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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.
"When I first moved to Philadelphia, a friend of mine was very excited to show me Marcel Duchamp's assemblage Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage... in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I won't describe it here—if you haven't seen it, reading about it would lessen your first encounter. I have to go back a long time, though, to remember another work that so completely upended my sense of what one piece could do. What exactly is so terrifying about it? Is it also funny somehow, how we peep, how we admire the little twinkling waterfall in the background? Ever since, I've been wondering, how might a written work implicate a reader as Duchamp does the viewer? I don't know if one can go around museums and galleries looking to have one's notions shattered, but in the meantime, perhaps I can think of the page as a space for an elaborate, unsettling installation."
—Catie Rosemurgy, author of The Stranger Manual (Graywolf Press, 2010)
"Like most writers—specifically parents who are writers—I don't have a lot of time to find inspiration. Galway Kinnell once told me to keep a notepad handy so I can take notes wherever I am: in the grocery store, listening to NPR, in the doctor's office (I once wrote a poem waiting for my annual mammogram). On my commutes to and from work, I dictate my thoughts into my iPhone to store ideas until I can get to my computer. These are some favorite phrases currently rolling around in my head: universal joint, hounds will hunt forever without any reward, silent as stars, boxed lunch, white athletic socks around hairy calves.
"Part of the fun of poetry is making sense out of ordinary randomness, thereby making everyday experiences extraordinary."
—January Gill O'Neil, author of Underlife (CavanKerry Press, December 2009)
"It helps me to remember that inspiration needs courting; it won't come if I wait passively. Also, let's say I get inspired but have a rusty hand...then the inspiration plugs into a faulty outlet. So, when I've time to write but no mojo, I count. I write iambic pentameter or sapphic stanzas, or I make up some rhythm pattern and repeat it for a while (like writing lines with spondees, which is way hard!). If these attempts fail, then I go to a park or a café for an hour or two and write down what I see—not trying to say anything, but just attending to shapes, juxtapositions, data. These things all help, plus, lately, reading John Ashbery—this shakes me alive."
—Joanie Mackowski, author of View From a Temporary Window (University of Pittsburgh Press, January 2010)
"There is phenomenal beauty in the language developed for a particular field—whether it's architecture, dentistry, tree pruning, or accounting. Stories lurk in the specific tools and tasks. For me, the natural sciences and seafaring are muses. Science News and the American Practical Navigator come to mind as sources I've turned to. But immersion in the language and concerns of any profession can unveil rich sounds and provide a new lens through which the world can be seen. Take the scupper, the hole that allows water to drain from a boat's deck—how can you not be inspired by the word scupper? Using that 'other' language and making sense of the view it describes—bridging the plumber's or the neurologist's vision and your own—is a challenge and a delight."
—Elizabeth Bradfield, author of Approaching Ice (Persea Books, 2010)
"I'm thoroughly inspired, moved, agitated, elevated by music (mostly hip-hop). My first collection, Lobster With Ol' Dirty Bastard, situates rap heroes, culture, and iconography inside the four walls of fourteen-line quasi sonnets. Writing based on music has almost become a compulsion of mine. When I listen to old Smiths' albums with names like Hatful of Hollow or Meat Is Murder, I think "literature!" When Morrissey sings, "I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving / England is mine / And it owes me a living / Ask me why and I'll spit in your eye," I immediately think remix. Remix is a term most commonly used in hip-hop music or, more recognizably, from grad school imitation poem writing prompts ad nauseum. Imitate it, re(in)state it, reconfigure it, say it in Braille! My forthcoming collection, Vacations on the Black Star Line, remixes the whole Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star album through the lens of race, privilege, whiteness, and exoticization. I could take a song like Lupe Fiasco's "Dumb It Down" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1Et1siZhTk) and spend hours trying to dissect each line, each metaphor, each double and triple entendre. The stuff of good hip-hop puts language in a rocket ship!
—Michael Cirelli, author of Lobster With Ol' Dirty Bastard (Hanging Loose Press, 2008)
"Notes—on Post-its, index cards, scraps of paper—have saved me as a writer. Because they fade so fast, I've made a habit of writing down fragments of memory that arise or images or phrases, sometimes just isolated words. Then I put them in folders, see what belongs together with what, find out where those fragments lead, and build very slowly to an essay or poem. I've learned to use writing as an act of discovery, and such small notes are for me the fundamental source."
—Floyd Skloot, author of The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life
(University of Nebraska Press, 2008)
"Make a tiny book! At least once a year I write something quickly, in one day—a list poem or found-text piece—arrange it in sections, print, cut, stack the pages, staple, and make a handful of copies. I give one away immediately. It's not about showcasing my writing; it is about the playfulness of ungroomed surfaces and the intimacy of a gift.
"The poem 'Thinking a kite' from my book Torchwood began this way. But the point is to act without thinking of a result beyond your tiny book. This act of bookmaking is a writer's tradition: from literatura de cordel in Brazil to the Dusie Press Kollektiv. Check them out!"
—Jill Magi, author of Threads (Futurepoem, 2007)
"I am inspired to write because for many, many years, while living in solitary confinement, writing was my only means of communication. In the world outside of prison, when we are feeling isolated or alone, we might reach for the phone to talk to someone, or reach for the refrigerator door and eat something. Living at San Quentin State Prison on death row, I reach for my pen. The pen is a form of therapy, meditation, and reflection."
—Jarvis Jay Masters, author of That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row (HarperOne, 2009)
"I'm an American. My husband is from Ireland. We adopted our daughter from Vietnam. We live in Shanghai, China. During the past four years, I've traveled to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, France, Ireland, Italy, China, and, of course, the United States. Every time I land in a new country, a new city, I get this crazy buzz...this itch...this urge to see, see, see...watch, watch, watch...listen, listen, listen...and then write, write, write. When I'm a stranger, an explorer, images and sounds and people stick with me—the starved hound in Mumbai chomping dusty leaves from a half-dead potted plant, the wedding procession through the rainy streets of Milan, the slight suction of the elephant's trunk against my mouth when it kisses me. I tote these around in my head until at some point I hunker down at my desk where they become characters or moments in a story."
—Kristin Bair O'Keeffe, author of Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009)
"Have lucky things. It doesn't matter what they are. I bought a green cardigan sweater for a quarter at a thrift store in Bennington, Vermont, and wore it nearly every day through the writing of my first three novels, until it was in tatters. Even then I kept it in my closet and wore the tatters for selected moments as I wrote the next book or two. When I wrote The Fortress of Solitude I had a fortune cookie fortune taped onto the hood of my computer—a mysterious, atypical fortune, I can't remember the exact words, something like ‘You don't know the whole story.' It encouraged me to go deeper in that book than I'd gone before, into my personal mysteries. Not to settle. While I was working on Chronic City I ate the same kind of breakfast cereal (Barbara's Shredded Spoonfuls) with the same bowl and the same spoon (it had a kind of fluted handle I liked) every morning, just like Wade Boggs eating chicken before every baseball game. The point isn't to believe in hokum, but to turn yourself over to the force of ritual, to deliver the project out of your own neurotic proprietorship. The philosopher Niels Bohr kept a horseshoe over his doorway, and when he was challenged by a visitor as to whether he believed in such things, he replied, 'Of course not, but I am told it works even if you don't believe in it.' Or the joke about the man who was searching for his lost keys on a darkened street: A policeman stopped to help him, and the man had the cop look with him under a street lamp. When the cop asked if this was where the man had lost the keys, the man said, 'No, but there's more light here.' Always search where the light is."
—Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City (Doubleday, 2009)