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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.
"Inspiration? A sleepless night helps, when my mind has nothing to do but wander. I'm also inspired by stories—hearing, seeing, remembering—by events that get stuck in my head. When the muse is quiet, however, I give myself permission to 'write badly' (so badly that anything I write has to be incinerated). Throwing internal editors aside, I write. Like building a fire with a few twigs and a single match, it takes a while, but eventually there's smoke and maybe a flame. This writing leads to more writing, which leads to inspiration."
—Janice N. Harrington, author of The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home (BOA Editions, 2011)
"I'd like to recommend the great and criminally undersung novelist Wright Morris. In spite of winning the National Book Award twice, Morris, a Nebraskan who spent much of his life in the Bay Area, remains unknown to too many readers. Last year was the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Among his many novels, three have been really essential to me: The Field of Vision, Ceremony in Lone Tree, and Plains Song. Morris took incredible narrative risks, and each time I reread his books I am more astounded by the things he is able to get away with. Each year I reread Plains Song, and each year my heart gets broken again. And why is having your heart broken so inspiring? I'm not sure, but I find this so."
—Peter Orner, author of Love and Shame and Love (Little, Brown, 2011)
"I’m obsessed with windows. How they organize the world by cutting away most of it. Then let some in. How light is refracted through an old bottle on a windowsill. How a screen pixilates autumn. The framing. I write to tug at the edges, to mess with right angles. What is just beyond what is seen? Just below? To write is to unravel the rectangle. To disbelieve it. Live performances—especially dance—are a way to attune myself to what is happening outside the house of language. Stages can be windows. The idea of training the body to try the impossible thrills me. To translate what most people assume to be nonverbal through language, that’s thrilling too. I want to write something you can’t write...that you aren’t supposed to be able to write. A book is a window. Windows are all the beautiful rules I want to break."
—Kirsten Kaschock, author of Sleight (Coffee House Press, 2011)
“A writer far more experienced than I once said to me something like, ‘You’ve got to bushwhack past the first million or so rotten words to get at the good stuff.’ That was twenty years ago. Since then I’ve bushwhacked my way through three million words—yet with the assumption that the formula is infinitely renewable. Each time I sit down to write I approach my task in that spirit: that of bushwhacking toward a clearing where a masterpiece waits.”
—Peter Selgin, author of Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa Press)
"For me, the best novels have a never-ending quality. Nothing is tied up neatly by the last page. You continue to ache, dream and wonder about the characters’ lives. And the thing that has helped me the most to achieve this in my work are movies. I live by Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. In the last scene, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood are together after years apart. They belong together, but they have other relationships, and what was, can’t be anymore. It’s heartbreakingly subtle—and it inspires me to use gesture and subtext—and open-ended moral choices—in my work."
—Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You (Algonquin Books, 2011)
"Looking back and reflecting on my life, I realize how accident prone I have been in these eighty years. Apart from three car accidents, however, all have been for the good. The single book I have written was because I was fortunate enough to fall into a career as a civil servant in Pakistan, which happened to harmonize with my deep emotional interest in the tribal system, an interest that germinated in my schooldays and grew stronger with the passage of years. I never set out to be a writer. It started with this interest, a feeling, and resulted in my first book—published thirty years after I'd written it—finding an audience. That this effort has not ended as 'loves labor lost' is the most recent, and perhaps the best, accident."
—Jamil Ahmad, author of The Wandering Falcon (Riverhead Books, 2011)
“Merrill Garbus, who performs under the moniker tUnE-YArDs, recorded her first album using a handheld voice recorder and distributed it on recycled cassette tape. Listening to BiRd-BrAiNs—a collage of experimental rhythms, odd instrumentations, and found sounds—you never forget that this is something made. The songs are sturdy and bold, but also transparent—they contain unlikely pauses, trips and turnarounds on their way to surprising and beautiful crescendos. In a recent interview, Tom Waits compared the pop song to a bagel; these bagels are oddly shaped, multicolored, and glazed with mud or candy or spare buttons.
“At the forefront of these songs is Garbus’s voice, which she often pushes—yodeling, shouting, screaming. She frequently sings on multiple tracks, too, which creates a sort of dialogue—Garbus versus Garbus. As I hear the songs, one Garbus dares the other to go further, to find more joy, to have more fun. For me, BiRd-BrAiNs serves as a meditation on the creative process, and a reminder of the possibilities of art. I listen to this album in thirty-second or one-minute bursts, and then I carry that reminder, like food to a nest, back to my writing: have more fun, have more fun.”
—Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (Melville House Books, 2011)
"Rāg Lalit by Hariprasad Chaurasia, the flutist, inspires me as a writer. It is a predawn raga that evokes the hour in India when the sun is yet to burn away the mist that hangs over the fields. I have played this raga every morning for years because I believe its pace mirrors the pace of the mind, still sodden with sleep, still in a semi-dream state, beginning to process the first thoughts of the day. Rāg Lalit is one hour, nine minutes, and two seconds long and by the time it has reached its climax—and what a climax it is!—the day, with all the noise and suddenness with which it breaks in India, is upon the listener."
—Aatish Taseer, author of Noon (Faber and Faber, 2011)
"Typically my writing prompt is nothing fancy—just your basic same old, same old. Fear of death. Every now and then another impression does filter in. Recently I’ve noticed the mostly abstract paintings of Dimitri Kozyrev, a Russian American who lives near me in Arizona. Several things are to like in his work: its lack of doubt, its power of mood, its perfect composition. Kozyrev is rigorous and I admire rigor in all undertakings. He’s also subtle, and his work has the immovable but infinitely possible quality of most great art: It’s definite but not defined, might be one way to put it. It contains sadness, to me mostly through color, but the sadness is a broad gesture, the sadness of multitudes. Looking at his paintings makes me think and not think simultaneously, a state of being to which I aspire. I consider the possibility of drawing conclusions from the work, and I dismiss that possibility; happily this rejection has brought me into the presence of the unsayable, and in the task of my own work it’s the unsayable that wants to brim from everything.”
—Lydia Millet, author of Ghost Lights (Norton, 2011)
"I never try to write. If the work isn’t urgent enough to make me sit down and work, I don’t want it.
"I’m moved—and helped greatly, both spiritually and artistically—by the examples of other artists, often in different forms. Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, for example: I love the jagged fluency of it, the way sharpness and angularity combine with mellifluousness and lyricism. I love his formal innovation, and I love that he will not let that formal dexterity trump his feeling, his need to simply sing.
"Or Lee Bontecou. Her early pieces are huge, gray, militaristic looking (often made out of cast-off military supplies), each with a big actual and existential hole in it. They are emblems of great pain and despair. Her late work, by contrast, is made of mobiles at once impossibly complex and almost transparent. They seem pure spirit and pure joy—except that each one has a hole in it. Her pain was not renounced but transformed, not ameliorated but integrated into her art and (I’m guessing) into the life. A great model for any artist, it seems to me."
—Christian Wiman, author of Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)