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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.
“Often I thumb through animal books—the National Audubon Society’s field guides to birds and fish almost always shake something loose. For instance my poem 'Parts of a Feather' in Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press, 2009) was inspired by, and depends heavily on, such bird facts. While taking notes for Pot Farm (on site at a California medical marijuana farm), I paged through my eastern birds field guide, reading about the birds I would never see out West. This cleared my head, prepared me to revise my notes and cobble them together into something readable. There’s something about birds and fish in glossy books—their skeletal diagrams, their oddball mating habits—that set me to jotting something down. Right now, I’m motivated by the giant squid. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately after having seen a photo of one in the Smithsonian. Travel also inspires. Last year, my wife and I traveled through India. The car-horn culture there is interesting, and infuriating. There are no rules of the road, at least none that we could detect. Cars shared space with rickshaws; tiny mopeds bearing families of eight, the two infants propped up on the handlebars; oxen; goats; dogs; and pedestrians. Drivers had to sound their horns constantly—not in a ‘get out of my way’ or ‘hurry up’ sort of construct, but as if to declare, feebly and succinctly amid the chaos, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’—as some kind of reminder, reassurance. In writing, I think I’m beeping that horn.”
—Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Pot Farm (University of Nebraska Press, 2012)
"I don’t intentionally scrapbook for inspiration, but that always ends up happening. I will see a graphic or image, or hear a song on the radio, and start to collect them for characters whose perspectives I am about to inhabit. Because I work in text, I find my emotional motivation within these other media. For Kim, in my story collection, We Should Never Meet (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), it was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'American Girl.' For Cam, a character in my novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), it was A Fine Frenzy’s 'Almost Lover.' When I was in France over the summer, I found these writing journals with these gorgeous graphic women on the covers. I bought one for each new character in my next project. With so much of my writing up in a digital cloud, it’s nice to have these tangible elements where I can root my characters."
—Aimee Phan, author of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong
“Lately I’ve been going to the symphony for inspiration. I don’t know classical music well, so most of what happens surprises me. The long segments of developing sounds break me out of my tight verbal boxes of thought. I listen for the emotions, rhythms, and phrasing, and think about how to do this with words. Occasionally a work leaves me stunned, like Arvo Pärt’s "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten." A single chime repeats throughout and silence is written in, reminding me to let my writing breathe. When the string sections intersect and descend through dissonance, I am carried from the announcement of death through grief to acceptance. When the last bell rings, there is clarity, as when the sky suddenly clears after a storm, and I rush home and begin to write.”
—Mark Liebenow, author of Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite (University of Nebraska Press, 2012)
“A common statement, I know, but the best stimulant for writing is reading. When it's prose, I'll turn to rich sentences from Nabokov or F. Scott Fitzgerald. If poetry, I start with the Eastern Europeans (especially Zbigniew Herbert). Otherwise, I often begin with a simple exercise I call ‘negative inversions.’ Find a one-page poem with relatively short lines. In the right-hand margin, invert each line to its opposite. I stumbled down a kudzu-choked ravine becomes I picked my way over the talislope to higher ground. Or: They bloom and loom in cities and no one notices becomes It shrivels and cowers under the tiniest shrub and somehow everyone knows. A half-dozen lines in, the poem takes off on its own and you can abandon the exercise.”
—Sarah Gorham, author of Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011)
"I am inspired by love, which sounds simplistic and dreamy, but in my case is brutally real. My son, Ronan, is nearly two years old and has Tay-Sachs, a disease that is always fatal and results in a slow regression into a vegetative state before death by age three. The kind of love that inspires me is the one that acknowledges the great loss that comes with it—that you can’t have one without the other. This love requires a daily acknowledgment of death-in-life that so many of us try to avoid and that now, as a writer, I face full on, every day. Living with anticipatory grief has made me a more authentic writer, a writer who understands that all the neurotic, spinning thoughts that used to plague me about process, character, plot, and career, pale in comparison to the directive that Ronan has given me: to write like my life depends on it, because his, in fact, does. I am writing the myth of his life, and I’m writing it while looking right at him. So I write in love, but not in romantic love or in puppy love or in the love of bunnies and hearts, but in a blaze of fury and euphoria and necessity."
—Emily Rapp, author of Poster Child (Bloomsbury, 2007)
“When I'm stuck, I daydream my way back to a place that still holds a great deal of emotion for me, and a ritual that used to take place there, lingering on the objects that vibrate and glow with some hidden, deeper meaningI have yet to discover. (To get myself in the right frame of mind, I tend to reread work by Bruno Schulz.) Once I have recreated the ritual on the page, I think about what might happen to threaten or disrupt it.
“I got a much-needed start on my first novel by daydreaming my way back to an idyllic June afternoon in the pool at my family’s hotel. Various stories and essays have been inspired by my deep emotional attachment to the Dictaphone belts and Magic Carbons of the crazy insurance company where I used to work, the rarely used but totally intriguing pop-out cigarette lighter on my parents’ old Pontiac, the heavy double-edged chrome Gillette razor with which I gave my father fake shaves. Sometimes, I focus on a ritual that frightens or disturbs me. But if I haven’t been writing for a while, I’m usually in a foul mood, so I much prefer to daydream myself back a place and time I once loved.”
—Eileen Pollack, author of Breaking and Entering (Four Way Books, 2012)
“Whenever I finish writing a novel, I feel bereft of the characters. I also believe I’ve expended everything I know and have even exhausted my vocabulary. Reading other authors' works—fiction, poetry, essays—helps to replenish my language and jump-start my imagination. Still, facing the blank page or screen is always intimidating, so I try to ‘write’ in my head as long as I can before putting words down. This requires memorizing long blocks of prose until there’s enough to begin with a little confidence. But aging has strained my memory, so I find myself jotting down words on whatever’s handy: my checkbook, the margins of the newspaper, and even the palm of my hand. I really know I’m ready to go when a new set of characters starts lounging in my head like squatters.”
—Hilma Wolitzer, author of An Available Man (Ballantine, 2012)
“Usually when I need to work something out in a poem or a piece of fiction, I go on a walk. If I’m at home I go to one of the parks—Riverside or Central Park. But, walking—and interior conversations in general—can only accomplish so much, so when I’m seeking literary inspiration, I turn to my heroes, one of whom is Mavis Gallant. I read and reread her fiction for the clean, precise, astounding concision of her storytelling, which captures both the vivid atmosphere of the places she’s been, and the bare, grim, beautiful human experience that takes place within them. Sometimes her writing can feel prim and distanced, but she can be very funny, and there is an overarching wisdom in her voice that is at once soothing and dauntingly assured. When she drapes the inevitable shadows, which fall on all her character’s lives, it’s with a gentle and aching grace that leaves you feeling both gutted and gifted. No matter the position of her narration, she always gives the reader everything they need to know in the most astonishing ways, and never with the expectation of applause. She is an intelligent writer who teaches me about economy, humanity, and a female’s view of the world.
“From ‘The Legacy: ‘They stared out of the car at brick façades, seemingly neither moved nor offended by the stunning ugliness of the streets that had held their childhood. Sometimes one of them sighed, the comfortable respiration of one who has wept.’”
—Nathaniel Bellows, author of Why Speak? (Norton, 2007)
"This is going to sound pretty awful, but I'm inspired by humiliation. My own, mostly, but also what I see in the world at large.There's an entire TV industry devoted to humiliation at this point, though I try not to get sucked too deeply into that. Humiliation is such a raw and pervasive human experience. And it's one we're constantly taught to avoid, or at least avoid disclosing. My stories (whether fictionalized or not) are mostly about pushing people into humiliation and seeing them through it. The reason I write 'funny' so much of the time is because the comic impulse is how we forgive our humiliations."
—Steve Almond, author of God Bless America (Lookout, 2011)
"I am currently surrounded by diapers, squeaky toys, and crayons scattered at my feet. This is the life of a working writer/mother. So how does one find inspiration in all of this? A good majority of my time is spent tending to the delicate, magical, maddening, profound needs of my children, both under the age of two and a half years. After the day is done, after the children are asleep, and after I have eaten my one good meal of the day, I take a few deep breaths and I say to myself, 'Put on your shoes.' If I can put on my shoes and my coat, I can then walk the three blocks to the office I rent down the street. If I can note the change in the air, the moon that has decided to appear between the branches hanging sweetly overhead, the hipsters laughing with abandon in front of the bodega; if I can turn the key to my office door, and pour myself a cup of tea; if I can sit myself down at my desk, I’m most of the way there. If I then begin typing, I hear the sweet sounds of the keys and know I’m that much closer to writing a poem. Maybe most of it will be discarded. Maybe some of it will be rescued by the gods."
—Tina Chang, author of Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books, 2011)