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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.
"At a hotel in West Papua, New Guinea, above my bed in room 104, there hangs a painting. Three horses—cream, chestnut, and honey brown—gallop through pinkish-orange shallows. The sky—of a warmer, flooded world?—is goldenrod. Each horse, though wingless, looks as if it might take flight, especially the white one, who rears up with a pained expression in his eyes and bares his baby teeth. All three have steeled themselves, are focused—on what? What lies ahead? Will they ever find sanctuary? Distracted and anxious for weeks, I’ve written almost nothing; hoping to be shocked into inspiration, tomorrow I leave for Raja Ampat, an archipelago comprised of more than fifteen hundred remote karst islands, where I will dive among the world’s most biodiverse reefs. Their coral, their longnose hawkfish, will be dead soon: the pH of the oceans is falling. On such a planet, why live a writing life? Civilization can’t last much longer—my poems and essays aren’t for posterity. But neither should they be solely self-stimulating. Beauty, discovering it for oneself and sharing it with others, is as essential for the soul as glucose is for the brain. My room’s A/C rattles. It stirs the peeling wallpaper, which is actually gift wrap. The painting above my bed, signed only by the name 'Putra,' is both warning and inspiration. It is a Tarot card: Fear Death by Water, it says. The cosmic ocean never ends."
—Greg Wrenn, author of Centaur (University of Wisconsin Press, 2013)
"Whenever I get stuck—when the sentences close in on themselves or the characters don’t make sense or I just get that awful feeling of WTF STORY I HATE YOU I HATE YOU—I close the laptop and tell it out loud. Sometimes this means talking to myself in coffee shops or on the L train, folks nearby giving me the side eye. Sometimes it means having a drink or two or five with a friend, saying, “You’ll never believe what happened!” and then trusting how I naturally tell the story; how the words tangle together, how they connect with this particular audience, how they grab her, grip her, hold her. Sometimes it means asking my husband to listen—he is patient, and honest, and knew up front what he was getting himself in to. But mostly, it means finding a live show. In Chicago, there are several; storytelling events and curated performances and open mics in theaters, festivals, and bars. They’re happening every night, sometimes three or four a night, and there’s something magical about standing in front of those fifty or hundred or five hundred people and trusting the story; grabbing, gripping, holding. Their faces are the most immediate form of feedback. Are they laughing? Crying? Is the silence so heavy you could slice it? When did I lose them, what did I do to get them back, and—here is the important part—how does all of this translate to literary craft: pacing, structure, movement, tense, point of view, character, character, character? When I’m off the mike and back in my seat, I make notes—what did I learn from this performance and how will it influence my rewriting process? Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum; I’m writing to share, and these moments of audience connection are everything—all of us face-to-face, eye-to-eye, on the edge of our seats and living the experience together."
—Megan Stielstra, author of Once I Was Cool (Curbside Splendor, 2014)
"Inspiration surfaces when I work with my hands. I garden. I rake until my arms ache. I tug ivy vines and roots rise with explosions of dirt, and with them, a revelation about my novel-in-progress rises in my silent labor-occupied mind. I knit baby blanket after baby blanket, the click-clacking of the knitting needles a metronome keeping time with my thoughts. As a child, I kept my mind busy with books and television. I read in math class. At the dinner table. On the school bus. My parents believed TV was educational and so the set was on all day. These mind-occupying distractions provided a respite from the what ifs that cycled through my mind—the irrational fears that accompany the obsessive-compulsive disorder I’d be diagnosed with as an adult. Writing became a delicious diversion only because it afforded the ultimate escape from my relentless worries—“the trance.” Now, as a mother, writer, and workshop director, it’s challenging to find quiet time, but busy-ness is how we obsessives survive. I’ve spent most of my life seeking distraction to escape the silent mind, but it is necessary to a writer’s vision. I have to work, literally, to accept the quietude my writer’s mind craves. Gardening. Knitting. Cleaning up my children’s Legos. Vacuuming—the whirr of the motor meditative. Even scrubbing the kitchen sink divulges. The mystery of a character’s motivation is revealed, and I drop the sponge and run to my desk to jot down a few notes."
—Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth (St. Martin’s Press, 2014)
"I write with my whole body. It's best if I'm alone because surely I look like a maniac. Forget coffee shops. Librarians have eyed me warily. Even though I don't write longhand, I still have a physical relationship to the process of writing. I tap, sway, and chew through sentences. (Gum is handy; otherwise I'll gnaw through pen caps.) I stand up, pace, sit, dither, and bounce. I bob my head. I open doors and windows. My tongue is always out. It is not a solemn process. It is not graceful or serene or pretty. Writing is wild. Frenetic. Maybe I am forcing blood to the brain. Maybe I am pulling images from air. Maybe it's my way of finding and harnessing rhythm. In any case, there must be something to it because I can't write in any other way. Moving my body keeps my brain focused and awake. I think I must look the way small children do—all that uncontrollable energy sending them into spasms. I don't generally move through the world like this, thankfully, but I suspect it helps me tap into something more primal and unkempt, which resonates with the gut love I have for this work."
—Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press, 2014)
"Whenever I’m feeling stuck or stale in my writing, I find that the proverbial walk in the woods offers everything from relief to inspiration. When my subject is too raw, I’m soothed by the solitude of the forest—solitude meaning alone without the page staring me in the face. When I feel like my writing is lacking texture or isn’t visual enough, I get outside and try to run through all my senses—what scents are in the air? What sounds? Getting my legs moving, feeling the prickerbushes rip at my arms, the sharp glare of the sun or snap of wind in my face all offer a physicality that jolts me out of the rote rhythm of writing, that computer cocoon. My husband, Mark Milroy, is an artist and I also like to look at his landscapes for this same awakening effect. I call him a nonfiction painter and I know firsthand most of the views where he paints his landscapes. Yet I am always astounded by what he sees. His work has changed the way I see—the layering of hills, the purple of a field, the strange rectangular angle of an oncoming ocean wave. His skies are never simply blue, his grass never simply green. It took me a while to realize the same is true in real life—a fundamental realization for a nonfiction writer!"
—Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town (PublicAffairs, 2008)
"I’m not so much interested in things like plot and character and pacing and all that other literary nonsense, but rather the discrete quanta with which those things are built: Words. I like that the little music in a single word can, by its placement, or its very presence, beautify or corrupt the sentence that bears it; that the resulting sentence can test the truth of its paragraph, the paragraph of its page, the page of its chapter, and so on, until the success of an entire work seems to hinge on the single word by which the writer was originally seduced. Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic. But you see where I’m going with this. A punchy gem found in, say, a dictionary of eighteenth-century maritime slang can be as inspiring for me as the rhythms in The Waste Land can inspire other writers; a fun new word—something like 'mimp' or 'pourparlers'—can even pull me out of the oblivion of a long stretch of writer’s block, and make a blank sheet of paper seem no longer infinite and forbidding, but bright, open, and invitational."
—Bill Cotter, author of The Parallel Apartments (McSweeney's Books, 2014)
"I’ve actually found Twitter to be a strange and exciting writing device. I love the way it makes me think about text without context, content in spite of intent, form without formality. As a writer who likes to experiment with words (because otherwise what would be the point?), the sentences Twitter helps me to generate feel weirdly impactful. I resisted Twitter for so long because I thought it was nothing but meaningless promotion, and yes, that can be distracting, especially when I’m wondering how many people will get excited about a post that declares 'ONLY MEN HAVE FACES,' but I suppose only time will tell."
—Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of The End of San Francisco (City Lights, 2013)
"Most of the poetry I’ve written since 2008 has been written to the music of the band The Be Good Tanyas, specifically the album Hello Love and more specifically the song “Human Thing.” This song gets me into the clear-eyed and serious yet also kind of woozy/dreamy headspace I need to be in to write my poems. I can play that song on repeat for three hours and never get tired of it, its lazy downshifts and slow building pleasure. The entire album is truly amazing, bluesy and folksy and very deeply felt. It has been a big part of my creative process for almost six years now. It's a writing ritual I treasure."
—Carrie Murphy, author of Pretty Tilt (Keyhole Press, 2012) and Fat Daisies, forthcoming in December from Big Lucks Books.
“In addition to reading, I generate narrative nonfiction by wandering around. I stroll downtown and through populated neighborhoods in search of an interesting person, a dramatic event, an unexpected interaction, a surprise sighting. I’m not searching for a scoop. I want something that fascinates me so much that it demands further exploration and documentation. What are people saying? What are people doing? This is the world at this moment in human history. How does it look? The idea sounds so simple, but to recognize the familiar as fertile, it helps to suspend our resident identity and re-enter our hometown as a visitor.”
—Aaron Gilbreath, author of A Secondary Landscape (Future Tense Books, 2013)
“Like many writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, so I sometimes get stuck in the echo chamber of my own brain. The best remedy I’ve found, and the fastest way to inject new energy into my work, is eavesdropping on others. I go to a cafe, settle down with some tea, and listen to the conversations around me. My favorite coffee shop has a group of elderly regulars whose discussions range from the hilarious to the profound: one day, they may rehash poignant memories of their childhoods; another day, I might hear, ‘You don’t hear much about Princess Diana these days, do you?’ ‘Er—Princess Diana died.’ ‘Did she? What a pity. Recently?’ Sometimes I hear actual material to use in stories, but more often, the act of eavesdropping itself is transformative. Whether the topic is politics, the state of someone’s marriage, or the new sandwich guy with the facial tattoo, listening to others talk gets me focused on people again: their myriad and idiosyncratic interests, their biases and blind spots, all that they conceal and reveal—on purpose and accidentally—as they gossip and confide and debate. People and their relationships are the root of fiction, and an hour quietly listening is often just what I need to get myself going again.”
—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2013)