Skip to Main Content
| Give a Gift |
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.
"My sense these days is that I'm constantly inspired by all kinds of things, and it's about extremely compelling works giving me the necessary jolts of energy, courage, and fear to continue. In that vein, Lucinda Childs's collaborative piece with Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass, Dance, which I saw this summer, made making feel possible, even ecstatically so, especially regarding matters of scale and light. This is no small thing for me, as I tend to write out of places of dense agitation, and am on the lookout for ways away from that. The second and third songs on Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas, and the poems 'Joe's Jacket' by Frank O'Hara and 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' by Coleridge are high on the list at the moment as well."
—Anselm Berrigan, author of Free Cell (City Lights Publishers, 2009)
"There's a studio recording of Nina Simone singing 'My Father' that always knocks me out. Ms. Simone actually sings only a few lines from the song:
My father always promised me
That we would live in France.
We'd go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance
"And then she stops, suddenly, and says: 'I don't want to sing this song. It's not me.' She begins to laugh, wildly, infectiously. When she recovers, she apologizes to the musicians and tells them, with utter authority, 'Okay, we have to skip this one.' It's such a lovely moment of an artist being true to herself, refusing to say something that feels wrong in her mouth, in her body. She trusts her voice, and its inclinations. Every time I hear the recording, it makes me happy."
—Victor Lodato, author of Mathilda Savitch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
"The Lure of the Detour: five things that feed me plus the sixth that haunts them.
"(1) Silence: the body and the breath that haunts that house.
"(2) Sound: Alice Coltrane, Yoko Ono, David Lang, John Cage, Krishna Das.
"(3) Words, usually shattered. Books of poetry that will never leave me: Sappho's Gymnasium by Olga Broumas and T Begley, The Veiled Suite by Agha Shahid Ali, Arcady by Donald Revell, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969–1980 by Lucille Clifton, Selected Poems by Fanny Howe. Of course always Mahmoud Darwish. Always Jean Valentine.
"(4) Writers whose work provides a vibe for me—each time I read them I have to go write something: Bhanu Kapil, Nathalie Stephens, Richard Greenfield, Saskia Hamilton, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Sarah Gambito.
"(5) Pictures: Agnes Martin, Makoto Fujimura, Zhao Wou-ki, Hans Hofmann, Layla Al-Attar.
"The life and the art and the death of Layla Al-Attar. Feeds me and haunts me. Every day."
—Kazim Ali, author of Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009)
"I believe, as many writers do, that there are touchstone moments in literature—poetry, fiction, and plays—that spark the imagination. So here are a couple of personal inspirations:
"(1) The scene in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse in which Mrs. Ramsay despairs while sitting in Cam's room as she sleeps. She is the center of the novel's 'galaxy,' she is the heart. But unknown to her husband and children, who rely on her, she sits in the steadily recurring beam of the St. Ives lighthouse and wonders why people fall in love and why they have children, when all are doomed to die. It is the most devastating lyrical moment.
"(2) 'He Is More Than a Hero' is one of the many poem fragments by Sappho which always stir me. It provides a description of the physicality of being in love—how the heart races, the tongue is tied—as thrilling and accurate as if Sappho were speaking to us in this moment and not the sixth century BCE."
—Carol Muske-Dukes, author of Channeling Mark Twain (Random House, 2007)
"Running takes me out of the city and into nature, which does something to me that most man-made stuff can't. I pass the Brazilian transsexuals, wave, pass the mean forest cops on their big horses, salute, pass that one old guy with the terry-cloth headband, wave. I stop next to that pond with those two nasty swans and I hang upside down and stretch until my head feels as alive and as heavy as an electric watermelon. I go home (everything in the city now looks like a concrete cartoon), shower, put on ugly clothes made of soft material, stretch my hands to the higher, hidden deities of the unknown universe, bow to them, wait for them to bow back, then I open my computer. Sometimes I feel like a big zero a-hole loser with nothing to say and that is when I put on some Irish music—anything with fiddles and flutes—or some Chinese stuff and this music says yes you are an a-hole but so what and sometimes I buckle down in silence and get as close to my characters as I can and these are beautiful moments that make me really tired. When things are bad, I get up and walk around talking to myself; when things are worse, I stop everything and put my head on my knees, close my eyes, watch the darkness inside my head swirling around, and wait until the feeling passes. Writing isn't easy for me."
—Nicola Keegan, author of Swimming (Knopf, 2009)
"One of the seventeen times the Supremes appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, they sang 'You Can't Hurry Love' wearing earrings that weighed close to what Diana Ross weighed at the time. At some point in the song, one of Ross's earrings dangles and falls. What does she do? She keeps singing lead, and includes in the choreography a catch you have to watch the footage several times to see. Suddenly, Diana Ross has one earring on and one in her hand. Poetry is performance. I recommend watching this to learn writing with focus...and grace."
—Jericho Brown, author of Please (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2009)
"Lately I've been writing poems on my iPhone. But I also like to write poems on Post-it notes and in my trusty sketchbook, too. Writing on various media, not letting myself get comfortable, is very helpful. I also like to send myself off into what I call coffee shop exile. Being in public spaces makes me a little edgy, which is good for my writing.
"Also, if I want to write but can't find a way in, often the best thing I can do is read any old John Ashbery book of poetry. I write almost nothing like him, but reading his work gets me leaping in interesting directions.
"Finally, recently, I've been listening to Jack Teagarden's jazz trombone music while I write. When I play his greatest hits through my headphones while I sip my latte, I can write like a madman."
—Frank Giampietro, author of Begin Anywhere (Alice James Books, 2008)
"I’m the least athletic person in the world—the proverbial kid picked last for teams—so what I’m about to suggest is a bit strange: Go running. Whenever I get stuck in story, unable to get my character out of the car and into his apartment, I step away from my desk, throw on shorts, and hit the pavement. I hate sports. Truly. But there’s something about the rhythm of running—and the complete solitude it allows—that calms me down and allows me to work through whatever problems I’m encountering on the page."
—Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age (Scribner, 2009)
"I am very interested in cities and places, and in having conversations with them. Research and lists are big for me. Often, lists I make become poems unto themselves. Notes from my research make some of the strongest lines in my poems, I've found, or, like the lists, turn into poems of their own. I began my book The Straits in response to the sparse but lyrical narration in a Russian film, Palms, so I find listening for refrains and cadences—anywhere and everywhere—then responding to them highly evocative. It's not something I do deliberately, as some do by listening to music, but I always find myself tuning into certain rhythms when I'm out and about or in something I'm reading and later realize that it has entered my work."
—Kristin Palm, author of The Straits (Palm Press, 2009)
"I loved that moment at the 2008 Oscars when Glen Hansard closed his acceptance speech with this exhortation to the world: ‘Make art. Make art.' As a writer, I try to ‘make art,' but all too often the twenty-first century's ubiquitous, on-demand distractions interfere and keep me from getting to that place where I can apply a fierce commitment and single-minded focus to the act of creation. When I need a reminder of how essential such commitment and focus are to the creation of a miraculous work of art, I reread Jack Gilbert's The Great Fires, or I listen to Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, or to anything recorded by Joy Division in 1979 or 1980. Then I pick up the pen again and try to make art."
—Dan Albergotti, author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008)