“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?
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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“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.
In her installment of our Ten Questions series, Emma Cline talks about the imagery that first inspired her latest novel, The Guest (Random House, 2023). “The first time I saw an East Coast beach, I was so struck by the mildness of the landscape, a long stretch of dunes and the warm water and mint grasses. It looked surreal to my California eye, and I knew I wanted to write about that landscape,” says Cline. Can you recall visiting a landscape that felt entirely new to you? Write an essay that offers details of this place and your experience with it. Try to identify the feelings it conjured in you and what made it feel new.
National Best Friend Day is an unofficial holiday celebrated on June 8 in the United States and Canada. The holiday has no official designation nor any real origin; in fact, according to a 2015 Washington Post article, this hashtag holiday likely began with the website EarthCalendar.net, which takes submissions to catalog “lesser-known holidays.” National Best Friend Day eventually caught the eye of morning TV shows, flower delivery services, and even the American Kennel Club which helped bring it to the mainstream. In honor of this invented holiday, write an essay about the best friends who have come into your life. From your childhood recess buddy to your work bestie, try to communicate what makes each one distinctly special.
In “Once Upon a Dream,” the first essay in The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men, published in May by Catapult, Manuel Betancourt recounts the complicated feelings and moments of self-reflection that he experienced as an impressionable eight-year-old watching Disney’s classic animated 1959 film Sleeping Beauty. More captivated at first by Princess Aurora and her woodland creatures, Betancourt examines how gazing at Prince Phillip’s “slim, alluring body” startled him. “This was the first of many instances in which the silvery images on-screen kindled a growing realization that maybe I wasn’t like other boys,” he writes. Can you remember watching an animated film or television show that startled you into a new realization about yourself? Write an essay that reflects on the ways in which a particular cartoon character struck a chord with you.
When travelers arrive at the Denver International Airport, they are greeted by a thirty-two-foot-tall sculpture of an electric blue steed with neon eyes and pulsing veins, locally known as Bluecifer. For over ten years, the notorious sculpture has sparked rumors and tall tales about the airport, including that a humanoid reptilian race lives under the facility and hundreds of miles of tunnels beneath the airport lead to subterranean survival bunkers. This week, write an essay about a sculpture or a place that has inspired tall tales. Do you believe any of the stories?
In a recent installment of our Ten Questions series, Jennifer Lunden, author of American Breakdown: Our Ailing Nation, My Body’s Revolt, and the Nineteenth-Century Woman Who Brought Me Back to Life (Harper Wave, 2023), mentions a quote by Jean Cocteau she considers the best writing advice: “Listen carefully to first criticisms made of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don’t like—then cultivate it. That’s the only part of your work that’s individual and worth keeping.” Write a list of criticisms you have encountered as a writer—including ones you have of yourself. Then, write an essay that looks to the value in those parts of your voice.
In a recent installment of our Craft Capsules series, Christine Imperial, author of Mistaken for an Empire: A Memoir in Tongues (Mad Creek Books, 2023), writes about the freedom in hybrid forms of the essay and how becoming comfortable with failure helped the process of writing her book. “The essay should be an experiment—without a guarantee of success, like the hypothesis before an experiment,” she writes. “When one writes with failure as kin, one writes without the expectation of understanding, ceding to the persistence of the opaque.” Write an essay about a time when failure led to a better understanding of something in your life. What lessons did you learn through this process?
For fans of the Star Wars franchise, the fourth of May has become a holiday to enjoy their favorite characters, series, and films with themed parties and community gatherings. The unofficial fan holiday stems from a pun of the phrase, “May the Force be with you,” first heard in the 1978 film Star Wars: A New Hope which launched a decades-long phenomenon. The popularity of the holiday is a testament to the fierce loyalty of fans of science fiction and fantasy. Write an essay that explores your favorite sci-fi character. How do you connect with this character? Explore the traits, whether human or otherwise, that make you a fan.
Every year Time magazine releases a list of the year’s one hundred most influential people, offering a look into the political, cultural, and social figures who have made notable achievements. This year’s list includes politicians such as U.S. Congressman and Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries and Colombian president Gustavo Petro, writers Judy Blume and Neil Gaiman, and scientists Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin who codeveloped the first COVID-19 vaccine approved worldwide. If you composed a list of your own life’s most influential people, who would be on it? Write an essay that considers who you’ve been influenced by and the many ways your life has been changed by them.
“I grew up a few hours from the scrapyard my namesake, Ida Novey, started in 1906. Nobody suggested a trip to see what had come of the still-operating Novey scrapyard, and I never asked. I have no material connection to what is now over a century of Novey recyclers,” writes author Idra Novey in her essay “Monstrous Hybrids and the Conjuring of Legacy,” published in the Yale Review, which chronicles a visit to a scrapyard owned by her family for generations. Novey discusses the nature of material versus linguistic inheritance, as she traces her connection to the ancestors who began this scrapyard a century before. This week consider your own sense of inheritance, whether material or otherwise, and write an essay that connects you to this history.