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Magazine » 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.
"Before Knockemstiff made him famous, my friend Donald Ray Pollock came home from work at the paper mill, rolled a page into his typewriter, and began to copy, word by word, passages by writers he admired. One day Raymond Carver, the next day Cormac McCarthy, the next day Dawn Powell, the next day Larry Brown. This, he told me, was the bulk of his writerly education. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, painstakingly slow, a process not dissimilar to what literary translators do when they bring a work from Japanese into English. I thought I’d give it a try, and almost every week of my life since, I’ve done it a little or more than a little. If I’m reading something and it makes me feel something, I want to know why, so I slow down, and I copy it out, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, savoring the pleasures, and doing my damnedest to uncover the secrets. This evening, I’m at a stopping point in the novel I’m writing, and I have a beautiful book on my tabletop. The Virgins, by Pamela Erens. It does a thing with first person I’m dying to try—a thing Philip Roth and Alice Munro have done, too—and The Virgins is waiting there, ready to teach me how."
—Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books, 2014)
“Earlier this year while I was finishing my novel, I was reading Dani Shapiro’s wonderful book, Still Writing. I swear every page was like another delicious choice in an intellectual, emotional, and creative buffet. I especially love the section on 'Shimmer,' which is what Shapiro calls the unmistakable, indelible epiphany a writer has when she discovers her subject matter. Shapiro says: ‘We must learn to watch for these moments. To not discount them. To take note: I’ll have to write about this.’ When I’ve been fortunate enough to experience this kind of creative energy, I’ll pluck the spark from wherever it comes: a song lyric, a situation or moment or character that takes root in my mind, a minor detail someone has shared with me in a completely different context than where I put it in my work. At my luckiest, I feel mostly like a harried but devoted transcriptionist, following my characters around so as not to miss anything they say or do. But when that energy, that magic, is absent, I have a very tough time writing. More than once I’ve resorted to staying in the chair for a specific and painful amount of time only to write very exaggerated, purple, really lamentable prose. In the end, it makes me laugh, and forces me to cut myself a break and realize that although it may be a purposely false start, it’s a start nonetheless.”
—Polly Dugan, author of So Much a Part of You (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)
"As both a poet and clinical psychologist with a therapy practice, I tend to lose time in a very cerebral world. Concrete, really physical activities help me emerge from a more linear modality toward an enlivened creativity. I try to immerse myself in things like digging in the garden, exercise, cooking, or art projects like collage. I believe that if we give ourselves over to something wholeheartedly, we enable our art to emerge. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about creative jumpstarts from the psychological construct of flow: I highly recommend his books. I also find my voice by letting go of it for a while. I love to go to museums, galleries, even coffee shops to watch and listen to other people—not simply for observation but for empathy. I really think when we step outside of ourselves to connect with others, we connect more deeply with our own humanity. I also believe in doing hard things for inspiration. The hardest for me is visiting with my brain-injured sister who lives in a locked facility for people with dementia. Every time I am there, I think about our common desire for self-expression and validation, no matter how diminished one's 'faculties' are. After those visits, I can't wait to get to my desk and write my heart out."
—Lisa C. Krueger, author of Talisman (Red Hen Press, 2014)
"Sometimes I do this thing where I convince myself that writing is really hard. I bang my head on the desk. I suffer and moan. When I am being silly and insufferable like this, the only remedy is to listen to the Band. More specifically: to listen to Levon Helm, a man I think of as a kind of patron saint for my writing life. Levon Helm sang 'Ophelia.' He sang a cover of 'Atlantic City' that is better than the Boss's (don't argue, you know it's true). He played the drums like no one's business and a mean mandolin. And he was grinning the whole time he did it. The best part of listening to Levon play is this: You can hear him enjoying doing what he does best. So, when I catch myself thinking that 'writing is hard,' I put my headphones on. I remember the night I saw Levon play at the Ramble where he sang harmonies with his daughter and cracked jokes and let us all pet his dog. I remember to write because I love it. And because a book or a song can make an excellent vessel for joy."
—CJ Hauser, author of The From-Aways (William Morrow, 2014)
"At a hotel in West Papua, New Guinea, above my bed in room 104, there hangs a painting. Three horses—cream, chestnut, and honey brown—gallop through pinkish-orange shallows. The sky—of a warmer, flooded world?—is goldenrod. Each horse, though wingless, looks as if it might take flight, especially the white one, who rears up with a pained expression in his eyes and bares his baby teeth. All three have steeled themselves, are focused—on what? What lies ahead? Will they ever find sanctuary? Distracted and anxious for weeks, I’ve written almost nothing; hoping to be shocked into inspiration, tomorrow I leave for Raja Ampat, an archipelago comprised of more than fifteen hundred remote karst islands, where I will dive among the world’s most biodiverse reefs. Their coral, their longnose hawkfish, will be dead soon: the pH of the oceans is falling. On such a planet, why live a writing life? Civilization can’t last much longer—my poems and essays aren’t for posterity. But neither should they be solely self-stimulating. Beauty, discovering it for oneself and sharing it with others, is as essential for the soul as glucose is for the brain. My room’s A/C rattles. It stirs the peeling wallpaper, which is actually gift wrap. The painting above my bed, signed only by the name 'Putra,' is both warning and inspiration. It is a Tarot card: Fear Death by Water, it says. The cosmic ocean never ends."
—Greg Wrenn, author of Centaur (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)
"Whenever I get stuck—when the sentences close in on themselves or the characters don’t make sense or I just get that awful feeling of WTF STORY I HATE YOU I HATE YOU—I close the laptop and tell it out loud. Sometimes this means talking to myself in coffee shops or on the L train, folks nearby giving me the side eye. Sometimes it means having a drink or two or five with a friend, saying, “You’ll never believe what happened!” and then trusting how I naturally tell the story; how the words tangle together, how they connect with this particular audience, how they grab her, grip her, hold her. Sometimes it means asking my husband to listen—he is patient, and honest, and knew up front what he was getting himself in to. But mostly, it means finding a live show. In Chicago, there are several; storytelling events and curated performances and open mics in theaters, festivals, and bars. They’re happening every night, sometimes three or four a night, and there’s something magical about standing in front of those fifty or hundred or five hundred people and trusting the story; grabbing, gripping, holding. Their faces are the most immediate form of feedback. Are they laughing? Crying? Is the silence so heavy you could slice it? When did I lose them, what did I do to get them back, and—here is the important part—how does all of this translate to literary craft: pacing, structure, movement, tense, point of view, character, character, character? When I’m off the mike and back in my seat, I make notes—what did I learn from this performance and how will it influence my rewriting process? Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum; I’m writing to share, and these moments of audience connection are everything—all of us face-to-face, eye-to-eye, on the edge of our seats and living the experience together."
—Megan Stielstra, author of Once I Was Cool (Curbside Splendor, 2014)
"Inspiration surfaces when I work with my hands. I garden. I rake until my arms ache. I tug ivy vines and roots rise with explosions of dirt, and with them, a revelation about my novel-in-progress rises in my silent labor-occupied mind. I knit baby blanket after baby blanket, the click-clacking of the knitting needles a metronome keeping time with my thoughts. As a child, I kept my mind busy with books and television. I read in math class. At the dinner table. On the school bus. My parents believed TV was educational and so the set was on all day. These mind-occupying distractions provided a respite from the what ifs that cycled through my mind—the irrational fears that accompany the obsessive-compulsive disorder I’d be diagnosed with as an adult. Writing became a delicious diversion only because it afforded the ultimate escape from my relentless worries—“the trance.” Now, as a mother, writer, and workshop director, it’s challenging to find quiet time, but busy-ness is how we obsessives survive. I’ve spent most of my life seeking distraction to escape the silent mind, but it is necessary to a writer’s vision. I have to work, literally, to accept the quietude my writer’s mind craves. Gardening. Knitting. Cleaning up my children’s Legos. Vacuuming—the whirr of the motor meditative. Even scrubbing the kitchen sink divulges. The mystery of a character’s motivation is revealed, and I drop the sponge and run to my desk to jot down a few notes."
—Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press, 2014)
"I write with my whole body. It's best if I'm alone because surely I look like a maniac. Forget coffee shops. Librarians have eyed me warily. Even though I don't write longhand, I still have a physical relationship to the process of writing. I tap, sway, and chew through sentences. (Gum is handy; otherwise I'll gnaw through pen caps.) I stand up, pace, sit, dither, and bounce. I bob my head. I open doors and windows. My tongue is always out. It is not a solemn process. It is not graceful or serene or pretty. Writing is wild. Frenetic. Maybe I am forcing blood to the brain. Maybe I am pulling images from air. Maybe it's my way of finding and harnessing rhythm. In any case, there must be something to it because I can't write in any other way. Moving my body keeps my brain focused and awake. I think I must look the way small children do—all that uncontrollable energy sending them into spasms. I don't generally move through the world like this, thankfully, but I suspect it helps me tap into something more primal and unkempt, which resonates with the gut love I have for this work."
—Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press, 2014)
"Whenever I’m feeling stuck or stale in my writing, I find that the proverbial walk in the woods offers everything from relief to inspiration. When my subject is too raw, I’m soothed by the solitude of the forest—solitude meaning alone without the page staring me in the face. When I feel like my writing is lacking texture or isn’t visual enough, I get outside and try to run through all my senses—what scents are in the air? What sounds? Getting my legs moving, feeling the prickerbushes rip at my arms, the sharp glare of the sun or snap of wind in my face all offer a physicality that jolts me out of the rote rhythm of writing, that computer cocoon. My husband, Mark Milroy, is an artist and I also like to look at his landscapes for this same awakening effect. I call him a nonfiction painter and I know firsthand most of the views where he paints his landscapes. Yet I am always astounded by what he sees. His work has changed the way I see—the layering of hills, the purple of a field, the strange rectangular angle of an oncoming ocean wave. His skies are never simply blue, his grass never simply green. It took me a while to realize the same is true in real life—a fundamental realization for a nonfiction writer!"
—Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town (PublicAffairs, 2008)
"I’m not so much interested in things like plot and character and pacing and all that other literary nonsense, but rather the discrete quanta with which those things are built: Words. I like that the little music in a single word can, by its placement, or its very presence, beautify or corrupt the sentence that bears it; that the resulting sentence can test the truth of its paragraph, the paragraph of its page, the page of its chapter, and so on, until the success of an entire work seems to hinge on the single word by which the writer was originally seduced. Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic. But you see where I’m going with this. A punchy gem found in, say, a dictionary of eighteenth-century maritime slang can be as inspiring for me as the rhythms in The Waste Land can inspire other writers; a fun new word—something like 'mimp' or 'pourparlers'—can even pull me out of the oblivion of a long stretch of writer’s block, and make a blank sheet of paper seem no longer infinite and forbidding, but bright, open, and invitational."
—Bill Cotter, author of The Parallel Apartments (McSweeney's Books, 2014)