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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.


Paul Maliszewski

posted 6.15.11

“A friend sent me a link to this video of several poets reciting their work at the White House. I’d been meaning to look for it myself, and watch it, but I haven’t yet. I haven’t had a chance. It’s a long story why, but basically it seems like whenever I get a link to some video from a friend, my headphones are downstairs, and my child has just gone to sleep. His room, you see, is right at the top of the stairs, and the floorboards squeak in ways that my wife and I still can’t always predict or anticipate, even after three years of trying. But anyway, in the still photo for this video, in that picture one sees before one clicks “play,” the president is standing at a lectern about to speak. In the background, off to the side a bit, a band of daylight peeks through the drapes. It’s a brilliant stripe, all blues and greens and bright whites. In fact, when I started to look, I noticed two more bands of daylight, much thinner than the first, more like threads, really, a mere pixel’s width perhaps. Someone must not have drawn the curtains all the way. And someone else didn’t notice. Many someones, no doubt. What can I say, except that I like those bands of daylight? The oversight, the tiny imperfection, they seem to me immediately and achingly human.”
Paul Maliszewski, author of Prayer and Parable (Fence Books, 2011)


Jay Neugeboren

posted 6.08.11

“My scoreboard is my muse. When I was starting out—unpublished—and sending my stories and novels far and wide, I kept a list taped to the wall next to my desk, so I could keep track of what was where and when I’d made the submission. One day, while typing out a new list—rejections and cross-outs had made the list illegible—I hit the tab bar on my old Underwood, and typed in odds—5000–1—that this particular story would be accepted by the magazine I was sending it to. I did the same with the rest of the list. At the bottom of the page, I put in a Best Bet, Long Shot, Sleeper, Daily Double, and Hopeful. I also kept a running count: Them vs. Us. (By the time I sold my first short story, I’d notched 576 rejections; by the time I sold my first book, over 2,000.) The odds generally related more to my state of mind—optimistic, despairing—than to realities of the publishing world, and shrewd bettors could have cleaned up on a few long shots along the way. I still keep a scoreboard next to my desk, update it regularly, and whenever the writing, or the spirit, flags, I look at it, consider the odds—sometimes alter the odds—and this keeps me going, reminds me that the only real way to win is to keep writing.”
Jay Neugeboren, author of You Are My Heart (Two Dollar Radio, 2011).


Melanie Rae Thon

posted 6.01.11

“I see a pigeon dying on my porch the day before Christmas, deer up to their ears in snow, my father in his last bed, heart and lungs and liver failing: I am learning how to love; I cannot save them. In the park, a woman drags a drunken man into the grass, kisses her fingers and oh-so-tenderly touches his face before she leaves him. A coyote howls across the arroyo, and in delight, I answer. One-legged Clarence Purdy runs down a ditch to pull a 216-pound stranger out the window of his rolled truck as the battery sparks and gas trickles, drags the stunned man up the bank seconds before flames burst behind them. I don’t know how. I can’t explain it. The photograph of Clarence Purdy fills the front page of the paper, left pant leg split to the knee to expose his prosthesis. Seventy-three years old, this savior. All these images come from my ‘Book of Wonders,’ notebooks I’ve been keeping for more than twenty years. Your book of miracle and mystery can contain anything! Be free! Be joyful! Let your own delight, your awe and sorrow, your love of life, your searing perceptions and silent astonishment guide you.”
Melanie Rae Thon, author of In This Light (Graywolf Press, 2011)


Sloane Crosley

posted 5.25.11

“I like to clear my head as much as possible, usually via actual cleaning. My favorite ideas have originated while folding clothes and scooping up litter. Boring? Yes. But I may be the one writer in the world who is uninspired by music or museum trips. Rather, I find them immensely inspiring for life…but not for their potential impact on my writing. If I think I’m going to a show specifically to get inspired, I get anxious, thinking I should be writing instead. Yet when I scrub the floors, I never once think my time could be put to better use.”
Sloane Crosley, author of How Did You Get This Number (Riverhead Books, 2010)


Andrew Foster Altschul

posted 5.18.11

“Travel. Of any kind. Whether to a country you'd have a hard time finding on a map, or to the bead shop in your neighborhood you've never set foot in. Get out of your head—your head is good at convincing you that what is bouncing around inside is incredibly important. Usually it's not. Travel to remind yourself that there are six billion people on the planet and most of them live lives you could not recognize, and the minutia and nuance of your own small concerns would be unrecognizable to them. Stand in an airport—outside of time, bound to no place—and let the crush of people, the flow of times and destinations on the board, carry you out of yourself. Remember how big the world is, and how full of trouble.”
Andrew Foster Altschul, author of Deus Ex Machina (Counterpoint, 2011)


Priscilla Gilman

posted 5.11.11

“When I was working on my book, The Anti-Romantic Child, I created a playlist that I listened to over and over again while writing. Some songs transported me back to very specific moments or eras in my life, others evoked moods or stirred emotions in me, and some simply galvanized or focused me. Looking at the playlist now, I'm struck by what a motley assortment of music it is—everything from Pete Seeger singing ‘Michael Row the Boat Ashore’ (in the early days of my discovery that my son, Benj, had special needs, this would both break my heart and hearten me) to Sufjan Stevens’s version of ‘Amazing Grace,’ (a beautiful hymn of hope and thanksgiving), Neil Young's ‘Sugar Mountain’ (a song of paradise lost that I sang at summer camp) to Peter Gabriel's ‘Solsbury Hill’ (a song of my early romance with my ex-husband). ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and ‘Over the Rainbow,’ quintessential songs of my childhood that I especially associate with my late father, Richard Gilman, and ‘Somewhere’ and ‘Tonight’ from West Side Story, which I sang to my own children, are interspersed with selections from Gerald Finzi's choral version of the great romantic poet William Wordsworth's ‘Intimations of Immortality.’  But what invariably puts me in the best frame of mind to write is singing with Benj himself while he plays the guitar.  Our duets on songs like ‘The Circle Game,’ ‘Box of Rain,’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ send me back to the computer sometimes elated, sometimes pensive, but always deeply moved and ready to express my thoughts and feelings expansively on the page.” 
Priscilla Gilman, author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy (Harper, 2011)


Kevin Brockmeier

posted 5.04.11

“I’m thinking about a quote I’ve seen attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: 'If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.' I find that new waves are constantly rolling into shore, carrying testimonies from far places, and letting them rush over me as they arrive is what I find truly inspiring. Among the great and bracing waves I’ve greeted recently—to name one each from the worlds of literature, music, and film—are Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle (short stories), the double EP Rivers by Wildbirds & Peacedrums, and the movie The Eclipse, directed by Conor McPherson.”
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination (Pantheon Books, 2011)


Arthur Nersesian

posted 4.26.11

“The best reason to live in New York City is to discover the endless hidden treasures in its many neighborhoods. Usually three times a week, I drop by my local bookstore, St. Mark’s Bookshop, where I’ll visit old inspirations and find new ones. My favorite walk, which I do about once every two weeks, is a big crooked quadrangle. It spans three boroughs. I start in Manhattan, walking down First Avenue, making a left on Delancey, and crossing over the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn. Then it’s on through Williamsburg and Greenpoint, over the Pulaski drawbridge to Long Island City, and up to the Queensborough Bridge, then back home. I’ve done endless variations of this: down over the Brooklyn Bridge through Brooklyn Heights, or up to Astoria, Queens, over the Triborough Bridge and over Ward Island, then south. I complete my walks in three or four hours with a head full of ideas and relaxed enough to put them all down.”
Arthur Nersesian, author of Mesopotamia (Akashic Books, 2010)


Victoria Patterson

posted 4.20.11

“Always tucked in a pocket of my purse is a Moleskine journal. I try to write every day, no matter what, and I’ve pulled that Moleskine out while waiting for my kids—doctor’s appointments, soccer practices, piano lessons. In my Moleskine, I allow myself the freedom to write anything. No matter the inanity—it has my full permission to go down uncensored. I doodle. I make lists. I describe the waiting rooms, piano lessons, parents in the stands. And if I lose my Moleskine, my name and phone number are displayed, with a reward offered of one billion dollars.”
Victoria Patterson, author of This Vacant Paradise (Counterpoint, 2011)


Daniel A. Olivas

posted 4.13.11

“As with most fiction writers, I can be inspired by virtually anything: a song, a kiss, a cup of coffee, an overheard conversation. And in writing three short story collections, those and many other inspirations sparked a rather diverse number of plots and characters. When I decided to move from writing short stories to a full-length novel, I wanted to find an overarching (or thematic) inspiration that would help me move forward in completing the manuscript and, at the same time, allow me to revel in the creative joy I experience when writing a short story. So, I first decided that I needed to examine who I was and what types of stories I tended to write. My fiction often revolves around my multiple identities as a Chicano (the grandson of Mexican immigrants), a former Roman Catholic, a Jew-by-choice (I converted in 1988; my wife is the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants), a husband, father, and Los Angeles native. After a few weeks of pondering, it came to me: My novel would be based on the Ten Commandments, with each chapter inspired by a commandment. Once I decided upon this structure, I felt liberated to create characters and plots that seemed to grow naturally out of the commandments. Over the course of two years (in which I also wrote short stories, poetry, essays, and book reviews), my novel grew until I had ten chapters I really liked. After reading and editing it several times, I decided to add a short prologue and epilogue. My novel eventually found a home and  received a very nice review in Publishers Weekly. So, on March 24, 2011 (the official release date), I became a novelist. If Moses only knew.…”
Daniel A. Olivas, author of The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press, 2011)

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