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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During the pandemic, people have been forced to change their habits. Some have found peace in picking up new skills while others have valued the chance to return to old ones. Perhaps some readers have finally had time to finish their “to-read” pile of books or turned to new genres to enjoy. How have your reading habits changed during the pandemic? Have you read more than you used to, or are you having trouble getting through a book? Write an essay about your relationship to reading during difficult times. Are there certain books you gravitate towards or avoid?


January 14 marked the fifty-ninth anniversary of the original publication of Sylvia Plath’s haunting novel, The Bell Jar, which was first published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas.” The novel, which wouldn’t receive its wide acclaim until 1971, two years after the death of Plath, opens with one of the most iconic first lines in contemporary literature: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” This week, write a story influenced by this powerful opening line. Set the tone of the story by situating the time and place into historical context, as Plath does. How can an event seemingly unrelated to the rest of your story carry the weight of the reader’s expectations?


“She is the speed of darkness— / witness her mystery, not her gown,” writes Christopher Gilbert in “Muriel Rukeyser as Energy” from his poetry collection Across the Mutual Landscape (Graywolf Press, 1984). The poem serves as a kind of ode to the influential poet Muriel Rukeyser, whose five-decade literary career is characterized by her involvement in political activism and mentorship. Through the anaphora of “she” and use of surreal imagery, Gilbert creates a mythological portrait that reaches beyond biography and reflects both Rukeyser’s influence and poetic character. Write a poem about a writer whose influence on you is significant. What imagery and syntax will you employ to properly reflect the character and impact of their work?


“I did not want to die without being married to her, for forty-nine or seventy-nine or preferably a thousand and ninety-nine years. Deathbeds, sickrooms, a smudge of ashes on her brow: I would wait forever,” writes Kathryn Schulz in “How I Proposed to My Girlfriend,” published in the New Yorker and excerpted from her memoir, Lost & Found (Random House, 2022). The heartwarming essay tells the story of Schulz wanting to propose to her girlfriend while reflecting on the history of the wedding ring that once belonged to her late father. “He was seventy-four when she took it off. Life had grown on it, grown into it; for as long as I could remember, the grooves of the pattern had been charcoal, the surface a flat deep bronze.” Write an essay about a prized possession with a storied history to it. How did you come to acquire it, and what new life does it breathe?


In an article for Oprah Daily, Maggie Shipstead chronicles the seven- year journey of writing and researching her latest novel, Great Circle (Knopf, 2021). After a solo trip around New Zealand, Shipstead encounters a bronze statue of Jean Batten, the first person to fly solo from England to New Zealand, and is struck with the idea to write a book about a pilot. This week, inspired by Shipstead, consider a statue you’ve come across and write a story inspired by this encounter or the person commemorated. How will the statue come to bear significance in the story?


In John Keene’s poem “Phone Book,” from his poetry collection Punks: New and Selected Poems (Song Cave, 2021) and published on Literary Hub, the speaker flips alphabetically through a Rolodex remembering the lives of each person listed: “Yamil bending / ear to lips to read the laments, with care, tells me that Zachary, the Rolodex / Z, now gone, no longer fears those dark days. In any light, trust, the dead can see.” Mixing rhythm and narrative, Keene seamlessly threads together the names of contacts with their respective stories, never losing the threads of their often fleeting lives. This week, make a list of names from A-Z of people from your past and then weave them together in a loose abecedarian poem that tells their stories. 


“I have formed new strategies to prevent burnout by consistently creating achievable goals and, more important, celebrating when I reach them,” writes Crystal Hana Kim in “How to Keep Going,” featured in the January/February 2022 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. To get through the frustration and disappointment sometimes felt during the writing process, Kim emphasizes recognizing the small moments of joy, which for her include “a lit candle, a cocktail with friends, a bag of candy that will rot my teeth, a new book to read.” Write an essay inspired by a time you felt burned out from writing. What factors caused this slump and how did you find your way out?


Edgar Gomez’s debut memoir, High-Risk Homosexual (Soft Skull Press, 2022), begins with a secret: “Moments after I was born at the Mount Sinai Medical Center of Greater Miami, my parents were handed a document, which I stumbled upon years later, curled and yellow at the edges, inside of a shoebox in a corner of my closet.” The book’s first sentence sets up the tension between the narrator and his family as Gomez recounts coming of age as a gay, Latinx man. Write a story that begins with a character finding a secret object—whether it be a hidden note, a photograph, or an unopened box. Who does the object belong to, and what feeling does this discovery conjure in your protagonist?


“i am running into a new year / and the old years blow back / like a wind,” writes Lucille Clifton in her poem “i am running into a new year,” which is included in The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010 edited by Kevin Young and Michael S. Glaser (BOA Editions, 2015). In this popular poem, Clifton writes about encountering her past as she moves into the future: “it will be hard to let go / of what i said to myself / about myself / when i was sixteen and / twenty-six and thirty-six.” Write a poem about the feeling you get when entering a new year. What are you taking with you, and what are you leaving behind? For further inspiration, read this Washington Post article by Stephanie Burt about the tradition of greeting a new year with poetry.


“The future is the land of our expectations, hopes, fantasies, and projections, which is to say the future is a fiction,” writes Siri Hustvedt in “The Future of Literature,” an essay from her book Mothers, Fathers, and Others, published in December by Simon & Schuster. “In truth, the only certainty we have about the future is that it holds the secret to our mortality.” In her essay Hustvedt argues that our brains have evolved for prediction and references scientific studies, novels, and philosophy to create her own portrait of the future of literature. Write an essay that contemplates the role storytelling has had in your life. Consider how storytelling has changed for you as the years have passed, and try to reckon, as Hustvedt does, with the complicated nature of envisioning what is to come.


Go to the gym. Read more books. Save more money. Eat better. Wake up earlier. New Year’s resolutions begin as good intentions meant to introduce positive change in one’s life, but of course they can be difficult to sustain. Often characterized by vowing to continue healthy practices, change an undesired trait, or accomplish a new goal, resolutions bring with them hope but often turn to disappointment as these once-a-year aspirations fade with each passing day of the new year. Write a story about a character who is at a crossroads and makes an urgent resolution to change their ways. What are the circumstances that necessitate a need for change? How does your character go about accomplishing—or failing to meet—this pressing goal?


“You are a hundred wild centuries // And fifteen, bringing with you / In every breath and in every step // Everyone who has come before you,” writes Alberto Ríos in his poem “A House Called Tomorrow,” in which he challenges readers to consider their place in building a better world. In the poem, fitting for the new year, Ríos writes about the weight of the past, then sounds a hopeful note: “Look back only for as long as you must, / Then go forward into the history you will make.” Write a poem about your relationship to the past—your connection to the “wild centuries” of history as well as your own personal past, from early childhood to recent years marked by the private and public transformations of time. Try to include your own revelations along with the inspiration that propels you forward into a new tomorrow.


In American movies like the 1983 classic A Christmas Story, the children are sent off to bed on Christmas Eve with everything leading up to the magic of the morning of the twenty-fifth when the family wakes up to open presents under the tree. On the other hand, the Feast of the Seven Fishes and Nochebuena are celebrated on December 24 with families enjoying copious feasts, music, dancing, and cocktails. Write an essay inspired by a memorable Christmas Eve, whether it was quiet or festive. Was there merriment or anticipation in the air?


In a 2009 interview for Newsweek, renowned children’s book writer Maurice Sendak is asked the following question: “What makes a good kids’ story?” At first Sendak dismisses the question saying that he just writes the books, but then remembers the experience of hearing stories told by his parents when he was a child with his siblings. “My parents were immigrants and they didn’t know that they should clean the stories up for us. So we heard horrible, horrible stories, and we loved them, we absolutely loved them.” This week, write a short story inspired by a particularly gruesome or frightening story you heard as a child. Whether by word of mouth or from a book, how will you adapt your terrifying tale to the plot line of a short story?


“I once thought I was / my own geometry, / my own geocentric planet,” writes Paul Tran in their poem “Copernicus,” one in a series of poems titled after inventors and scientific concepts. In many of the poems, the theory or invention is used as a metaphor for a given speaker’s emotional struggle, such as in “Hypothesis,” in which Tran writes: “I could survive knowing / that not everything has a reason” and in the first lines of “Galileo”: “I thought I could stop / time by taking apart / the clock.” This week, write a poem named after an inventor or theory. How can you personalize a scientific subject and cast it through a lyrical light?


In James Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work, a book-length essay in which he recounts watching influential films and critiques racial politics through the lens of American cinema, he begins with an early memory of watching the 1931 film Dance, Fools, Dance: “Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train.” Baldwin continues with this recollection of when he was seven years old and how he became “fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea.” Write an essay that begins with an early, formative memory of watching a movie. Was there a specific scene or actor from the film that influenced your sensibilities?


“That woman who killed the fish unfortunately is me,” begins the title story of Clarice Lispector’s collection of children’s stories, The Woman Who Killed the Fish, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser in a new edition forthcoming from New Directions in July. “If It were my fault, I’d own up to you, since I don’t lie to boys and girls.” Taking inspiration from Lispector’s story, write a story that starts with a major confession from the narrator. How will the story progress after this shocking revelation?


Aracelis Girmay’s poem “Elegy,” from her second poetry collection, Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions, 2011), begins with a question: “What to do with this knowledge that our living is not guaranteed?” The poem’s speaker finds hope in the natural world as a way of answering this existential question: “Perhaps one day you touch the young branch / of something beautiful. & it grows & grows.” Write a poem that seeks to answer what it means to be impermanent. What do you wish to leave behind?


In “Blood, Sweat, Turmeric,” an essay published in Guernica, Shilpi Suneja writes about getting her first period while on a train ride to visit her grandmother in Bombay and being shamed by her family for staying out in public during her “dirty days.” This story begins a personal and historical study of the myths behind cleanliness and dirtiness in Indian culture and the way these forces intersect with gender, culture, and class. “I must’ve copied the phrase ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness’ in my cursive-writing exercise books at least a thousand times as a child,” she writes. Write an essay about a family value that was imposed on you as a child. How did upholding this value affect you later as an adult?


In his iconic, postmodern short story “Borges and I,” Jorge Luis Borges recounts living alongside a second version of himself, to whom he is slowly “giving over everything.” The story is known for its brevity—at about one page long—and its sense of compression, as Borges describes this struggle between self and persona. “I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor,” he writes. Write a story about the push and pull between the self you present to the world and the self you know. Is there conflict or cooperation?


“The name means ‘odd.’ / The name means ‘queer.’ / It can denote an ‘odd fish,’” writes Mark Wunderlich in his poem “Wunderlich.” The poem serves as an exploration of the poet’s last name, interlacing a historical overview of his family’s ancestry with suggestive definitions that compound and contradict. “The name means ‘electric organ maestro.’ / The name means ‘famous botanical illustrator.’” This week write a poem inspired by your last name. Allow yourself to get carried away with fact and fable, letting your imagination spin a new history for your family name.


“Traveling in this way, and trading in stories, is inevitably a journey of selection—it was not lost on me that for each voice I heard, many others would be left out,” writes Jordan Salama in Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena (Catapult, 2021), an exhaustive travelogue in which the author follows the 950-mile length of the Magdalena River, from its source in the Andean highlands to the Caribbean coast, and recounts the legends and stories of the people he meets along the way. Write an essay about a river, or body of water, that is significant to you. How does its history intersect with your own?


In this week’s Craft Capsule essay, Julia Sanches discusses using Google Maps as a resource while translating books set in places far from her home in Providence, and how this research has opened up her exploration. “Working on these translations hasn’t exactly given me wings, as the cliché goes, though it has forced me to navigate the geographical makeup of real places I’d never laid eyes on before, whose streets I’d never felt beneath my feet,” she writes. This week, use Google Maps to explore a city or place you’re never physically visited, perhaps the setting from one of your favorite books. Write down details from your research as a starting point for a short story.


“It is December and we must be brave,” writes Natalie Diaz in “Manhattan is a Lenape Word,” a poem from her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). Diaz sets the scene by describing the sounds and colors of New York City: “The ambulance’s rose of light / blooming against the window.” Then she moves from the exterior to the interior: “I’m the only Native American / on the 8th floor of this hotel or any...” Inspired by Diaz, and the onset of winter, write a poem that starts with the line: “It is December and we must be brave.” Let this first line carry you into sensuous descriptions about the world outside, as well as inside.


In Marie Howe’s 2017 poetry collection, Magdalene, she engages with the perspective of Mary Magdalene through a variety of persona poems—some closely resemble the biblical story while others are more contemporary interpretations of the figure. Through poems such as “Before the Beginning,” in which the speaker asks, “Was I ever a virgin?” or in “On Men, Their Bodies,” in which the speaker explores sexual encounters one penis at a time, there is a link between the story of Magdalene and the lives of contemporary women. This week, write an essay about a historical, religious, or mythical figure that you feel a close connection to, whether it is their story or image that inspires you.