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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.

Rickey Laurentiis

posted 9.17.15

“I take my cue from visual artists, who can spend an entire career consumed by a singular shape, or color, or a set of strokes, meticulously working through ‘the problem’ canvas by canvas with no or very little or only very subtle changes. Think of Rothko, as example. Think Glenn Ligon’s textual paintings. Think Jay DeFeo’s ‘The Rose.’ This is a way of saying that visual art taught me to trust my obsessions. First, that it was fine to have them, to be preoccupied or even haunted by them. Second, that it was perhaps even healthiest to admit that they do have presence. Lastly, that I could use these obsessions, again and again, in my work, reinterrogating their meanings and histories. This isn’t license to write the same poem ad infinitum—heaven forbid! But it is permission to allow myself the pleasure/burden of their company, of remaining alert to the handful of themes or topics or images that truly arrest me and don’t give way to easy conclusions. Desire; the fact of the (gendered) body; the dark; the assault of history; water; race; our failures and triumphs of the imagination: all these are subjects that will always be there spiraling in my head, and who knows why. They are ideas that I can at least remember are there at those anxious moments I’m willing to believe in a thing like ‘writer’s block.’ But writer’s block, simply speaking, doesn’t exist if one’s willing to look back at all she’s done and—realizing knowledge is always limited—thinks, ‘Nope, I need to try this again.’”
—Rickey Laurentiis, author of Boy With Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)

Patrick Wensink

posted 9.10.15

“A mess. I need an absolute, total, tsunami-like mess on my desk to be productive. I cannot be creative when things are neat and tidy. Oddly enough, my work does not fit any sort of neat and tidy structure. I avoid pre-planning by figuring a book out as I go along and groom all the wreckage into shape later. Currently on my small maple desk is a laptop; three paintings my three-year-old son made at summer camp; a giraffe sculpture he also made; eight children's books; a biography of children's author Ellen Raskin; five novels for grownups—including a copy of my latest, Fake Fruit Factory, with its front cover blown off by M-80 firecrackers (a casualty of the book trailer filming); a faux Tiffany lamp that is not plugged in; a picture frame and a print of a cat wearing 3-D glasses I intended to put together and give to my friend, MacKenzie, at Christmas eight months ago; a Breathe Right strip still in its package; stacks of notes and notepads; some CDs; and a book called Magic Tricks & Card Tricks. My wife hates this salvage yard of an office I have carved out, but I love it. I feel comfortable amongst all this information and history and strangeness. When I feel comfortable, I can work. And when I work, I am less of a grouch. Thank you, mess!”
—Patrick Wensink, author of Fake Fruit Factory (Curbside Splendor, 2015)

Robert James Russell

posted 9.03.15

“I have an insatiable appetite for movies—they were my gateway to the creative world when I was a kid, long before books were. Books, I can’t live without books, but movies help my brain wrap around an idea, help me put it all into pictures that I can translate into words. When I’m starting a new manuscript I find a movie, something that speaks to the general feeling or atmosphere of what I’m going to be exploring (for Mesilla I was inspired by All Is Lost and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). I write down scenes, copy them verbatim, and study the pacing of the language. I examine how long the shots are held and what they’re showing us, the viewer. And then I root around and find a soundtrack for my writing, something that I will listen to incessantly and that will immediately bring me back into the writing—I hear that music, I remember the visuals, and zoom, I’m off. Movies and music ultimately supply my writing with a tangibility that makes the process, the ideas, that much more real, even at the very early stages of drafting and character mapping.”
—Robert James Russell, author of Mesilla (Dock Street Press, 2015)

Tanwi Nandini Islam

posted 8.27.15

“When I’m feeling stuck, on a chapter, on a character’s next move, I’ll have a destination in mind to clear my head. It’s usually the waterfront around sunset. But I always take a roundabout way, on some sort of open-ended scavenger hunt. Sometimes I’ll take photos on my phone, or collect found objects for my desk. It depends on whether I’m feeling visual or more tactile. I’ll bring a journal to record interesting details: a biker’s shadow on the side of a bridge, milkweed bursting out of an abandoned lot, spray painted rocks, the different languages I’m hearing. I’m very multimedia as a visual artist, and writing is no different for me. I’ll collage photos in my journal, arrange the found objects on my writing desk, and create a visual catalog of inspiration when crafting a story. By forcing myself to observe and be intimate with my everyday surroundings, I witness the familiar in a new way. By the time I get to the waterfront, I have a whole bevy of images to get me back into my work. I can meditate and see the city staring back at me, muted by the sunlit water.”
—Tanwi Nandini Islam, author of Bright Lines (Penguin Books, 2015)

Colin Winnette

posted 8.20.15

“I haven’t found any particular thing to be a consistently reliable source of inspiration. If there’s any consistency, it’s that it’s always something different. With Gainesville (Atticus Books, 2013), I listened to “Honey Hi” by Fleetwood Mac on repeat. I wrote every word of that story to that song. With Haints Stay, it was the band Earth and the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood. With the book I’m working on now, I’ve been watching scenes from Punch Drunk Love out of order, and—but in order—An Autumn Afternoon directed by Yasujirō Ozu. When I find something that works, I stay with it until it stops working. But if something works for a particular project, I can’t ever return to it—it becomes too closely associated with that project. I don’t want any of my books to feel too much like any other, so I force myself to accept the frustration and fear of not knowing what’s going to click when. That might be the thing I revisit the most: a voice in my head (or a recording, or an alarm clock) programmed to remind me to be patient, no matter how many times I fail.”
—Colin Winnette, author of Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio, 2015)

Jill Talbot

posted 8.06.15

“I went to see the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) in 2002. Sitting alone in the dark, I heard the opening notes of Philip Glass while I followed Virginia Woolf to the river, and I wept, not at Woolf’s urgency, but at the score. In the liner notes of the soundtrack Cunningham explains, ‘Glass and Woolf have both broken out of the traditional realm of the story, whether literary or musical, in favor of something more meditative, less neatly delineated, and more true to life.’ He continues, ‘For me, Glass can find in three repeated notes something of the strange rapture of sameness.… We are creatures who repeat ourselves, we humans, and if we refuse to embrace repetition—if we balk at art that seeks to praise its textures and rhythms, its endless subtle variations—we ignore much of what we mean by life itself.’ These qualities—continuation, meditation, and repetition—are all qualities I work toward in my writing and the reason I often write to the soundtrack of The Hours. The compression and articulation of those three notes churning, ever churning, helps me to play such variations in my essays, so much so that I feel I write best when I write inside Glass’s notes.”
—Jill Talbot, author of The Way We Weren’t (Soft Skull Press, 2015)

Dean Bakopoulos

posted 7.30.15

“While finishing Summerlong, I found myself in perhaps the bleakest emotional landscape of my life, negotiating a blindsiding divorce with my wife of seventeen years. While my therapist and well-intentioned friends suggested I do happy things, I knew my work-in-progress required me to go into the darkness that self-help wisdom told me to avoid. Always exhausted and sleep-deprived, and on more than one occasion hung over, I would wake up from terrible nightmares each morning, get the kids off to school, then get the dog from his kennel, and wander the timber and pastures behind my house. In those months, I listened to one song on perpetual repeat, “RE: Stacks,” off of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Very often tears fell down my face when Justin Veron’s plaintive falsetto finally asked, “Whatever could it be. That has brought me to this loss?” Every morning that song destroyed me a little more than I was already destroyed, and put me even deeper into the terrifying darkness. I would come back to the empty house, feed the dog, brew the coffee, and with lines like, “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization,” echoing in my head, I could stay in that sad space until well after lunch, working at my desk, reworking a book that had become unintentionally autobiographical. Somehow, it made a huge difference to me that another artist, also in the deepening cold of the rural Midwest, had felt the same kind of heartbreak I was feeling and had made something beautiful out of it.”
—Dean Bakopoulos, author of Summerlong (Ecco, 2015)

Angela Flournoy

posted 7.23.15

“The logistical aspects of writing—figuring out how a character gets from point A to point B, or how two plotlines intersect—can spur anxiousness in me that leads to hours of avoidance. When I get to sections like these, I try to cook or bake something. I was not a frequent cook before beginning my novel The Turner House, a book with multiple storylines and over a dozen characters, but cooking has now become integral to me staying sane while working out the nuts and bolts of a narrative. When I’m deep into a writing problem with no easy solution, making a meal is a way for me to guarantee that I complete at least one task from start to finish each day. The improvisation that comes with making a sauce or substituting ingredients ensures that I’m still using the creative parts of my brain. On the other hand, I enjoy baking because of its precision: I plug in the right ingredients, set the oven to the right temperature, and magic happens (usually) without fail. I can knead dough and think about my characters, whip eggs and work out point of view shifts. Eating is also a happy bonus.”
—Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Rebecca Dinerstein

posted 7.16.15

“The great chess and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin talks about ‘stress and recovery’ in his book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (Free Press, 2007). I think this theory of balance can help a writer as much as it helps an athlete. I tried to convert the ‘stress’ phase of writing into a ritual: wake up at eight, drink a cup of coffee, eat a bowl of yogurt, start working. I found the experience of being in the middle of a novel so uncomfortable—so much like treading water halfway across a river—I wanted to get to the other shore as fast as possible. So I wrote a thousand words a day. Keeping this pace helped me finish a draft which gave me something I could hold on to and show people for comments, and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I needed to embrace the stress of the work, so that I could get something done, but equally essential was embracing recovery. That’s where delight comes in handy. It’s crucial to know what brings you delight: whether it’s the view out a certain window, a Ciara music video, gooey pizza, or exchanging bitmojis with a friend. Take care of yourself, so you can stare down the next day's stress. That's the only way the cycle works.”
—Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Naomi Jackson

posted 7.09.15

“I am a cultural carnivore, a dually satisfying and frustrating way to be in New York City, where a clone would be useful to see all the art, plays, films, music, and dance that I would otherwise miss. A brief but eye-opening stint working at the Studio Museum in Harlem exposed me to the work of artists from around the African diaspora. I’ve had the good fortune of working with an incredible crew of visual artists recently. Sheena Rose is the dynamic Barbadian artist whose work appears on the cover of my debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. I am working on a screenplay adaptation of my short story, 'Ladies,' in collaboration with Barbadian filmmaker Lisa Harewood. Simone Leigh is a sculptor whose Tilton Gallery show, 'Moulting,' still haunts me. I wrote an essay for Waiting Room magazine as part of Leigh’s Creative Time project, the Free People’s Medical Clinic. I loved appearing in Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s performance art piece in Austin, Texas, one hundred black women, one hundred actions; I regularly look to Ogunji’s gorgeous, ethereal works on paper for inspiration. My partner, Lola Flash, aside from being a renowned portrait photographer featured in the film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of the People, captured my headshot as well as my book launch—she is the only photographer who can get me to smile when I don’t feel like it. When the writing is going slowly (or even when it’s going well), I recommend getting your head out of a book and into another art form.”
—Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, 2015)

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