Anna Wintour’s office, the United Nations’ Security Council Consultations Room, David Zwirner’s office, an IKEA design lab, a Fox News studio. Brent Murray’s New York Times piece “The Rooms Where It Happens” showcases photographs of these rarely seen spaces where powerful decision-making occurs. Write a personal essay about a room that has played an important role in your life. Describe the furniture, lighting, and paraphernalia, and consider the actions, behaviors, and thinking you’ve done in this room. Are there expected and unexpected correlations between the objects and actions?
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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Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February, was originally released serially in a Japanese monthly, from 1978 to 1979, to correspond with the book’s twelve sections, which span a single year. Throughout the text, certain observations mark transformations in physical surroundings: the length and temperature of the days, the changing light and shadows, a daughter’s birthday. Other shifts have more interior significance: interactions with various neighbors, the behavior of the daughter at school. Write a personal essay consisting of one section per month, covering the events of the past year. Focus on one situation or incident each month, and allow this event to associatively lead you to other memories or ruminations about relationships in your life. Bring in specific and timely details about the environment, setting, or special occasions that inspire you to reflect on the passage of time.
The unofficial Smith College Historic Clothing Collection is home to three thousand dresses, suits, and accessories worn from the nineteenth century to today, showcasing a wide variety of women’s social uniforms across a diverse range of economic backgrounds. Search online for photos and advertisements of everyday work attire or casual wear from the last century or two, and write a personal essay that contemplates how the outfits differ from what you wear and see worn on others in the present day. What clues can you derive about the culture and its values—in terms of gender, workforce, or class—from the clothing worn back then? How does that carry through to what you wear today?
Can refrigerator contents lead to a love connection? Refrigerdating is an app that works with Samsung’s Family Hub Refrigerator, a four thousand dollar appliance with a built-in camera and touchscreen door, and allows you to browse ice box contents of potential dates for compatibility. Write a personal essay that considers the contents of your own fridge, and compares it with what’s inside the fridge of a friend, family member, or foe. How are your personalities and habits apparent in your preserved food choices? What might be misconstrued or misrepresentative?
“I had surveyed thousands of miles of panoramic splendor, and I couldn’t believe I had come all that way just to get to Los Angeles,” Caity Weaver writes at the end of her New York Times essay “There Is no Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train. But I Did It Anyway.” In other words, sometimes the old adage applies: It’s about the journey, not the destination. Think back to a time in your life when you had to travel for a long period of time to get somewhere—by train, car, plane, bus, or on foot—and the memory of the trek itself now eclipses the destination. Write a personal essay about the experience and what made it so memorable: the people, the landscape, and the unexpected moments along the way.
“In the tiny little notebook I took tiny little notes…. I wrote for one minute eight times throughout the first day. Eight times on the second day.” In Camille T. Dungy’s essay “Say Yes to Yourself: A Poet’s Guide to Living and Writing” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the author writes about various writing routines, including one which consisted of writing for a small amount of time simply recording things that caught her attention. Try out this routine for several days—you might decide on one or two minutes throughout the day, or twenty—and note down sensory observations, and emotional and physical feelings. At the end of the experiment, write an essay inspired by a couple of your favorite observations.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Do you prefer a pastry and coffee, yogurt and fruit, cereal, or an egg sandwich? Perhaps you like something hearty to start the day like oatmeal porridge, fava bean stew, a rice dish, or noodle soup. Browse through photos of typical breakfast meals from around the world and write a personal essay about a favorite breakfast of your own. Think about specific memories associated with these meals, involving certain people or places. How have your breakfast foods and routines changed over the years?
Poet Douglas Manuel reflects on his transformative experience teaching a workshop at a therapeutic residential and day school in California in a recent post for the Readings & Workshops Blog titled “If We Just Listen, We Can All Hear Ghosts.” Inspired by Kiki Petrosino’s poem “Ghosts,” one of his students writes about a deceased YouTube star who visits him in dreams and offers consoling words. This week, consider the ghosts in your life. Who do you dream about? Write a personal essay about one of the illusory figures that haunt your creative life, perhaps an ancestor, writer, historical figure, celebrity, or former friend. Explore how your ghost’s presence influences or inspires your writing life.
Leanne Shapton’s second book, Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Sarah Crichton Books, 2009), takes the form of a fictional auction catalogue. The objects being sold—everything from furniture to photographs—present a chronology of an invented couple’s entire love affair from start to finish. How might the wider meaning of spring-cleaning as a transformative purge present an opportunity to use your possessions to tell a story about your own life? Jot down a list of objects that hold significance from a past relationship. Perhaps you’ve thrown them out or even hidden them because of their unpleasant associations. Think of them as objectively as possible, as if viewed in an auction catalogue, and write a personal essay using impersonal descriptions to reveal a series of events in your past that combine to form a larger story about this relationship.
“There is a model of translation that resembles a funnel—everything from the source language swirls toward a single opening, and it all comes out the same way,” says Jeremy Tiang in “The Art of Translation: Many Englishes, Many Chineses” in the March/April issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “The kitchen implement I prefer is the sieve—allowing as much as possible through, falling as it will, breaking up clumps to ease the flow.” Think about a favorite book of translated literature, and write a personal essay that reflects upon your feelings about the translation choices within it. Consider Tiang’s analogy: Does it feel like the words came from the source language through a funnel or a sieve? Were there rough patches, or did the work feel frictionless? Which do you prefer and why?
In his essay “Being John” published in the Morning News, John Sherman writes about his experiences sharing a first name with over five million other people in the United States. Sherman also considers the rise and fall in popularity of different names and the trend in valuing unique and individualistic names over traditional ones, musing on how our identities are formed by our names with all their attendant histories, politics, pleasures, and nuisances. Write a personal essay about your own name, perhaps diving into some Internet research to see how popular it has been over time, its origins, and touching upon possible namesakes. What are your feelings about sharing your name with others? Did you ever wish for another name, or have you ever changed your name? How has your perspective on your name changed over time?
In Medium’s Day Job series, Mike Gardner conducts a dozen interviews with writers about day jobs they’ve worked, particularly focusing on jobs they had when they were just starting out. Authors such as Kaitlyn Greenidge, Mitchell S. Jackson, Carmen Maria Machado, Karan Mahajan, Elizabeth Strout, and Andy Weir recount the variety of work they’ve done to pay the bills—as a subway conductor, private investigator, teacher, retail clerk, and more—and share insights into how different jobs effectively complemented (or didn’t complement) a writing practice, and what they’ve learned about protecting their writing time and energy from the demands of day jobs. Write a personal essay about a past or current job, exploring how it fits alongside your identity as a writer. How do issues of time, benefits, energy, inspiration, and language play into the job’s suitability for your writing life?
The fascination of writers with the color blue dates back more than two hundred years, as Maria Popova writes on her website Brain Pickings. In his journal, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Blue is light seen through a veil.” In Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), a book wholly dedicated to her relationship with the color blue, Maggie Nelson interrogates the madness of loving “something constitutionally incapable of loving you back.” This week, consider any powerful associations you’ve had with a color over the course of your life. Write an essay or series of short vignettes dedicated to this specific hue. What memories or emotions come rushing back when you see this color? Is there a theme? Consider Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colors for inspiration.
The period of recovery time after an illness, injury, or medical treatment is known as a convalescence. As flu season abounds and we’re affected by changing temperatures, think back to a time in your life when you were returning to better health, whether after a prolonged cold, a serious illness, surgery, or a period of emotional distress. Write a personal essay about navigating this space between unwell and well. Did the disruption in health leave a permanent mark on your identity? Were there others you needed to rely on in order to recover? Describe the moments you felt weak and what it felt like to be vulnerable.
“I’ve just begun having text and feel self-conscious: should I sustain this performance, the analogy I’ve created between sexual and textual preference?... If textual preference is a matter of what gives a reader textual pleasure, with what categories does one establish preference?” asks Brian Teare in his Harriet blog essay “Textual Preference,” which plays with and explores the connections between sexuality and textuality. What are your idiosyncratic pleasures and displeasures when it comes to syntax, diction, rhythm, form, and imagery? Write a personal essay investigating what your textual likes and dislikes say about the way you encounter the world.
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?
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.