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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“I read Call It in the Air, / Ed’s book about his painter sister & her death / at 44, like Billie Holiday, & I start to consider / 44. No. Not the death, just the conch of it, / how it whorls & opens, limelights / —44 limelights a woman,” writes Shamala Gallagher in her poem “‘The New York Times’ Says Aloe Is a Hoax,” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. The lines in the poem shift from lightness to darkness, and the image of recursion and spiraling reappear as the speaker allows her mind to wander freely after a long day. Write a poem that experiments with a recurring shape that you’ve observed. Consider the connotations or associations with this shape, whether it be a number, ray of light, or plant. How might a simple form inspire you to think about the shape of time in your life?


Day Jobs, an exhibition currently on display at Stanford University’s Cantor Art Center in California, examines the impact of day jobs on artists. Showcasing the work of three dozen visual artists, the accompanying catalogue offers first-hand accounts of how their employment in places like a frame shop, hair salon, and museum helped inform their creativity. The exhibit deconstructs the romanticized image of the artist and draws attention to how one’s economic and creative pursuits are often intertwined. Write a personal essay that considers how one of your day jobs unexpectedly influenced your own writing projects. How might something undertaken because of financial necessity also provide valuable ideas to explore in your art?


Sheila Heti’s new book, Alphabetical Diaries, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February, is just that—rearranged sentences in order from A to Z made up of the author’s diaries kept over the course of a decade. By placing previously composed sentences into this structure, patterns emerge, and unexpected juxtapositions reveal fresh connections that form a new kind of narrative. “Basically it’s a crazy year, that’s what Claire said, this is going to be a crazy year. Be a pro, Lemons said. Be a woman. Be an individual, he suggested. Be bald-faced and strange. Be calm,” Heti writes. Take this idea of reordering your writing and use sentences from a story you’ve written in the past to create a new story. Experiment with different constraints, whether alphabetizing or grouping by another type of category, perhaps using recurring images or places. See where these arrangements take you.


Anne Carson’s 2017 poem “Saturday Night as an Adult,” which had a viral moment on X last summer, is structured as a short block of text recounting observations and thoughts around a dinner date with two couples. “We really want them to like us. We want it to go well. We overdress. They are narrow people, art people, offhand, linens,” writes Carson. “We eat intently, as if eating were conversation.” While the existential despair may seem tragicomic, Carson conveys an honest vulnerability that touches upon disappointment at the potential smallness of life. Write a poem that builds upon your observations of a mundane social encounter in order to capture larger concerns on your mind, perhaps using sharp, terse statements as Carson does in her poem. Is there humor to be found in these minute details?


In her groundbreaking 1962 book, Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson foretold of “a spring without voices.” Documenting the harmful effects of chemical pesticides used in the agricultural industry, her book sparked an awakening to the environmental crisis in the 1960s and 1970s and launched a movement that brought about the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. “The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings,” she writes. “Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.” Write an essay that begins by examining how the environment, whether natural or manufactured, has molded you. Then consider how you have modified your surrounding environment—the nature of your world.


With Saint Patrick’s Day around the corner, you might be feeling as if luck is everywhere you look: in four-leaf clovers, Shamrock Shakes, horseshoes, a rabbit’s foot, and the number seven. Or perhaps everything is just a coincidence, or predetermined by destiny. In a 2008 Guardian essay critiquing Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables, Adam Thirlwell writes: “In this gargantuan novel, everything seems utterly improbable. Every plot operates through coincidence. Normally, novelists develop techniques to naturalize and hide this. Hugo, with his technique of massive length, refuses to hide it at all. In fact, he makes sure that the plot’s coincidences are exaggerated.” Thirlwell notes Hugo’s classic novel straddles the ideas of lucky coincidence and predetermination. Based on your personal beliefs about luck, coincidence, and destiny, write a story in which a plot unfolds according to a series of consequential encounters, discoveries, and mistakes. How do your own convictions about these ideas affect your characters’ decision-making and the overall philosophy of your story?


For one year, fans of Flaco the Eurasian eagle-owl enjoyed watching him fly freely around New York City and become, for many city dwellers, a feathered symbol of liberation. Released from his cage at the Central Park Zoo by a vandal, zoo officials were initially concerned for his survival, but Flaco quickly learned to hunt prey and move about the city. His fans grew, and for them, Flaco began to represent resilience and the ability to embark on a new chapter of life, a gesture at the potential of rewilding. Sadly, Flaco died in February after apparently striking a building on the Upper West Side. This week, write a poem that incorporates a subject that signifies qualities of freedom and hope for you personally. Consider strengths and weaknesses, and address both in your poem.


A new immersive installation by artist Cauleen Smith uses scent, sight, and sound to explore the work of the late poet Wanda Coleman, widely considered the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles. Smith turned to Coleman’s work to help reacquaint her with the city after a sixteen-year absence. “L.A. is a shy one, a real one, and a terrible beauty,” Smith writes in the liner notes to an EP in the listening room of the exhibit. “You can’t really see how gorgeous it is in a drive-by, you have to sit with the banality, the horrors, the wildness of the city until it begins to become legible.” Select a poet who writes about your town, city, or region, and write a personal essay that reflects on their perspectives and your own. How can reading another writer’s observations and emotions about your hometown provide a refreshing lens to what might otherwise seem familiar?


When a group of strangers gathers in one setting, whether in a horror story, mystery, or in real life, the situation makes for a great premise. In The Extinction of Irena Rey (Bloomsbury, 2024), the debut novel by author and translator Jennifer Croft, eight translators from eight different countries arrive at an author’s house located in a primeval Polish forest to begin their work when the author disappears. As they investigate the author’s whereabouts while attempting to continue their work, rivalries and paranoia begin cropping up. Write a story that revolves around a group of unacquainted people, all confined in one location. Experiment with different modes of dialogue, setting description, and point of view. How will their secrets be revealed?


“Because curfews of / Because strip search at the checkpoint into / Because grandmother’s undergarments splayed on / Because two men with guns on the way to / Because grandmother saves plastic Coke liters to / Because the water could without notice be,” writes Jessica Abughattas in her poem “Litany for My Father” published by Split This Rock. The poem consists of twenty-two lines, which, all but the last line, begin with the word “because” and end abruptly, as if in mid-thought. The lines build into a powerful expression of loss and a sublimated sense of intense sorrow, how powerless one can feel in grief. Write a poem that makes use of omission or erasure in this way, taking into consideration how the format might influence your subject or theme. How does this repeated absence of words achieve emotive force?


In a recent essay in the New York Times Magazine, Mireille Silcoff explores the evolving concept of subcultures and how teenagers today are primarily engaged with subcultural aesthetics (such as Preppy, Messy French It Girl, Dark Academia, and Goblincore) popularized on social media, “a fleeting personal pleasure to be had mainly alone.” Silcoff argues that there is no longer a shared experience and work to get into a scene, and that “subcultures in general—once the poles of style and art and politics and music around which wound so many ribbons of teenage meaning—have largely collapsed.” Write a personal essay about a subculture you were engaged with long ago or more recently. Detail your introduction to the scene, the behaviors, styles, and accessories that accompanied it, and its positioning within society at large. How did this sense of belonging inform who you are today?


Maggot, Humvee, Peg, Swap-Out, Baggy Eyes, Creaky, Fast Forward, Extra Eye. These are all nicknames of characters found in Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Demon Copperhead, whose title itself is the nickname of Damon Fields who narrates the coming-of-age story set in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia. In an early chapter of the book, Damon talks about how prominent nicknames are in his town and that even his mother no longer uses his real name. “Some name finds you, and you come running to it like a dog until the day you die and it goes in the paper along with your official name that everybody’s forgotten,” says Damon. Write a short story in which a group of characters have colorful nicknames for each other. Start with a list of names and consider the power dynamics at play for those who use and bestow the nicknames.


“I wanted to think freely, let my mind wander, follow ideas (and phrases) wherever they might go,” said the late poet Lyn Hejinian in a 2020 interview for the Wheeler Column at the University of California in Berkeley, where she was a professor and John F. Hotchkis Chair Emerita. “For a while—but not for very long—I used poetry to express my adolescent angst and longings, but very soon I recognized the banality and the limits of that. It wasn’t self-expression I was seeking but loss of self.” Inspired by Hejinian, who died at the age of eighty-two on February 24, write a poem that avoids a preconceived intention of style or thematic experience, and instead allow these elements to emerge as you let your mind wander. How might language, in the abstract as the material of your thinking, lead to a new mode of expression or representation?


Doing laundry, washing dishes, grocery shopping, vacuuming, running out to the bank—do the chores ever end? Perhaps not, but there are small delights and incidental pleasures to be found in all the errands to be completed: a breath of fresh air, the feel of a tidy home, running into a friend, an interesting exchange with a stranger, or a long-forgotten memory that surfaces. This week write a personal essay that focuses on a single mundane task you regularly carry out and expand on the activity by looking at it from a variety of angles. Consider who taught you how to complete the chore, obscure observations, bodily movements, happenstance, and societal relevance. Can the chore become more?


Our Daily News series reports a recent New Yorker article telling the story of how a bartender in Manchester came across a novel from the 1930s and tracked down the rights for the book in order to get it back in print. Thanks to Jack Chadwick’s discovery, Caliban Shrieks by Jack Hilton will be republished in March by Vintage Classics in the United Kingdom. This week write a short story in which your character comes across an out-of-print book and finds adventure while tracking down the whereabouts of its author. Do plot points from the mysterious book come into play in your tale?


Drawing on a wealth of botanical vocabulary, Canadian poet Sylvia Legris explores themes of nature in her new book, The Principle of Rapid Peering, forthcoming in April from New Directions. In the book, the title of which is derived from early-twentieth-century ornithologist Joseph Grinnell’s study on the behavior of birds around food, Legris categorizes birds as either “those who wait passively for food to approach them” or rapid-peering active-seekers “whose target[s] of desire [are] stationary.” She writes: “The rapid-peerer’s eyes turn / as the head changes position. // The eyes focus the beak, / the instrument of capture. // ... The head follows the feet, / quick moves, to, fro. // Feet with an intelligence of texture, / bark, branch, gravel, soil.” Browse through nature guides or encyclopedias in search of unique animal attributes, specifically looking for evocative terminology with potentially expansive interpretations. Then write a poem that both touches on the term’s original meaning and imagines a new interpretation connecting to a personal experience or memory.


To celebrate publishing our two-thousandth writing prompt, spend some time this week jotting down a list of the most significant milestones of your life so far. Reflect on both traditional milestones, such as school or education-related achievements and relationship or family developments, as well as other hard-won goals that might be related to creative pursuits or something considered unconventional. You might also choose to focus on an important event that occurred unexpectedly and set your life in a new, progressive direction. Write an essay that expands upon one or more of these milestones. In what ways has your outlook on life evolved over the years, from before the event, immediately after, and then many years later?


While the origins of the phrase “the one that got away” may come from the sport of fishing, and how the biggest and best would-be catch seems to always escape, the phrase can also refer to a past love, one that was lost to the whims of fate. Oftentimes this lost love is a source of regret or nostalgia, as is the case in Katy Perry’s song which takes the phrase as its title and reflects on a relationship from the “summer after high school.” Write a scene in a short story that sees one of your main characters recounting a lost love. Does the character encounter something that reminds them of their long-ago amour or does the reminiscence set off a further chain of consequences?


“You have changed me already. I am a fireball / That is hurtling towards the sky to where you are,” begins Dorothea Lasky’s “Poem to an Unnameable Man” from her 2010 collection, Black Life. The poem’s speaker regales their addressee with the projected story of their intense connection, as Lasky incorporates cosmic imagery, a confessional tone, and grandiose language combined with an intimate, idiosyncratic voice. This week write a poem that traverses the galaxy and addresses someone or something you feel tethered to, as if you’re “hurtling towards” them. As you write, play around with figurative language that points to both sizable and smaller, nuanced observations.


“Why do we dream? Because it’s the only mechanism our brain has for sorting through all the myriad associations it discovers and deciding which ones are potentially of value,” says Robert Stickgold, professor and director of the Harvard Center for Sleep and Cognition and coauthor of When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep, in his TEDx Talk on the purpose of dreams and how sleep sews together the pieces of our memories. Write an essay that begins with the description of a dream you’ve had recently, recounting it in as much detail as you can remember. Then expand and explore how the conflicts and emotions brought up by your dream might be connected to another time in your life when you experienced something similar. What do you think your brain was trying to figure out?


This year’s Lunar New Year begins on February 10 and celebrates the year of the dragon. Festivities vary in different cultures, however in Chinese traditions, they begin with the first new moon of the year and culminate with the full moon two weeks later. The two-week period allows for time to travel and visit with family, celebrate and gather with friends, set a new tone for the year, anticipate the forthcoming spring season, and make merry with food and drink. Write a story that takes place during a two-week stretch of time, perhaps revolving around a festive event. How does the restrictive length of time create a sense of urgency or tension?


“In writing the sonnets of frank, the form was a rescue raft, a lifeline, the safety net beneath the trapeze act. I liked how it equalized every event, relationship, song, or story that the individual sonnet might take on,” says poet Diane Seuss in a 2022 Publishers Weekly interview with Maya C. Popa about her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, in which she explores with brutal frankness her personal history and themes of death, illness, addiction, and love. Inspired by Seuss, write two fourteen-line sonnets with vastly different subjects. In using a specific form to create a sort of equalizing force between topics, how do the minor victories and upsets of mundane occurrences find balance with the heavier ups and downs of your life?


What does a Bill look like? What about a Michael? As the U.S. primary election season progresses, an innocuous excerpt from Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s 2012 memoir, Can’t Is Not an Option, has resurfaced on social media and news outlets. In the book, Haley writes that when she began dating her husband, he went by his first name Bill, but she decided that he didn’t look like a Bill and found his middle name Michael suited him better, and he became known as Michael. Write a personal essay that revolves around your sentiments about your own given name. Have you ever thought about changing it? Do you think you’ve taken on certain personality traits because of it, or in spite of it?


In his essay published in the Evergreen Review, Younis B. Azeem writes from his viewpoint as a young student newly arrived in New York from Pakistan about the culture of smoking cigarettes. “Among the few indisputable facts of the world, right below gravity and above the moon landing, is that cigarettes will kill you,” he writes. “In America that belief translates into a two-part statement, the second one unsaid, where it’s declared that cigarettes will kill you before anything else does. This right here, this inherent first-world privilege is something that all the best efforts of Big Tobacco cannot undo.” Azeem asserts that in other places in the world, there are hazardous living conditions much more likely to be the cause of death than smoking. Write a short story in which a newcomer posits an unexpected, iconoclastic, or unusual opinion. How does this create a disruption to your other characters’ everyday lives?


“Like a snail with a shell of sticks //  — she loads them on her back — //   Like a camel with a hump of sticks //  — on her back, on her back — // Like a horse with a knight of sticks and a stick for a sword,” writes Valzhyna Mort in her poem “In the Woods of Language, She Collects Beautiful Sticks” published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series. In her description of this poem, Mort explains how an inability to write another poem she was working on made her “feel homeless in language and in poetry” and that writing this poem became “a bit of homemaking” for her. Write a poem that reflects your own process when your mind wanders away from writing and you must find a way back into the home of language. Does it involve the vocabulary of domesticity, construction, or helpful creatures?