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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.

Tyehimba Jess

posted 5.12.16

“When I'm stuck, when I'm really stuck and the words can't seem to get out, there are a few things that I do to try to jar myself into action. Every poet has a few bibles of poetry—books that hit them hard upside the heart and soul, and take them to another understanding of the craft again and again. For me, returning to those texts urges me on, making me hopeful and challenged, and allowing me to rediscover why I do what I do. For quite a few years, I held Yusef Komunyakaa’s Neon Vernacular (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 1993) inside my bag like it was a passport to smuggle me into a visual and audible blizzard of blued language, a place with a sophisticated tumble of drawl and line. Another place I would go to was Sterling Plumpp’s Blues: The Story Always Untold (Another Chicago Press, 1989), which introduced me to the sweet spot between music and mayhem, between the political and the funk. I’ve also discovered that, while I remain a constant novice, playing the harmonica and guitar regularly helps to prime the pump for the sound of words flowing onto paper—so I try to pick up each instrument every week in order to remember how breath and fingers can make a story anyone anywhere can moan to.”
—Tyehimba Jess, author of Olio (Wave Books, 2016)

Kali VanBaale

posted 5.05.16

“Like most writers, I frequently rely on trusted early readers to give me constructive feedback for my work-in-progress. But after a certain point, outside suggestions can send my mind spinning off into a dozen different directions, making me feel overwhelmed, unsure, and even discouraged about my story altogether. So, on the wall in front of my writing desk, I painted the words of Michelangelo: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. This quote has become my guide, my emotional center, my touchstone. When I’m feeling frustrated or stuck, like I’m getting off track and losing my way, I look to Michelangelo’s words and I am reminded to refocus on my original vision of the story, what I set out to do and say at the heart of the narrative, and what I still need to do to bring that vision to completion. It reminds me to just have patience with my process, however long it may take, however many draft attempts I have to go through. I renew my faith again and again that the story will come together, because the angel, as Michelangelo tells me, will eventually be set free.”
—Kali VanBaale, author of The Good Divide (MG Press, 2016)

Chris McCormick

posted 4.28.16

“My tricks to break through writing barriers are pretty much indistinguishable from distractions. When I’m stuck, I pick up my guitar, or I watch old Oscar Peterson interviews on YouTube, or I read short essays on how to break through writing barriers. Almost anything I do outside of writing can be blamed as a waste of time one day, and praised the next as the reason I suddenly yearn to get back to work. Maybe this is unhelpful. Here’s a specific anecdote I try to remember when my writing feels perfunctory or zapped or otherwise dead on arrival: I think of the old and probably exaggerated story of Sonny Rollins, who, after hearing Coltrane, suddenly stopped recording, stopped playing gigs—just stopped. Instead, he took his instrument to the Williamsburg Bridge, where he practiced every night for hours, just for himself and for the incidentally present. Now and then, maybe, a person insisted on leaving a few coins. This happened for years, until Rollins felt ready to take the stage again, until he’d discovered a new sound, until he felt worthy, maybe, of playing alongside a man of genius. Sometimes, when I feel unworthy, I gather sentences like coins on a bridge. They are incidental and clunky reminders that I’m honestly trying. Flaws and all, they glint under the lamplight like an excuse in reverse.”
—Chris McCormick, author of Desert Boys (Picador, 2016)

Adam Clay

posted 4.21.16

“As opposed to an art that occurs because of inspiration (divine or otherwise), I view writing as a skill that should be cultivated and developed. Inspiration happens, yes, but one must be ready for it. As Levertov puts it, writing often allows us to ‘set the table for the muse.’ I’ve found a good routine that’s working as of late. I keep a notebook and jot down images, phrases, and elements I encounter on a given day. They can be anything, whether they’re as memorable as a car on fire on the side of the road or as mundane as the wind blowing through the leaves of a maple tree. On the following morning, I type up three or four fragments that resonate with me. They don’t have to be related, at least at first; in fact, it’s better if they don’t connect. From there, the work of writing begins: I spend some time stringing them together, even if I don’t understand how the pieces connect initially. I find it’s better to let the music and motion of the poem direct the writing process as opposed to muscling meaning onto the blank page. It doesn’t always work, but even in those moments when things aren’t coming together, I’m at least practicing the art and setting the table for what’s to come.”
—Adam Clay, author of Stranger (Milkweed Editions, 2016)

Lynn Steger Strong

posted 4.14.16

“I’ve had to learn in those moments—when I’m desperate to get it right, when I’ve fought for the time to have the chance to write—not to let the defeat of not immediately having something to say overwhelm me to the point that I give the time away. I shouldn’t start grading papers or cancel the babysitter if I don’t immediately start writing. I’ve had to learn to give myself permission to go for a long run, or walk an hour through the city, or eavesdrop on the conversation next to me for half an hour. I give myself exercises to keep my brain engaged: I’ve taken apart so many different novels trying to define their parts—characters, plot, structure; I take absurd notes that I almost never look at again in hopes of internalizing a better understanding of how books are made. ‘Writing’ is not always putting words down on the page. I think in giving myself the freedom to engage with those other parts of what it is to write, I’ve given my brain space. The space to happen upon the ideas I’ve needed to happen upon that make the words stronger, once they come.”
—Lynn Steger Strong, author of Hold Still (Liveright, 2016)

Kim Fu

posted 4.07.16

“For a while, writing was everything to me: my identity, my job, the meaning of my life, the site of my deepest anxieties. Whenever the writing wasn’t working, I went to a very dark place. When I get stuck writing, it isn’t usually because of a logistical problem in the plot or because I can’t find the right word; it usually comes from a broad, circling, existential fear of failure. But writing requires failure and experimentation, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in that process. I recently took up modern dance. I love it. It felt like being exposed to a whole new language, a whole new mode of self-expression. I’m also terrible at it, and likely always will be. I’m a naturally clumsy, graceless person, and I’d never taken so much as a childhood ballet class. Through the practice of another art form, where I felt freer to stumble, I remembered why I write in the first place. It isn’t to be published or win awards. It’s not even to create something meaningful or aesthetically beautiful, necessarily. I write in pursuit of the same joy I find flailing and falling in the dance studio.”
—Kim Fu, author of How Festive the Ambulance (Nightwood Editions, 2016)

Rita Mae Reese

posted 3.30.16

“The one thing I’ve discovered about writing over the years is that not-writing is like a virus—it’s always mutating, always trying to overcome your defenses. Sometimes it will succeed. There’s no single answer that will work the rest of your writing life. You’ll think you’re a disciplined writer and then you’ll have kids; your first book will come out and all of those ideas waiting in your notebook just wither up; you’ll find a great community of writers and find that you spend more time talking about writing than actually writing. I have, however, found a few defenses that have been essential against not-writing. The first is the vitamin B6; it helps you deal with stress and it makes your dreams more vivid. I don’t like taking pills, even a vitamin, so I’ve stopped taking it dozens of times, and always I notice that the impulse for writing wanes without it. The second thing is reminding myself: You don’t have to write anything that you’re not deeply interested in. Every time I remember this, it’s a relief and a surprise. Walking, meditating, writing by hand, and keeping a notebook have also been useful, particularly in conjunction with the first two defenses. I realize that it all comes down to maintaining and refreshing a sense of play. As Martin Buber once wrote, ‘Play is the exultation of the possible,’ and exploring the possible is what writing is all about for me.”
—Rita Mae Reese, author of The Book of Hulga (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016) 

Ocean Vuong

posted 3.24.16

“When I am stuck, I don't like to force out work/words. If I'm having difficulty, I just walk away from the desk—sometimes not returning for weeks at a time. I find a quiet place in the day and stop. If I’m at home, I lie down on the carpet. Then I do this thing where I just say ‘thank you’ to all the things and people who helped me. I say, ‘Thank you, light, for helping me. Thank you, flowers in the jar, for helping me. Thank you, mom, for helping me. Thank you, Sivan, for helping me. Thank you, Eduardo, for helping me.’ Of course, simply saying ‘thank you’ does not awaken any creative force; it just reminds me that the work I am doing is not validated by quantity, but rather, by the connection it builds between the world and myself. Yesterday, I said thank you to my friend, the poet Mahogany L. Browne. I am not one for hyperbole, but I can honestly say she is one of the few people who can, and does, save lives with her words. So when my own work is not coming along, I stop and think of people like her. I stop and recognize the person doing the same challenging, at times unforgiving, art—and I feel happy. I think it’s hard, in our day and age, not to think: ‘It’s me against the world’ or ‘I have to do this for my career because everyone else is hammering away and if I stop now, I will fall behind and be forgotten.’ But that’s a toxic and self-defeating gaze. I think we are more productive, even in stillness, when we can recognize one another, when we say to each other: ‘Thank you for doing this with me. Thank you for carrying on when I cannot.’”
—Ocean Vuong, author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

Manuel Gonzales

posted 3.17.16

“When I get stuck, I jump mediums, which reminds me of the one time I was driving to high school so fast that the police officer, who was going the opposite direction from me, jumped the median and drove over a grassy patch at least twenty yards wide just to pull me over. But that's not what I mean. I will start stories on the computer, become stuck, and then take up a pen and a notebook, or start in a notebook and find myself unable to write fast enough—this is a rarity—to keep up with the dumb thoughts in my head and will have to jump back to the computer. Rarely, I will pull out a manual typewriter and see what damage I can do to the ears of my colleagues in the offices around me. But what I've found most unhinges whatever needs unhinging are wide-open spaces that I can mark up—classroom chalkboards or dry-erase boards. The last story in my collection, 'Escape From the Mall,' I wrote almost entirely on the two large dry-erase boards in the classroom where I taught high school English. Just two weeks ago, I removed the shelves from one of the walls in my university office, then sanded them down, taped up a border, and covered the space with dry-erase paint. Already it is marked and smudged and written over, a palimpsest of every good or bad sentence I'll ever write.”
—Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack! (Riverhead Books, 2016)

Tony Tulathimutte

posted 3.10.16

“Of all sources of inspiration, grammar is probably the most underrated. But any writer who’s been confronted with an empty page or blipping cursor knows that language itself, with its structures and inner connections, can suggest many possibilities. When I’m stuck in a sentence, I like to reach for a preposition. Why prepositions, and not verbs or nouns? Because they’re open-ended enough to accommodate any number of outcomes, but concrete enough to orient you in a specific direction. I’ll show you how this works. Say you write: I walked to the store. Basic prepositions like to, for, after, and until will probably come to mind first (…for a gallon of milk), and okay, that’s fine, but less expected ones will probably suggest more interesting directions—among, despite, against, unlike. How about under? That immediately suggests a setting, and a spatial relationship: under a canopy of maple trees tousling in the breeze, or under a searing barrage of laser fire. Using the different shades of meaning inherent in most prepositions can push things even further: I walked to the store under strict orders from my aunt. So, prepositions are handy little multi-tools, and having a list of them tacked to the wall next to your writing desk, as I do, can keep your work moving on, toward, up, and above.”
—Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016)

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