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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'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)
"I ingest art daily—from the films of Lars von Trier, Takashi Miike, and Lucrecia Martel to fashion blogs to art openings in Los Angeles. Of course, I need my fix of poetry, fiction, and religious and theory texts. I read tabloids. For The Ravenous Audience, I read a lot of trashy biographies of starlets such as Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe. All of this digests into my writing, and then when I present my work to an audience, I think of how the work can ‘excrete' beyond the book. Here, the work of shock-fashion artists such as Karen Finley, Leigh Bowery, Lady Gaga, Klaus Nomi, Orlan, and the Cockettes inspires me."
—Kate Durbin, author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books/Black Goat, 2009)
"‘Go see some live local music'" is the hourly recommendation from New Orleans radio station WWOZ, and it's good advice, not only true to New Orleans—where I recommend all writers live (although I moved away)—but also wherever you live. Cover the typewriter and leave the house; see what's happening. Go to Joshua Tree to see Noah Purifoy's sculptures decaying in the desert, then to L.A.'s Museum of Jurassic Technology. As for books, I think one is likely to find courage in Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives; the novels of Peter Handke; and the poets Roque Dalton, Evgeny Rein, and Adélia Prado."
—Ed Skoog, author of Mister Skylight (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)
"After years of thinking setting didn't inspire me at all, I have come to realize that it does—but only after I'm gone. I've learned not to try to write about a place until I've left it, whether I was traveling or living there. For instance, I have written two books set in Madison, Wisconsin, but I didn't feel an urge to set anything there until I had moved to Westchester, New York, to get an MFA. Once I was gone, Madison leapt into focus, and instead of looking out my window and going nuts trying to capture every little thing before me, distance let me edit and reimagine. But now that I am living in Madison again, I no longer feel a need to put it on the page. I've been picturing Yonkers instead—a place I lived for school and cheap rent, a place I fully intended to leave every day of every year for the entire seven years I lived there. I never really thought it would do much to inspire me, but I began thinking about it again the other day, wondering if the same pattern would hold true, and sure enough, it has."
—Michelle Wildgen, author of But Not for Long (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)
"For some poetic guidance I always find myself going back to books like the Orphan Factory and Selected Early Poems by Charles Simic; also, Reasons for Moving and The Weather of Words by Mark Strand. I am deeply moved imagistically by poems such as "Dismantling the Silence," "Watch Repair," and "errata" by Simic; and "Eating Poetry," "Keeping Things Whole," and "The Accident" by Strand. While I write I love listening to the empathetic sounds of bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, the Organ, Interpol, the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and Die! Die! Die!"
—Orlando White, author of Bone Light (Red Hen Press, 2009)
"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)