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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“I have known brilliant writers who could size people up in minutes with alarming accuracy.... And yet for all their ability to understand people, to see them, to capture them as characters, these writers could not see themselves,” writes Literary Hub editor-in-chief Jonny Diamond in a piece reflecting on a recent op-ed written by the daughter of Nobel laureate Alice Munro, Andrea Skinner, about her mother’s failure to protect her from sexual abuse by her stepfather. Write a personal essay that traces your self-awareness through several phases of your life, contemplating on how your understanding and perception of yourself has transformed through the years. Can you reconcile the differing points of view that various people in your life hold about you? Are there blind spots that, even if you can’t or don’t want to articulate, you wish to acknowledge?


In “The Bear IRL: My Manic Day in a Michelin-Starred Kitchen,” Vice writer Nick Thompson visits a Michelin-starred restaurant in London for a day to capture a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes operations of a high-level kitchen, like the ones portrayed on the popular TV series The Bear. Thompson speaks to one chef who echoes the repercussions of sacrificing a social life that are depicted in the award-winning show, mentioning missing out on birthdays and special occasions because of long hours and weekend work schedules. “It’s more like a sports team, where you’re trying to achieve something. That’s what drives you forward,” says the chef. Write an essay about a time in your past when you had to make a sacrifice in your personal life because of your job. Was there a payoff? What were the factors that ultimately pushed you to choose your job over your social life?


In an interview by Margaret Ross for the Art of Nonfiction series published in the Summer 2024 issue of the Paris Review, author and Harvard University professor Elaine Scarry says, “I see my writing on imagination and on war as continuous. Or rather, the two subjects are essentially locked in combat, because the act of inflicting injury or pain is really a willful aping of imagination, turning it upside down and appropriating it.” Write a lyric essay that braids together two subjects: Use the imagination or the artistic process as one topic, and then choose another subject that may seem “locked in combat” with your ideas around creativity, perhaps one more adjacent to pain or distress. What kind of truth can be coaxed to the surface when you think about the connections between them?


Are you shoe obsessed? Do you prioritize fashion over comfort, seeking out the latest trends, or do you hold tight to a long-held personal style? This week, look through old photos and your closet to jot down notes about the shoes you’ve worn over the years—sneakers, slip-ons, boots, flats, heels, flip-flops—and how the elements of texture, color, and function have impacted your choices. Write a personal essay that traces how your shoe priorities have evolved over the years, perhaps connecting some favorite past pairs to certain phases of your life—places you’ve lived, fads you’ve endured, jobs or hobbies you’ve had. Unpack the specific memories associated with how you were shoed.


This year’s summer solstice arrives in the Northern Hemisphere on June 20, marking it the longest day, and shortest night, of the year. And yet, no matter the exact number of daylight or nighttime hours measured out, any day can feel like a very long day, just as any night can end in the blink of an eye. Write a two-part lyric essay in which the first part details one long summer day you’ve experienced, and the second part focuses on one short summer night. For the day that seemed to last forever, did it drag on and on, producing exasperation, or did the hours ooze dreamily and pleasurably? For the night that whizzed by, was there nonstop action that was over before you knew it?


A Question of Belonging: Crónicas (Archipelago Books, 2024) by the Argentine writer Hebe Uhart, who died in 2018, translated from the Spanish by Anna Vilner, contains over two dozen crónicas—a form of narrative journalism popularized in Latin America that is characterized by short, informal musings about everyday topics and observations. In her introduction to the book, Mariana Enríquez notes Uhart’s lack of pretension in her chosen subjects, from what she observed around her to the locals with whom she conversed. “Her fascination with language is not limited to the spoken: She roams around cities and towns taking note of shop names, ads, and graffiti.…” Jot down intriguing or amusing fragments of language you see and hear as you go about your day, perhaps during your commute or while watching your favorite TV show. Write a series of short musings based on your observations, noting any humor or insights gleaned from contemporary language and what it reveals about our current times.


Nearly fifty years ago, the writer George Perec spent three days sitting behind a café window in Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris recording everything he saw. In his short book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, his observations of mundane occurrences and objects often considered unnoteworthy—passersby, cars, buses, pigeons, signs, and slogans—are documented. This week situate yourself in one spot, perhaps in your home or workplace, or in a public space like a park, busy crossroad, commercial area, library, or café. Then, jot down the objects and behavior you see, and the snippets of conversation you hear. Write a lyric essay composed of these notes, trying to avoid interpretations or analysis. Taken together, how do your observations create a portrayal of a specific time or place? Pay particular attention to how one observation might lead to another, and to potential rhythms and repetitions.


The maintenance or restoration of native plant and animal species has long been at the heart of many ecological and conservation projects, and has historically been a focus of land and environmental stewardship principles held by native and first peoples all over the world. But what if a beloved plant or animal is considered invasive, like the palm trees of Los Angeles or the cattle of Texas? What are the effects or consequences of centuries of existence with this invasive species in a particular locale? This week reflect on the notion of belonging—what are various places and times when you have felt a strong sense of belonging, and situations when you did not feel you belonged? Consider your own perspectives and responses when you encounter someone or something else that seems invasive or does not belong.


Many foods, flavors, and dishes hold a wellspring of emotional associations because they remind us of loved ones, habits and traditions, specific locales, and a different time of our lives when we were different people. Write a series of flash nonfiction pieces this week with each segment focusing on an edible item that evokes particularly resonant memories for you. You might begin by jotting down lists of foods you ate regularly growing up—breakfasts, school lunches, vending machine go-tos, favorite fast-food joints, diners, late night spots, home-cooked specialties—as well as a few momentous meals. Who are the people you associate with each one? Aside from taste and smell, consider the surrounding environment, atmospheric sounds, time of year, and who you were at that point in your life.


Although the origin of the term is unknown and can be defined in many ways, a chosen family is made up of a group of people who choose to embrace, nurture, and support each other despite conventional understandings of biological or marital relationships. Oftentimes a chosen family is formed to take the place of a biological family, however, in some cases, these relationships are formed to expand a family. Write a personal essay about a relationship you have with a chosen family member. How did you first meet? Was there a particular incident that catalyzed what would become an inextricable bond? Has your commitment to each other been tested in ways big or small? Reflect on past memories and experiences you have had with this special person and how your relationship has evolved over the years.


A recent study in Scientific Reports journal revealed that, for possibly the first time, a nonhuman wild animal was seen using plant medicine to heal an active wound. In a rainforest in Indonesia, a Sumatran orangutan was observed ripping off leaves from a climbing vine plant, chewing them, and applying the plant sap to treat a wound on his face, which then healed after a few days. Write a personal essay on the theme of self-healing. Think about experiences when you’ve witnessed another person perform this task, or particularly resonant memories that pertain to your own past behavior. What are the primary emotions present throughout this process? What instances of self-treatment or self-medication in film, art, or literature created an impression on you?


The New York City culture and news website Gothamist recently asked New Yorkers about their thoughts on sidewalk etiquette in the crowded, bustling streets of their beloved city. What are the rules, who has the right-of-way, and who should yield? Respondents focused on always walking to the right of the sidewalk and to “move quickly and never stop.” One thoughtful respondent considered the cultural differences of sidewalks used for recreational strolls versus commuting. But the overall consensus was that among nine-to-fivers, tourists, parents with kids, dogwalkers, bicyclists, and groups, seniors deserve the right-of-way. Write an essay about the unwritten rules or etiquette you have observed in your daily surroundings. How have these common practices adapted to fit the needs of different people? Do they evolve over time as social norms change? Consider some of your own experiences with how public etiquette has helped or hindered harmonious community life.


In a recent interview with Aria Aber for the Yale Review, when asked his thoughts on the responsibility of the poet, Jackson Prize–winning poet Fady Joudah says, “I often think that the responsibility of the poet is to strive to become the memory that people may possess in the future about what it means to be human: an ever-changing constant. In poetry, the range of metaphors and topics is limited, predictable, but the styles are innumerable. Think how we read poetry from centuries ago and are no longer bothered by its outdated diction. All that remains of old poetry is the music of what it means to be human.” Write a creative nonfiction piece that presents your personal theory of the responsibility of a writer or an artist. To construct an expansive approach, you might use observations about how different creative disciplines overlap in their goals, or consider what has remained resonant as the arts make their mark throughout various eras.


More, please? Or, no more, please? In The Fast: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Promise of Doing Without (Avid Reader Press, 2024), John Oakes recounts his personal experience conducting a weeklong fast and examines the practice’s history and place within a wide range of religions and philosophies. The book also explores the act of self-deprivation and the potential transformative benefits of subtracting rather than adding to one’s life. “The act of fasting…won’t stop routine, but impedes it for a bit, signifying a shift and a determined unwillingness to follow standard operating procedure,” writes Oakes. Use this idea to consider your personal relationship with consumption—of food, conversation, media, clothes, space—and write a personal essay that reflects on what you might otherwise take for granted.


In a 1789 letter, Benjamin Franklin wrote the phrase, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Franklin was reflecting on the establishment of the U.S. Constitution, which he said promised to be durable, as well as his own ailing health and mortality. This week write a personal essay that riffs off this proverb, reflecting on your own worldview about what can be certain. You might start off with the prompt: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and ______.” Tell the story of how you arrived at your own ideas about what you can always count on, whether good or bad. What past experiences, encounters, or memories seem to reinforce your belief?


The human tendency to anthropomorphize may come with risks great or small, but could there also be benefits? Last month, Indigenous leaders of New Zealand, Tahiti, and the Cook Islands signed a historic treaty granting legal personhood to whales, with the hope that the bestowal will lead to negotiations with Polynesian governments to enforce greater protective rights for the animals, which hold a position of sacred cultural importance. This week, write a personal essay that reflects on a moment, memory, or encounter that propelled you to project humanlike qualities onto an animal, whether a pet, insect, pest, or country critter. Do your personal beliefs about personhood collide or align with arguments about humanity and nature, or different types of sentience and consciousness?


How do you tell the tale of your nose, lips, teeth, eyes, brows, and cheeks? This week, study yourself closely in a mirror, and write a memoiristic essay that relays the backstories of your facial features. Are there elements that have shifted, scarred, or been modified in some way with orthodontics, makeup, surgery, or the natural processes of aging? Have there ever been parts of your countenance that you’ve disliked or preferred, and has that changed over time? Take a long, hard look at yourself and reflect on the memories that come up and how your facial expressions and textures have evolved. You might decide to cover just one or two features, or be inspired to cover each part of your face and how they all have a story.


Day Jobs, an exhibition currently on display at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center in California, examines the impact of day jobs on artists. Showcasing the work of three dozen visual artists, the accompanying catalogue offers first-hand accounts of how their employment in places like a frame shop, hair salon, and museum helped inform their creativity. The exhibit deconstructs the romanticized image of the artist and draws attention to how one’s economic and creative pursuits are often intertwined. Write a personal essay that considers how one of your day jobs unexpectedly influenced your own writing projects. How might something undertaken because of financial necessity also provide valuable ideas to explore in your art?


In her groundbreaking 1962 book, Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson foretold of “a spring without voices.” Documenting the harmful effects of chemical pesticides used in the agricultural industry, her book sparked an awakening to the environmental crisis in the 1960s and 1970s and launched a movement that brought about the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” she writes. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” Write an essay that begins by examining how the environment, whether natural or manufactured, has molded you. Then consider how you have modified your surrounding environment—the nature of your world.


A new immersive installation by artist Cauleen Smith uses scent, sight, and sound to explore the work of the late poet Wanda Coleman, widely considered the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles. Smith turned to Coleman’s work to help reacquaint her with the city after a sixteen-year absence. “L.A. is a shy one, a real one, and a terrible beauty,” Smith writes in the liner notes to an EP in the listening room of the exhibit. “You can’t really see how gorgeous it is in a drive-by, you have to sit with the banality, the horrors, the wildness of the city until it begins to become legible.” Select a poet who writes about your town, city, or region, and write a personal essay that reflects on their perspectives and your own. How can reading another writer’s observations and emotions about your hometown provide a refreshing lens to what might otherwise seem familiar?


In a recent essay in the New York Times Magazine, Mireille Silcoff explores the evolving concept of subcultures and how teenagers today are primarily engaged with subcultural aesthetics (such as Preppy, Messy French It Girl, Dark Academia, and Goblincore) popularized on social media, “a fleeting personal pleasure to be had mainly alone.” Silcoff argues that there is no longer a shared experience and work to get into a scene, and that “subcultures in general—once the poles of style and art and politics and music around which wound so many ribbons of teenage meaning—have largely collapsed.” Write a personal essay about a subculture you were engaged with long ago or more recently. Detail your introduction to the scene, the behaviors, styles, and accessories that accompanied it, and its positioning within society at large. How did this sense of belonging inform who you are today?


Doing laundry, washing dishes, grocery shopping, vacuuming, running out to the bank—do the chores ever end? Perhaps not, but there are small delights and incidental pleasures to be found in all the errands to be completed: a breath of fresh air, the feel of a tidy home, running into a friend, an interesting exchange with a stranger, or a long-forgotten memory that surfaces. This week write a personal essay that focuses on a single mundane task you regularly carry out and expand on the activity by looking at it from a variety of angles. Consider who taught you how to complete the chore, obscure observations, bodily movements, happenstance, and societal relevance. Can the chore become more?


To celebrate publishing our two-thousandth writing prompt, spend some time this week jotting down a list of the most significant milestones of your life so far. Reflect on both traditional milestones, such as school or education-related achievements and relationship or family developments, as well as other hard-won goals that might be related to creative pursuits or something considered unconventional. You might also choose to focus on an important event that occurred unexpectedly and set your life in a new, progressive direction. Write an essay that expands upon one or more of these milestones. In what ways has your outlook on life evolved over the years, from before the event, immediately after, and then many years later?


“Why do we dream? Because it’s the only mechanism our brain has for sorting through all the myriad associations it discovers and deciding which ones are potentially of value,” says Robert Stickgold, professor and director of the Harvard Center for Sleep and Cognition and coauthor of When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep, in his TEDx Talk on the purpose of dreams and how sleep sews together the pieces of our memories. Write an essay that begins with the description of a dream you’ve had recently, recounting it in as much detail as you can remember. Then expand and explore how the conflicts and emotions brought up by your dream might be connected to another time in your life when you experienced something similar. What do you think your brain was trying to figure out?


What does a Bill look like? What about a Michael? As the U.S. primary election season progresses, an innocuous excerpt from Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s 2012 memoir, Can’t Is Not an Option, has resurfaced on social media and news outlets. In the book, Haley writes that when she began dating her husband, he went by his first name Bill, but she decided that he didn’t look like a Bill and found his middle name Michael suited him better, and he became known as Michael. Write a personal essay that revolves around your sentiments about your own given name. Have you ever thought about changing it? Do you think you’ve taken on certain personality traits because of it, or in spite of it?