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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 a while, writing was everything to me: my identity, my job, the meaning of my life, the site of my deepest anxieties. Whenever the writing wasn’t working, I went to a very dark place. When I get stuck writing, it isn’t usually because of a logistical problem in the plot or because I can’t find the right word; it usually comes from a broad, circling, existential fear of failure. But writing requires failure and experimentation, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in that process. I recently took up modern dance. I love it. It felt like being exposed to a whole new language, a whole new mode of self-expression. I’m also terrible at it, and likely always will be. I’m a naturally clumsy, graceless person, and I’d never taken so much as a childhood ballet class. Through the practice of another art form, where I felt freer to stumble, I remembered why I write in the first place. It isn’t to be published or win awards. It’s not even to create something meaningful or aesthetically beautiful, necessarily. I write in pursuit of the same joy I find flailing and falling in the dance studio.”
—Kim Fu, author of How Festive the Ambulance (Nightwood Editions, 2016)
“The one thing I’ve discovered about writing over the years is that not-writing is like a virus—it’s always mutating, always trying to overcome your defenses. Sometimes it will succeed. There’s no single answer that will work the rest of your writing life. You’ll think you’re a disciplined writer and then you’ll have kids; your first book will come out and all of those ideas waiting in your notebook just wither up; you’ll find a great community of writers and find that you spend more time talking about writing than actually writing. I have, however, found a few defenses that have been essential against not-writing. The first is the vitamin B6; it helps you deal with stress and it makes your dreams more vivid. I don’t like taking pills, even a vitamin, so I’ve stopped taking it dozens of times, and always I notice that the impulse for writing wanes without it. The second thing is reminding myself: You don’t have to write anything that you’re not deeply interested in. Every time I remember this, it’s a relief and a surprise. Walking, meditating, writing by hand, and keeping a notebook have also been useful, particularly in conjunction with the first two defenses. I realize that it all comes down to maintaining and refreshing a sense of play. As Martin Buber once wrote, ‘Play is the exultation of the possible,’ and exploring the possible is what writing is all about for me.”
—Rita Mae Reese, author of The Book of Hulga (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016)
“When I am stuck, I don't like to force out work/words. If I'm having difficulty, I just walk away from the desk—sometimes not returning for weeks at a time. I find a quiet place in the day and stop. If I’m at home, I lie down on the carpet. Then I do this thing where I just say ‘thank you’ to all the things and people who helped me. I say, ‘Thank you, light, for helping me. Thank you, flowers in the jar, for helping me. Thank you, mom, for helping me. Thank you, Sivan, for helping me. Thank you, Eduardo, for helping me.’ Of course, simply saying ‘thank you’ does not awaken any creative force; it just reminds me that the work I am doing is not validated by quantity, but rather, by the connection it builds between the world and myself. Yesterday, I said thank you to my friend, the poet Mahogany L. Browne. I am not one for hyperbole, but I can honestly say she is one of the few people who can, and does, save lives with her words. So when my own work is not coming along, I stop and think of people like her. I stop and recognize the person doing the same challenging, at times unforgiving, art—and I feel happy. I think it’s hard, in our day and age, not to think: ‘It’s me against the world’ or ‘I have to do this for my career because everyone else is hammering away and if I stop now, I will fall behind and be forgotten.’ But that’s a toxic and self-defeating gaze. I think we are more productive, even in stillness, when we can recognize one another, when we say to each other: ‘Thank you for doing this with me. Thank you for carrying on when I cannot.’”
—Ocean Vuong, author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)
“When I get stuck, I jump mediums, which reminds me of the one time I was driving to high school so fast that the police officer, who was going the opposite direction from me, jumped the median and drove over a grassy patch at least twenty yards wide just to pull me over. But that's not what I mean. I will start stories on the computer, become stuck, and then take up a pen and a notebook, or start in a notebook and find myself unable to write fast enough—this is a rarity—to keep up with the dumb thoughts in my head and will have to jump back to the computer. Rarely, I will pull out a manual typewriter and see what damage I can do to the ears of my colleagues in the offices around me. But what I've found most unhinges whatever needs unhinging are wide-open spaces that I can mark up—classroom chalkboards or dry-erase boards. The last story in my collection, 'Escape From the Mall,' I wrote almost entirely on the two large dry-erase boards in the classroom where I taught high school English. Just two weeks ago, I removed the shelves from one of the walls in my university office, then sanded them down, taped up a border, and covered the space with dry-erase paint. Already it is marked and smudged and written over, a palimpsest of every good or bad sentence I'll ever write.”
—Manuel Gonzales, author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack! (Riverhead Books, 2016)
“Of all sources of inspiration, grammar is probably the most underrated. But any writer who’s been confronted with an empty page or blipping cursor knows that language itself, with its structures and inner connections, can suggest many possibilities. When I’m stuck in a sentence, I like to reach for a preposition. Why prepositions, and not verbs or nouns? Because they’re open-ended enough to accommodate any number of outcomes, but concrete enough to orient you in a specific direction. I’ll show you how this works. Say you write: I walked to the store. Basic prepositions like to, for, after, and until will probably come to mind first (…for a gallon of milk), and okay, that’s fine, but less expected ones will probably suggest more interesting directions—among, despite, against, unlike. How about under? That immediately suggests a setting, and a spatial relationship: under a canopy of maple trees tousling in the breeze, or under a searing barrage of laser fire. Using the different shades of meaning inherent in most prepositions can push things even further: I walked to the store under strict orders from my aunt. So, prepositions are handy little multi-tools, and having a list of them tacked to the wall next to your writing desk, as I do, can keep your work moving on, toward, up, and above.”
—Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens (William Morrow, 2016)
“When I run out of words, I find it helpful to run out the door. Even if I only have fifteen minutes and it’s February and freezing, I find physically moving quickly gets my mind going again. It also helps if I listen to music with a driving rhythm and lyrics I admire. Over the five years it took to write my first novel, I turned to the bluegrass music of Valerie June more than anyone else. Like June, I grew up in Appalachia and no matter how many times I run to her songs, the defiant, fiery force of her lines gets the words flowing again. And not just any words, but words worth writing down, that risk something new and move a scene forward in a way I hadn’t considered when I was sitting on my couch as still as the cactus in the corner. When I take a break from writing and run, I become more aware of my breath and my body and the sound of my feet hitting the ground. In my mind, I start to move through the scene I was working on and notice new aspects about my characters’ bodies, where they are standing and at what distance from each other. Moving while listening to June’s innovative album Pushin’ Against a Stone makes me want to be braver and more inventive in my own lines, and if I write something that's a little too crazy, well, there’s always the delete button. After which, I can go for another quick run in the snow and try again.”
—Idra Novey, author of Ways to Disappear (Little, Brown, 2016)
"The thing about creative drive, which you can just as well think of as a kind of pressure, is that there are so many ways it can be dissipated. Whenever I find that I’m not writing much of anything, or even just anything with real vigor to it, I usually discover—and always as if for the first time—that there are too many valves open, bleeding off this pressure. The releases are many, and some are unexpected. Food, for one. Curiously, I cannot write anything worthwhile on a full stomach. Come to think of it, though, hunger itself serves as a useful metaphor for thinking about creativity. A certain kind of intellectual and emotional deprivation is what I need to write with greatest intensity. All sorts of pleasures, both worthy and trivial, can seem to blunt it: watching films, reading, browsing the web, socializing, romance, too much sleep even. So, to find my way back to my sharpest writing, Spartan self-denial is usually the answer. Which is to say, to come around to the earlier metaphor, the valves must be tightened and the pressure must build. Invariably, within a few days, I reach a state of productive agitation. I find myself restless to write again, to probe with words. Almost magically, a reassuring force is restored to my writing, to my mind."
—Mark de Silva, author of Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio, 2016)
“I never know when a good idea will strike, but I know how to connect to the force. Or, my force. That is: whatever drives me to write and fuels my fight, my passions, whatever pertains to the current questions needing answers or problems in my life needing to be solved. What I’m trying to say here is I tend to get inspired when I figure out what battles are brewing in my subconscious. And even though they’re unique and personal battles, they’re typically part of a universal one. Usually I physically feel what I need to explore or write about, because it moves me in some way. It causes discomfort. Or it causes so much excitement that I can’t sit still. That’s when I know that something is brewing and I have to get to it. I try to remain calm and cool and if I can’t, it’s time to write. If I need a jolt to get me going again, I look at a good sentence or study structure from one of my go-to authors. My favorites: Vijay Seshadri. Cate Marvin. Susan Orlean. Jo Ann Beard. Virginia Woolf. Kate Manning. W. G. Sebald. Adrienne Celt. Paul Lisicky (a new favorite. His sentence level prose is gorgeous). An amazing book on prose that I can’t recommend enough: Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail by Jacqueline Jackson. There are things I do to improve me as a human, which improves me as a writer. I spend a hell of a lot of time outdoors. I play with my kids daily. I play with my dogs daily. I try to get enough sleep, and think about my writing right before I fall asleep. Throughout the day, I text my ideas to my husband, just to keep them floating and breathing. I generally do my best to always be questioning.”
—Mira Ptacin, author of Poor Your Soul (Soho Press, 2016)
"I studied vocal performance before I was a writer, and my favorite singer—to my mind, one of the very greatest singers of the twentieth century—is Peter Pears. He has a strange, unruly voice, with none of the bel canto virtues (evenness of tone, ease of production) I was taught to emulate. Even singing the music of his life partner, Benjamin Britten—music composed so carefully for Pears’s voice it seems like an embodiment of love—one hears him struggle, approaching each passage as a problem to be solved. One hears him thinking, that is, and part of the thrill of listening to him, especially in the later recordings, when the voice is less secure, more apt to wobble and stray, is to hear how brilliantly he marshals scarce resources. Every day as a writer I feel my own scarcity of resources. Another writer would be more economical here, I think as I struggle with a passage, more inventive, would have more interesting thoughts. I listen to Pears to remind myself how much can be done not despite limitation, but through or within it. When I hear Pears’s voice nearly break in the last phrases of Britten’s 'Before Life and After,' I remember how much of artistry lies in strategy, in putting defects to use. I remember that another word for limitation might be form, that the limiting line can also be the line of beauty."
—Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)
"For a minor level stuck—a piece of dialogue too on the nose, a telling detail that just doesn't tell—I stay at the desk. I stare at the wall; I look out the window at the birds. And then, I fire a spreading burst of words at the page. It is in fact, surprisingly successful, particularly if you are willing to edit dispassionately the next day. Supposing, however, I have achieved a greater level of stuck—piano in a stairwell stuck—I get up from the desk because I know—from long practice—that no amount of pushing will do. I wash the dishes, which have gathered in the sink; I go for a walk; I perform some task that requires attention but not specific thought. Then there are of course the days of slough and despond when writing a coherent sentence seems about as likely as riding a unicorn to Shangri-La (smart money on the unicorn). My strategy here may not be helpful. I lay on the nearest couch and moan like a donkey. I advise only one thing: Put the manuscript down and back away slowly, admitting, finally, that you don't know what you're doing. What matters is that you give yourself a break. You see, you are a writer, part of a special tribe, whose one great qualification is that not a single one of us knows what we're going to do until we actually do it. DeLillo said he doesn't know what he’s thinking until he sees it on the page. Keats said something fancy about negative capability that we should all know. But I've always liked what Beckett said and consider it a sort of writer’s prayer: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'"
—Sunil Yapa, author of Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown, 2016)