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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.
“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)
"There are a host of prescribed tricks for writing droughts, from the age-old divine intervention of Erato to the more practical jaunt around the neighborhood. 'Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,' Thoreau wrote in his journal. And who am I not to listen to my elders? I take what I can. I wait for the beautiful voice. I step away from the screen and exit my apartment to clear my head for new ideas. A schedule can be good. I write for three hours each day between the time I arrive home from work and before my wife arrives home. This is just exercise. Something I do whether I want to or not. One thing that worked for me when I was writing my memoir and daunted by the business of prose—descriptions, scene settings, or what Virginia Wolff called 'This appalling narrative business of the realist: getting from lunch to dinner'—was composing the narrative as a letter. Dear Mom. Dear Ex-Wife. Dear username SugarandSpikes from the dating website. Dear Stranger on Craigslist Missed Connections. I found the epistolary form provided enough space to momentarily forget writing workshop craft talk and get to the emotional details, the things which needed to be said. It was important to get things on paper, and if I needed to, I could add the color of the wallpaper later. There will always be revisions."
—Brett Fletcher Lauer, author of Faked Missed Connections: Divorce, Online Dating, and Other Failures (Soft Skull Press, 2016)
"I never acquired the habit of keeping a journal, except to record my dreams. It always amazes me when I reread one from years ago, how fresh it still seems—more vivid even than my memories of actual events. One of the best tips I ever got was that you should title your dreams. Doing so makes the whole recording process into more of a literary activity. Some examples of my recent ones are 'In a Fog,' 'Dream Kitchen,' 'The Creeper,' and 'A Nice Voice.' Often with just a bit of minor editing, I have something I can type up and keep. It’s like the elves and the shoemaker, or the story of how the famous Surrealist poet Robert Desnos is said to have hung a sign on his door when sleeping that read: 'Do Not Disturb—Poet at Work.' Of course, I have poems I struggle over too, but I am not above taking a handout from the great unconscious."
—Elaine Equi, author of Sentences and Rain (Coffee House Press, 2015)
“I believe in fair trade. When I need inspiration I start giving more time and attention to the world around me. I write an e-mail to someone I miss. I make a mix of the best songs ever for where you are in your life right now. Or I set myself a challenge: I have to be kissed three times before an ending comes to me. Then I start chasing my children and my wife around the house. I have a little gang of coffee mugs I think of as my work friends; one of them generally sits around with me through the day and helps out when it can. I don’t just drink from them; I whisper into them too. ‘If you help me get this paragraph to a neat ending, I’ll wash you with incredible care and treat you like a grail.’ It’s old magic. The reason I feel lost is because I forgot to leave an offering at some crucial shrine along the way. Maybe it’s a thank-you note I’ve been neglecting, or a handful of change in the cup holder of the car that wants to meet people on the side of the road. When the gods gave up on us they shattered their omnipotence and hid little bits and pieces of it all over creation.”
—Kirk Lynn, author of Rules for Werewolves (Melville House, 2015)
“Write first drafts on paper. This cancels self-criticism immediately; unless you have truly ugly, banged-up handwriting, everything you write will be visually and stylistically unified by ink. Better still, in an age of Internet-rehab apps like Freedom and SelfControl, nothing approaches the uncluttered nondigital quiet of a page. Take confidence in the fact that much of our canon was composed on paper. But mostly, when you achieve a flow, you're much less likely to break it on the page than on a screen—you'll be less tempted to double backwards into revision, checking e-mail, opening a tab. I found this to be true when I wrote the first complete draft of my second novel, The Association of Small Bombs. For years I'd been struggling to make progress, only to lapse back into revision. The minute I committed to paper, the story ribboned forward, inventing itself. I had never felt anything like it.”
—Karan Mahajan, author of The Association of Small Bombs (Viking, 2016)