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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.
“I take inspiration from the subtle daily forecasting of death. This should be impetus for anyone to get off his ass. Work is why we're here, and to waste an hour of any day, fretting or worrying or procrastinating, is to release into the air the odor of death. Emerson said, ‘To fill the hour—that is happiness.’ I try to fill the hour. And by filling the hour, the ones that follow come easier. Inspiration, then, is its own inspiration. But I must beware of why I work. ‘You have the right to work,’ it’s written in the Bhagavad Gita, ‘but for the work's sake only.’ And a little later: ‘Those who work selfishly for results are miserable.’ Here's inspiration, and good advice as well. And should the greatest fear come to pass, that I die in the middle of writing a novel? For that I have the comfort of Rabbi Tarphon's advice in the Saying of the Fathers: ‘It is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’”
—Joshua Ferris, author of The Unnamed (Arthur Books, 2010)
"Sometimes typos can be helpful. Looking at a poem in a language you can't read, and working from the sounds. Taping poems on the wall and leaving them there for days—maybe something will come, just from looking at them, over time. Words from a dream. Within the last few months I heard: ‘Will it solve itself?' And the answer: ‘When you are gone.' I took this to mean: When the ‘I' who is trying to solve it (whatever ‘it' is) backs off."
—Jean Valentine, author of Break the Glass (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
“As Jerome Washington wrote, 'The blues is our antidote.’ So I listen. Blues doctors like Neal Pattman inspire something in a writer’s blood. Anyone who can play harmonica like he can, with one arm no less, will get me going. And inevitably my sons will hear 'Momma Whoopin’ Blues’ and start asking questions. I show them the CD cover and they ask more questions and I explain how he lost his arm in a wagon wheel accident as a boy and they ask even more questions. Our give-and-take reveals my sons to be beautifully strange, loving, and profound little fellows, even if they are six years old and younger. The blues is my antidote. The mind of a child is everything else.”
—Glenn Taylor, author of The Marrowbone Marble Company (Ecco, 2010)
"To get my mind ready for writing, I try to sit quietly and stare at nothing for ten minutes. It clears away the Salt-n-Pepa lyrics and staircase wit that have been clogging up the channels. After the silence, if I'm at a critical juncture, I then listen to records from Sublime Frequencies—a label specializing in a kind of post-field recording ethnomusicology—and try to transcribe what I hear. This doesn't often result in work for the ages, but it's a good reminder that the best writing comes from outside."
—Travis Nichols, author of Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (Coffee House Press, 2010)
“José Martí wrote, ‘In the world there must be certain degrees of honor just as there must be certain degrees of light. When there are many men without honor, there are always others who bear in themselves the honor of many men.’ What inspires me are the men and women who bear in themselves the ‘honor’ of survival—men like the brothers I taught at Graterford Prison, reconnoitering their lives after having fought in Vietnam; young mothers dragging their children around corners of fatigue at the end of the day, looking neither left nor right. What inspires me is how we make one another see ourselves as we rise up to tell our stories. And survive. What inspires me, I guess, are women—from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, South America, the Middle East, Europe, America. So listen to our talk, walk, accents, smiles, silences, songs.”
—Sonia Sanchez, author of Morning Haiku (Beacon Press, 2010)
"I've figured out things that were stonewalling me during cross-country drives, and usually when I'm trying to pull an all-nighter to avoid traffic and get there in less time—maybe it's all the caffeine and the mesmerizing white lines in the middle of the road. I keep a recorder or a yellow pad on the passenger seat and I talk into the recorder or write on the pad with one hand in big letters because I'm not looking at the pad and want to be sure I can read what I wrote later on. (This is not exactly safe, but it has worked.) In day-to-day writing, I also keep a pad and, lately, lots of index cards on hand so that when I remember something or something hits me I can write it down and take it home to the story I'm working on. I like to write whole scenes longhand for instant momentum—with no blank page or screen, you can roll right in."
—Brad Watson, author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (Norton, 2010)
"Nothing inspires me like the imagination in a vacuum. I always pick the most closet-like, even coffin-like, space in the house for my writing room. No windows, no photos, no 'stuff.' I never play any music, I don't have an inspiration board, I disable the internet, and the cell is always off. The outside world is far too tempting. If I go out for a run, suddenly the body is of paramount concern; if I listen to my favorite music, I won't be able to shake the imprints out of my head; if I watch a great movie, I'm seduced by images. I have to stay put with my project when I'm with-project. Fortunately, my projects always require little research and much imagination work—maybe memory excavation at best. But if you're going to ask kids to finger paint, you don't put Van Gogh's ‘Sunflowers' before them. They don't need Erik Satie. They don't need a long jog. They don't require a Quote of the Day from Rilke. There is no need to warm up. What made me fall in love with writing in the first place was that we have all the equipment we need in us—we don't need anything else."
—Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic, 2007)
"More and more my foremost, abiding desire is to write books of a surpassing strangeness, and to do this I've had to hold closely to Joyce's famous adage of silence, cunning, and exile every day. This means I have to show up at the desk each day before dawn, and so I do like a poor man showing up for a rather mysterious handout, lighting a candle in his tattered cardigan as he sits over an illuminated screen, aware the entire time that this love of language is the deepest and most consistently astonishing thing he knows."
—Robert Vivian, author of Lamb Bright Saviors (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
"These are the things that make me want to be a better writer: the desert sky, the dust storms, the smell of rain, the river that is no longer a river but a border—my entire landscape; the violence that is killing the city of Juárez; opening William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! and finding a passage, then reading it aloud; rereading Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera; reading anything by C. D. Wright, C. K. Williams, Juan Felipe Herrera, or Alberto Álvaro Ríos; listening to the pain and the humor in a Frank O'Hara poem; listening to the music of Nina Simone, Kurt Elling, or Billie Holiday; listening to Paul McCartney's 'The Long and Winding Road' over and over and over; listening to the quiet on a Sunday morning."
—Benjamin Alire Sáenz, author of The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
"For inspiration, I love to go to old, junky antique shops—which there are a lot of here in the South, thankfully—and hunt for a box of old postcards and photos. The messages that people wrote to each other in that fancy handwriting no one has anymore are often so weird or sad or funny. Handmade things are also inspiring to me, so I love to find an old carving or a crappy painting and think about the person who may have made it.
"Writing is a solitary art, sure, but what comes before the writing is not: all of the discussion, observation, interaction, chance encounters, and random bits—it all requires the writer to be out in the world. It's hard to force myself out sometimes, but doing so always gets me writing, eventually."
—Molly Brodak, author of A Little Middle of the Night (University of Iowa Press, 2010)