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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.

Jim Daniels

posted 8.24.11

“I treasure personal totems. The J. Geils Band’s album Bloodshot came out on red vinyl in 1973, and when I slide that bright record out of the sleeve, it takes me back to when I was a raw poet inspired by their R&B lyrics. Also, the greasy metal sign, “COVER,” that I stole from the assembly line at Ford’s. It hung above my machine while I welded covers onto axle housings. Also, birch bark cut from a tree in Northern Michigan during a family vacation. I wrote my name on it when I was a child. These magical objects take me back to those pivotal times and places to which I sometimes need to return as a writer, and as a person.”
Jim Daniels, author of Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City (Michigan State University Press, 2011)

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Lee Martin

posted 8.17.11

“The raw honesty and the gritty lyricism of any song by Lucinda Williams hotwires me to the ugly beauty of hearts in conflict. Although I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, I listen to it a good deal when I’m done with the page for the day. When I wrote my most recent novel, Break the Skin, I frequently listened to Williams’s song, “World Without Tears.” That song doesn’t flinch in the face of suffering—admits its necessity, even, while celebrating people’s limitless capacity for hope. It took me to my characters and made me want to respond with narrative. The right music often provides that sort of call and response for me.”
Lee Martin, author of Break the Skin (Crown, 2011)

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Melinda Palacio

posted 8.10.11

“I was ten years old before anyone figured out I needed eye glasses. I relied on sounds and was good at memorizing stories and information.
When I was finally able to see that a tree was more than a green blob with a brown trunk and branches, a whole new visual world opened up for me. However, I still gain so much from listening to the sound of words and stories; listening to people read their work aloud always inspires me. The writing can be from beginners, children, or experienced authors who read their work with musical or theatrical cadence. The act of hearing words is transformative. I find myself writing down phrases that catch my attention. Hearing something familiar described in a new way makes me want to be a better writer.”
Melinda Palacio, author of Ocotillo Dreams (Bilingual Press, 2011)

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Evelyn Toynton

posted 8.03.11

"Of all the myriad pronouncements on writing, the truest one, for me, is something the poet Robert Kelly said: ‘Craft is perfected attention.’
Only a poet could have written that, but it is just as applicable to writing fiction. To pay attention, in the fullest sense, is the most exhilarating activity I know of, an experience of total aliveness. Yet to sustain it for more than short periods is very difficult, at least for me. And to attain ‘perfected attention’ usually requires endless rewriting (re-attending). I also love Randall Jarrell's definition of a novel: ‘a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it.’"
Evelyn Toynton, author of The Oriental Wife (Other Press, 2011)

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Miroslav Penkov

posted 7.27.11

“I find inspiration and solace in the wise proverbs of my ancestors, the great and noble Bulgarians. Sadly, their wisdom does not translate well. Meant to benefit our people alone, this wisdom is bound to our Bulgarian language, inseparably. The moment you lift it out and plant it into another tongue, this wisdom takes the shape of folly. “A dog that rushes its business,” teaches us one such proverb, “in the end gives birth to blind pups.” Wiser words were rarely spoken. So be careful then, not to hurry your writing. When you’ve written something, rewrite it. Set it aside. Think about it, then about other things. Then rewrite what you’ve written and rethink what you’ve thought. When it comes to waiting, trust the ancient Bulgarians. Take your time. Don’t condemn your pups to blindness.”
Miroslav Penkov, author of East of the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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Shann Ray

posted 7.20.11

“I am thankful to be surrounded by lovely women—my wife, my three daughters not yet grown, my mother, my wife's mother, and my Czech American grandmother who we call the Great One. Our house is alive with conversation and music and dance, and the daily run is a high-speed dash until at last the house quiets and we whisper love to one another and the house sleeps. This threshold of quietness is like a descent into darkness for me, a powerful and intimate and abiding darkness in which the light emerges in words and the rhythm of words and the poetry of sound that has as its melody the breathing of my wife and three daughters as they fall into their dreams. I sit at the desk and feel deeply loved because of the way my wife's face is illumined by the light from the hall, and I remember when she spoke to me like an angel earlier, how I pressed my face to hers and felt the bones of her cheek against mine, the bones of her forehead and the orbital bones of her eyes, and the kiss of her lips against the underside of my wrist. She kissed me to grant me life, and to ward off death, and so the writing begins.”
Shann Ray, author of American Masculine (Graywolf, 2011)

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Deborah Kay Davies

posted 7.13.11

“Who knows what prompts a person to write? Thank the gods it’s mostly a mysterious process. When I sit down and confront the yawning white screen, I usually allow myself to fall backward, away from it, into my own life memories. I ruthlessly scrabble through all those extreme times—beautiful, puzzling, grubby, fragmentary, terrifying, gut wrenching, shaming—and drag one out into the daylight. Then I proceed to push it in any direction that feels good to me. I might veer off sideways, or tell the story up to the point of my memory, or use my memory as the launch pad. I ask myself what sort of person would act in this nutty, usually ill advised, pumped up version of the truth. Then I plunge in, and I’m off. Life is often much more weird and random than fiction, but with fiction you can do something unspeakable, if you like, and then press save and print. There’s no obvious mess to clear up. It’s exhilarating; there are no limits.
Deborah Kay Davies, author of True Things About Me (Faber & Faber, 2011)

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Scott Sparling

posted 7.07.11

“Music, of course, starting with late-1960s Bob Seger, but also the alt-country-trance music of Jesse Sykes, and Jon Dee Graham—anything with power and yearning to it. News clippings of derailed freight cars—aerial shots that mix disaster and beauty. A canning jar filled with blood-red and turquoise beads, because of the way they mix, and also the sound they make. After Catmandu, a collage by Andrea Maki, because it’s so complicated and fragile. A magazine photo of a woman with eyes that are stunned and crazy, for the same reason. The Color Acid Test blotter replica I bought from Zane Kesey. The novels of Robert Stone, especially certain sections of Dog Soldiers. Jim Harrison’s poetry. Standing close to a train and listening. My tree house as it gets dark, particularly the corners that don’t meet and boards that are uneven. Travel. And sleep. Turning off all the lights and going to bed—that almost always works for me.”
Scott Sparling, author of Wire to Wire (Tin House Books, 2011)

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Edie Meidav

posted 6.29.11

“Here’s what I believe: The perfect writing you might do lies already waiting for you like a sculpture inside. Your job is to subtract: Subtract the ego, the chorus of censors and self-numbing devices, the greater question of the indulgence of art or any distraction that fuzzes intention. Your flavor is your subjectivity, your take on the mysterious world we live in, and if you contribute it without overlay, you perform a service to others who seek an articulated world. Be someone upon whom nothing is lost indeed. If you have a certain threshold of calling and skill—a love of literature and its redemptive powers, a fluency with words—the subtractive sculpture you create offers refuge for others. One trick I like to use to get to the sculpture by the back door is to use aleatory cues when I’m writing, letting chance work as a Rohrshach: a café waiter’s delighted gesture, a random line of poetry, a photography book opened on a bent page. In this way, chance becomes destiny becomes your intention, honed to do its part in some bigger tarantella, the mystery of chance as you are there, winded or not, offering it up to your readers.”
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California (forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2011)

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Andrew Krivak

posted 6.22.11

“I swim. I’m a kid from the mountains of Pennsylvania, so I came to swimming the scrappy way: ponds, lakes, creeks. But after my first year of college I followed a friend down to Myrtle Beach and got a job as an ocean lifeguard. There it was either go hard or go home, and I’ve been a long-distance swimmer ever since. So, if I’m having trouble getting started at the desk, or stuck on some key element of plot, I head off to the pool (close by), and in the water, after minutes, after miles, everything comes clear.”
Andrew Krivak, author of The Sojourn (Bellevue Literary Press, 2011)

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