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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 think poetry is—or should be—a staple of any fiction writer’s reading diet. It doesn’t matter whether you ever intend to write any poems yourself. And it doesn’t matter (much) whether you prefer classics, or contemporary, or traditional, or experimental, or if you have no particular preference and can’t tell the difference. Any poetry, more or less, will do. Poetry invites you to read slowly and unpack all the different ways a sentence, or phrase, or single word, can have meaning. And of course, those lessons are transferrable to every other aspect of the writing life: the writing part, the prose-reading part, the self-editing part, the teaching-of-writing part (also the pleasure and edification parts). Lately I’ve been reading poetry in the morning, right after I get up, while the water boils in the kettle, and then again while the coffee steeps. There’s about ten, maybe twelve minutes of free time that accumulates around those two parts of the coffee-making process that’s enough time to get through two or three poems, or the same poem two or three times over. The poems—and the smell of the coffee, and eventually the coffee itself—are my bridge into wakefulness. In effect, the poems constitute the morning’s first experience or event, and I find that this sets a salutary standard from which to attempt the rest of my day. I read Derek Walcott’s White Egrets this way, and swaths of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, which is a phonebook—you’d never toss it in a backpack to take on the subway. So I leave it out on the dining room table, and then every morning when I go out there, there it is.”
—Justin Taylor, author of Flings (Harper Collins, 2014)
“Show up: at your desk, on the page. Show up often, show up with an open heart, show up all hardcore and ready to work. But when you don't show up, when it's been days and weeks and months and you haven't shown up, take a bath. By which I mean: be kind, be gentle. Whatever you do, don't be an asshole to yourself. Screaming at yourself will—at best—carry you through an hour, a day of work. Ultimately, artistic journeys are about truth and self-discovery, and we can't be truthful or discover ourselves when someone is yelling at us, even if (or especially if) the yelling is taking place inside our own heads. But here's the thing: We all live with an inner asshole and he isn't going anywhere. Which means, we kind of have to learn how to become best friends. Take your inner asshole out on a date. Go to your favorite gallery, spend two hours at a coffee shop with a book, visit a spa—whichever act of kindness can shock your system. When the date is over, ask, Hey, what do you need? Say, I'm trying to write this story, this essay, this novel; is there anything I can do that would make it possible to work tomorrow morning? Ask, how can we do this together? When we're truly kind, something shifts in us.”
—Shelly Oria, author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
“Choose several literary rivals. These should be people you know. They should be people you like, respect, and admire. They should be people who write at least a little bit like you do. They should be more talented and successful than you are. You probably already have some candidates in mind. You need to read each thing they publish, find their weaknesses, and make a plan to succeed where they fail. Find out what you can do that they can’t; build on that. Support them, be their best readers, promote their work at every opportunity. Write them fan mail. Start friendly arguments. Most important, never tell them that you are their competitor. (If it’s working, they’ll know what you’re doing. They’ll start doing it, too.) Work as hard as you can to supersede them, to write something so beautiful that they become unnecessary. Who are my rivals? They are my friends. They are the kindest people I know. Someday, I hope to destroy them. Or failing that, to write a book that makes them weep.”
—Mike Meginnis, author of Fat Man and Little Boy (Black Balloon Publishing, 2014)
"I've led a good life, but I've definitely not led a regretless life. There are plenty of things I stopped myself from doing, people I stopped myself from meeting, things I didn’t let myself say. But I made a promise when I started writing my own fiction: I won't ever stop myself from writing something down. And so, when I'm drafting, I always say, 'yes' to what my brain comes up with. I cast aside nervousness. I never tell myself, 'Oh no, don't say that or say it that way, that isn't smart/serious/good enough.' I just say it. Worrying about that stuff—saying, 'no' to things—is for revision. And that is useful, too. But drafting is the time for saying, 'yes.' It’s like hitching a ride with a tall, dark, possibly dangerous stranger called your brain. And your brain drives the car into a dense, dark wood with one road (you think) and the weak headlights only illuminate what is right in front. You're alert and white knuckled in an exhilarating way. The road turns and twists and roads appear on the left or right and your brain follows them with a quick jerk, and then you're on a new bumpy, dark road with only possibility in front of you. You just don't know what is coming next and so you become a part of it. You let go and let your brain surprise you. For me, that is what makes writing so alluring. The realization that if I give up some control, I can go places I didn’t know existed."
—Diane Cook, author of Man V. Nature (Harper Collins, 2014)
“When I feel stuck, despondent, bored of my writing, I watch Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach movie trailers. Growing up, I despised movies. You could not get me to sit down and watch a movie, commitment-phobe was I. But in the past few years, I’ve become slowly obsessed with film. I’ve recently had a couple friends tell me they hate movie trailers and don’t watch them. I understand why—they can spoil the movie, they can be cheesy. But what I find fascinating about movie trailers is how and why particular moments are chosen for them. I like studying the way short scenes and small details are strung together, and a certain tone is being evoked in a few, brief minutes. I’ll watch Baumbach’s trailers for Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Margot at the Wedding. Or I watch Linklater’s trailers for Boyhood, Before Sunset, and Before Sunrise. The trailers remind me how important microdetails, dialogue, and tone are. They remind me that every single thing you put into your creative work matters. That dialogue is incredibly powerful. Though I also keep a stack of special books on my desk and read from them for inspiration, I find it’s nice to take a break from the written word and watch writing come to life through film. Plus, who doesn’t like to fantasize about their words coming alive through film?”
—Chloe Caldwell, author of Women (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2014)
“When I was younger, it was dangerous to read fiction while writing it myself: Too easily, I found myself slipping into other people's voices. I read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and wrote eighty pages of a terrible knock-off. I adored Alice Munro's Open Secrets so much that I set a story in northern Ontario, a place I had never been and knew little about. I inhaled Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and promptly produced my own version, complete with a visiting character who was deaf instead of blind. Though I look back at these pieces with embarrassment, I also know each of them had something to teach me. I learned through imitation, but it was only when I followed—or found—my own voice that I was able to derive a different kind of inspiration from reading fiction, something subtler and more expansive. Today, when I reach a wall in my own work, I turn to authors I love to remind myself what is possible: that sentence, that structure, that daring twist of plot. Now that I have a surer sense of my own style and interests, reading does not confine me to a particular approach. Instead, it enlarges my understanding of what's possible, helping me to see beyond my own habits. Reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel reminded me that a narrative arc can be made from smaller, impressionistic pieces, that every stop on a character's journey need not be addressed. Tana French's mysteries have shown me that language can be as propulsive as plot, and Alice Munro's stories continue to widen my understanding of the way that time can be handled within a short story—even if I no longer set my own in Ontario."
—Chloe Benjamin, author of The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria Books, 2014)
“There's a bit of hubris inherent in writing fiction—no one that I know of has ever been plucked out of a math lecture and told, "No, no. You really should devote more time to your writing. The world needs your impressions of thunderstorms." So after you've announced your intentions to friends and family, there's a moment of pause when you think: Maybe I'm... not vast; maybe I don't contain multitudes. To me, this fear comes from that scoop of bad advice doled out to every aspiring writer: Write about what you know. For some people that works—there are some stories that just need to get out. Not surprisingly, this writing often veers toward autobiography. But if you’re the kind of person who rarely checks in with herself, who notices how everyone else in the room is feeling rather than dwelling on self-analysis, this adage will mess with you. My advice is to write about something you know nothing about, and then get to know it intimately. Ten years ago I knew this novel involved the Olympics, Ancient Greek, conceptual art, and Iceland—all things that I knew absolutely nothing about. But I knew intuitively that this was the book. So I took up a new sport, learned a dead language, sculpted a piece for the New Museum, and traversed Iceland for two months. My writing begins by trusting intuition fully, especially if it's intuition into something I know nothing about. Learning excites me and pulls me through those rough early drafts. From there, it's a lot of reading and whenever possible, doing the things I'm writing about. Once I've actually re-enacted parts of the story, I can do the fine-tuning necessary for a final draft.”
—Will Chancellor, author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper, 2014)
"After a day of work in the grey cubicle farm on Michigan Avenue, coming home to work on a novel can feel like an indulgence. It takes practice and patience to tune out the snotty e-mail from a coworker that sent the office atwitter, or to forget about the cockroaches that appeared one morning some months ago, first in the hallway, then in the break room under the toaster. (How many times have you toasted a bagel in that toaster?) The stresses multiply, and over time so do the bugs. To write, I recommend a long walk or a hot shower. Boring tasks activate the mind. Do the dishes. Deprive your body of external sensory distractions, and let the mind wander. Stare at a blank wall. It can feel like an indulgence to let go of the everyday shit show of your life, but sometimes you've got to tune out to tune in to the practice of writing."
—Susan Hope Lanier, author of The Game We Play (Curbside Splendor, 2014)
"I had to stop myself from reading 'Writing Habits of Famous Authors' articles. Such glamorized routines create unrealistic expectations the same way beauty magazines do for young women. The practice I'd recommend is refusing to compare yourself to some manic pixie dream writer who is getting piles of rainbow manuscript magic completed every day. Focus instead on the little victories: Being willing to slog through hours and hours of research and writing without much effect, only to have a burst of fantastic connection while in the shower. Managing to stay off social media for a two hour stretch. Being kind to yourself, without lying to yourself. Doing the work, without over-identifying with the work. (I learned this last one through my day job as a mortician: If I become emotionally involved with every dead body, every story, every family, I’d be paralyzed and unable to do my job. This same concept applies to writing. Don’t let yourself get too caught up.) If I’m able to accomplish any two, hell, any one of these goals a day, I feel like I did all right... even if no one will ever write a glowing viral article on my routines."
—Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory (Norton, 2014)
“The balled up, impossible-to-unkink tangle of pain and joy that is family fuels a great deal of my writing. The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reminds us: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” I never want my writing to finish anything. Rather, I want it to start things. Engage. Power conversations and questions. When I ignite the family drama in my poetry, I am aware of its ability to burn. That danger is exciting and terrifying for me—a challenge arises to see the poem form without censor, to be raw in the impulse to polish it down. When I am in the space where I truly feel vulnerable and surrender to the poem, the voice rises up.”
—Thomas Dooley, author of Trespass (Harper Perennial, 2014)