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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.

Masande Ntshanga

posted 6.15.16

“Whenever I reach a standstill, I find that I’ve detached from a text. I also find that the experience of being stalled isn’t something I receive as negative; it can be a defense against falsehood, in my experience, and against producing material that’s serviceable, but lifeless in the end. I’m of the position that most of my work deals with extremes, at the moment, and whether this is by choice or not, I can’t tell, but I’ve come to accept that I can’t write until I reacquaint myself with the emotional and psychological core of what I’m working on, which is often easier to avoid than to do. However, the act of creating anything with an amount of proficiency is exhilarating, and I usually start by reading the text back from the beginning, and interrogating why I took on the project to begin with. I mine whatever intellectual, emotional, or physical experience that might have inspired it, and then I remind myself of the reward of working through that with fiction. Sometimes, when that well is dry, too, I set out into the world to discover it again from living.”
—Masande Ntshanga, author of The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, 2016)

Ryo Yamaguchi

posted 6.09.16

“Above my desk are the famous lines from Wallace Stevens: ‘In the world of words, / Imagination is one of / The forces of nature.’ Kant would be proud. Or maybe it’s a matter of surrender (while I write this the rains are sweeping like the simplest of songs across the West Side of Chicago). And yet all I can suggest as inspiration is this: practice. Practice is its own kind of surrender, a surrender to the same. Pound would be disappointed. But I think of our good work—the work readers of Poets & Writers Magazine do every single day—as that: a routine, an exercise, a repetition that incrementally seeks. The flexion of image, and sound. The flexion of intent, and understanding. So I work out a line about pelicans, and three days later now they are skimming across a lake that looks like a silicon disc. Nature is the sun rising and falling and rising—intermittent fog. Do you want an example? Watch Werner Herzog’s documentary on the eponymous ski jumper: The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner. Better yet, just watch the opening. The flight, the suspension, the breath held and the body aligned. That is practice. In its terror and beauty. In its accord.”
—Ryo Yamaguchi, author of The Refusal of Suitors (Noemi Press, 2015)

John McCarthy

posted 6.02.16

"If I don’t write for a few days, I feel hungover, like my muscles are tight. Creative and intellectual exertions parallel, for me, physical exertion. Having run cross-country in college, I spent thousands of hours and miles on roads all over Illinois. I still spend a lot of time running, witnessing the landscape, and finding my solitude mirrored by the Midwest. Writing after a run creates a dialectic between landscape and the personal thoughts I want to express. Sometimes it’s the corkscrew-tin gutters beneath a gravel driveway or the cinderblocks lifting up a mobile home. By the time I arrive home, I usually have the outline to a narrative or enough concrete images to form a concept, or intuit something beyond those individual images. Running sheds any internal blockage and allows me to write more emotionally inclusive poems by letting me see more of the world we all live in. My nightstand writers who inspire me include: Julia B. Levine, Sandy Longhorn, Austin Smith, Tracy K. Smith, and Bruce Snider. Their art exemplifies the duality of the mind’s lyrical capability and the physical landscape where my body feels safest and most at home."
—John McCarthy, author of Ghost County (MG Press, 2016)

Amit Majmudar

posted 5.26.16

“Whether it's prose you want to write or poetry, if you're feeling blocked, simply open up Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985) to any page and begin declaiming in a grizzled and jaded voice his otherworldly descriptions of landscape, or Judge Holden’s discussion of chance, or the mules falling down the mountainside with the mercury in their sacks shattering into globes around them, or the static electricity coming off Glanton's murderous gang as they remove their shirts at night. This is not just McCarthy's greatest novel. The real interesting thing about this word-sequence is its nihilistic magic: Blood Meridian is the only literary masterpiece ever to have emerged from nihilism in about four thousand years of human literary activity. Its supercharged simultaneous existence in and above the worlds of fiction and poetry grants it an amphetamine-like ability to activate the verbal centers of the cortex. Be warned, though: Never imitate it.”
—Amit Majmudar, author of Dothead (Knopf, 2016)  

Katie Chase

posted 5.19.16

“My approach to short stories is to think of each as its own world, with its own parameters, and even its own aesthetics. The tradeoff for the fun and satisfaction this brings is that I often find myself between them—it can be difficult to gain momentum with a new idea if I’m not finding the ‘right’ language or feeling inspired by some leap of the imagination. It helps then, to immerse myself in other forms and be reminded of what’s possible in art more generally. Movies, even more so than written fiction, must necessarily make a world concrete. I love the mash-up of present and past that Sofia Coppola achieves in Marie Antoinette, how she collapses an historical figure into a vulnerable child, a teenager who feels contemporary. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a paradigm for probing an audacious premise for what is deep and true, for enlivening a human experience. The practice of staying away from the desk for long periods can gain its own kind of momentum, yet some ideas really do just need more time to be worked out at the desk. Ideally, get several ideas cooking at once. What was half-baked and set aside six months before will suddenly be crackling with urgency.”
—Katie Chase, author of Man and Wife (A Strange Object, 2016)

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)

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