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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.
"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)
"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)