In Cheryl Strayed's new memoir, Wild (Knopf, 2012), the author recounts her months-long hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, a journey that she took entirely alone after life as she'd known it had fallen apart. "It was a world I'd never been to and yet had known was there all along," she says, "one I'd staggered to in sorrow and confusion and fear and hope. A world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I'd once been." Write about a time when you got a little wild—when you embarked upon something new and challenging, maybe something frightening, or maybe even a little dangerous. Write about the wilderness itself, but also about what brought you there, and who you had become by the time you walked back out of the woods.
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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Write a piece of flash fiction or a short story that starts with an advice column. Use the advice column to introduce the story's protagonist, the central drama, or the back story of the characters. Alternatively, read through advice columns such as the Rumpus's Dear Sugar and Salon's Since You Asked and create a story based on the problem posed by one advice-seeker.
A cento, Latin for "patchwork," is a poem composed entirely of fragments and lines taken from other poems and/or written sources. Try creating your own patchwork poem by incorporating lines from various poems in a poetry anthology. For inspiration, read David Lehman's cento in the New York Times.
Think back to the closet of your youth, and write an essay about what was inside. Let the contents of the closet become a metaphor for who you were as a child, who you might have wished to be, and who you have become.
Write a story that begins like this: On the morning Bill Somers shot his dog, I was...
While writing poetry in a particular form can feel restrictive, it also forces you to make decisions, use words, and write lines that you might not otherwise. Look over your poetry for common features such as the number of lines and stanzas. Based on what you find, create a form—a set number of lines, a set number of stressed syllables per line, and perhaps a relationship among lines, such as having certain lines rhyme or repeat. Write five poems using this form.
Research the origins (Latin, Greek, biblical, or otherwise) of your first name and develop an alter ego for yourself based upon those origins. If your name is Alex, for example, whose origin, Alexandros, originates from the Greek root "to defend," your alter ego could be "The Defender." Free-write for twenty minutes from the perspective of that alter ego, writing about anything that comes to mind—and see what kind of patterns, ideas, or thoughts emerge.
Think about a conflict you had with someone in the past that left you feeling especially wronged or misunderstood. Write a story from the other person's perspective, fictionalizing the details of that person's character. Create the story behind why this person did what they did or said what they said.
Choose a well-known person from history or from the news. Write a persona poem from this person's voice and perspective. For an example, read the poet Ai's "The Good Shepherd: Atlanta, 1981," from her collection Sin (Norton, 1986), written from the perspective of convicted murderer Wayne Williams, or watch a video of Ai reading the poem.
Aimee Phan, author of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, wrote in Writers Recommend, "I don’t intentionally scrapbook for inspiration, but that always ends up happening. I will see a graphic or image, or hear a song on the radio, and start to collect them for characters whose perspectives I am about to inhabit." Adopt Phan's practice as your own this week. Collect images, songs, magazine articles, matchbooks, etc., and begin to image how these items inform the perspective of a character you want to write about. After a week of collecting, write a character sketch.
In her essay "Total Eclipse" from Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (Harper Collins, 1982), Annie Dillard recalls traveling to the top of a mountain to witness a total solar eclipse. The darkness she discovered as the sun disappeared, in a world suddenly without light, was incomprehensible and terrifying, but also illuminating. "What I saw," she writes, "what I seemed to be standing in, was all the wrecked light that the memories of the dead could shed upon the living world." Write about a time when you disappeared into darkness—whether by your own choosing or not—and emerged again into the light, with a new understanding.
Imagine today that the universe is trying to send you a message. Try to see everything through this imagined perspective. Take note of the day's incidentals that are working to convey this message to you: the guy walking toward you on the street wearing your brother's favorite color, the petals of the same color blowing in the wind, a sign you notice with a saying that strikes you, how the quality of light conjures a past event. Write a poem using these collected images and impressions that reveals the message.
Look through your poem drafts, notes, and writing fragments. Choose one line that you like and refine it until it feels as complete and polished as one line out of context can be. Use that line as a refrain in a new poem. When you've completed a decent draft, try writing an additional draft of the poem without the line, using it instead as the title.
Think about big and small regrets you have in your life—things you wish you had done, people you wish you had treated better, directions you wish you'd gone. Draw a chart that represents a hierarchy of your regrets. It can be simple or decorative, straightforward or complex. Then write an essay that explores what you see when you look at it.
Conjure someone you haven't seen or talked to in over ten years. Imagine you receive a phone call from this person today. Why are they calling? What do they want? Write a story about it.
Take a walk that you know well—through your neighborhood, around the block where you work, or your route to the train or bus. Study this familiar landscape carefully, and try to find a detail that you hadn’t noticed before—a piece of graffiti, a certain row of trees, the pattern in which the sidewalk is cracked. Write about this new observation, small as it may be, starting with physical description and then allowing your thoughts to wander.
The website Brain Pickings posted a video version of Kurt Vonnegut's eight tips for how to write a great short story. Choose a draft of one of your unfinished stories and apply Vonnegut's advice during the revision process.
In honor of National Poetry Month, commit to memorizing one poem a week during April. Allow the experience of inhabiting each poem in this way feed your own poetry.
Like fiction, good nonfiction narratives are often driven by description of place. Think of a place that you know well—your kitchen, your office, or a spot you often visit—and, from memory, write a passage that describes that place. Focus on the physical characteristics of the space, leaving out any emotion that may be connected to it, and be as descriptive and detailed as possible. The next time you’re there, read your description and see how accurately your memory served you. Take note of the details you may have missed.
Look through your desk or visit a thrift store or drugstore to find a selection of postcards. Write short missives to yourself in the voice of an imagined character, sending a dozen or so cards to your home address. Allow your reaction to receiving the postcards and the messages themselves, inspire the beginnings of a story.
Open a dictionary, an encyclopedia, or a book from your bookshelves to any page; choose a word, and write it down. Repeat this nine times. Write a poem with ten couplets (they need not rhyme) using one of the words from your list in each couplet, without using the first person.
In Sarah Manguso’s memoir The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), the author writes, “suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the shape and size of a life.” Write about a time in which you experienced suffering—emotionally, physically, or otherwise—and try to focus on how that suffering fit into the shape of your life then, and how it has helped shape the life you know now.
Record the slogans you see on billboards and in other advertising as you go about your daily routine—Prescription Drug Misuse Is a Growing Trend; Forever Engagements; Truth & Honesty: That's the Manfredi Way! Choose one from the list you've gathered and use it as the opening line for a story.
Visit a museum or an art gallery. While looking at the art, transcribe fragments from the written descriptions and/or titles that accompany each work. Create a poem out of the fragments you've transcribed.
Choose an article from a magazine that profiles a person, such as a celebrity, a political figure, or a professional athlete. Using one of the settings in the article and a fictionalized version of the person as the main character, write a story in which it is revealed that the main character's greatest strength is also his or her greatest failing.