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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10.19.23

In This Brilliant Darkness: A Book of Strangers (Norton, 2020), journalist and photographer Jeff Sharlet captures two years of his life, between his father’s heart attack and his own, through snapshots and short chapters that read like a travel journal. Sharlet documents Skid Row in Los Angeles, gay nightclubs in Russia, a New Jersey Dunkin’ Donuts, and other places, urging readers to step into the shoes of the strangers he meets while seamlessly weaving journalism, photography, and evocative storytelling to elicit an overwhelming sense of empathy. “I am a reporter, and this is a book of other people’s lives, lives that became, for a moment—the duration of a snapshot—my life, too,” writes Sharlet. Inspired by Sharlet’s immersive journalistic style, write an essay reflecting on an interaction with a stranger and how you made an unexpected connection. Immerse readers into an atmosphere that might be unfamiliar to them.

10.18.23

In Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Horror Story,” published in Granta magazine in 2015, the narrator and her partner move into a new house where a series of inexplicable events occur, leading to a deepening sense of fear and unease within their relationship. The narrator describes a gradual progression of strange happenings—a mysteriously clogged drain, missing spices from the kitchen, unexplained sounds. As the couple attempts to find rational explanations, blaming neighbors and even each other, the occurrences intensify until the narrator sees the ghost of a young woman in her bedroom. Inspired by Machado’s story, write a short story from the perspective of a ghost. What is their motivation and how does their haunting serve as a form of communication or release? Craft a compelling narrative that weaves together the ghost’s history and their evolving manifestations.

10.17.23

In Safia Elhillo’s poem “Final Weeks, 1990,” which appears in her collection Girls That Never Die (One World, 2022), the speaker envisions the moments before her birth, exploring her origins and parents’ relationship. She writes: “My mother is almost my mother now, / darker color of the noontime sun.” In Chen Chen’s poem “Self-Portrait With & Without,” published in Narrative magazine, he paints a portrait of the speaker in relation to the characteristics of his parents. “With my / mother’s worry. Without, till recently, my father’s glasses,” he writes. For this week’s poem, consider who you are through the eyes of your parents or guardians. Write about the day of your birth, specifying the time of day and year, or try a self-portrait reflecting on inherited traits and your distinct individuality beyond family ties.

10.12.23

The manifesto is a form that many writers, artists, philosophers, and politicians have used for centuries to publicly declare the intentions or ideologies behind their practice. Some influential artist manifestos include Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Wassily Kandinsky, in which he argues that painting is an expression of the artist’s inner life; The Laws of Sculptors by artist duo Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, which argues against the intellectual and economical elitism of contemporary art; and William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s introduction to their collection Lyrical Ballads, which marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature. Inspired by this form’s rich history, write a manifesto that declares why you write and what you hope to accomplish through your writing.

10.11.23

“I remember loneliness because it is pervasive,” writes Athena Dixon in “Say You Will Remember Me,” the first essay in The Loneliness Files, published by Tin House in October. “It squeezes tightly in my mind until what makes sense, what’s actually happened, is distorted.” In this memoir in essays, Dixon considers the power of technology to connect and divide us while confronting the loneliness she has experienced in her life. “If I believe this, that sometimes drifting away from the world is not abandonment or isolation, it makes my own disconnect less frightening. It leaves me with hope that even if I am still sequestered in my own bedsit, it is not because I am forgotten,” she writes. Consider Dixon’s relationship to loneliness as well as your own and write a story in which a character spends the entirety of the story alone. Think about how to sustain the story’s tension without the presence of other characters.

10.10.23

The poems in Dorothea Lasky’s The Shining, published by Wave Books in October, portray the physical and psychological horrors that take place in the labyrinthine Overlook Hotel, the setting of the iconic Stephen King novel and Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. Lasky guides readers into the hotel of her imagination in the opening poem, “Self-Portrait in the Hotel”: “When I checked into this / Godforsaken hellhole / They locked me in the tiny yellow room / With no belongings but my lipstick,” she writes. Throughout the book, Lasky meditates on the many horrors of simply being alive, finding inspiration in the hotel’s high ceilings, the Gold Ballroom, and the final shot of the film featuring a terrifying photograph of the protagonist, Jack Torrance, in the ballroom in 1921. Take note of Lasky’s ekphrastic practice and write a poem that places you in the setting of your favorite film. What conflicts come to mind in this newly imagined world?

10.5.23

“I am not convinced that we live at the same time as the people we love. I cannot be the only child who felt like their grandparents came from a different planet,” writes Arthur Asseraf in his essay, “My Time Machine,” published in Granta magazine. In the essay, the author and historian muses over feeling disconnected from his grandparents, perceiving them as inhabitants of a distant era. This week write an essay reflecting on this quote and explore the idea of dissonance in the context of relationships with loved ones. How do generational gaps shape our understanding of each other’s experiences, values, and worldviews? Can these disparities lead to a sense of detachment or connection?

10.4.23

“The more surmountable flaws your characters have, the better readers will connect with them,” writes Jordan Rosenfeld in Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View (Writer’s Digest Books, 2016), a craft book exploring character development and point of view. How do readers sympathize with a character who has committed terrible acts? Explore this notion by writing a short story with a character traditionally perceived as the antagonist. Delve into the gray area between hero and villain, evoking sympathy for an otherwise unlikable character. Unravel the complexities of your character’s choices and look for the humanity and relatable flaws that will challenge and connect with readers.

10.3.23

In 1950, Alan Turing devised a test that could assess the intelligence of computers and determine if they were capable of sentient thought—an uncertainty that lingers as artificial intelligence (AI) continues to develop. Franny Choi’s poem “Turing Test,” published in the Summer 2016 issue of the Poetry Review, plays with this subject of identity and consciousness. The poem responds to objective questions posed by an AI entity, including, “How old are you?” with elaborate answers that reveal more about the speaker. “My memory goes back 26 years / 23 if you don’t count the first few / though by all accounts i was there / i ate & moved & even spoke,” writes Choi. Write a poem in which your speaker, whether AI or not, answers unassuming questions, such as, “Where did you come from?” and “Do you believe you have consciousness?”

9.28.23

“When I was twelve, I saw a terrible movie called Devil Girl From Mars. And I turned off the television and said to myself, I can write a better story than that. I sat down and began writing my first science fiction story,” says award-winning science fiction author Octavia E. Butler in a 1993 interview for BBC News. Butler, whose work has recently made a resurgence with multiple television and film adaptations, expanded and revolutionized the science fiction genre by writing from the perspective of a marginalized Black woman and celebrating her voice. Is there a film, book, or work of art that you encountered in your childhood that inspired you to start writing? Write an essay that reflects on the impact of this work. Whether through resistance or celebration, how can you trace the development of your artistry back to this first encounter?

9.27.23

In an interview for the Yale Review, Elisa Gonzalez, author of the debut poetry collection, Grand Tour (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), discusses her relationship with perfectionism as a young poet with senior editor Maggie Millner. “I believed that the book would present itself to me as a kind of perfect object, nothing like all these flawed poems I had lying around,” says Gonzalez. “The gap between the dreamed-of poem and the real poem is painful. It is also, sometimes anyway, a gorgeous private thing, which no one else can ever touch.” Inspired by this reflection of the writing process, write a story in which a burgeoning artist reckons with the kind of art they make. Does this spiritual conflict affect the way they see themselves? How far will they go to be the artist they dream of becoming?

9.26.23

Earlier this month, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, announced its list of winners for their astronomy photographers of the year awards. The photographs, which were published in the Guardian, show various perspectives of observing the cosmos. In the overall winning photograph created by a team of amateur astronomers, a huge plasma arc shines next to the swirling Andromeda galaxy. In the young astronomy photographer category, the Running Chicken Nebula is captured, a diffused glow of crimson, violet, and black gases shining amidst a cluster of white stars. The photographs taken from Earth show the unexpected manifestations of space seen in our sky, as one features rare cloud formations in Hungary and another captures the orbital rotation of stars forming an infinite circle in Lancashire, England. This week write a poem inspired by these photographs that meditates on your place in the universe. For inspiration, read Tracy K. Smith’s poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars.”

9.21.23

For centuries the autumn season has inspired writers to reflect on nature’s cycle of renewal. Temperatures drop, leaves change color and shed, and crops are harvested offering much to contemplate during the season about what it means to live. Poets are continually inspired by the season: Larry Levis writes about the “steadfast, orderly, taciturn, oblivious” yellowing of the leaves in “The Widening Spell of the Leaves;” John Keats reflects on the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” in “To Autumn;” and Marilyn Chin recalls how “all that blooms must fall” in “Autumn Leaves.” What comes to mind when observing the changing of seasons? Write an essay that reflects on how the days of autumn affect you.

9.20.23

“Cause that’s all the life of a painter is, the seen and gone disappearing into the air, rain, seasons, years, the ravenous beaks of the ravens. All we are is eyes looking for the unbroken or the edges where the broken bits might fit each other,” writes Ali Smith in her award-winning novel How to Be Both (Pantheon, 2014), in which one half of the book is narrated by the ghost of an Italian renaissance painter. The artist looks at the modern world through fifteenth-century eyes, offering artful descriptions as readers come to understand how the narrator of the other half of the book, a young woman living in present-day England, is connected. What benefit could inhabiting a voice from the past offer to invigorate your use of language? Try writing a short story in the voice of a ghostly visitor from another century. What is new through their eyes?

9.19.23

Sometimes the simplest repetition in a poem can bear enormous results. In Aracelis Girmay’s poem “You Are Who I Love,” many of the stanzas start with the word “you,” creating a tapestry of observations. “You, in the park, feeding the pigeons / You cheering for the bees // You with cats in your voice in the morning, feeding cats,” she writes. The poem begins with simple, charming observations and then the lines bloom with strangeness and urgency in both language and subject matter. “You cactus, water, sparrow, crow      You, my elder / You are who I love, / summoning the courage, making the cobbler, // getting the blood drawn, sharing the difficult news,” writes Girmay. This week visit a public space and make a list of image-driven observations of people. Use this list to create a poem that serves as a portrait of this place and its visitors.

9.14.23

In a profile of Annie Dillard by John Freeman, published in the March/April 2016 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author demonstrates the generosity she is known for as a writer and mentor by speaking about how working in a soup kitchen can benefit a writer. “There are many unproductive days when you might hate yourself otherwise,” writes Dillard in a correspondence with Freeman. “You are eating the food, using the water, breathing the air—and NOT HELPING. But if you feed the hungry, you can’t deny you’re doing something worth doing.” Write an essay about a time in which an act of service added meaning to your creative practice. How did this intimate exchange help fuel you as a writer?

9.13.23

This week marks the birthday of famed mystery novelist Agatha Christie, who was born on September 15, 1890. Many of her murder mysteries revolve around their settings, which have made them popular for film adaptations. In Murder on the Orient Express, a murderer is among the passengers of a luxury train trapped in heavy snow; in And Then There Were None, ten strangers on an isolated island die one by one; and in The Body in the Library, a young woman’s body is found dead in a wealthy couple’s house. If you were to craft a murder mystery of your own, where would you set it up? In celebration of Christie’s birthday, write a story centered around a murder. Begin by outlining a cast of suspicious characters, and make sure to leave readers guessing until the end.

9.12.23

In “Tenants,” the opening poem of Hannah Sullivan’s hybrid collection Was It for This (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023), the British poet contends with nursing a new baby a mile away from the Grenfell Tower in West London, a high-rise public housing building that tragically caught fire. The poem combines various viewpoints to address how local, public tragedies can affect private lives, such as accounts from firefighters, research from news reports, and descriptions of the building’s “crinkled, corrugated, lacy” façade. This week, research the local news of your city and write a poem centered around a recent headline. How does this news story affect your personal life? Does this exercise help you feel more connected to your community?

9.7.23

While pregnant and struggling with her mental health and a creative block, author JoAnna Novak sought solace in the work and life of abstract expressionist painter Agnes Martin, who lived with schizophrenia. In Novak’s memoir, Contradiction Days: An Artist on the Verge of Motherhood (Catapult, 2023), she recounts the experience of moving to Taos, New Mexico, where Martin lived for decades, to model her life after the painter’s hermetic existence, shutting herself off from the world for introspection and writing. Whose work do you go to when seeking a way forward? Research the biography of a favorite artist—including their creative habits and routines—and write an essay that meditates on what makes their life and work inspirational. Try to find the personal and aesthetic lineages that connect you together. For more from Novak, read her installment of our Ten Questions series.

9.6.23

As technology continues to play a larger role in society, writers are reflecting on the anxieties and unexpected hopes born out of these changes in their work. Cleo Qian, who is featured in “Literary MagNet” in the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, explores the fear and loneliness experienced in a technology dependent world in her debut story collection, Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go (Tin House, 2023). Her stories center around the inner lives of young Asian and Asian American women using technology to cope: one character escapes into dating simulations after her best friend abandons her while another character looks to a supernatural karaoke machine for redemption. Write a short story in which a technological invention plays a major role. How does this reliance connect to your characters’ vulnerabilities?

9.5.23

“Everybody looks at him playing / the machine hour after hour, / but he hardly raises his gold lashes,” writes Thom Gunn in his poem “Bally Power Play,” which appears in his collection The Passages of Joy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982). In the poem, an unnamed speaker describes the movements of a pinball player in a bar with a sense of close watchfulness and adoration. “He is / the cool source of all that hurry / and desperate activity, in control, / legs apart, braced arms apart, / seeming alive only at the ends,” writes Gunn. This week, write a poem that captures a scene in which your speaker is observing someone closely. Consider, as in Gunn’s poem, how descriptive language can create and match the rhythm of a subject’s movements. For more inspiration, read C. K. Williams’s poem “From My Window.”

8.31.23

In “Singing Into the Silence of the State,” an essay from Dark Days: Fugitive Essays (Graywolf Press, 2023) by Roger Reeves, who speaks about his first book of prose in our September/October 2023 issue, many unanswered questions are posed to the reader. “What is the song that can be sung to soothe a fretting child in a bomb shelter?” writes Reeves. “What is the necessity of singing during catastrophe, whether State-created or virus-induced?” Through these questions, Reeves considers how to console his young daughter, himself, and the reader while in the midst of social unrest and a pandemic. Try writing an essay that begins and ends with a question. What are you asking your reader to consider and how can you offer consolation through this shared questioning?

8.30.23

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law declaring the first Monday of September as a workers holiday after labor unions pushed for recognition of both the contributions and mistreatment of American workers. Some of the laws that protect workers today—the forty-hour workweek, minimum wage, and health coverage—began with celebrating Labor Day. Workplace struggles can inspire great writing, whether it be about feeling stuck in a dead-end job, as in Raven Leilani’s novel Luster (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), or real-life experiences, as in Philip Levine’s collection What Work Is (Knopf, 1991), in which the poems offer a portrait of assembly line workers. Write a short story centered around a protagonist’s relationship with a job. Try to tease out the spiritual and physical repercussions of our society’s relationship with work in your fiction.

8.29.23

“Erasure poetry is a reconsideration of an existing text. There was something very satisfying about “reconsidering” The Ferguson Report—striking through whole sections of it, as if undoing the harm that had been done,” says Nicole Sealey in our online exclusive interview about her new book, The Ferguson Report: An Erasure, published by Knopf in August. In the interview, the poet discusses both the difficulty of “prying lyric from a lyric-less document” and how erasure provided access to the words she may not have found on her own. This week, find a seemingly lyric-less document and consider the words that lure you in. Try writing your own erasure poem, rubbing out words for your response to the text. For further inspiration, see this poem from Sealey’s new book.

8.24.23

In her essay “Dear Judy,” published in the New York Review of Books, Melissa Febos writes about her experience watching the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s groundbreaking novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. In the essay, Febos describes the companionship Blume’s novel provided through the difficult years of her adolescence. “There was no book I read more often than Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. It was almost twenty years old when I encountered it, but still more candid about bodily changes and the feelings they prompted than any other children’s book I had read,” writes Febos. Think of a work of art—be it literature, film, or otherwise—that struck a chord with you in your teens. Write an essay that reflects on how this work did or did not prepare you for the years to come.

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