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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.

Lo Kwa Mei-en

posted 7.21.16

“When I feel like my identity as a writer is threatened by my flaws, failures, and limitations of health, I can become overwhelmed by fear so profound, I cannot face it alone. I recently wrote a journal entry describing what it feels like to read a book and fall in love with it. I focused on a time in my life when I was fully awake to my love for books but ignorant of what it meant to produce them. I recalled how it felt in my body to read a book I was in love with. Sometimes I am so totally stuck I cannot write a single word of my own, not even to describe another’s work, so I have taken to picking up a book from my past that I have been hungering to reread and typing it out word for word, at a speed slow enough to feel the words relating to each other and hear new things in their music that I had not heard before. I will retype another’s book until I feel love and not despair. In doing these things, I feel fiercely for others’ work what I cannot always feel for my own, and this is ultimately the truest path I know of that leads back to my own work. At its most difficult, being stuck is an experience I cannot dissolve through gestures of production or consumption. Instead, I try to undergo a most beautiful and mundane adaptation, from someone who craves to be a writer to someone who knows she is a reader.”
—Lo Kwa Mei-en, author of The Bees Make Money in the Lion (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016)

Patricia Colleen Murphy

posted 7.14.16

“Writing itself is such a solitary act that when I am finishing a project I often feel lonely to the point of distraction. I combat that isolation by surrounding myself with other artists. My need for a ‘writers community’ has taken on many forms: In high school, college, and grad school I rarely went a semester without enrolling in a creative writing workshop, which afforded instant access to readers, comments, and encouragement. After graduation, I struggled to recreate those ten years of workshops without the ready-made roster a classroom affords. I have filled this lack in myriad ways: 1. My writers group of six to ten trusted poets, exchanging work and comments online. 2. Attending writing workshops such as the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference and the Blue Flower Arts Writers’ Conference at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. 3. Attending fourteen AWP conferences, where I go to panels and readings, and work a book fair table for my magazine, Superstition Review. 4. Engaging with other artists at retreats such as Ragdale, Djerassi, and Vermont Studio Center. 5. Following other authors on social networks and engaging with them concerning new work. Even though I need to be alone in a room to do my work, connecting with my writing communities helps me get back to the page. Knowing that other writers are fiercely committed to the hard work of writing helps me stay focused on even the toughest goals.”
—Patricia Colleen Murphy, author of Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press, 2016)

Jesse Ball

posted 7.07.16

“Some of us are in confusion; we labor through it, we perceive it where it isn’t, we see it threefold where it’s thick; we can scarcely say anything at all for as soon as we begin to utter a word we learn how senseless it all is. This advice is not for those people, but for others who feel it is possible to say the anything-at-all that people enjoy saying. What is the advice? Well—when I feel that it is finally possible to open my mouth and speak, I stop to see if I should. Perhaps I am standing somewhere and the people around me have for reasons of their own decided to keep their mouths shut. Then maybe I have thought of something to say. What I do is: I say the thing I am going to say silently in my head, and then I say what I construe to be the opposite of that thing. Too often for my own comfort I find that the opposite proves also to be true. At such a time I keep my mouth shut and rescind my silent proposal. Or I don’t! Maybe I imagine myself enjoying saying one of them, the thing or its opposite, and then I do. I’ll just blurt it right out. Or sometimes I’ll say both, and then my friends and I laugh and laugh at how pitiful this life is.”
—Jesse Ball, author of How to Set a Fire and Why (Pantheon, 2016)

Bob Proehl

posted 6.30.16

“Most of the time when I’m stuck, it’s because I’m trying to get a sentence or a scene to be perfect when it’s too early in the process for perfection. I tell myself going in nothing’s going to be perfect in the first draft, then I sit refusing to write one more imperfect line. Getting unstuck begins with reminding myself the first draft is where you get the mistakes out on the page. Perfect comes in later. I write long-hand and on-screen, so sometimes a switch can dislodge a block. I stockpile pages to transcribe for when I need a kick start. Once all that fails, I find something to work on that keeps my head in the piece but leaves a lot of room for mistakes. Something unlikely to make it into a draft. Backstory, dialogue for a scene that I might not use. Things the reader doesn’t need to see but I need to know. I’m a proponent of staying at the desk. Once I’m away from the desk, I’m back in the world of housework and bills and all the things that were conspiring to keep me from sitting down at the desk to begin with.”
—Bob Proehl, author of A Hundred Thousand Worlds (Viking, 2016)

Toni Nealie

posted 6.23.16

“Walking in the woods helps free my mind. The loamy smell, muted light, envelope of green, and muffled sound help make a space for ideas to germinate. I used to feel guilty about not writing daily, until I realized that I pre-write while walking, and according to current neuroscience, the body drives the mind as well as the other way around. I then aim for a meditative state to write. I like quiet and solitude at my desk, whereas in the rest of my life I adore people and bustle and interaction. To break from the narrative and reportage of my working life, I read poetry or prose, often in translation. It helps induce a dreamy state of being, that allows me to distance myself from everyday life and frees my ideas, experiences, and craft to sift onto the page. Simone Weil, Elizabeth Bishop, Franz Kafka, Fernando Pessoa helped me when I wrote The Miles Between Me, along with A Book of Nonsense, a collection of poems I've had since I was a child. Looking is important—at art, at nature, at life around me. Several of the essays in my book were spurred by creating short film essays—a practice that loosened something in my perspective.”
—Toni Nealie, author of The Miles Between Me (Curbside Splendor, 2016)

Masande Ntshanga

posted 6.15.16

“Whenever I reach a standstill, I find that I’ve detached from a text. I also find that the experience of being stalled isn’t something I receive as negative; it can be a defense against falsehood, in my experience, and against producing material that’s serviceable, but lifeless in the end. I’m of the position that most of my work deals with extremes, at the moment, and whether this is by choice or not, I can’t tell, but I’ve come to accept that I can’t write until I reacquaint myself with the emotional and psychological core of what I’m working on, which is often easier to avoid than to do. However, the act of creating anything with an amount of proficiency is exhilarating, and I usually start by reading the text back from the beginning, and interrogating why I took on the project to begin with. I mine whatever intellectual, emotional, or physical experience that might have inspired it, and then I remind myself of the reward of working through that with fiction. Sometimes, when that well is dry, too, I set out into the world to discover it again from living.”
—Masande Ntshanga, author of The Reactive (Two Dollar Radio, 2016)

Ryo Yamaguchi

posted 6.09.16

“Above my desk are the famous lines from Wallace Stevens: ‘In the world of words, / Imagination is one of / The forces of nature.’ Kant would be proud. Or maybe it’s a matter of surrender (while I write this the rains are sweeping like the simplest of songs across the West Side of Chicago). And yet all I can suggest as inspiration is this: practice. Practice is its own kind of surrender, a surrender to the same. Pound would be disappointed. But I think of our good work—the work readers of Poets & Writers Magazine do every single day—as that: a routine, an exercise, a repetition that incrementally seeks. The flexion of image, and sound. The flexion of intent, and understanding. So I work out a line about pelicans, and three days later now they are skimming across a lake that looks like a silicon disc. Nature is the sun rising and falling and rising—intermittent fog. Do you want an example? Watch Werner Herzog’s documentary on the eponymous ski jumper: The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner. Better yet, just watch the opening. The flight, the suspension, the breath held and the body aligned. That is practice. In its terror and beauty. In its accord.”
—Ryo Yamaguchi, author of The Refusal of Suitors (Noemi Press, 2015)

John McCarthy

posted 6.02.16

"If I don’t write for a few days, I feel hungover, like my muscles are tight. Creative and intellectual exertions parallel, for me, physical exertion. Having run cross-country in college, I spent thousands of hours and miles on roads all over Illinois. I still spend a lot of time running, witnessing the landscape, and finding my solitude mirrored by the Midwest. Writing after a run creates a dialectic between landscape and the personal thoughts I want to express. Sometimes it’s the corkscrew-tin gutters beneath a gravel driveway or the cinderblocks lifting up a mobile home. By the time I arrive home, I usually have the outline to a narrative or enough concrete images to form a concept, or intuit something beyond those individual images. Running sheds any internal blockage and allows me to write more emotionally inclusive poems by letting me see more of the world we all live in. My nightstand writers who inspire me include: Julia B. Levine, Sandy Longhorn, Austin Smith, Tracy K. Smith, and Bruce Snider. Their art exemplifies the duality of the mind’s lyrical capability and the physical landscape where my body feels safest and most at home."
—John McCarthy, author of Ghost County (MG Press, 2016)

Amit Majmudar

posted 5.26.16

“Whether it's prose you want to write or poetry, if you're feeling blocked, simply open up Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985) to any page and begin declaiming in a grizzled and jaded voice his otherworldly descriptions of landscape, or Judge Holden’s discussion of chance, or the mules falling down the mountainside with the mercury in their sacks shattering into globes around them, or the static electricity coming off Glanton's murderous gang as they remove their shirts at night. This is not just McCarthy's greatest novel. The real interesting thing about this word-sequence is its nihilistic magic: Blood Meridian is the only literary masterpiece ever to have emerged from nihilism in about four thousand years of human literary activity. Its supercharged simultaneous existence in and above the worlds of fiction and poetry grants it an amphetamine-like ability to activate the verbal centers of the cortex. Be warned, though: Never imitate it.”
—Amit Majmudar, author of Dothead (Knopf, 2016)  

Katie Chase

posted 5.19.16

“My approach to short stories is to think of each as its own world, with its own parameters, and even its own aesthetics. The tradeoff for the fun and satisfaction this brings is that I often find myself between them—it can be difficult to gain momentum with a new idea if I’m not finding the ‘right’ language or feeling inspired by some leap of the imagination. It helps then, to immerse myself in other forms and be reminded of what’s possible in art more generally. Movies, even more so than written fiction, must necessarily make a world concrete. I love the mash-up of present and past that Sofia Coppola achieves in Marie Antoinette, how she collapses an historical figure into a vulnerable child, a teenager who feels contemporary. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a paradigm for probing an audacious premise for what is deep and true, for enlivening a human experience. The practice of staying away from the desk for long periods can gain its own kind of momentum, yet some ideas really do just need more time to be worked out at the desk. Ideally, get several ideas cooking at once. What was half-baked and set aside six months before will suddenly be crackling with urgency.”
—Katie Chase, author of Man and Wife (A Strange Object, 2016)

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