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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.
"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)
"I try—and I fail all the time as I am very idea oriented—to leave my desk and take a walk or a drive and just look at the world more closely, to take note of the names of things so I'll be able to mix them up later with the names of other things in an attempt to think and write some new thought: the Ash-throated Flycatcher, the silver hair barrette, and the cicada all mixed together with the sock, the respirator, and the container in the room with the awful word BIOHAZARD written on it in such bloody letters."
—Adrian Blevins, Live From the Homesick Jamboree (Wesleyan University Press, 2009)
"I've been inspired by a whole host of music and writing, as is evident especially in my short stories. A few are retakes on classic stories, such as 'The Overcoat II' or 'The Devil and Irv Cherniske' or my sequel to For Whom the Bell Tolls, ‘Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua).' As for music, there is my story inspired by Robert Johnson's life, 'Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail,' which provides the final, absolute, and definitive version of how he died (he was poisoned by a woman he done wrong), and perhaps my best-known (or certainly the most anthologized) story, 'Greasy Lake,' which takes off from a line in Bruce Springsteen's 'Spirit in the Night' ('It's about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88' serves as the story's epigraph). And, in a more general way, I never sit down to write without music playing in the background. It opens me up. It thrills me. It sets me afire with rhythm and joy."
—T. C. Boyle, author of Wild Child (Viking, forthcoming in January 2010)
“I take notes all the time—when I watch a movie, when I listen to a talk, when I ride on the subway or sit in a waiting room. I write down things I see, things I hear, things I think. None of it has to cohere at the time but I keep it all in a small notebook and occasionally I look there and some of what I’ve written will cluster and suggest a direction. The park bench, Washington oysters, Vladimir Vodka, and Cher dressed as Cleopatra, will sometimes line up and lead me to a subject.”
—Mary Jo Bang, The Bride of E (Graywolf Press, 2009)
"Seek out influence. When I'm stuck on how to do something, I'll reread a book that accomplishes what I am attempting—The Quick and The Dead by Joy Williams is one I return to often—and try to figure out how the author pulled it off. Sometimes just looking at a few passages, or reading them aloud, can alter my way of seeing. Also, I like to go to places that inspire me—a bench in my favorite park, a quiet spot in a museum, a seat in the dark back row of a movie theater. Getting away from my desk and sinking into the movement of the outside world can be a welcome kind of influence as well."
—Laura van den Berg, author of What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009)
"I am, for the first time in my writing life, consciously taking a break from writing. By which I mean that I'm not involved in a big creative project just now. I just had a book published, and I have another manuscript that I'm about to shop around, so I'm not ready to dive into something new, if only because I have no ideas at the moment. 'Sometimes,' as one of my writer-friends likes to say, 'you need to let the toilet tank fill up.' So that's what I'm doing. Sort of. In fact, what's happened in the last year is that I've been so busy that I really haven't had time to read, but I have had time to listen to books on CD and to listen to podcasts. I'm spending what would be my writing time trying to understand documentary radio, trying to figure out how the narratives on shows like National Public Radio's This American Life, The Moth Radio Hour, and Radio Diaries function and what they might have to teach me about how I want to construct stories in the future."
—Debra Spark, author of Good for the Jews (University of Michigan Press, 2009)
"My childhood location, south of New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi River leaned me toward inclinations I think help with poetry's desires:
"What's coming around the bend, what might float by next on its waters, what weather will do to it, who will pass by, who will wave or hail and how, what's it like in the day time and in the night, how many waves will any particular ship's wake make, what tides do, how seasons are.
"Our farm's fields' rhythmical ways, a sensibly repetitive insistence, up on a mule is very high up for a child, seeds, culling, transplanting, cultivating, grafting, hoeing, picking and packing, selling on the road or at the French Market in the city, strangers one always met there, their accents, their stories.
"And schools (as in fish) and flocks (as in birds) and crowds (as in people as in Mardi Gras)—these keep their individual parts apart and then make such amazing configurations and shapes altogether seeming as one."
—Dara Wier, author of Selected Poems (Wave Books, 2009)
"Over the years a number of things (film, theater, writing, music, etcetera) have become catalysts and have boosted me in my writing. I just looked up the word boost and three definitions are (1) a push from below, like a boost over a wall, (2) an amplification, and (3) informally, to steal. So, almost randomly, here are two boosters I've had.
"I remember getting ready for a reading I was doing in Chicago, and I had a lot of notes for the reading, but nothing was cohering, and as the night of the reading approached, for some reason, I happened to see an early Godard movie. I don't even remember which one it was, but I remember the freedom I saw in the movie, the joy and passion, and especially the fun of putting ideas and images and words together.
"The other catalyst is a play by Peter Brook, The Mahabharata. I only saw it once, but I remember one character in the play: Krishna. I sort of fell in love with Krishna, and for years I would quote his lines: ‘Resist what resists in you. Become yourself.'"
—John Haskell, author of Out of My Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
"I'm not sure many people think of insomnia as a good thing, but it is. As a 'sufferer,' I'm up until five or six in the morning almost daily. One thing I've found is that I write with the most imagination in the middle of the night, as though my subconscious and conscious are more in tune with each other—something about being liberated from cell phones and e-mails and other plights of the real world. So I recommend brewing some coffee at ten or eleven at night, settling in, and letting your brain get as reckless on the page as it wants, without any distractions pulling you back to earth."
—Joshua Mohr, author of Some Things That Meant the World to Me (Two Dollar Radio, 2009)