writes. This week, write a poem that ruminates on the presence of time in your life. How does your perception of the passing minutes change from season to season?