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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.

Justin Taylor

posted 2.16.11

“Don't take notes. This is counterintuitive, but bear with me. You only get one shot at a first draft, and if you write yourself a note to look at later then that's what your first draft was—a shorthand, cryptic, half-baked fragment. When I am working full-time on a piece (story, novel, review—whatever), I find it excruciating to be out somewhere and have some relevant-seeming idea and not be able to add it to the manuscript right away. It is very hard not to reach for the notebook, but the discipline is a great teacher, and it quickly became a kind of game. I would spin out sentences and paragraphs—entire scenes and chapters—in my head, then just let them go. I learned that the important, useful stuff came back when I could sit down for a proper work session, and that what stayed gone was the junk I would have cut anyway. Whether it re-occurred to me or not became the first test of whether the idea was worth exploring. I think I read somewhere that Marilynne Robinson does this too, which, if it's true, is about as solid an endorsement as you could ask for."
Justin Taylor, author of The Gospel of Anarchy (HarperPerennial, 2011)

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Aimee Nezhukumatathil

posted 2.09.11

“I love turning to field guides, old issues of National Geographic, or biology textbooks to get a jump start when the writing comes slow. Just last week, I read how the hagfish can produce a whole bucket’s worth of slime in minutes if it gets agitated. Of all the magical plants and animals in the sea, the hagfish is the most unpopular, the most disgusting—the one that makes children burst into tears. And if that isn’t enough, it is the only fish without vertebrae, so it can literally tie itself into a knot to bulge out and pop the small mouths of fish that dare try to eat it. Don’t you admire the clever slip and wriggle? Imagine that as you sit down. Now write.”
Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of Lucky Fish (Tupelo Press, 2011)

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Jacob Paul

posted 2.02.11

“The time I spend in the saddle on long bicycle tours—day after day, with no clear sense of where I might camp or buy food or shower—influences my writing process. To keep pedaling I have to stop thinking about how far I’ve gone, or how fast I’m going, or what lies ahead. When I can do that in the saddle, I can also do it at the computer. So, when I get stuck with my writing, as I did this past summer between acts four and five of my new novel, I hit the road. I write on rest days in coffee shops or diners or on campground picnic tables. And when I get home, the benefits last awhile. I can sit for a few hours and produce, without worrying about how many pages are behind or ahead.”
Jacob Paul, author of Sarah/Sara (Ig Publishing, 2010)

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Dan Gutstein

posted 1.26.11

“When I’m feeling a bit blue as a writer, I give myself an arts assignment, one that often features ‘categorical’ elements. A few years ago, for example, I decided to create a compilation of jump-blues music. I listened to several thousand songs, and in the process, found the compilation—more than 120 recordings, more than 150 songs—expanding to a seventh compact disc. Jump music rocks more than most rock music, reminding me to be entertaining, at the very least, when I read in front of audiences, and the ordering of the songs within the compilation reminded me how pieces—poems, stories—often need to speak to each other, in collections. This is saying nothing of the mid-song tenor sax jumps, guitar jumps, etcetera, as well as the lyrics that brought many salty characters and situations to light. I will often play these songs, like a jukebox, in my mind, and the rhythms creep into my language.”
Dan Gutstein, author of Non/Fiction (Edge Books, 2010)

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Heather Sellers

posted 1.19.11

“The bath. Endlessly, luxuriously, the tub. I write almost every morning and after an hour or two or three or (if I’m very lucky) four, I run out of road. And then I know it’s time. I gather up my pages, a book or three of poetry (lately Marianne Boruch, Shakespeare, James Tate, Hopkins, Emily Dickinson), the New Yorker (just in case), some reliable crutches—the Paris Review or Best American anything—and a couple of pens. And I set all that on the commode, which seems so wrong and disorderly, but it’s perfect. Hot water, three drops of lavender oil, maybe salts. No soap. Never soap. This isn’t about sanitation or cleansing. It’s about sinking. It’s about depth and quietness and suspended animation. It’s about a pristine and captured hour. I step into my steaming tub, read over my pages. My glasses fog up. The pages puff and curl. I set them on the edge. I read or don’t read. As I relax and melt, whatever stopped me in my tracks earlier, up in the studio, might transform into something else. Sometimes I don’t even look at any of the stuff I drag in there. It takes it’s own parallel bath.”
Heather Sellers, author of You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know (Riverhead Books, 2010)

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Matt Stewart

posted 1.12.11

"Dog walks with no iPhone access force me to pay attention to San Francisco's world-class characters, who are wonderfully weird and story provoking. I recently saw a shirtless Jesus doppelgänger playing drums while riding a beach cruiser uphill, which has already made it into my next novel. Also, there's nothing like difficult, mindless stationary cycling for plot breakthroughs, and loud heavy metal."

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Belle Boggs

posted 1.04.11

“I have a small loft in my house where I write; I like being up high with my laptop and a few books. For me, reading is the best way to get excited about writing, but I love to read so much that it has to be something I’ve read before, or something very short, or else I’ll spend all my working time reading instead of writing. Just rereading part of a favorite story can make me feel desperate to write.

“When I can’t make it to my loft because I’m working or because life gets in the way, I’ll think of the end of Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” Not the stunning last lines but the dates—1953–1954—marking the start and completion of that story, the first she ever published (in 1955, at the age of forty-three). Or I’ll remember Edward P. Jones’s matter-of-fact description of the ten years in which The Known World lived only in his head while he worked at Tax Notes. Thinking about the struggles of my favorite writers is comforting, giving me permission to struggle a little in my own life and with my work. But then I’ll reread their work, and the desire to write will be just as urgent.”
Belle Boggs, author of Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press, 2010)

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Shane Jones

posted 12.22.10

"Listen to rap music. There's a certain level of surprise, bright color, loudness, and just plain fun in artists like DOOM (who I mostly listen to, and used to get me going on my last book) that can bleed into your writing in interesting and creative ways. I also think rap culture can be inspiring. I have the word DOLLAS written on a pink piece of paper above my desk to remind me to keep working."
Shane Jones, author of Light Boxes (Penguin, 2010)

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Maureen N. McLane

posted 12.15.10

"Music has infiltrated my writing in all manner of ways—most recently I’ve drawn on the ballad tradition (“Lamkin” Child No. 93, and “The Three Ravens” Child Ballad No. 26), troubadour songs (Guillaume de Machaut’s “Douce Dame”), and German lieder. Something about the
rhythms of refrains, their returns with a difference, has proven to be a powerful resource for thinking about memory, repetition, and transformation. Perhaps this is linked with other rhythmic practices I find incredibly mind-clearing and mind-focusing—walking and swimming. Wordsworth and Coleridge composed many of their poems while walking; I find a steady stride really does move the mind along, and the work-in-progress forward."
Maureen N. McLane, author of World Enough (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

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E. C. Osondu

posted 12.08.10

“I didn’t look forward to the long trek in the sun to my grandfather’s farm which was at least a two mile walk. We typically started out early with the dew still fresh on the leaves. On reaching the farm we dropped off a few things in the farm hut and then off we went to work. Each person had an apportioned area to weed. The sun shining, relentless, an occasional breeze soothing. Someone would start a song, a work song. Another would take it up. The song would fade…work, work, work. Meanwhile Grandfather had disappeared. And then about midday the call from Grandpa. We made haste to the farm hut. Spread out before us was a feast of roasted yams, roasted plantains, vegetable sauce, boiled corn, pears, paw-paw, and clean, sweet water from the stream. Food had never tasted so good. I inspire myself to write by setting up a reward for myself. After the drudgery of writing, something to look forward to, some delight awaiting me at the end of my labors.”
E. C. Osondu, author of Voice of America (Harper, 2010)

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