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?
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.
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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?
Earlier this month the United States Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed twenty-one animal species from the Endangered Species Act after determining they are now extinct. The list includes the Little Mariana fruit bat from Guam; ten bird species, most of which are from Hawaii; the Scioto madtom fish from Ohio; and the Turgid-blossom pearly mussel. Many of the species were placed under protection in the 1970s and 1980s when they were in very low numbers and may have already past the point of no return. Write a short story this week that revolves around something that is the last of its kind, whether a plant, animal, or place. Is protection possible? What happens once something endangered is gone forever?
“The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death.” Each episode in filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a new television miniseries based on Edgar Allan Poe’s eponymous story, is named after a famed poem, story title, or line penned by the master of the macabre. While Poe lived and wrote during the first half of the nineteenth century, his lyrical words continue to resound in all their gothic-horror glory in contemporary times. Browse through Poe’s works—all of which are in the public domain and freely available to read online—and write a poem inspired by his favorite themes of love, death, uncertainty, guilt, sickness, regret, revenge, and the subconscious. If you’re having trouble getting started, choose one of Poe’s famous lines as the first line of your poem.
In This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers (Norton, 2020), journalist and photographer Jeff Sharlet captures two years of his life, between his father’s heart attack and his own, through snapshots and short chapters that read like a travel journal. Sharlet documents Skid Row in Los Angeles, gay nightclubs in Russia, a New Jersey Dunkin’ Donuts, and other places, urging readers to step into the shoes of the strangers he meets while seamlessly weaving journalism, photography, and evocative storytelling to elicit an overwhelming sense of empathy. “I am a reporter, and this is a book of other people’s lives, lives that became, for a moment—the duration of a snapshot—my life, too,” writes Sharlet. Inspired by Sharlet’s immersive journalistic style, write an essay reflecting on an interaction with a stranger and how you made an unexpected connection. Immerse readers into an atmosphere that might be unfamiliar to them.
In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Horror Story,” published in Granta magazine in 2015, the narrator and her partner move into a new house where a series of inexplicable events occur, leading to a deepening sense of fear and unease within their relationship. The narrator describes a gradual progression of strange happenings—a mysteriously clogged drain, missing spices from the kitchen, unexplained sounds. As the couple attempts to find rational explanations, blaming neighbors and even each other, the occurrences intensify until the narrator sees the ghost of a young woman in her bedroom. Inspired by Machado’s story, write a short story from the perspective of a ghost. What is their motivation and how does their haunting serve as a form of communication or release? Craft a compelling narrative that weaves together the ghost’s history and their evolving manifestations.
In Safia Elhillo’s poem “Final Weeks, 1990,” which appears in her collection Girls That Never Die (One World, 2022), the speaker envisions the moments before her birth, exploring her origins and parents’ relationship. She writes: “My mother is almost my mother now, / darker color of the noontime sun.” In Chen Chen’s poem “Self-Portrait With & Without,” published in Narrative magazine, he paints a portrait of the speaker in relation to the characteristics of his parents. “With my / mother’s worry. Without, till recently, my father’s glasses,” he writes. For this week’s poem, consider who you are through the eyes of your parents or guardians. Write about the day of your birth, specifying the time of day and year, or try a self-portrait reflecting on inherited traits and your distinct individuality beyond family ties.
The manifesto is a form that many writers, artists, philosophers, and politicians have used for centuries to publicly declare the intentions or ideologies behind their practice. Some influential artist manifestos include Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky, in which he argues that painting is an expression of the artist’s inner life; The Laws of Sculptors by artist duo Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, which argues against the intellectual and economical elitism of contemporary art; and William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s introduction to their collection Lyrical Ballads, which marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature. Inspired by this form’s rich history, write a manifesto that declares why you write and what you hope to accomplish through your writing.
“I remember loneliness because it is pervasive,” writes Athena Dixon in “Say You Will Remember Me,” the first essay in The Loneliness Files, published by Tin House in October. “It squeezes tightly in my mind until what makes sense, what’s actually happened, is distorted.” In this memoir in essays, Dixon considers the power of technology to connect and divide us while confronting the loneliness she has experienced in her life. “If I believe this, that sometimes drifting away from the world is not abandonment or isolation, it makes my own disconnect less frightening. It leaves me with hope that even if I am still sequestered in my own bedsit, it is not because I am forgotten,” she writes. Consider Dixon’s relationship to loneliness as well as your own and write a story in which a character spends the entirety of the story alone. Think about how to sustain the story’s tension without the presence of other characters.
The poems in Dorothea Lasky’s The Shining, published by Wave Books in October, portray the physical and psychological horrors that take place in the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel, the setting of the iconic Stephen King novel and Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. Lasky guides readers into the hotel of her imagination in the opening poem, “Self-Portrait in the Hotel”: “When I checked into this / Godforsaken hellhole / They locked me in the tiny yellow room / With no belongings but my lipstick,” she writes. Throughout the book, Lasky meditates on the many horrors of simply being alive, finding inspiration in the hotel’s high ceilings, the Gold Ballroom, and the final shot of the film featuring a terrifying photograph of the protagonist, Jack Torrance, in the ballroom in 1921. Take note of Lasky’s ekphrastic practice and write a poem that places you in the setting of your favorite film. What conflicts come to mind in this newly imagined world?
“I am not convinced that we live at the same time as the people we love. I cannot be the only child who felt like their grandparents came from a different planet,” writes Arthur Asseraf in his essay, “My Time Machine,” published in Granta magazine. In the essay, the author and historian muses over feeling disconnected from his grandparents, perceiving them as inhabitants of a distant era. This week write an essay reflecting on this quote and explore the idea of dissonance in the context of relationships with loved ones. How do generational gaps shape our understanding of each other’s experiences, values, and worldviews? Can these disparities lead to a sense of detachment or connection?
“The more surmountable flaws your characters have, the better readers will connect with them,” writes Jordan Rosenfeld in Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016), a craft book exploring character development and point of view. How do readers sympathize with a character who has committed terrible acts? Explore this notion by writing a short story with a character traditionally perceived as the antagonist. Delve into the gray area between hero and villain, evoking sympathy for an otherwise unlikable character. Unravel the complexities of your character’s choices and look for the humanity and relatable flaws that will challenge and connect with readers.
In 1950, Alan Turing devised a test that could assess the intelligence of computers and determine if they were capable of sentient thought—an uncertainty that lingers as artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop. Franny Choi’s poem “Turing Test,” published in the Summer 2016 issue of the Poetry Review, plays with this subject of identity and consciousness. The poem responds to objective questions posed by an AI entity, including, “How old are you?” with elaborate answers that reveal more about the speaker. “My memory goes back 26 years / 23 if you don’t count the first few / though by all accounts i was there / i ate & moved & even spoke,” writes Choi. Write a poem in which your speaker, whether AI or not, answers unassuming questions, such as, “Where did you come from?” and “Do you believe you have consciousness?”