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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 I was a writer, I was a traveler; as it turned out, almost all of my stories (and unfinished novels, and bad poems, and personal essays) evolved from journeying away from home. A misunderstanding on an oppressively hot, chaotic Bangkok street; a hurried descent from the high-altitude salt plains of the Atacama desert; a tequila- and sweat-soaked salsa party in the courtyard of a Yucatan peninsula hostel; and an impromptu fly-fishing lesson in a remote, swollen Montana river have all made their way into stories. Sometimes a scrap of overheard dialogue is the spark; often it’s a character based on someone I’ve met—the driver of that Jeep in the Atacama desert, or the irate Thai police officer trying to tug the camera out of my hand. My novel, The Movement of Stars, began when I picked up a tourist flyer on the Nantucket ferry in 1996 (“Come and see the home of the famous girl astronomer from Nantucket!”). Her small, grey-shingled house; the sandy street; the image of a girl, in a grey dress, on her roof, every night, searching for something elusive in the night sky, something that would change her life: They held me in thrall for fifteen years, until the story was told. Parenthood has pretty much grounded all my flights these days, but the well of places that inspire me has yet to run dry."
—Amy Brill, author of The Movement of Stars (Riverhead, 2013)
"I listen to music (with lyrics!) when I write, and I often need coffee and chocolate to get me into the chair. There’s all that, yes. But at the risk of sounding like an Om-loving yoga teacher, I have to admit that, lately, what’s inspired me to write is feeling grateful. Grateful for my family, for my friends, for my health, for this apartment, for this desk, for the washing machine churning in the other room, for this cup of coffee growing cold next to me. I’m grateful to have this opportunity to write. Grateful that writing is a thing at all. Grateful that sentences can do what they do—produce meaning, offer me beauty, wisdom, tension, make me laugh. I mean, wow, right?"
—Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me (Nouvella, 2010)
“When it comes to inspiration, I’m an omnivore, an art whore: I’ll take it wherever I can get it. I come from a previous incarnation as a visual artist, so I see writing not as some sort of alchemy apart but as just another way of telling stories: of finding truths, of cutting through the quotidian, of—to blatantly steal from Joni Mitchell—“touching souls.” Yes, I know she was referring to love, but I’ve always experienced the best art, in whatever medium, as acts of simultaneous aggression and love. (There’s a reason Matthew Barney called his series The Cremaster Cycle, okay?) A random sampling of my most recent couplings: I saw Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities and couldn’t move for ten minutes after the audience filed out; I read Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels and wandered around bereft, as if in mourning, when I was done; I went to a concert by The National and felt what I imagine others feel for Jesus; I randomly came into contact with four of Richard Rogers’ buildings over the course of three days (the Pompidou, the River Café, his house, and Heathrow’s Terminal 5) and felt permanently transformed; I downloaded Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz followed by Lena Dunham’s Girls followed by Tig Notaro’s Tig Notaro Live—legally! I paid for them! People, you must pay for your art or you want have any more of it—and wanted to reach through my iPad to hug them all; I keep Robert Frank’s The Americans easily accessible next to my dining room table, in case I need to commune with him over breakfast. Ditto for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. If I’m feeling frisky, I’ll play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or Radiohead’s “Reckoner” or U2’s “One” or Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” as I’m drowning my Cheerios in milk. Works and artists like these set the bar for me. They say to me, 'Here’s what’s possible, lowly cereal muncher. Now sit your ass down and contribute.’”
—Deborah Copaken Kogan, author of The Red Book (Hyperion, 2012)
"I go surfing, which isn't so much an inspiration as something that clears away the many impediments to inspiration. I don't think about writing while I'm in the water. I give myself over completely to the sublunary experience of weather, water, and waves. It's often cold—the best season here is winter—and the ocean is not always hospitable. In real surf you confront your fears and recognize your limits. Your awareness is total and local; you can only ride the wave you're on, not the many wave-pictures you carry around in your head. I never come out of the water with an idea for a story or a solution for a narrative problem. Surfing is useless that way. But what it does for me—and this part is invaluable—is clean my mental clock. In essence, it reminds me, down to my bones, that I'm only a single human being on the planet earth, a link in a human chain, itself an infinitesimal link in the great chain-mail fabric of the universe. My many anxieties about time and significance dissolve, and I can get to work."
—Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
"I never go searching for inspiration to write, especially when it comes to short stories; if I’m not moved to write I create in some other way, like drawing or painting or designing botanical arrangements. When I feel that smack that says write, these visual creations often inform my descriptions, characters, and topics. Years ago I was thrilled to learn that one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Bishop, had also painted, and I received a book of these paintings titled Exchanging Hats. They are spirited, loving homages to scenes and spaces of her life, including a whimsical 'E. Bishop’s Patented Slot Machine' that makes me giggle every time I look at it and reminds me to try to add a bit of play into everything I create."
—Kate Hill Cantrill, author of Walk Back From Monkey School, (Press 53, 2012)
"My writing influences are mainly photographs and music and they always convey a somewhat dark mood. I stare at landscape photographs by Michael Light or David Maisel just to let my brain settle and prepare to write. Once I clear away the debris from the day, I can start channeling the voices of my characters. I also listen to music while I'm writing and almost always one album on repeat for an entire night. Usually I'm listening to my fiancé Jon DeRosa's ambient/drone project "Aarktica," because it's not lyric-heavy and I can get lost in it. I recommend his album In Sea. I also listen to Rachel's for the same reason. Their album Music for Egon Schiele is great to write to and on heavy rotation at my house. It's moody music with strings, but isn't obtrusive to the writing process at all. It's really interesting to see how different songs and albums on repeat influence the outcome of my chapters."
—Karolina Waclawiak, author of How to Get Into the Twin Palms (Two Dollar Radio, 2012)
"All my good writing comes out of vulnerability. The other stuff, the stuff that came from cleverness or vanity—I wish I could throw it all out. I am terribly vulnerable to nature and I love to fish. I have a favorite creek in western Colorado. There is so much excitement and loss—sometimes for the fish, if he is pan-sized; for me when he gets away. And the loss of the day as evening settles, and the quietness that allows many other losses to be remembered and felt. And beauty. And gratitude. And focus. Intense focus on moving water, which swirls and silvers and blackens and moves back on itself. On wind. As I focus on those, the circle of awareness somehow expands outward to take in the steep banks of dark spruce, their smell, a kingfisher, the flags of Spanish moss, the shoulders of the mountain upstream. Then I crack open. The whole world is in the circle with all of its heartbreak and beauty and I have cried while I fished and never been happier. Go figure. If I can’t fish I read the poets of the late Tang—Li Po, Wang Wei, Li Shang Yin. They can put me there in a moment, knee-deep in a stream, up in the tearing clouds of the mountains. They are aficionados of loss, and they make me feel vulnerable and stricken and full of joy. That is a good place to write from."
—Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars (Knopf, 2012)
"Once upon a time, I had no habit for writing, and I waited to feel like writing. Recalling the advice of my college psych professor, I decided to invent an association to teach myself to feel like writing. I settled on sound, because I am a stickler for total psychological privacy. At first it was a fan; now, I use the free White Noise Lite app on my iPhone. I set it to the sound of airplane travel––a steady, polyphonous static––and I put on my admittedly oversized headphones, and my brain begins to think: I should be writing. If I find myself distracted, I turn off the sound so that I can keep the habit strong. It’s ingrained now––I am both Pavlov and his dog."
—Hanna Pylväinen, author of We Sinners (Henry Holt, 2012)
"Film is very different from fiction—I’m always reminding my graduate students of this—but every so often a movie comes along that captures with full force what you’re trying to do as a novelist. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is just such a movie. Quiet and character-driven, it made me want to sit down and write when I first saw it twelve years ago, and it still does that to me. My friend Joel Lovell wrote about it recently in the New York Times Magazine, which made me go back and watch it again. The scene Lovell quotes, when the character 'Terry' is talking to his young nephew, reminds me of what good fiction does, and how so much good fiction captures adults behaving like children and children, therefore, forced to behave like adults. In any case, it’s a movie that reminds me of why I’m a writer, that makes me want to get back to work, and get back to work, and get back to work some more."
—Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012)
"There are two visual artists, diametrically opposed in their intent, who I look to for inspiration. First is the photographer Gregory Crewdson. His extravagantly staged photos are mysterious and dark and often suggest relationships or the very recent loss of relationships. Crewdson, the son of a psychiatrist, has said in an interview that his work is driven by a need to imagine and understand what his father was talking to patients about in his basement office. The people in his photos appear so closed off, tight-lipped. They seem to be struggling with submerged emotions. Faced with a Crewdson image, I find myself looking for the story. On the other end of the spectrum is one of my favorite painters, Mark Rothko, who famously said that the subject of painting is painting. His colorscapes offer me a place of ease. I don’t question and wonder and strive to make a story when I stand in front of a Rothko, I just absorb and rest."
—Natalie Serber, author of Shout Her Lovely Name (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)