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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7.12.23

Storytelling is an art form, but there appears to be some science involved as well. In an episode for NPR’s Morning Edition news radio program, social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam reports on what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert found when researching whether people preferred hearing stories about shared experiences or novel experiences. What Gilbert and his colleagues discovered was that people much preferred stories about familiar experiences, so much so that at your next dinner party, he recommends spending “less time talking about experiences that only you've had and more time talking about experiences that your listeners have also had.” Inspired by this behavioral research, write a story set during a dinner party in which conflicts arise from the stories shared by guests. Will an easily bothered guest become embittered by the swell of unamusing stories?

7.11.23

This week marks the birthday of the iconic Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who would have turned 119 on July 12. Known for his historical epics, political manifestos, and love poems, Neruda’s incisive and joyful odes were often dedicated to ordinary objects making them approachable yet surreal. In “Ode to My Socks,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Bly, Neruda describes his covered feet as “two fish made / of wool, / two long sharks / sea-blue.” In “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market,” translated from the Spanish by Robert Robinson, Neruda describes a dead tuna fish as “a dark bullet / barreled / from the depths.” Inspired by Neruda’s electric, surreal images, write an ode to an ordinary object in your life. Whether it be a bookshelf, a desk, or a coat, think expansively about how to honor and describe this praiseworthy item.

7.6.23

“I want to make a praise of sleep. Not as a practitioner…but as a reader,” writes Anne Carson in her essay “Every Exit Is an Entrance (A Praise of Sleep),” which appears in her book Decreation: Poetry, Essays, Opera (Knopf, 2005). With careful research and introspection, Carson writes about all the ways writers discuss sleep in their work, uncovering her own fraught relationship to it along the way. The essay combines the forms of literary criticism and personal essay—offering close readings of the works of Virginia Woolf, John Keats, Elizabeth Bishop, and others, while burrowing deeper into emotions. Inspired by Carson’s mixing of forms, choose a topic that eludes you—perhaps dreams, fashion, or love—and write a personal essay that uses research to gain a deeper understanding of it. What will you praise?

7.5.23

Summer vacations and travel often provide adventure, conflict, and reflection whether in real life or in a fictional story. In Valeria Luiselli’s novel Lost Children Archive (Knopf, 2019), a family sets off on a road trip from New York to Arizona in the heat of the summer and tensions rise as they collide with news of an immigration crisis on the southwestern border of the country. In Alejandro Varela’s short story “The Caretakers,” the protagonist rides the subway in New York City on a balmy day after visiting his aunt in the hospital and reflects on family, friendships, and race. Write a short story with a pivotal scene set in a moving vehicle on a hot day. How will your story use travel as a theme?

7.4.23

Independence Day, colloquially known as the Fourth of July in the United States, is the annual celebration of nationhood commemorating the passage of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For centuries, poets have offered deeply personal perspectives on what it means to celebrate their country, including Alicia Ostriker in her poem “The History of America,” in which she writes: “Murdering the buffalo, driving the laggard regiments, / The caring was a necessary myth…” and Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem “No Explosions,” in which she writes: “To enjoy / fireworks / you would have / to have lived / a different kind / of life.” This week write a poem reflecting on your relationship to nationhood. What contradictory feelings surface when you consider your citizenship? For further inspiration, check out the Poetry Foundation’s selection of poems for the Fourth of July.

6.29.23

“Crushes map life over with meaning and joy, and I’d always choose heartbreak over boredom,” writes Alexandra Molotkow in “Crush Fatigue,” an essay published in Real Life magazine, in which she discusses the effects amorous crushes have had on her life and psyche. The essay focuses on the word limerence, meaning the “condition of cognitive obsession,” and uses psychoanalytic theory to offer an understanding of the power of infatuations. Think back to your last crush and catalog the symptoms you remember experiencing. Write an essay that looks back on this time from a distance and consider what you’ve learned from your limerence. Would you be willing to fall deep into infatuation again?

6.28.23

In Nicole Krauss’s short story “Seeing Ershadi,” published in the New Yorker in 2018, a ballet dancer becomes obsessed with the actor Homayoun Ershadi, who plays Mr. Badii in the iconic Iranian film Taste of Cherry directed by Abbas Kiarostami. The story takes a turn when the protagonist travels to Japan with her dance company and sees Ershadi in a crowd, then follows him believing she must save the actor from the suicide he commits in the film. With a vividly convincing narrative voice, Krauss’s story embodies the impact great art can have, how a performance can haunt a viewer into seeing their life in a new light. This week, try writing a story that captures the relationship between a viewer and a work of art. What haunts your protagonist into reassessing something in their life?

6.27.23

In his fourth poetry collection, Chariot (Wave Books, 2023), Timothy Donnelly uses form to contain the expansiveness of philosophical and artistic inquiry. Each poem is confined to twenty lines and uses long, syntactically complex sentences to connect seemingly disparate things: from the Milky Way to the polluted green color of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York, and the blue of periwinkles and rainclouds to the ordinariness of a Staples office supply store. Inspired by Donnelly’s use of form and connection, flip through a few books from your shelves and write down all the nouns you encounter. Then write a twenty-line poem that attempts to connect these words as seamlessly as possible using your unique perspective.

6.22.23

In the foreword to Once a City Said: A Louisville Poets Anthology, published by Sarabande Books this week, editor Joy Priest recounts driving from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Houston at the height of the pandemic in the summer of 2020. At one point she stops in Richmond, Virginia, and drives down Monument Avenue with “its parade of Confederate statues lining the street’s median,” and later, in Louisville, Kentucky, notes how “the streets were filled with smoke, flash-bangs, and tear gas, not just over the murder of George Floyd but also over the murder of one of our own by Louisville police: Breonna Taylor.” Write an essay structured around a road trip in which the places you visit are central to the essay’s subject. Consider the history of the places you have visited as well as the encounters you have had there.

6.21.23

Sandy and Danny’s summer nights in Grease, Tony and Maria on a fire escape in West Side Story, Joe and Princess Anne’s single day together in Roman Holiday—the summer romance is a common trope in film and literature for good reason. In an article for the online therapy company Talkspace, therapist Cynthia V. Catchings notes that summer is a time “to escape from routine and open up to new people and experiences.” A welcome uptick in the production of serotonin due to the increase in sunlight, the relaxed school and work schedules, and the ubiquity of breezy summer clothing all account for feeling good and at ease. Inspired by fun summer flings, write a short story in which two characters experience a whirlwind affair. Play with the conventions of this trope and try upending the expectations associated with a romantic story.

6.20.23

“If you haven’t taken the Amtrak in Florida, you haven’t lived,” writes Megan Fernandes in her poem “Letter to a Young Poet,” which appears in her third collection, I Do Everything I’m Told, published by Tin House this week. The poem’s title borrows from Rainer Maria Rilke’s renowned collection of letters to a young poet seeking his guidance, published in 1929. Fernandes’s poem addresses a nameless “you” while simultaneously revealing details about the speaker, producing a sense of intimacy that presents two sides of a correspondence, its lines swerving associatively, as the pieces of advice turn increasingly lyrical. “It’s better to be illegible, sometimes. Then they can’t govern you,” writes Fernandes. “Sleep upward in a forest so the animal sees your gaze.” Taking inspiration from the lyrical techniques evident in this poem, write a poem of your own that offers advice to a younger version of yourself. Instead of simply giving your younger self practical advice, how can you propose a new way to see?

6.15.23

In her installment of our Ten Questions series, Emma Cline talks about the imagery that first inspired her latest novel, The Guest (Random House, 2023). “The first time I saw an East Coast beach, I was so struck by the mildness of the landscape, a long stretch of dunes and the warm water and mint grasses. It looked surreal to my California eye, and I knew I wanted to write about that landscape,” says Cline. Can you recall visiting a landscape that felt entirely new to you? Write an essay that offers details of this place and your experience with it. Try to identify the feelings it conjured in you and what made it feel new.

6.14.23

“It was true what Mrs. Berry said: No one expected to see an old woman in a muscle car, a convertible Mustang with polished chrome bumpers, a hood scoop, and an engine that ran with a throaty hum that we could feel in that soft place just below our stomachs as she pulled alongside us one day on our walk home from school,” writes John Fulton in the first sentence of his short story “Saved,” which appears in his collection The Flounder (Blackwater Press, 2023). Consider Fulton’s nuanced description of his character and how this opens the story and write a long first sentence describing disparate aspects of a new character. What unexpected act does your protagonist experience to open your first scene?

6.13.23

“The poem is an opportunity to turn from memoiristic transcription of information towards a kind of ultimate artifact, charged and changed by the imagination,” says Ocean Vuong about his approach to storytelling in this interview by Kadish Morris for the Guardian. Vuong offers his poem “American Legend” as an example in which the speaker drives his father to put down their dog and crashes the car, which becomes “a kind of parable for American failure.” In actuality, Vuong does not drive but uses the story to consider relationships between fathers and sons. Inspired by this concept of imaginative writing, write a poem that deliberately alters an event in your life. How can your expansion of this event make for a deeper parable?

6.8.23

National Best Friend Day is an unofficial holiday celebrated on June 8 in the United States and Canada. The holiday has no official designation nor any real origin; in fact, according to a 2015 Washington Post article, this hashtag holiday likely began with the website EarthCalendar.net, which takes submissions to catalog “lesser-known holidays.” National Best Friend Day eventually caught the eye of morning TV shows, flower delivery services, and even the American Kennel Club which helped bring it to the mainstream. In honor of this invented holiday, write an essay about the best friends who have come into your life. From your childhood recess buddy to your work bestie, try to communicate what makes each one distinctly special.

6.7.23

In the television series Yellowjackets, members of a high school girls’ soccer team survive a plane crash in the remote Canadian wilderness and descend into savage clans to stay alive. The dark coming-of-age drama, which incorporates everything from romantic entanglements to cannibalism, brings to mind fictionalized and real-life survival stories such as William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies and the 1972 Andes flight disaster. This week write a short story in which a group of people is forced to survive in a strange and wild place. What dramas arise when the limits of human endurance are tested?

6.6.23

In January Gill O’Neil’s poem “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Rattle, the poet writes about watching the late Tina Turner sing her iconic song in a music video on MTV. “And when Tina sings I’ve been taking on / a new direction directly to the camera, / defiant, her lips glazed a tumultuous red, / she takes her hand and adjusts her / honey brown bangs out of her eyes,” writes O’Neil. This “sweeping gesture” makes a lasting impression on O’Neil as she connects the song’s message to her own experiences with love, recalling the struggles in her parents’ marriage and her own. Consider the lasting impact music has had on your life and title a poem with lyrics from your favorite song. Use these words as a jumping-off point to the memories that come with it.

6.1.23

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.

5.31.23

“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?

5.30.23

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?

5.25.23

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?

5.24.23

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?

5.23.23

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?

5.18.23

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.

5.17.23

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?

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