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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If you could spend a night at any museum, which would you choose, and why? The French publisher Editions Stock has a series of books that begins with this premise—each author selects a museum, arrangements are made for an overnight stay, and a book is written about the experience. In Jakuta Alikavazovic’s Like a Sky Inside, translated from the French by Daniel Levin Becker, she spends a night at the Louvre in Paris, where childhood memories of visits with her father are vividly recalled. “From March 7 to 8, 2020, I spent the night in the Louvre, alone. Alone and at the same time anything but,” writes Alikavazovic. Write a poem that imagines a night at a museum of your choosing, anywhere in the world. What memories will you excavate from this imagined, solitary experience?


“I love these raw moist dawns with / a thousand birds you hear but can’t / quite see in the mist. / My old alien body is a foreigner / struggling to get into another country. / The loon call makes me shiver. / Back at the cabin I see a book / and am not quite sure what that is.” In these eight lines that comprise Jim Harrison’s poem “Another Country,” which appears in his final collection, Dead Man’s Float (Copper Canyon Press, 2016), the late poet moves between observations about a natural outdoor setting and the speaker’s own bodily presence, arriving in the final two lines at a sentiment that expresses a feeling of defamiliarization at the seemingly mundane sight of a book. This week write a poem that explores the concept of being so absorbed in one environment or circumstance that to behold a different scene is like traveling to a strange and unknown realm.


“The day the last friend / dies / we sit alone. / A visitor / from outer space / tries hard / to summon us. / Someone says / EAT DEATH. / I fish around for answers / but the questions / still won’t come,” writes Jerome Rothenberg, who passed away in April, in his poem “The Last Friend.” Included in his collection of one hundred poems, A Book of Witness: Spells & Gris-Gris (New Directions, 2022), the poem presents a list of statements and observations, many of which refer to death or dying in some personal way, though the connections are enigmatic and the logical progression is oblique. Try your hand at writing a poem that mentions its subject directly, but which also deliberately obfuscates or remains ambiguous in its intentions. How might using the “I” as a witness include the reader into your point of view?


In the anthology Another Room to Live In: 15 Contemporary Arab Poets (Litmus Press, 2024) edited by Omar Berrada and Sarah Riggs, multinational and multilingual poet-translators challenge foundational narratives and rework mythologies through poetic expression. Yasmine Seale’s poem “Conventional Wisdom (Arabic Saying Translated Twenty Ways)” is composed of translations of an ancient aphorism expressing the inextricable place of poetry within Arab cultural heritage. Each line presents a variation on the truism: “Poetry is the record of the Arabs / The art of poetry is Arabs, collected / Good poetry is a list of Arabs / To speak in verse is to remain in Arab memory / To surpass another poet is the Arab odyssey.” Write a poem inspired by this idea of translating a proverb or maxim—either from another language or from English into English. How might you creatively interpolate different “translations” of the saying by incorporating connotations and riffing on free associations and personal experiences?


In Sharon Olds’s poem “May 1968,” the speaker recounts the memory of spending the night with other protesting students, who lay down their bodies on a New York City street at a university’s campus gates in order to obstruct the mounted police force that had been called in. While “spine-down on the cobbles,” she observes the city and surrounding scenery—the soaring buildings and the police and horses’ bodies—as she gazes upward, thinking about the state of her pregnant body. Write a poem this week from the vantage point of lying face-up, “from dirt level.” What circumstances bring you into this position? How does this upward point of view transform what you see, and how you feel about your own body?


“Where is the homeland / to lay a cradle for the dead / Where is the other shore / for poetry to step across the end point / Where is the peace / that lets the days distribute blue sky...” In Sidetracks, forthcoming in May from New Directions, the Chinese poet Bei Dao begins his book-length poem with a list of twenty-five enigmatic questions that dance around mythological, philosophical, and existential subjects. In Jeffrey Yang’s translation, the speaker’s questions lack the end punctuation of the original text, with question marks omitted. Through these unanswered questions, the poet conjures loss and nostalgia. Loosely following this structure, write a prologue to a poem that poses a series of questions gesturing toward your most pressing uncertainties. While Bei Dao’s lines are mysterious and mystical, allow your poem the tone and allusions that feel instinctive to you.


“Though you have known someone for more than forty years, though you have worked with them and lived with them, you do not know everything. I do not know everything—but a few things, which I will tell,” writes Mary Oliver about her partner Molly Malone Cook in her book Our World (Beacon Press, 2009), which celebrates their life and home together in Cape Cod through Oliver’s essays and Cook’s photography. Write a poem about someone you have known for a long time, but who is no longer in your life. Begin first by forming two lists: one list for the things you knew about this person and a second list of what you did not know. Select several items from each list and compose a poem that paints a portrait through the lens of your relationship. What are the things that were shared, imparted, revealed, and hidden?


In the ancient parable of the blind men and the elephant, a visually impaired group has gathered around an unfamiliar creature to them, each encountering by touch a different part of the animal. Although there are different interpretations of the parable, a poem by nineteenth-century poet John Godfrey Saxe describes how the first of the six men falls upon the elephant and exclaims that the animal is nothing but a wall, the second feels the tusk and disagrees saying the animal is like a spear, the third approaches the squirming trunk and calls the animal snakelike, and another feels the ear and states that the animal is like a fan. The story points at the limits of subjective truths and what is lost by only seeing one side of something. Write a poem that explores a single item, image, or action through a prism of different potential truths. Experiment with expressing contradictions and coexisting truths.


“I read Call It in the Air, / Ed’s book about his painter sister & her death / at 44, like Billie Holiday, & I start to consider / 44. No. Not the death, just the conch of it, / how it whorls & opens, limelights / —44 limelights a woman,” writes Shamala Gallagher in her poem “‘The New York Times’ Says Aloe Is a Hoax,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. The lines in the poem shift from lightness to darkness, and the image of recursion and spiraling reappear as the speaker allows her mind to wander freely after a long day. Write a poem that experiments with a recurring shape that you’ve observed. Consider the connotations or associations with this shape, whether it be a number, ray of light, or plant. How might a simple form inspire you to think about the shape of time in your life?


Anne Carson’s 2017 poem “Saturday Night as an Adult,” which had a viral moment on X last summer, is structured as a short block of text recounting observations and thoughts around a dinner date with two couples. “We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We overdress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens,” writes Carson. “We eat intently, as if eating were conversation.” While the existential despair may seem tragicomic, Carson conveys an honest vulnerability that touches upon disappointment at the potential smallness of life. Write a poem that builds upon your observations of a mundane social encounter in order to capture larger concerns on your mind, perhaps using sharp, terse statements as Carson does in her poem. Is there humor to be found in these minute details?


For one year, fans of Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl enjoyed watching him fly freely around New York City and become, for many city dwellers, a feathered symbol of liberation. Released from his cage at the Central Park Zoo by a vandal, zoo officials were initially concerned for his survival, but Flaco quickly learned to hunt prey and move about the city. His fans grew, and for them, Flaco began to represent resilience and the ability to embark on a new chapter of life, a gesture at the potential of rewilding. Sadly, Flaco died in February after apparently striking a building on the Upper West Side. This week, write a poem that incorporates a subject that signifies qualities of freedom and hope for you personally. Consider strengths and weaknesses, and address both in your poem.


“Because curfews of / Because strip search at the checkpoint into / Because grandmother’s undergarments splayed on / Because two men with guns on the way to / Because grandmother saves plastic Coke liters to / Because the water could without notice be,” writes Jessica Abughattas in her poem “Litany for My Father” published by Split This Rock. The poem consists of twenty-two lines, which, all but the last line, begin with the word “because” and end abruptly, as if in mid-thought. The lines build into a powerful expression of loss and a sublimated sense of intense sorrow, how powerless one can feel in grief. Write a poem that makes use of omission or erasure in this way, taking into consideration how the format might influence your subject or theme. How does this repeated absence of words achieve emotive force?


“I wanted to think freely, let my mind wander, follow ideas (and phrases) wherever they might go,” said the late poet Lyn Hejinian in a 2020 interview for the Wheeler Column at the University of California in Berkeley, where she was a professor and John F. Hotchkis Chair Emerita. “For a while—but not for very long—I used poetry to express my adolescent angst and longings, but very soon I recognized the banality and the limits of that. It wasn’t self-expression I was seeking but loss of self.” Inspired by Hejinian, who died at the age of eighty-two on February 24, write a poem that avoids a preconceived intention of style or thematic experience, and instead allow these elements to emerge as you let your mind wander. How might language, in the abstract as the material of your thinking, lead to a new mode of expression or representation?


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.


“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.


“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?


“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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


“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.


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.


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?