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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.

Matt Sumell

posted 4.02.15

“Look, I’m far from military material. Undisciplined, hate authority, my ethics—perverted. But there is one military tenant I can and do get behind every time I sit down to write, and you probably know it already: ‘Embrace the suck.’ It’s going to suck, you guys. Big time. The sooner you accept that and get on with it anyway, the sooner you’re done. Why prolong your own suffering? Instead, treat it like a job. And that is trick number one: Buy a time clock. Although a bit noisy, I like the old school ones with the punch cards. Put your hours in. Two or three hours a day, whether you feel like it or not. And now that I’ve got you working, do what I do when I’m working: avoid working. Kind of. For whatever reason, writing a personal e-mail is infinitely less intimidating than a page of prose. Sometimes—when I get and stay stuck—I take some pressure off by opening up an e-mail window and writing in there instead. It helps me to think there’s less at stake. If that doesn’t do it, I change locations: desk to kitchen table, kitchen table to couch, couch to closet. I really like a dark, enclosed space. Something about it lends itself to daydreaming.”
—Matt Sumell, author of Making Nice (Henry Holt, 2015)

Tania James

posted 3.26.15

“If you were to glance over the chaos across my desk—inkless pens, paperbacks, an infant toothbrush—you might miss the object I count most valuable: a plastic rainbow-colored slinky. For years, whenever I found myself blocked, I’d pick up the slinky and toss it from hand to hand while walking in circles around my room. Maybe it’s the repetition of the sound, the shuffling of springs, but my mind burrows inside the world I’m building, unobliged to form an elegant sentence. I like elegant sentences, but my initial attempts are almost always doomed. So instead, I begin by thinking about characters, moving with them through a maze of what-ifs. Situations unfold, a left turn takes me by surprise. I don’t enjoy the same focus when I go for a walk outside; my imagination seems to work better within tighter physical boundaries. I realize that my attachment to the slinky is two parts Pavlovian and one part superstition, but there’s a whole lot of mystery where writing is concerned. Maybe engaging in a certain kind of physical activity—meditative, yet constrained—helps to quiet the traffic moving round my brain, to open a way forward. Or maybe it’s the magic of the slinky.”
—Tania James, author of The Tusk That Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015)

Elisa Albert

posted 3.19.15

“Above my desk, some talismans: ‘The Floor Scrapers’ by Gustave Caillebotte. I saw it when I was fourteen at the Musee D’Dorsay. The play of light on the floor got my attention, then it kept opening: What are the two on the right saying? Whose apartment is it, and will the people who live there feel the presence of this work when it’s done? Regardless, here are occupied bodies on a given day. Here is sweat and companionship, craftsmanship, dedication, destruction, rehabilitation. Attention to detail. Getting the job done. Next, an old photograph of anonymous huddled masses, disembarking from steerage in New York City in the early-twentieth century. Ancestors are like celebrities: They don’t know me, can only imagine me, but I know them, or want to think I do. My existence is in conversation with theirs. Then, a drawing from Orli Auslander’s ‘I Feel Bad’ series: ‘I Insist It’s Not PMS,’ which reminds me to laugh at myself, because if you can laugh at yourself, life and work will be joyful. Finally, a picture of my husband holding our son. Stare at these things for a while, or fail to see them because they’re always there. Some days, recognition and renewal. Some days, blindness. Regardless, onward: I have work to do. Lucky me.”
—Elisa Albert, author of After Birth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Monica Ong

posted 3.12.15

“My reality consists of full-time work, parenting, family, friends, and a laptop full of clients. When to write? One shift I made was to identify my ‘golden hour,’ the most conducive time of day for creative risk-taking, making, and doing. My husband is a night owl, but for me, it’s 4:00 AM to 6:00 AM. Everyone’s asleep, I’m freshly energized and not yet cluttered with the day’s noise. I make a list of no more than three goals to focus on so I can hit the ground running and make the most of it. I safeguard it from distraction or external requests, and show up adequately fed, with childcare covered. Outside of the ‘golden hour,’ I feed my writing with weekly self-care (zumba and yoga) and centering practices like chanting and meditation to help me prioritize playful messy progress over perfection. I obsessively watch modern dance (Pina) and choreography videos (Yanis Marshall, Jabbawockeez!) to observe how ordinary movements are deconstructed and reinterpreted into deliberate forms and primal gestures. But nothing beats the act of encouraging another human being: picking up the phone, or even better, meeting face to face over tea and cookies. Encouraging someone is how we exercise our most important assets: paying attention, listening, telling stories, braving the front lines of human struggle, and participating in shared vulnerability.”
—Monica Ong, author of Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015)

Alice Eve Cohen

posted 3.05.15

“Years ago, a friend told me that she thinks of writer’s block as ‘fallow time,’ the season the farmer leaves the field unsown so that crops can grow more productively (I’m a city girl; I had to look it up). I’ve had some long fallow seasons—months, years—when I haven’t been able to start the story that’s burning inside of me. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t ready. But a writer has to write. So how do you start again after an extended dormant period? These strategies have worked for me: Try this prompt. Have your character reveal a secret she’s never told anybody before. The two-page secret I wrote a year ago won’t be in my book, but it got me started; I’m three hundred pages in. Invent deadlines. Mine have included: I must finish this essay by four o’clock today; I’ve promised to send a new piece to my writers group next week. Go out and be with nature. I live in New York City, where we are chronically nature-deprived. I’m lucky to live near Central Park. I have a favorite spot, overlooking the lake. It looks like the Adirondacks, with loads of wildlife and no traffic noise. Being there wakes up my imagination and makes me happy. Squelch your inner critic. If you have trouble, read and reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Anchor, 1995), for her profound and hilariously funny take on doing battle with that self-judging voice. I keep the book permanently on my bedside table.”
—Alice Eve Cohen, author of The Year My Mother Came Back (Algonquin, 2015)

Sean Bishop

posted 2.26.15

“At some point I realized that I’m incapable of writing poems unless someone forces me to do it. Revising is easier for me; it can happen even against my better judgment as soon as I open a document. But someone’s got to make me do that first act of writing—I have to feel accountable to real, meat-and-blood people other than myself to make it happen. So I write most of my first drafts as part of a poem-a-day challenge. Once in the winter and once in the summer, I send an e-mail to about a hundred poets I know—some old classmates, some former students, some colleagues, some people-I-got-drunk-with-once-and-am-pretty-sure-I-might-have-liked—and I convince about twenty of them to try to write a poem every day for a month. Then they must send that daily poem to every other participant, silently-yet-relentlessly pass judgment on everyone who misses a day, and adhere to the following set of absurdly rigid rules: 1. First drafts only! The entire poem needs to have been written that day. 2. No disclaimers! Just send the poem and don’t qualify or apologize for it. This isn’t about writing ‘good’ poems, it’s just about getting it done. 3. For the same reason, no commenting! Positive, negative, it doesn’t matter—you can’t say one damn word about anyone else’s poem, ever. 4. No pre-writing! You can’t say, ‘Here’s my poem for today and for tomorrow, too!’ And that’s how it goes. Half of us quit halfway through, but we all write more poems than we would have otherwise, and that’s all that matters.”
—Sean Bishop, author of The Night We’re Not Sleeping in (Sarabande Books, 2014)

Rae Armantrout

posted 2.19.15

“In order to start writing, I need to put myself in a receptive state of mind, which isn't easy when you're busy: ‘Stop, look, and listen,’ as they used to tell school kids crossing the street. It might just mean sitting in a different place, taking my notebook out into my garden or to a street café. The trick (for me) is to be patiently receptive without turning off my critical faculties. Sometimes I take a more active approach and turn to reading for stimulation. In that case, I tend to prefer certain kinds of nonfiction. Right now I'm reading Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology (Bantam Press, 2014). Three new poems have begun with something I drew from that book in the last month. I'll read other poets, too, but generally only when I'm revising.”
Rae Armantrout, author of Itself (Wesleyan University Press, 2015)

Reif Larsen

posted 2.12.15

“I find that I generate new material via a two-step process. In the morning, I will sit my butt in the chair as close to 9:00 AM as possible. I’ve even contemplated purchasing one of those old punch clocks. Showing up every day is key. I’ll usually bang away all morning. When I’m working on a first draft, what I call 'fresh tracks,' the writing is inevitably bad. I used to be horrified by this and would immediately go back and try to improve it. I’ve learned over time to just let it lie, to be comfortable with the messiness. When I get hungry enough that I can’t see out of my left eye, I’ll go make myself a sandwich. Then comes the most important part of the day: I’ll take a run in the afternoon, around 4:00 PM. I won’t bring my headphones. And it is during the course of that run—as I move across the landscape, as I breathe, as the blood moves through my veins, as my muscles contract, as the pores open—that I begin to digest what I threw down on the canvas in the morning. I don’t try too hard. I just let my brain marinate on it. The Japanese call this kind of movement and reflection a 'brain bath.' These little connections begin to form and often about twenty minutes in, I’ll stumble upon some revelation and realize what I was actually trying to say. And I’ll run straight back to my office and make some notes. The next morning, I rake the soil and start again.”
Reif Larsen, author of I Am Radar (Penguin Press, 2015)

Steven Church

posted 2.05.15

"Though it may seem counterintuitive, I find that one way to keep from getting stuck or to find inspiration and new directions for my essays is to write with handcuffs on. Not real handcuffs. That would be weird. But I give myself constraints or limits, and in the case of several of my essays in Ultrasonic, these took the form of language, or specific words that served to narrow the focus of my writing. Focus, for me, is always a challenge, and these constraints became a way to harness my mind's tendency to ramble and digress. I have one essay where every section is either about 'blue' or 'noise' in some way, and another where each section is either about 'crown' or 'shoulder.' Every time I sat down to write, the constraint gave me a starting place and an assignment, a challenge to try and find a new way of looking at or thinking about the subject. I found that this led to all sorts of exciting discoveries—in terms of etymology, history, and metaphorical resonance—and for personal material that had otherwise been buried."
—Steven Church, author of Ultrasonic (Lavender Ink, 2014)

Todd Colby

posted 1.29.15

“When I’m feeling dazed and spent, and perhaps even a bit self-pitying, I turn my attention to the gleeful nihilism of E. M. Cioran. Romanian by birth, and a philosopher who wrote in French by choice, Cioran’s short paragraphs (he started writing in short bursts after he quit smoking) are instant jolts out of the narrowness of my own perceptions. He had a grand view of the senselessness and absurdity we encounter every day of our lives. At the same time, there is a dark humor bubbling around his writings, like a raging man who can’t stop himself from laughing. My favorite passage in all of his writings is a section in The Trouble With Being Born, where he tells us a story about Pope Innocent IX who, while still healthy, commissioned a portrait of himself on his deathbed. The Pope would look at the portrait of his dying self whenever he was about to make an important decision. Cioran reminds us that there’s a certain prickly solace in knowing it’s all going to end, and if we dig deeply enough into the true meaning of it all, we can’t help but laugh.”
—Todd Colby, author of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014)

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