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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.

Morgan Parker

posted 5.21.15

“I recommend overstimulation. If it’s too quiet, I find it’s hard to hear my voice. When I write, I overwhelm myself: The TV’s on in the background playing a movie or a reality show, I’m listening to music, I’m texting five friends, the window’s open and I’m eavesdropping on the conversations and arguments on my Bed-Stuy street below, the coffee table is stacked with books—art books, poetry collections, essays. Because I don’t know what stimulus will jumpstart a poem, which voice or atmosphere will turn me on, I douse myself in all of them at once. I’m endlessly curious (read: nosy), and approach my writing as an ethnographer: observing the behaviors, languages, impulses, and rituals of other people and myself. I take furious notes wherever I am, recording observations and thoughts. I hoard and collect. That’s how I compose poems—getting full on everything. Revision and rewriting I do in silence and without distraction. That’s when I read the poem out loud to find its music, sift through the other voices and tongues to find the poem’s original voice: a kind of collaged Frankenstein or melting pot. The poem’s energy comes from outside stimuli, allowing its own voice to be thrust up to the surface.”
—Morgan Parker, author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me up at Night (Switchback Books, 2015) 

Liam Callanan

posted 5.14.15

"Troop 117, Verdugo Hills Council, Southern California: We were a uniforms untucked, let’s-see-what-else-we-can-burn bunch. And so we had a lot of trouble on multi-day hikes. Someone would start breakfast, someone would kick it over, a tent would collapse, and then it was 10:00 AM with the day’s worst heat rising, and we had made no progress. So we developed a new system: up early, strike camp, no breakfast until an hour up the trail. The important thing—more important than being entirely ready or even sure of your destination—is to get underway. I relearned this, years later, as a writer. Early on, I realized my first novel, The Cloud Atlas (Delacorte Press, 2004), would require a lot of research. But the more I did, the fewer pages I wrote, and I thought: I need to get underway. (I also thought about burning what I had, but that’s a less helpful scouting lesson.) So I wrote as much as I could, then stopped, researched, and wrote more, stopping again whenever I ran out of fuel. It’s not a foolproof method for scouts or writers: You forget things when you’re moving fast; you occasionally stumble. But it can work, and for me, it’s necessary. I need to see the pages pile up behind me, whether it’s a novel, or most recently, stories. Unlike my scouting days, I know I can go back later and fix what went wrong. Also unlike my scouting days, and necessary: coffee."
—Liam Callanan, author of Listen & Other Stories (Four Way Books, 2015)

Sarah Tomlinson

posted 5.07.15

“I’m a big believer in snacking for inspiration. When I’m really struggling with a piece of writing, I get up and make myself a snack. I don’t mean something healthy or practical. I mean a treat that is pleasurable. Like a tablespoon of almond butter with a teaspoon of raspberry jam dropped on top, eaten off the spoon. While I’m standing in my kitchen, relishing my little morsel, I seriously apply myself to solving my current writing quandary. Away from the hard edges of my desk and my computer, and the lines of prose on the page, I get caught up by the pleasure of problem solving, which for me is also the pleasure of writing. Often enough to justify my indulgence, I solve my problem in these moments, or at least find a solution I can try out. After more than two decades of workshops and classes, and reading essays and books on writing, seeking secrets and tips related to the craft, I find myself more often these days considering my favorite writers’ habits. And as I do, I wonder: ‘But what do they snack on when they write?’”
—Sarah Tomlinson, author of Good Girl (Gallery Books, 2015)

Cynan Jones

posted 4.30.15

“Writing things down can be dangerous. If I sit at the desk without a clear idea of what I want to say, I can get into all sorts of trouble. I love the physical act of writing, like a kid who's just learned to whistle loves whistling, and before I know it, I can generate pages of prose. Hours (days) can be wasted on a story that ends up trying to beat a path through an increasingly thick jungle of possibilities, dead ends, and pitfalls. I've learned it's better to stalk the story down in my head first. Over a period of months, often longer, I try to build the story block by block until it feels right. Then I write it down as if I'm remembering it. That process is quick and intense. It's about getting the story onto the page as clearly and strongly as I can. The balancing and testing of that initial writing happens afterwards, and I try to trust the instinct that made me put the words down in the first place. The process as a whole takes a long time, even if the actual 'writing down' itself doesn't. I've learned to have patience with the process, and to be patient when the writing is only happening in my head.”
—Cynan Jones, author of The Dig (Coffee House Press, 2015)

Emily Schultz

posted 4.23.15

“I think the most valuable resource for writing is confidence, since everything from the vagaries of publishing to writing itself can wear you down. When you are writing, you are so in your own head that it can be hard to know if the work is brilliant or a failure, but you have to put aside those doubts. One of my secrets to maintaining confidence is a yearly viewing of Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood. As a director in the 1950s, Ed Wood was the ultimate outsider. He made movies with zero budgets that were deeply personal, strange, and completely ignored. But his films last, even beyond camp value, because his lunatic bravery comes through every badly framed scene. Ed Wood is my Rocky and damn if the scene where Johnny Depp takes control of a film set while wearing an angora sweater isn’t more stirring than Sylvester Stallone running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Deluding yourself is part of finishing a novel and if ever you have doubt, remember Ed Wood at the premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space: ‘This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.’”
—Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015)

James Hannaham

posted 4.15.15

“I’ve told my students in the past that writing is 90 percent procrastination. Very little of it involves actually sitting at a computer or scratching letters into a notebook; the thinking part comprises the majority of the work. Embracing that principle has kept me from going cross-eyed while frowning into the blue screen of an empty Microsoft Word document at 4:00 AM in an attempt to will some compelling character or situation to leap into life. It always helps to have a plan before you sit down and wrack your brain. But if you find yourself in such a jam, go do anything else. Take a walk. Exercise. Go sit in a café and watch people. Sketch. Write longhand on paper if you normally use a computer, and vice versa. If you become particularly blocked, consider doing something you would never do. Not something you hate, just choose an activity that you wouldn’t normally think to try: Go to an event you wouldn’t usually bother with. Get outside of yourself and your routine a little. In the past, I’ve taken a commuter train to a town I’d never visited before, and I once went on a birdwatching tour of New York’s East River in a ferry. From the water, I saw the city utterly transformed, full of new possibilities.”
—James Hannaham, author of Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, 2015)

Sandra Lim

posted 4.09.15

“Temperamentally, I set great store by orderliness for inspiration. I like a clean kitchen, a well-made bed, and a tidy desk before I start writing. Sometimes the orderliness gets sinister—not only because of the oft-made charge of procrastination, but also because once everything is collected, clean, and cheerful, a space suddenly appears for the spirit to wilt, the intelligence to become disenchanted. But philosophically, I tend to hold to it. As Gustave Flaubert advises: ‘Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.’ I write in bursts, and the rest of the time I’m filling the well. I read widely, deeply, and indiscriminately. I watch lots of movies, I clean, I feel at the mercy of my longings (though I take notes), I listen to music, I daydream, I make lists, but mostly I read. Suddenly I’ll want to be clear about something, and then I know I’m itching to write. Part of being well-ordered for me is simply to wake up very early, make the coffee (I enjoy this so much), and stay at my desk until I feel a little freedom from vagueness.”
—Sandra Lim, author of The Wilderness (Norton, 2014)

Matt Sumell

posted 4.02.15

“Look, I’m far from military material. Undisciplined, hate authority, my ethics—perverted. But there is one military tenant I can and do get behind every time I sit down to write, and you probably know it already: ‘Embrace the suck.’ It’s going to suck, you guys. Big time. The sooner you accept that and get on with it anyway, the sooner you’re done. Why prolong your own suffering? Instead, treat it like a job. And that is trick number one: Buy a time clock. Although a bit noisy, I like the old school ones with the punch cards. Put your hours in. Two or three hours a day, whether you feel like it or not. And now that I’ve got you working, do what I do when I’m working: avoid working. Kind of. For whatever reason, writing a personal e-mail is infinitely less intimidating than a page of prose. Sometimes—when I get and stay stuck—I take some pressure off by opening up an e-mail window and writing in there instead. It helps me to think there’s less at stake. If that doesn’t do it, I change locations: desk to kitchen table, kitchen table to couch, couch to closet. I really like a dark, enclosed space. Something about it lends itself to daydreaming.”
—Matt Sumell, author of Making Nice (Henry Holt, 2015)

Tania James

posted 3.26.15

“If you were to glance over the chaos across my desk—inkless pens, paperbacks, an infant toothbrush—you might miss the object I count most valuable: a plastic rainbow-colored slinky. For years, whenever I found myself blocked, I’d pick up the slinky and toss it from hand to hand while walking in circles around my room. Maybe it’s the repetition of the sound, the shuffling of springs, but my mind burrows inside the world I’m building, unobliged to form an elegant sentence. I like elegant sentences, but my initial attempts are almost always doomed. So instead, I begin by thinking about characters, moving with them through a maze of what-ifs. Situations unfold, a left turn takes me by surprise. I don’t enjoy the same focus when I go for a walk outside; my imagination seems to work better within tighter physical boundaries. I realize that my attachment to the slinky is two parts Pavlovian and one part superstition, but there’s a whole lot of mystery where writing is concerned. Maybe engaging in a certain kind of physical activity—meditative, yet constrained—helps to quiet the traffic moving round my brain, to open a way forward. Or maybe it’s the magic of the slinky.”
—Tania James, author of The Tusk That Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015)

Elisa Albert

posted 3.19.15

“Above my desk, some talismans: ‘The Floor Scrapers’ by Gustave Caillebotte. I saw it when I was fourteen at the Musee D’Dorsay. The play of light on the floor got my attention, then it kept opening: What are the two on the right saying? Whose apartment is it, and will the people who live there feel the presence of this work when it’s done? Regardless, here are occupied bodies on a given day. Here is sweat and companionship, craftsmanship, dedication, destruction, rehabilitation. Attention to detail. Getting the job done. Next, an old photograph of anonymous huddled masses, disembarking from steerage in New York City in the early-twentieth century. Ancestors are like celebrities: They don’t know me, can only imagine me, but I know them, or want to think I do. My existence is in conversation with theirs. Then, a drawing from Orli Auslander’s ‘I Feel Bad’ series: ‘I Insist It’s Not PMS,’ which reminds me to laugh at myself, because if you can laugh at yourself, life and work will be joyful. Finally, a picture of my husband holding our son. Stare at these things for a while, or fail to see them because they’re always there. Some days, recognition and renewal. Some days, blindness. Regardless, onward: I have work to do. Lucky me.”
—Elisa Albert, author of After Birth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

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