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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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.


“Now you’re fourteen, standing in awesome slacks and looking at an ungainly body in the mirror,” writes Lana Bastašić in “Bread,” a short story translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Celia Hawkesworth and published in Freeman’s issue on change. “In the mirror is a mutilated body, and inside that body is you.” The story follows a fourteen-year-old girl going through puberty and engages the reader through a second-person perspective in which the “you” makes the awkwardness of the prepubescent body more visceral. This week, write a story from the perspective of an adolescent in the second person. How will you build intimacy in this voice? What are some thoughts only the speaker knows?


“The Greeks / had it wrong: / catastrophe // is not a downturn, / not a fall / from grace,” writes Monica Youn in her poem “Portrait of a Hanged Woman” from her third collection, Blackacre (Graywolf Press, 2016). The poem begins with a reference to the etymology of the word “catastrophe,” which comes from two Greek words meaning “down” and “turning.” Youn uses this starting point to depict the emotional turmoil behind a time when one’s life unravels. This week, write a poem that begins by breaking down the etymological root of a word. Is there a contrast between what the word means to you and its origins? For further inspiration, watch a video of Youn reading this poem in a conversation with Robert Pinsky.


In an article for the Washington Post, Gillian Brockell writes about the recent uptick and intensity of debates surrounding banning books in schools and lists six occasions throughout history in which books were tragically burned. Dating back to the first recorded incident in 213 BCE China, the list includes Catholic colonizers burning Mayan sacred texts in the sixteenth century, Nazis burning books deemed “un-German” in the 1930s, and the U.S. military burning copies of the Bible translated into Dari and Pashto in Afghanistan in 2009. Write an essay about a favorite book of yours that has been banned, or choose from this list of recently banned books. What impact has this banning had on you and your writing?


“Growing up / we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon / and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles, / butter melting in small pools in the hearts / of Yorkshire puddings, butter better / than gravy,” writes Elizabeth Alexander in her timeless poem “Butter,” in which she depicts her family’s love for butter and the childhood memories attached to these meals. Write a story centered around a family dinner in which a significant conversation occurs. Savor the description of what is eaten and said between forkfuls.


Lebanese American writer and artist Etel Adnan died at the age of ninety-six this past Sunday on November 14 in Paris. One of the most celebrated and accomplished Arab American authors of her era, Adnan leaves behind decades of writing that interrogates war and the effects it has in displacing communities, as well as visual art inspired by landscapes in nature, which she called her “inner landscapes.” This week, inspired by Adnan’s bright and lucid landscape paintings, write an ekphrastic poem reflecting on one of her works. What natural landscapes did you grow up around, and how can you fuse them into the poem?


“That’s partly one of the things this book is about: discovering, again, and again, the inextricable relation between love and hate, which I certainly knew about conceptually, but have had to experience over and over again,” says Frank Bidart about his latest poetry collection, Against Silence (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), in an interview with John Maher at the Millions. Write an essay about experiencing love and hate—whether it be through heartbreak, the aftereffects of guilt, or a complicated relationship. Consider the difference between knowing and feeling these emotions.


“One night, while watching a friend’s dog, a thunderstorm came rolling over the city. He felt the change in the atmosphere; his tongue flopped out, eyes bulging,” writes Christopher Gonzalez in his Craft Capsule essay “Pet Sitting.” “With a belly brimming with bourbon, I Googled how to help a dog in crisis.” In the essay, Gonzalez recounts pet-sitting for friends and using the experience as inspiration for his short story “What You Missed While I Was Watching Your Cat.” Write a story in which the protagonist is watching a friend’s pet and things go horribly awry. What questions can you ask, as Gonzalez does, to help drive the narrative forward?


“Above my desk, whirring and self-important / (Though not much larger than a hummingbird), / In finely woven robes, school of Van Eyck / Hovers an evidently angelic visitor,” writes James Merrill in his poem “Angel.” The speaker in the poem is visited by an angel whose presence stirs up questions about the passive act of writing: “How can you sit there with your notebook? / What do you think you are doing?” This week, write a poem in which the speaker is visited by a watchful, otherworldly presence. Try, like Merrill, to be descriptive about the setting in order to set the mood.


The Oxford Languages word of the year for 2021 is vax. Every year, a team of expert lexicographers for the creator of the Oxford English Dictionary, debate candidates for word of the year and choose a winner “that is judged to reflect the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of that particular year and to have a lasting potential as a word of cultural significance.” Browse through their Word of the Year archive and write an essay about one of the winning words. How does that word correlate with your experience of that year?


Day of the Dead is a two-day holiday that originated in Mexico, in which loved ones who have died are honored and celebrated. Consisting of a variety of traditions, including making ofrendas (altars with offerings for the deceased) and decorating the home with marigolds and skulls, this holiday allows for a time for the living and the dead to reunite through food, music, and dance. Write a story in which a character mourns and celebrates a loved one on Day of the Dead. Describe why their relationship is special and what memories bring them together.


“I love the I, / frail between its flitches, its hard ground / and hard sky, it soars between them / like the soul that rushes, back and forth, / between the mother and father.” In this line from her iconic poem “Take the I Out,” Sharon Olds describes both the physical shape of the letter and how it represents the self. This week write an ode to a letter of the alphabet. Whether it be the letter I, or a different one, how far can you go in describing this letter and locating the many ways it holds place in your life?


In “Hanging Out With Joan Didion: What I Learned About Writing From an American Master” published on Literary Hub, Sara Davidson writes about her decades-long friendship with Didion and lists ten techniques and practices she learned from the iconic author. These tips include the advantages of writing in the first person singular, keeping a writing schedule, and controlling the information one gives to a reader. This week make a list of the technical tricks behind your favorite writer’s work, then write an essay that discusses the impact and influence of their style on yours.


Jezebel’s annual Scary Story contest invites readers to submit true, terrifying tales, some of which are animated into short films. With titles such as “Look at Me,” “911 Calling,” and “Keeping a Secret,” the red-and-black stark videos are perfect to watch as Halloween approaches, if you’re looking for some haunting inspiration. Check out some of the videos and try your hand at writing a scary story based on a real-life experience. Consider how to sustain suspense and incite fear in your readers.


“Enough of osseous and chickadee and sunflower / and snowshoes, maple and seeds,” writes Ada Limón in her poem “The End of Poetry.” “Enough sorrow, enough of the air and its ease, / I am asking you to touch me.” In this timely poem, Limón uses the repetition of “enough of” to list actions, objects, and experiences that might be considered poetic in order to emphasize what the speaker is willing to do away with for a moment of physical connection. Write a poem that articulates “the end of poetry” for you. What images and phrases would you consider poetic, and what would you want in return if you were to give it all away?


“The personal computer’s radical reshaping of the revision process is likely another reason why writers sometimes struggle to understand revision,” writes Peter Ho Davies in the first chapter of The Art of Revision: The Last Word (Graywolf Press, 2021), an excerpt of which is published on our website. In this chapter titled “Black Box,” Davies discusses the elusive and often misunderstood nature of the revision process, and explores the reasons why it is often neglected as a subject in creative writing classrooms. Write an essay that recounts a particularly arduous time you had revising a piece of work. What did you learn in the time between your first and last draft?


In an interview on Literary Hub, Ruth Ozeki talks about a transformative experience she had in college with a professor teaching Old English: “She asked us to go around the room and introduce ourselves. When my turn came, I said my name and she repeated it. ‘Ruth.’ Her voice was deep and husky, like gravel and honey.” Ozeki goes on to mention that the professor taught her about poetry and German film, among other things, and at the end of the semester told her, “You will be fine. You are going to be a writer.” Write a story about a character whose life is changed by the words of a teacher. How will you show the protagonist's transformation through the care of a generous mentor?


“Monastic firs, marginal, / conical, in brooding snoods / a finical sun unpacks, clerical // in scarlet fringe of Interstate scrub,” writes Lisa Russ Spaar in her hypnotic poem “Driving,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In the poem, Spaar shifts from the speaker’s present to the past, in a kind of daydream: “Sick days // in autumn, child on cot-raft, / chaste bedroom chary / with red smell of measles.” Write a poem that describes the feeling of driving long distances. Challenge yourself to begin with descriptions of the road and progress into the realm of memory and meditation. (If you don’t drive, do the same exercise with walking.)


The final months of the year can provide a time to reflect on and list the many things for which we are grateful. Try using the generative form of the list essay to write about what you’re grateful for or what you’re looking forward to in the coming year. Written with or without numbers, the form has proved extremely effective in works such as Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (Wave Books, 2009), Wayne Koestenbaum’s essay “My 1980s,” and Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (Graywolf Press, 2017). Consider how writing such a list essay might allow you to step back and observe how gratitude and expectation are related or in opposition to each other.


The winter holidays have served as inspiration for writers across the ages, yielding stories such as “A Christmas Tree and a Wedding” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, “One Christmas Eve” by Langston Hughes, and “Santa’s Children” by Italo Calvino. In Calvino’s story a father of three children is ordered by the company that employs him to dress up as Santa Claus and deliver gifts to a town of citizens unimpressed by his costume. The satirical story concludes in a critique of the materialistic nature of the holiday, as the company’s president and head of the “Society for the Implementation of Christmas Consumption” boosts a campaign to push for “the Destructive Gift,” such as matches and hammers. Write a story set during holiday festivities in which something unexpected occurs. Perhaps you might lean into elements of satire or the surreal to explore new dimensions of this familiar territory.


“Dear Mother, I have so many questions. What city were you born in? What was your American birthday? Your Chinese birthday? What did your mother do?” writes Victoria Chang in the first letter of her nonfiction book, Dear Memory: Letters on Writing, Silence, and Grief, published in October by Milkweed Editions. In the book, Chang writes letters to family members, teachers, and writing colleagues—to silence, to the reader, to memory itself—interspersed with collages made from family documents, relics, and mementos, including a marriage license, photographs, and a visa petition, forming an immersive collection that reckons with memory and what it dredges from the past. Using Dear Memory as inspiration, write three poems in the form of letters: one addressed to a parent, another to a grandparent, and the third to an experience or emotion, such as regret or grief. Try using family photographs or keepsakes as a way of entering the poems.


“I’ve attended plenty of workshops and lectures with writers I admire, only to leave with vague and puzzling advice about listening to your story’s truth,” writes Blair Hurley in the latest Craft Capsule essay “Tiny Doable Things.” “I treasured, instead, the writers who admitted that their writing was not always inspired and that their drafts were not always successful on the first try.” In the essay, Hurley compares writers with specific technical advice to “woodworkers or glassblowers who must learn the practical needs of their medium.” Write a list of practical writing advice you have received over the years, and reflect upon which practices have stuck with you and why.


In an article for the Guardian, children’s book author Piers Torday writes about a recent study in the journal People and Nature conducted by the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research which concluded that “animals are being written out of novels at a similar rate to their extinction in the real world.” Torday notes that although there are plenty of animals in children’s literature, there is a shortage of them in novels and concludes that, “perhaps it is time for fiction authors to educate ourselves, and learn how to radically and authentically represent the non-human voice on the page.” This week, write a story with a non-human protagonist. How will you render their voice urgently real?