When does a ride to the airport mean more than a ride to the airport? In her New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation essay, Jacqueline Kantor refers to the idea that the offer to drive someone to the airport often holds signification in romantic relationships and friendships. Write an essay about a mundane task or practical favor that you have done as a gesture of your burgeoning feelings for someone. Did the recipient note the significance of the act? Was it the beginning of a new chapter in your relationship?
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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Last November, over five hundred pieces from the art collection of Patricia and Donald Oresman were auctioned off in New York City, including work by Roz Chast, Allen Ginsberg, William Kentridge, Jacob Lawrence, and David Wojnarowicz. What is unique about the couple’s collection is that all of the drawings, paintings, and photographs depict a common subject: They are all portraits of someone reading. Inspired by this singular focus, write a series of vignettes that all explore a shared subject or theme. Experiment with different styles, perspectives, or tones to create a multivalence in your collection.
Wesley Yang’s essay collection, The Souls of Yellow Folk (Norton, 2018), takes inspiration from W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, which addresses the experience of double consciousness: a divided identity split between the consciousness of how one views oneself and how one is viewed by others. A number of Yang’s essays examine his role as a writer within “the peculiar burden of nonrecognition, of invisibility, that is the condition of being an Asian American man,” and circle around the frustration and isolation of attempting to reconcile or unify public opinion with one’s inner life. In your own nonfiction, have you struggled with representing yourself honestly while being conscious of how your readers might view you? Write an essay about striking a balance between writing truthfully about your interior self and considering the pressures of others’ perceptions.
In “‘I Read Morning, Night and in Between’: How One Novelist Came to Love Books” in the New York Times last month, Chigozie Obioma writes about how his journey to becoming a voracious reader was shaped by a childhood full of books and storytelling, and recounts a discovery made about the differences between stories told by his father versus those told by his mother. Write a personal essay about a storyteller who has played an important role in your life, such as a parent or guardian who animatedly read you bedtime stories, a relative whose tales are particularly exaggerated, or a friend whose sense of comedic or suspenseful timing is always just right. How has this person had an effect on your own storytelling and writing?
Poet Maggie Smith’s essay “Tracking the Demise of My Marriage on Google Maps” published in the New York Times Modern Love column, uses images of her house on Google Street View, photographed throughout a period of several years, as a means of imagining and remembering the events that occurred inside the residence. Smith reflects on the trajectory of her relationship with her husband and the gradual transformations of their family. Look up a current or former residence of yours using Google Street View. Click through photos taken over the years if available, and write a remembrance of your time spent there, focusing on your habitual movements within the home and how they have affected your relationships.
“Philosophically, the New Year is a time for beginnings, a time for reflection and change. I can’t think of a better place than this vast and ruggedly beautiful continent to put things in perspective,” says traveler Chuck Ward in a recent New York Times article about celebrating New Year’s Eve in Antarctica. Write a personal essay about a particularly poignant or exciting New Year’s celebration you’ve had in the past. Describe the setting and how it influenced your mood. What made the night memorable and did you intend for your festivities to help start the year off in a certain way? How did the rest of the year measure up to your New Year’s expectations?
In the essay “The Poet’s Table,” published by the Poetry Foundation, food writer Mayukh Sen pays tribute to the late Maya Angelou for her lesser-known literary feats: her cookbooks. Angelou published two cookbooks when she was in her seventies and eighties, which offer readers more than just lists of measured ingredients and directions. The pages are filled with anecdotes and deeply personal stories touching upon cultural narratives, racial divisions, juvenile traumas, and moments of joy. “I feel cooking is a natural extension to my autobiography,” Angelou told the Guardian in 2011 regarding her cookbooks. This week, think of a recipe that contains some of your personal history within it—childhood memory, exploration of heritage, sense of place, or simply a snapshot of life. Write about the dish in detailed prose, allowing instruction to blend with your reminiscence.
What riches lie in that special space between the conscious and unconscious mind, when you’re just about to fall asleep or right as you’re waking up? In “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Harnessing the Power of Hypnagogia” in the January/February issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Melissa Burkley writes about this mental twilight state, and the ways that these daily moments before and after sleep can be used for storytelling inspiration. Read about the hypnagogic techniques Burkley outlines in the piece and try one of her tips for harnessing these moments of creative potential. For example, use a twenty-minute nap or ease yourself out of your waking routine slowly to let your semi-conscious mind work over the ideas. Record notes on your experiences as soon as you get up, and then see how you might incorporate them into your writing.
In Amanda Hess’s New York Times essay “The End of Endings,” she writes about how in our current age of “the prequel, the reboot, the reunion, the revival, the remake, the spinoff,” the logic of the Internet contributes to a timeline where nothing ends, a time when scrolling through social media continues indefinitely, an age of never-ending online content. Whereas in the past, “we needed stories to end so we could make sense of them.” Write a personal essay that extends a previously explored subject or experience to investigate what came before or after, or that offers a different version or perspective.
In The Library Book, published by Simon & Schuster in October, Susan Orlean’s lifelong love of reading and books propels her toward an exploration of libraries, as well as the personal stories of librarians. In the process of turning an eye toward one specific subject, Orlean delves into larger themes of obsessions, collecting, and memory as they pertain to universal human tendencies and to her own life. Think of a broad subject of particular interest to you and write a personal essay about it that incorporates different types of nonfiction, including elements of memoiristic writing, historical research, interviews, and primary-source documents. Examine the ways in which the formation and collection of your own memories joins with other voices and stories to create a chorus.
Is simpler always better? Last year, scientists reported findings that the familiar and more easily built, open bowl-shaped nests most birds build today likely evolved from more complicated dome-shaped nests with protective roofs, not the other way around as previously theorized. Write a personal essay about a task you’ve attempted to simplify, perhaps an everyday skill like cooking or cleaning that you learned from an elder as a child. Did you find your way was more efficient or did you go back to the ways you were taught? Has hindsight provided new perspectives?
Imagine you are being interviewed for a literary publication. Pose incisive and personal questions another writer might ask you about yourself and your writing. For ideas, browse our rich archive of online exclusives for interviews. Consider a few open-ended queries that resonate with you and respond to them as honestly as possible: What are some of the lies you have had to let go of when writing about your life? Has writing changed your relationship to your body? Where is the line between what you will and won’t share with strangers? Then, try writing a personal essay as an expansion of one of your responses.
In a recent New York Times profile by Penelope Green, author Anne Lamott says, “I don’t write stuff I don’t think is universal, if I write about my butt or my body or my, you know, challenges with self-esteem or my raging ego, I know it’s universal.” Jot down a list of personality traits, idiosyncratic beliefs or opinions, or past situations that seem extremely specific to you alone. Upon deeper reflection, is there a possible overlap between any of these topics and circumstances others may be familiar with? Select one of these items and write a personal essay that extends this seemingly personal concern into the realm of the universal.
“Boredom becomes a seeking state. What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged,” says psychologist Heather Lench in an article for Wired about the connection between boredom and creativity. Do you remember the last time you allowed yourself to truly do nothing to the point that you felt bored? Write a personal essay about a time when you had nothing to do and how that inspired you to create something. This could be a childhood memory of inventing a new reality or a more recent experience when you allowed yourself time away from distraction and wrote a new piece. Use this essay to reflect on how silence and inactivity have played a role in your creativity.
“Where would we be without the women who plant their feet, who set their chins, who step forward and never fear the dark?” asks Laird Hunt in his Literary Hub essay “In Gratitude for the Fierce Women of the World.” Hunt describes his high school girlfriend and his grandmother, who both served as fierce female inspiration for him and his novels which center on women who “are making their own story, their own names, their own games.” Write a personal essay about a woman who has had a powerful presence in your life, who inspired you to persevere, to overcome obstacles, to not back down.
In the chapter titled “The One Where Two Women Got Married” in the nostalgic retrospective I’ll Be There For You: The One About Friends (Hanover Square Press, 2018), journalist Kelsey Miller writes about the prevalence of homophobic jokes and the depiction of the lesbian couple in the television show Friends. Looking back twenty years later, Miller explores the ways in which the series was a product of its time. Choose a television series that aired ten or twenty years ago that you used to watch, and find a clip or episode to view. Write a personal essay about how your perception of the show has changed with hindsight. Consider what your own opinions of the show were when you watched it the first time around, and then examine how your perspective might have evolved over the years with the culture.
“As a nonfiction writer I tend to write about things when I am still in the midst of them, when I am too close to the subject matter and there is no possible resolution to the thing I am writing about,” writes Steph Auteri in “Writing Partners: Working Together Through Writing and Life” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. What issues or conflicts are you in the midst of struggling with right now? Begin an essay about a subject that you are dealing with at the moment, writing down all the raw emotions without self-editing. Perhaps in a few weeks or months, you can revisit the piece and decide whether to continue working on it from more of a distance.
Think about a place that has served as a sanctuary to you as a writer, whether in the past or present. Perhaps it is somewhere you’ve visited only once, somewhere you return to every year, or somewhere in-between. It could even be a writing retreat or residency. Write an essay about what makes this space so inspiring to you as a writer. Describe the setting using all the senses: You might include a favorite soft-cushioned chair, the aroma of fresh flowers, the colors of the walls, a favorite snack, or the sound of pen to paper. What are the elements that help motivate you to write in this place?
This past August, a couple browsing through a Florida Goodwill store’s secondhand goods found a baseball mitt that was lost by their son forty years earlier when the family lived in their hometown in Ohio. Think of the various belongings you lost as a child. Is there one item in particular whose loss hit you the hardest, or that you find yourself thinking about often? Write a personal essay about several long-lost objects, drawing upon your memories and what the object’s importance expresses about your values. If the objects were to turn up now, would they still hold meaning for you?
Labor Day, a holiday honoring the American labor and trade union movements celebrated on the first Monday in September, is the marker of the unofficial end of summer. Oldfangled fashion etiquette dictates that it also marks the annual cutoff point for wearing certain items of clothing such as white shoes or white pants, along with patterns and materials including seersucker, eyelet, patchwork madras, linen, and canvas. Write a personal essay about a seasonal item that you’re either reluctant to let go of at the end of summer or eager to dig out from the depths of your closet storage for the beginning of fall. Explore how the seasonal clothing you wear is associated with the climate and traditions of your particular geographic region, as well as the emotional ties and memories linked to this annual transition.
“And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and glorious life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.” In “The Chekhov Sentence That Contains Almost All of Life” published in the Atlantic, Gary Shteyngart talks to Joe Fassler about this last line of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story “The Lady With the Dog,” and explains why he believes it expresses a universal truth about all human relationships. Find a favorite final sentence from a prose piece you have long appreciated and write a personal essay about why you find it particularly resonant. How has your reading of it evolved over the years, and what memories surface upon its recollection?
The National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology have teamed up to declare 2018 the Year of the Bird, to celebrate and draw awareness to the centennial of the signing of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As you go about your daily tasks this week, keep an eye out for the birds that you encounter, whether flying overhead, perched in trees, or underfoot. Write an essay inspired by the feathered friends that fly in and out of your day. What memories or emotions do birds bring to mind? Have they been symbolic of an important moment in your life?
In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Heather Lanier writes: “Don’t settle for your first idea or point, the thing that might have brought you to the page. Let that first point be a jumping-off place to deeper questioning.” Lanier shares an anecdote about starting an essay initially focused on exploring the etymology of a word, and then realizing it was on track to recreate a well-trod argument, a realization which steered her toward a more challenging and uncertain direction. Think of an essay topic that seems like a good idea for exploration, and then seek “the deeper questions, the ones for which you don’t have ready answers” as you write and dive into your topic. Where do you end up when you can’t see where you’re headed?
Can you remember the last time you handwrote a lengthy text? The Magic of Handwriting, an exhibit currently on view at the Morgan Library in New York City, showcases a collection of handwritten documents and autographs acquired by Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago. The exhibition includes intimate inscriptions by Jorge Luis Borges, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Emily Dickinson, Allen Ginsberg, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde, among others. Write a personal essay about how your own handwriting has changed from childhood, through adolescence and adulthood. What memories are brought to mind when looking at your old handwriting? Perhaps try handwriting the first draft of your essay to help connect back into this practice.
“One of the most surprising responses to my book came from my mother. She said above all what the poems illustrated to her is that anyone can be a monster to any number of people—even if they don’t intend to act in ways that harm,” writes Diana Arterian in an essay on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, Harriet. Write an essay about a time when you were caught off guard by a surprising or unusual response to your creative writing, perhaps by someone close to you. How did this unexpected, or unintended, reaction offer a new perspective into your own work?