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Writers Recommend

In this online exclusive we ask authors to share books, art, music, writing prompts, films—anything and everything—that has inspired them in their writing. We see this as a place for writers to turn to for ideas that will help feed their creative process.

John W. Evans

posted 1.19.17

“I keep this quote by Vaclav Havel taped next to my desk: ‘Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.’ I’ve had it explained to me in a dozen or so ways, most of them contradictory. Havel came from the theater, so his activism would embrace a certain improvisation. The path from anti-Communist playwright to post-Communist statesman must have seemed, to paraphrase Robert Hass, at best untranslated. Havel was an actor and a politician: quotable. Still, I am moved by his words. They inspire me to have a little more confidence as I write, not that the work is masterful or essential at any stage, but that the process is necessary, and will culminate in sense. I start every new project with a question, and following Havel’s premise, I try to only write toward questions that I cannot already answer. My best questions are born of universal premises: What do I not understand? What do I hope to make sense of? What can I change? My second memoir, Should I Still Wish, is itself a question I never really wanted to answer: Shouldn’t I still wish that you hadn’t died? I am so embarrassed by that question. It terrifies and shames me, for good reason. Who thinks of such questions? Who tries to answer them? And yet, a real answer—a reckoning, an honest engagement—is essential to any feeling of hope that continues in my life.”
—John W. Evans, author of Should I Still Wish (University of Nebraska Press, 2017)

Joshua Bennett

posted 1.12.17

“The only working antidote I have found for spells where I struggle to write—the weeks and months where every poem seems to me some small, opaque machine, its inner workings altogether inscrutable—is to spend time with authors who unsettle my habits of analysis, especially at the level of genre convention. Christina Sharpe’s most recent monograph, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), has been a rare gift in this regard. The book is a masterclass on form, and a must-read for those of us committed to the beautiful sentence, as well as the work of what is commonly called theory. Phillip B. Williams’s Thief in the Interior (Alice James Books, 2016) is a devastating collection that operates along similar lines, and ultimately expands our vocabulary for thinking about the relationship between violence and intimacy, repulsion and desire. Finally, I have spent a good portion of the last few months reading and re-reading June Jordan’s prose, and ‘Nobody Mean More to Me Than You and the Future Life of Willie Jordan’ might be my favorite essay in the world right now. Every time I return to it, I am reminded of the spaces that brought me to the page in earnest years ago: the poetry slams and Africana Studies classrooms where I first bore witness to the sheer breadth of this literary tradition I now call home and harbor. The way Jordan writes about pedagogy, and the importance of equipping our students to navigate a social and political milieu dead set against their most radical aspirations, always pushes me back into the writing. It takes me to task. It reminds me that there is an undeniable urgency to the work in times like these: a call not only to write, but to organize, to dream, in the face of that which seeks to curtail and constrain our very living.”
—Joshua Bennett, author of The Sobbing School (Penguin Books, 2016)

Eric Shonkwiler

posted 1.05.17

“Writing looks much the same for me as others: a cup of coffee, music, a bare desktop, and so on. Eventually the tank runs dry, the wheels come off, or I'm simply at the end of my workday. What's left are inevitably the problems that stymied me while I wrote, or the ones I see on the horizon. The best way for me to come at tomorrow is to find three things: The first is a dimly lit bar, and the other two are whiskies. The deliberate abandonment of the work, the light lubrication, and the not-overly-loud murmurings of a small dive bar will eventually, if not sooner, replenish my stamina and produce the startling, epiphanic whack of a shishi odoshi—I'll feel, lifting my glass, that my subconscious has thrown all the pieces of my current project into the air, and begun putting them together on the way down. I tend to think that the white noise of nearby conversation is the key, but there's something to be said for turning from the screen—however you choose to do so—to force a new perspective.”
—Eric Shonkwiler, author of 8th Street Power & Light (MG Press, 2016)

Jen Levitt

posted 12.22.16

“One practice I’ve found useful for generating new ideas is entering into conversation with other poets, other poems. Though in general the more variously I read, the more I’m able to stretch myself writing-wise. I specifically like talking to poems I love or am confused by or disagree with as a way of clarifying my thoughts. Katha Pollitt has a wonderful poem called ‘Lives of the Nineteenth-Century Poetesses,’ which is a sort of tongue-in-cheek love letter to our popular construction of the Dickinson-like introvert and recluse. I like the idea of a twenty-first-century update or response, maybe changing the tone or the stance but imitating the conceit. Marie Howe’s beautiful and iconic poem ‘Practicing’ about adolescent sexual awakening doesn’t—unfortunately!—describe my own awkward adolescence, so a few of her lines in particular provided a helpful framing for a poem about my teenage years. I recently listened to Steph Burt talk about reading poets of a different time period as a way of opening oneself up; talking to poets from the past feels inherently exciting to me and forces me to read beyond the now. In general, this specific kind of attention to the work of others—poems, paintings, films—helps me both to make visible my thinking and to feel part of a community, which is to say less alone.”
—Jen Levitt, author of The Off Season (Four Way Books, 2016)

Chris Campanioni

posted 12.15.16

“I think the greatest thing we have at our disposal to write are our eyes and ears. Vanessa Hua has written in this series about writing against the clock and I think that kind of desperation and urgency can propel you toward creation. I do almost all of my writing on my commute because I like being in the in-between—you can pick up so much. And I think it’s important to listen, and perhaps it’s hard—harder all the time—to sit and really pay attention (and the costs keep rising) when we are surrounded by opportunities to disconnect or rather to bring our wandering mind to a halt and distract it with something other than our observations plus imagination, which I guess you could say are the two basic ingredients for every writer, for every working piece before it can rise to the surface, before it can be reproduced and assimilated; in private when in public. If you see something, say something. This is another way of recording or reading; to read a lot and to read everything is very important, but especially to read street signs, ads, disclaimers, conversation, and in general, your environment as though it were a scene set, because it might as well be. One of the classes I’m engaged in at the moment is called ‘Notebooks & Other Irregular Accountings’ and I think it’s useful and helpful to think of your experience as a kind of picture you can enter into at any angle or moment and sublimate into something beautiful. Elevate the everyday. Reading makes the flesh manifest, it delivers on the promise that sex suggests but so hardly ever achieves (complete communion with the other). Shouldn’t writing?”
Chris Campanioni, author of Death of Art (C&R Press, 2016)

Jennifer S. Cheng

posted 12.08.16

“I think of visual artifacts as prompts and as talismans. My book, House A, is a hybrid book—the third section consists of image-text poems entitled ‘How to Build an American Home’—but even in relation to other parts of the book I noticed that I was keeping collections of images close to my writing process. How might a multimodal engagement enrich our work both directly and indirectly? My personal collection of images and photographs for this book: houses with A-shaped roofs, geometric figures, and maps/diagrams/blueprints. In these images I was not looking for content so much as atmosphere, feeling, tone (Roland Barthes’s punctum, an inarticulable wound); even the maps/diagrams/blueprints were not necessarily literal, but textures and shadows I was reading as navigational and instructional. I am making an argument here about redefining our blueprints, but these textures, atmospheres, and tones were also ways for me to enter and re-enter my writing: a specificity of feeling to write toward; a ‘wound’ to unearth; a talisman to remind me of my intentions; a specter to seep unconsciously into the language. The visual artifacts were at various moments prompts to set up the emotion of my writing, and they were also ghosts to haunt my work.”
—Jennifer S. Cheng, author of House A (Omnidawn, 2016)

Daniel Borzutzky

posted 12.01.16

“For Kristen Dykstra and Marcelo Morales Cintero.
‘There are blows in life so powerful,’ writes César Vallejo, ‘I just don’t know.’ I think about these words all the time. And I think about James Baldwin’s Another Country, a book that crushed me first when I was twenty-two and then when I was forty-two. ‘People don't have any mercy,’ writes Baldwin. ‘They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you're dead, when they've killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn't have any character. They weep big, bitter tears—not for you. For themselves, because they've lost their toy.’ And I think about Marguerite Duras and I think about Arizona and Ayotzinapa and Chicago and Auschwitz and Juarez and Santiago and Syria and continuums of state and economic violence. And I think about people who die trying to cross borders and I think about how people love each other amid the worst types of pain and violence. And I think about language and love as means of survival. And I think about Chicago and police murder and the economic abandonment of so much of my city and I try to write, always, about the things people do to survive.”
—Daniel Borzutzky, author of The Performance of Becoming Human (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016)

Jade Chang

posted 11.23.16

“Two things have transformed my productivity. The first: I made a writer friend! Specifically, one who actually wanted to meet up with me two or three times a week and write. Margaret Wappler (whose gorgeous novel, Neon Green, published by Unnamed Press, also came out this year!) and I met at the Tin House Writers Workshop and once we returned to Los Angeles, we began pulling out our laptops at various coffee shops, bars, and restaurants across town. Having a compatriot in the mucky struggle of getting a novel onto the page was invaluable to me. Of course, this kind of creative partnership, which will ideally last years, only works if you have similar degrees of writing stamina (we generally work for around three to four hours), tolerance for chatting (high-ish), and food/drink requirements. And that takes us to the second thing: Treats. I knew I needed to make a real, concerted push to finish The Wangs vs. the World, so for about a year and a half I spent every single day working my day job and every single evening writing until midnight. Because I can only be disciplined about one thing at a time, I let myself eat or drink anything that seemed appealing—wallet and waistline be damned! Luckily, it worked. (Margaret and I are still writing together, but I’m not sure if my no-longer-quite-as-youthful metabolism will be able to deal with another round of treats!)”
—Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

Rusty Morrison

posted 11.16.16

“’Yes, every man is Noah, but on closer inspection, he is Noah in a strange way, and his mission consists less in saving everything from the flood than, on the contrary, in plunging all things into a deeper flood where they disappear…’ I came across this sentence while reading an essay by Maurice Blanchot. It startled me, its meaning seeming provocatively just beyond my typical means of apprehension, yet just near enough to teasingly, even tauntingly, demand I follow its trajectories. When I feel this kind of disquieting provocation I know that it can be the beginning of a new dimension, a new direction for my writing. Sometimes, my mind rushes past it—maybe because of tiredness, or perhaps fear of what the provocation might ask of me. It needn’t be a passage from what I’m reading. Sometimes the provocation is an inkling—from an interaction with someone, or an event I watch unfold. Though the experiences can be quite different, they each have at their core a sensation that lifts the hackles of my inner attention, and I feel a particular nerve twitch—I call it the ‘provocation nerve.’ If I take the time to jot a few notes, and then, later, write into them, then a provocation can become an invocation. The Blanchot quote invoked a series of poems that spiraled farther and farther. I now have a book of interlinked poems, which I’m in the process of finishing. But it’s important to admit that I still feel a disquieting provocation.”
—Rusty Morrison, author of Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta Press, 2014)

Peter Orner

posted 11.10.16

“I’ve always had a difficult time talking about writing. I’ve never really been able to say the phrase ‘my writing’ without feeling not only self-conscious but also a little bit ridiculous. A lot ridiculous. Even though I do, technically, teach creative writing (and I enjoy it because for me teaching creative writing is teaching literature, and I can never get enough literature) I’ve always had very little advice to give when it comes to how to actually sit down and do this. I mean if people truly want to sit and write something they will sit down and write something and nothing I say, or anyone else says, could ever make much of a difference. I have no tricks to trick anybody—including myself, God knows especially myself—into a chair and concentrate. And yet, and yet, don’t all roads lead to Chekhov? This morning I read a brief story called, ‘In Exile.’ It starts like this: ‘Old Semyon, nicknamed the Explainer, and a young Tartar whose name no one knew, sat on the bank near a bonfire…’ Goddamn, to start a story like this. One guy has two names, the other has none. And I didn’t feel inspired necessarily, but I did feel alive. Alive as if I was out there on the cold riverbank with those two. And I did get back to work, or at least tried to. Needless to say, the Explainer in the story isn’t the one who understands very much.”
—Peter Orner, author of Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (Catapult, 2016)

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