Skip to Main Content
| Give a Gift |
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 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)
"My working methods, I suspect, are too peculiar and old-fashioned to be instructive. Nevertheless, I don't make outlines. I don't do drafts—or not intentionally—not as such. I just obey the emotional impulse, always emotional, toward a novel or an essay and start writing (on a legal pad, then typing on an old Hermes 3000) with the expectation that diligence and fear will see me through to the discovery and prosecution of my duty. And with the result that I will find myself, more often in the process than I'd like, completely baffled, sort of gazing over the cliff with no idea how I arrived or where to go. For which there's nothing but some quiet time in the evening and a bottle of triple stout. A glass of wine is too complacent and polite. It can't go frothy, like the ocean or the weather, and return you to the earth the way a good strong stout will do. Then in the morning, should I find the path I've taken back to truth seems maybe a little too elaborate or contrived, there is a test. A universal test for narrative or expository truth—or, more precisely, for its absence. All you do is read aloud the passage in question in the voice of Rod Serling introducing an episode of The Twilight Zone. Practice. It's not hard. And if it fits, if it sounds right like that, you're screwed. Back up the cliff. Another day. Another bottle."
—David Searcy, author of Shame and Wonder (Random House, 2016)
"Music was my first love, and it's still the source for me even though I haven't touched a piano or guitar in years. It continues to teach me about phrasing, pitch, shifts in rhythm, shifts in tonal register—all of the qualities I value in writing. I try to listen to a range of work, but every so often I go back to Joni Mitchell, whom I need to take breaks from as she already feels like my inner life. I'm not talking Blue, as pure as the album is, but Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, which is admittedly a mess, but a gorgeous mess. I don't think there's ever a moment when five things aren't going on emotionally. Each measure is dense with animation. It goes down like inquiry, a mind at work. It's richer for the fact that it makes mistakes, even dares to make mistakes, as if Mitchell's stretching out the membrane of what a song could do. The form is entirely its own, and not a bit sounds packaged for the marketplace. The album is neither old nor new, but outside of time. Its bravery is an animal. I want to hold it."
—Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door (Graywolf Press, 2016)
“I write in periods of forty-five minutes using my cell phone timer, and take fifteen-minute breaks between each session. I repeat this until I’m done for the day. I am amazed how much gets done in just three of these sessions, versus days of unstructured writing, which often lead to irregular breaks, rampant Internet usage, and end with me in a fetal ball of self-loathing. It turns out that no matter how much I am theoretically dying to write, I need structure and limits to get it done. I started this practice when I was writing a dissertation, getting together with other people to work this way. We ‘dissertated’ in forty-five-minute periods using an egg timer, and shared snacks and gossips during the breaks. Back then, the forty-five-minute time period made writing a dissertation bearable. Writing fiction is more satisfying for me, but now life is more hectic with kids/job/house. These little sessions make it seem like I can do it all. It also helps to use one of the more Zen sound settings to signal the end of a session. Truth be told, the egg timer sound got to be a little traumatic.”
—Asali Solomon, author of Disgruntled (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)
“When I was in the thick of writing my novel, Juventud, I took dance classes two or three times a week. This provided obvious physical benefits, prying me from the long day otherwise spent on the couch, pecking away on laptop keys until my neck and back ached. Any style of dance would do—modern, ballet, jazz, Bollywood, Polynesian, Middle Eastern. I chose the latter, or maybe it ended up choosing me; the studio was only a fifteen-minute drive from home, the lesson package affordable. Rules of thumb if you try a dance class: Find a style that won’t frustrate you too much, because this is supposed to be an invigorating break, not another means to bang your head against the wall. Let that hour yank you from the world of words and bring you back into the body, into the senses. Like yoga, dance offers its own kind of meditation. Learning choreography—even simple combinations—will keep your brain sharp, the synapses firing. My dance practice led me to figure out strategies for scenes left stuck, and elusive plot points snapped to clarity.”
—Vanessa Blakeslee, author of Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015)
“When in doubt, go further, deeper, weirder. Take the elements that make your story unique and double down on them. There's a tendency in writing classes and craft essays to suggest that writers work on their weaknesses and round out their skills. If you're great at dialogue and structure, you should put your efforts into character and plot. And certainly that can help. But if instead you work on using the dialogue and structure to your advantage and emphasize them even more, you might come up with something original. Not every shape needs to be round. Often what makes great writers great is not doing everything well, but doing a few things in exciting, original ways. Franz Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Bernhard—we remember these writers for their unique qualities, for the way they pushed their art into strange new shapes.”
—Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015)