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?
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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In her essay “Memory and Delusion,” which appears in a 2015 volume of previously unpublished works titled Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, Shirley Jackson writes about an occurrence one evening when a ceramic bowl in the room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.
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 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 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.
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?
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?
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.
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 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?
“When I was twelve, I saw a terrible movie called Devil Girl From Mars. And I turned off the television and said to myself, I can write a better story than that. I sat down and began writing my first science fiction story,” says award-winning science fiction author Octavia E. Butler in a 1993 interview for BBC News. Butler, whose work has recently made a resurgence with multiple television and film adaptations, expanded and revolutionized the science fiction genre by writing from the perspective of a marginalized Black woman and celebrating her voice. Is there a film, book, or work of art that you encountered in your childhood that inspired you to start writing? Write an essay that reflects on the impact of this work. Whether through resistance or celebration, how can you trace the development of your artistry back to this first encounter?
For centuries the autumn season has inspired writers to reflect on nature’s cycle of renewal. Temperatures drop, leaves change color and shed, and crops are harvested offering much to contemplate during the season about what it means to live. Poets are continually inspired by the season: Larry Levis writes about the “steadfast, orderly, taciturn, oblivious” yellowing of the leaves in “The Widening Spell of the Leaves;” John Keats reflects on the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in “To Autumn;” and Marilyn Chin recalls how “all that blooms must fall” in “Autumn Leaves.” What comes to mind when observing the changing of seasons? Write an essay that reflects on how the days of autumn affect you.
In a profile of Annie Dillard by John Freeman, published in the March/April 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author demonstrates the generosity she is known for as a writer and mentor by speaking about how working in a soup kitchen can benefit a writer. “There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise,” writes Dillard in a correspondence with Freeman. “You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing.” Write an essay about a time in which an act of service added meaning to your creative practice. How did this intimate exchange help fuel you as a writer?
While pregnant and struggling with her mental health and a creative block, author JoAnna Novak sought solace in the work and life of abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin, who lived with schizophrenia. In Novak’s memoir, Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood (Catapult, 2023), she recounts the experience of moving to Taos, New Mexico, where Martin lived for decades, to model her life after the painter’s hermetic existence, shutting herself off from the world for introspection and writing. Whose work do you go to when seeking a way forward? Research the biography of a favorite artist—including their creative habits and routines—and write an essay that meditates on what makes their life and work inspirational. Try to find the personal and aesthetic lineages that connect you together. For more from Novak, read her installment of our Ten Questions series.
In “Singing Into the Silence of the State,” an essay from Dark Days: Fugitive Essays (Graywolf Press, 2023) by Roger Reeves, who speaks about his first book of prose in our September/October 2023 issue, many unanswered questions are posed to the reader. “What is the song that can be sung to soothe a fretting child in a bomb shelter?” writes Reeves. “What is the necessity of singing during catastrophe, whether State-created or virus-induced?” Through these questions, Reeves considers how to console his young daughter, himself, and the reader while in the midst of social unrest and a pandemic. Try writing an essay that begins and ends with a question. What are you asking your reader to consider and how can you offer consolation through this shared questioning?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
“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?
“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?
“Crushes map life over with meaning and joy, and I’d always choose heartbreak over boredom,” writes Alexandra Molotkow in “Crush Fatigue,” an essay published in Real Life magazine, in which she discusses the effects amorous crushes have had on her life and psyche. The essay focuses on the word limerence, meaning the “condition of cognitive obsession,” and uses psychoanalytic theory to offer an understanding of the power of infatuations. Think back to your last crush and catalog the symptoms you remember experiencing. Write an essay that looks back on this time from a distance and consider what you’ve learned from your limerence. Would you be willing to fall deep into infatuation again?
In the foreword to Once a City Said: A Louisville Poets Anthology, published by Sarabande Books this week, editor Joy Priest recounts driving from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Houston at the height of the pandemic in the summer of 2020. At one point she stops in Richmond, Virginia, and drives down Monument Avenue with “its parade of Confederate statues lining the street’s median,” and later, in Louisville, Kentucky, notes how “the streets were filled with smoke, flash-bangs, and tear gas, not just over the murder of George Floyd but also over the murder of one of our own by Louisville police: Breonna Taylor.” Write an essay structured around a road trip in which the places you visit are central to the essay’s subject. Consider the history of the places you have visited as well as the encounters you have had there.