“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?
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.
Get immediate access to more than 2,000 writing prompts with the tool below:
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.
In a recent New York Times article, reporter Gina Kolata writes about a series of medical discoveries and family secrets surrounding eighteenth-century German composer Ludwig van Beethoven. An international group of researchers published a paper last month after DNA analysis of what were known to be strands of Beethoven’s hair. Their report debunks many long-held myths about the composer including his cause of death, how he lost his hearing, and his living descendants. Inspired by this scientific and historical drama, write a story in which a scientific discovery reveals intimate secrets about a famous person. With the steady rise of genetic research being conducted, consider the intersection between science and personal history.
“What I adore is not horses, with their modern / domestic life span of 25 years. What I adore / is a bug that lives only one day,” writes Natalie Shapero in her poem “Not Horses,” published in the November 2013 issue of Poetry magazine. Shapero redirects the reader from horses to the short lifespan of a bug within the first few lines of the poem and in doing so creates a humorous tension between the title and the body of the poem that adds character to the unique speaker. This week write a poem that moves quickly from one subject to the next. Consider how your mind shifts from one thought to another and carry that tone forward into the poem.
In “Dedications and Acknowledgments: The Art of Giving Thanks,” published on the Poets & Writers website in 2019, author Sloane Tanen discusses ways to offer gratitude to the people who help writers make books. Although some acknowledgment pages take the form of demonstrating how well connected a writer is, the pages can also be a space for writers to look back on how writing a book is more than just a solitary act. As an exercise, try making a list of all the writers, teachers, friends, family members, and favorite foods that contribute to your betterment as a writer. Then, write an essay that gives thanks and digs into the details of how these specific people and things have helped you become the writer you are today.
In response to a series of pension reforms by French president Emmanuel Macron, municipal waste collectors began a strike earlier this month, leaving over 10,000 tons of trash to collect on the streets of Paris. Viral videos have documented the City of Light transformed into a strange landscape of black bags, abandoned toilets, strewn furniture, and cardboard boxes. This week, write a story in which a set of events triggers a city’s landscape to change dramatically. The setting can be based on real events or surrealistic, as with Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Balloon,” published in the New Yorker in 1966.
In Ada Limón’s poem “Accident Report in the Tall, Tall Weeds,” which appears in her collection Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015), the speaker moves through the memories of exes and accidents, including how a friend is obsessed with plane crashes: “He memorizes the wrecked metal details, / the clear cool skies cut by black scars of smoke. / Once, while driving, he told me about all the crashes: / The one in blue Kentucky, in yellow Iowa. / How people go on, and how people don’t.” Write a poem about a specific detail or unexpected obsession of a loved one. How does this trait color the memories you have with that person?
In the popular apocalyptic video game and HBO series The Last of Us, a zombifying fungus has destroyed the world. Although there are destructive types of fungi, in forest habitats they can be quite beneficial. Fungi intertwine with the roots of trees underground and connect individual plants to form a network they use to communicate and transfer water, nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals. Older, more seasoned trees in a forest, sometimes referred to as “mother trees,” use these fungal connections to send needed nutrients to younger saplings, much like the ways in which humans care for those in need. Inspired by the interdependence of forest habitats, write an essay that reflects on the metaphorical ramifications of this nurturing relationship. Is there a parallel you can find in your own life?
Adam Mars-Jones’s novel Box Hill: A Story of Low Self-Esteem (New Directions, 2020) explores a relationship between two men: naive eighteen-year-old Colin and his decade-older lover Ray. Told from the point of view of Colin, whose self-deprecating remarks diminish his image and idolize his partner, readers are brought into his view of the world. In one scene, Colin refers to his partner’s sweat as “an elixir” and his own as “no more than a waste product.” Mars-Jones uses Colin’s unique voice to develop his character as well as mimic his role in his relationship with Ray, setting up his emotional arc. Inspired by this narrative technique, write a story in which your narrator has an extreme view of themselves, whether narcissistic or self-deprecating. What effect does this have on how your story develops?
In Charif Shanahan’s poem “Colonialism,” which appears in his second collection, Trace Evidence, out this week from Tin House Books, the poet captures a tense and tender moment of childhood rebellion in which the young speaker runs across a bustling four-lane street in Casablanca as his mother rushes after him, spanks him, and says: “Why / Would you do that to me?” Another poem from the book depicts a child in a department store fleeing and hiding from his mother as she searches and calls out for him. The poet’s rebellious, authoritative voice electrifies scenes from childhood while exploring themes of mixed-race identity, queerness, and belonging. Can you recall a childhood memory that, in hindsight, is tied to your identity? Write a poem that captures this scene in which you see a latent part of yourself on display. Try to draw a line, as Shanahan does, connecting your past self to your present self.