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.
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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“The trouble with life (the novelist will feel) is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite,” writes the late Martin Amis in his memoir Experience (Hyperion, 2000) about seeing the parallels between real life and fiction, and making those connections in his writing. “The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending.” This week, inspired by Amis’s process, adapt dialogue from your own life into a short story. Compare what really happened with how you write it in fiction. Can you learn anything from life’s seemingly predictable patterns?
In Monica Youn’s essay “Generative Revision: Beyond the Zero-Sum Game,” published in the Spring 2023 issue of the Sewanee Review, the poet argues for a revision practice that offers “expansions, alternatives, subversions, and offspring that enrich the original work” rather than replacing or subtracting parts of a first draft. In this generative revision practice, a detail can be expanded in a different version or new poem altogether as Youn explains with two poems by C. D. Wright, “What No One Could Have Told Them” and “Detail from What No One Could Have Told Them.” Youn writes how in the latter poem Wright is “expanding the scope slightly, offering a bit more context, a glimpse of the setting.” Inspired by this technique, write a new poem that focuses on a single detail from an older poem of yours. How can you expand the scope?
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?
Although the summer solstice for the Northern Hemisphere is still a month away, the upcoming Memorial Day weekend celebrated by Americans often marks the unofficial beginning of summer. Some enjoy the long weekend with barbecues, road trips, and beach outings. While others visit cemeteries to honor and commemorate members of the military as well as loved ones who’ve passed away. Inspired by the days leading up to the start of summer, write a story set during a holiday weekend in which grief and celebration come to a head. What complicated emotions do your characters experience while enjoying their time off?
First published in the October 1999 issue of Poetry magazine, Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Seven Deadly Sins” is a series of seven poems, each one named after the deadly sins of medieval Christian theology. Each poem is a distinct lyric portrait with its own sentiment, style, and approach to the topic. In “Sloth,” Komunyakaa writes with an open-ended musicality: “In this / Upside-down haven, you’re reincarnated / As a fallen angel trying to go home.” In “Gluttony,” the poet sets the scene concretely in the first stanza: “In a country of splendor & high / Ritual, in a fat land of zeros, / Sits a man with string & bone / For stylus, hunched over his easel.” Inspired by this series, write a poem dedicated to one of the seven deadly sins: pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. What approach will you take?
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 scene from Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, the protagonist reflects on an innocent moment from her childhood: “When I was a young child, my mother told me that love is what makes the flowers grow. I pictured love inside the flowers, opening their petals and guiding their roots down to suck the earth.” This week write a story based on a myth told to you as a child, whether it be storks delivering babies, the tooth fairy trading money for teeth, or that chewing gum would stay in your stomach for seven years if you swallowed it. Were there good intentions behind these stories or did they cause more harm than good?
“This where all the roadside memorials are, / pink wreaths and dirty teddy bears. // This where a man walked when he wanted to fly,” writes Tyree Daye in his poem “Ode to Small Towns,” which appears in his collection Cardinal (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Daye uses the repetition of “this where” to fold in various threads of distinct stories, making it feel as if the poem was written while driving through a series of towns and telling the tales as they surfaced. Inspired by Daye’s poem, write an ode to the small towns you’ve encountered while on the road. What kinds of stories do you picture when you pass through?
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?
The Language of Trees: A Rewilding of Literature and Landscape edited by Katie Holten is an anthology of poems, essays, quotations, song lyrics, recipes, and other texts offering a variety of perspectives on trees and their relationship to human life. With contributions from writers such as Ross Gay, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Carl Phillips, the book also includes a “Tree Alphabet” created by Holten translating each letter of the English alphabet into a drawing of a different type of tree. “When we translate our words into glyphs, such as trees, it forces us to re-read everything,” writes Holten in the afterward. Inspired by this “rewilding” of language, write a short story in which a forested area plays a major role. How will the trees speak in your story?
In the iconic poem “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” Robert Duncan uses the metaphor of a falcon and a falconer to characterize the relationship between a son and his overbearing mother. As the falcon, the speaker of the poem is sent by his mother “as far as her will goes.” Throughout the poem, Duncan provides detailed imagery associated with falconry—such as the hood placed on birds of prey, often sewn round with bells—to give the complex metaphor a realistic weight. Think of a metaphor that captures the relationship between a mother and her child. Write a poem that uses this metaphor to characterize this relationship, whether nurturing, overbearing, or otherwise.
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.
“I tell my audiences over and over, you should rethink the old gray women in your life that you take for granted,” says Luis Alberto Urrea about writing his new novel, Good Night, Irene (Little, Brown, 2023), in the May/June 2023 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. “My mom’s own madness wrecked her. But you try and you try to give something back, and in this book, I finally gave my mom a happy ending.” Inspired by the most important women in his life, his mother and his wife, Urrea began a journey of research and exploration to tell this personal tale. Write a short story that reimagines the biography of someone close to you. How would you offer grace or a new perspective?
In her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, The Wild Iris, Louise Glück gives voice to a multitude of flowers: violets, snowdrops, trillium, lamium, scilla, and more. Glück uses floral imagery and personification, as well as the relationship between garden and gardener, to explore themes of resurrection, existence, loss, and suffering. In the poem “Lamium,” she writes: “This is how you live when you have a cold heart. / As I do: in shadows, trailing over cool rock, / under the great maple trees.” This week, inspired by this season’s super blooms, write a poem in the voice of your favorite flower.
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.
At the end of the nineteenth century, French impressionist painter Claude Monet repeatedly painted the water lilies he planted in the pond of his famed water garden in Giverny, France. According to the description of his “Water Lilies” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, after nearly sixteen years Monet achieved “a completely new, fluid, and somewhat audacious style of painting in which the water-lily pond became the point of departure for an almost abstract art.” This week write a story in which an artist reaches a turning point in their practice. What are the conditions in their life that lead to this needed transformation? For inspiration, read Rachel Cusk’s story “The Stuntman.”
In “Blooming How She Must: A Profile of Camille T. Dungy,” published in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Renée H. Shea writes about how the poet “scrutinizes the tradition of the loner, the solitary individual, in nature writing and as part of the artistic life in general” in her new book, Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden (Simon & Schuster, 2023). Write a poem that reflects on your relationship to being alone. Do you find the idea of a solitary life as an artist inviting or does it feel restricting?
“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.
In Nathacha Appanah’s novel The Sky Above the Roof, translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan and out now from Graywolf Press, a family drama unfolds through the eyes of several characters. After seventeen-year-old Wolf steals his mother’s car to search for his estranged sister, he causes an accident for which he is arrested and incarcerated, forcing his mother and sister to fight for his release. Instead of using a linear narrative to tell the story of what led to this event, Appanah builds the family’s fractured lives into the novel’s structure, each chapter offering a new version of events. As the novel progresses and more details about the characters are revealed, the reader is able to piece together the story. Taking inspiration from nonlinear narratives, build a story around a single life-altering event. First, try listing the characters affected by the conflict then write into their individual perspectives, taking into account each distinct tone, diction, and background.
“The American experiment will end in 2030 she said / looking into the cards, / the charts, the stars, the mathematics of it,” writes Jorie Graham in “Time Frame,” a poem in her latest collection, To 2040, out today from Copper Canyon Press. The book’s title suggests both a dedication and an urgent address, casting the poems therein as reflections on the age of the Anthropocene and calls to action to protect the earth’s natural wonders. Write a poem that illustrates and reflects on your vision of the future, whether hopeful or woeful. Use the open-endedness of this prompt to fold in as many aspects of the future as possible, including your personal journey and what you foresee for the natural world.
In her essay “Why Do We Keep Telling Sister Stories?” published on Electric Literature, writer and filmmaker Tia Glista reflects on the surplus of stories in literature, visual art, and film that revolve around the dynamics of sisters, ranging from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to the reality show series Keeping Up With the Kardashians. In the essay, Glista writes about growing up without sisters and how these stories guided her ideals of femininity. “I found surrogate sisters in pop culture; the Olsen twins’ bevy of straight-to-VHS buddy movies taught me how to plan slumber parties and inspired every fashion choice that I sported in kindergarten,” writes Glista. Write an essay that reflects on the kinds of stories you grew up with and how they connect to who you are today.
According to a 2022 YouGov online poll, half of Americans consume true crime content, and one in three say they consume it at least once a week. Popular podcasts such as Serial as well as television shows and streaming series such as Unsolved Mysteries and Dahmer are proof of the continuing trend. The suspenseful genre invites enthusiasts into the lives of serial killers, kidnappers, law enforcement, and in some cases, the victims of the crimes. The poll showed that many enjoy the genre for the sense of suspense and excitement, but also to understand criminals and their motivations. This week, write a story inspired by true crime dramas. Whose perspective will you write from?
“I love to take an object made all but invisible by its mundanity—an egg-shaped container of pantyhose, a lawn chair turned on its side—and break it open to expose the full dimensions of the human vulnerability it carries,” writes Danielle Blau in her Craft Capsule essay “Somewhere Somebody Is Doing Something Right Now,” in which she explores how she creates characters for her poems. Write a poem that attempts to expose the full dimensions of an object and how it offers a reflection of a person, whether yourself or another character. What is the significance of this object and how does it exemplify human vulnerability?
In a video featured in the Poets & Writers Theater, Hilton Als reads from his essay “Tristes Tropiques,” which appears in his book White Girls (McSweeney’s, 2014), recounting the story of how he was named after his mother’s best friend’s child who died at birth. “The minute I was born I was not just myself, but the memory of someone else,” reads Als. How did you get your name? Write an essay that tells the story behind your name. Examine the metaphorical and historical meanings of your name and allow your feelings to carry you through the essay’s unfolding.