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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.


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


Paul Maliszewski

posted 6.15.11

“A friend sent me a link to this video of several poets reciting their work at the White House. I’d been meaning to look for it myself, and watch it, but I haven’t yet. I haven’t had a chance. It’s a long story why, but basically it seems like whenever I get a link to some video from a friend, my headphones are downstairs, and my child has just gone to sleep. His room, you see, is right at the top of the stairs, and the floorboards squeak in ways that my wife and I still can’t always predict or anticipate, even after three years of trying. But anyway, in the still photo for this video, in that picture one sees before one clicks “play,” the president is standing at a lectern about to speak. In the background, off to the side a bit, a band of daylight peeks through the drapes. It’s a brilliant stripe, all blues and greens and bright whites. In fact, when I started to look, I noticed two more bands of daylight, much thinner than the first, more like threads, really, a mere pixel’s width perhaps. Someone must not have drawn the curtains all the way. And someone else didn’t notice. Many someones, no doubt. What can I say, except that I like those bands of daylight? The oversight, the tiny imperfection, they seem to me immediately and achingly human.”
Paul Maliszewski, author of Prayer and Parable (Fence Books, 2011)


Jay Neugeboren

posted 6.08.11

“My scoreboard is my muse. When I was starting out—unpublished—and sending my stories and novels far and wide, I kept a list taped to the wall next to my desk, so I could keep track of what was where and when I’d made the submission. One day, while typing out a new list—rejections and cross-outs had made the list illegible—I hit the tab bar on my old Underwood, and typed in odds—5000–1—that this particular story would be accepted by the magazine I was sending it to. I did the same with the rest of the list. At the bottom of the page, I put in a Best Bet, Long Shot, Sleeper, Daily Double, and Hopeful. I also kept a running count: Them vs. Us. (By the time I sold my first short story, I’d notched 576 rejections; by the time I sold my first book, over 2,000.) The odds generally related more to my state of mind—optimistic, despairing—than to realities of the publishing world, and shrewd bettors could have cleaned up on a few long shots along the way. I still keep a scoreboard next to my desk, update it regularly, and whenever the writing, or the spirit, flags, I look at it, consider the odds—sometimes alter the odds—and this keeps me going, reminds me that the only real way to win is to keep writing.”
Jay Neugeboren, author of You Are My Heart (Two Dollar Radio, 2011).


Melanie Rae Thon

posted 6.01.11

“I see a pigeon dying on my porch the day before Christmas, deer up to their ears in snow, my father in his last bed, heart and lungs and liver failing: I am learning how to love; I cannot save them. In the park, a woman drags a drunken man into the grass, kisses her fingers and oh-so-tenderly touches his face before she leaves him. A coyote howls across the arroyo, and in delight, I answer. One-legged Clarence Purdy runs down a ditch to pull a 216-pound stranger out the window of his rolled truck as the battery sparks and gas trickles, drags the stunned man up the bank seconds before flames burst behind them. I don’t know how. I can’t explain it. The photograph of Clarence Purdy fills the front page of the paper, left pant leg split to the knee to expose his prosthesis. Seventy-three years old, this savior. All these images come from my ‘Book of Wonders,’ notebooks I’ve been keeping for more than twenty years. Your book of miracle and mystery can contain anything! Be free! Be joyful! Let your own delight, your awe and sorrow, your love of life, your searing perceptions and silent astonishment guide you.”
Melanie Rae Thon, author of In This Light (Graywolf Press, 2011)


Sloane Crosley

posted 5.25.11

“I like to clear my head as much as possible, usually via actual cleaning. My favorite ideas have originated while folding clothes and scooping up litter. Boring? Yes. But I may be the one writer in the world who is uninspired by music or museum trips. Rather, I find them immensely inspiring for life…but not for their potential impact on my writing. If I think I’m going to a show specifically to get inspired, I get anxious, thinking I should be writing instead. Yet when I scrub the floors, I never once think my time could be put to better use.”
Sloane Crosley, author of How Did You Get This Number (Riverhead Books, 2010)

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