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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.
"To get my mind ready for writing, I try to sit quietly and stare at nothing for ten minutes. It clears away the Salt-n-Pepa lyrics and staircase wit that have been clogging up the channels. After the silence, if I'm at a critical juncture, I then listen to records from Sublime Frequencies—a label specializing in a kind of post-field recording ethnomusicology—and try to transcribe what I hear. This doesn't often result in work for the ages, but it's a good reminder that the best writing comes from outside."
—Travis Nichols, author of Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder (Coffee House Press, 2010)
“José Martí wrote, ‘In the world there must be certain degrees of honor just as there must be certain degrees of light. When there are many men without honor, there are always others who bear in themselves the honor of many men.’ What inspires me are the men and women who bear in themselves the ‘honor’ of survival—men like the brothers I taught at Graterford Prison, reconnoitering their lives after having fought in Vietnam; young mothers dragging their children around corners of fatigue at the end of the day, looking neither left nor right. What inspires me is how we make one another see ourselves as we rise up to tell our stories. And survive. What inspires me, I guess, are women—from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America, South America, the Middle East, Europe, America. So listen to our talk, walk, accents, smiles, silences, songs.”
—Sonia Sanchez, author of Morning Haiku (Beacon Press, 2010)
"I've figured out things that were stonewalling me during cross-country drives, and usually when I'm trying to pull an all-nighter to avoid traffic and get there in less time—maybe it's all the caffeine and the mesmerizing white lines in the middle of the road. I keep a recorder or a yellow pad on the passenger seat and I talk into the recorder or write on the pad with one hand in big letters because I'm not looking at the pad and want to be sure I can read what I wrote later on. (This is not exactly safe, but it has worked.) In day-to-day writing, I also keep a pad and, lately, lots of index cards on hand so that when I remember something or something hits me I can write it down and take it home to the story I'm working on. I like to write whole scenes longhand for instant momentum—with no blank page or screen, you can roll right in."
—Brad Watson, author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (Norton, 2010)
"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)