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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.
"Nothing inspires me like the imagination in a vacuum. I always pick the most closet-like, even coffin-like, space in the house for my writing room. No windows, no photos, no 'stuff.' I never play any music, I don't have an inspiration board, I disable the internet, and the cell is always off. The outside world is far too tempting. If I go out for a run, suddenly the body is of paramount concern; if I listen to my favorite music, I won't be able to shake the imprints out of my head; if I watch a great movie, I'm seduced by images. I have to stay put with my project when I'm with-project. Fortunately, my projects always require little research and much imagination work—maybe memory excavation at best. But if you're going to ask kids to finger paint, you don't put Van Gogh's ‘Sunflowers' before them. They don't need Erik Satie. They don't need a long jog. They don't require a Quote of the Day from Rilke. There is no need to warm up. What made me fall in love with writing in the first place was that we have all the equipment we need in us—we don't need anything else."
—Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic, 2007)
"More and more my foremost, abiding desire is to write books of a surpassing strangeness, and to do this I've had to hold closely to Joyce's famous adage of silence, cunning, and exile every day. This means I have to show up at the desk each day before dawn, and so I do like a poor man showing up for a rather mysterious handout, lighting a candle in his tattered cardigan as he sits over an illuminated screen, aware the entire time that this love of language is the deepest and most consistently astonishing thing he knows."
—Robert Vivian, author of Lamb Bright Saviors (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
"These are the things that make me want to be a better writer: the desert sky, the dust storms, the smell of rain, the river that is no longer a river but a border—my entire landscape; the violence that is killing the city of Juárez; opening William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! and finding a passage, then reading it aloud; rereading Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera; reading anything by C. D. Wright, C. K. Williams, Juan Felipe Herrera, or Alberto Álvaro Ríos; listening to the pain and the humor in a Frank O'Hara poem; listening to the music of Nina Simone, Kurt Elling, or Billie Holiday; listening to Paul McCartney's 'The Long and Winding Road' over and over and over; listening to the quiet on a Sunday morning."
—Benjamin Alire Sáenz, author of The Book of What Remains (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
"For inspiration, I love to go to old, junky antique shops—which there are a lot of here in the South, thankfully—and hunt for a box of old postcards and photos. The messages that people wrote to each other in that fancy handwriting no one has anymore are often so weird or sad or funny. Handmade things are also inspiring to me, so I love to find an old carving or a crappy painting and think about the person who may have made it.
"Writing is a solitary art, sure, but what comes before the writing is not: all of the discussion, observation, interaction, chance encounters, and random bits—it all requires the writer to be out in the world. It's hard to force myself out sometimes, but doing so always gets me writing, eventually."
—Molly Brodak, author of A Little Middle of the Night (University of Iowa Press, 2010)
"I write to solo piano music (recently I've been listening to Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces). Then I pick up something close to hand and see what strikes me. For instance, 'At Wallace Stevens' Grave' was sparked by a detail in Paul Veyne's History of Private Life describing ancient Romans chatting about what they'd like on their own funerary bas-reliefs, and by other reading about early motion pictures and about Wallace Stevens's last years. All three strands melded into a poem. You can't force such serendipitous alignments, but you can find a desk, close the door, and put on beautiful music."
—Brian Culhane, author of The King's Question (Graywolf Press, 2008)
"I recommend finding time to write every single day, even when you don't feel inspired. I'm a night person, but since I have a child in school I have learned to wake up early to make writing part of my morning routine, between brushing my teeth and exercise (which I also recommend; my current obsession is Kundalini yoga). Sometimes I write for five minutes, sometimes an hour. If I can't think of anything to say, I begin describing objects in the room as if drawing them. Prioritizing writing first thing helps focus a hectic day—and then the books get written."
—Khadijah Queen, author of Conduit (Akashic Books/Black Goat, 2008)
"I find inspiration in so many things—paintings by Gerhard Richter or Mary Heilmann, conceptual art, novels, a nice run at the blackjack table, a long mountain bike ride, talks with my wife, talks with other writers. Also, music, it isn't inspiration for me exactly, but listening to certain albums puts me in a mood, a frame of mind, sort of like method acting for actors. For instance, I listened to Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago over and over again as I was finishing my new novel."
—Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody (Alma Books, 2008)
"When I'm writing every day, I read and meditate a lot. I look to architecture—in landscape and art—as a way to generate stillness, inspire form, and make me feel less alone. I particularly enjoy artists who reinterpret indigenous crafts and translate them through other polished art forms. The work of Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa inspires me to perceive texture and time out of empty space. San Antonio painter Omar Rodríguez works with the brilliant colors of the Mexican marketplace; the way he quilts color reminds me that I can grasp warmth from inanimate detail."
—Kristin Naca, author of Bird Eating Bird (Harper Perennial, 2009)
"Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes. There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated, or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy. This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze. Times like that the only way out is for me to decide, 'To hell with it. I can't do it right, so I'll do it wrong. I can't do it well, but I can do it badly.' Sometimes, with luck, while I'm sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on a right way."
—Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love (Knopf, 1989)
"Ross McElwee's self-reflexive documentary Sherman's March changed my writing life. (Shortly after I watched it, someone said to me that it was 'the first film I've ever seen in which I recognized the South in which I lived'; I misheard her as saying 'the self in which I lived.') What is it about this work I like so much? The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrator's use of himself as persona, as representative of feeling states; the antilinearity; the simultaneous bypassing and stalking of artifice-making machinery; the absolute seriousness, phrased as comedy; the violent torque of his beautifully idiosyncratic voice."
—David Shields, author of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010)