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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.
“When I was younger, it was dangerous to read fiction while writing it myself: Too easily, I found myself slipping into other people's voices. I read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and wrote eighty pages of a terrible knock-off. I adored Alice Munro's Open Secrets so much that I set a story in northern Ontario, a place I had never been and knew little about. I inhaled Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and promptly produced my own version, complete with a visiting character who was deaf instead of blind. Though I look back at these pieces with embarrassment, I also know each of them had something to teach me. I learned through imitation, but it was only when I followed—or found—my own voice that I was able to derive a different kind of inspiration from reading fiction, something subtler and more expansive. Today, when I reach a wall in my own work, I turn to authors I love to remind myself what is possible: that sentence, that structure, that daring twist of plot. Now that I have a surer sense of my own style and interests, reading does not confine me to a particular approach. Instead, it enlarges my understanding of what's possible, helping me to see beyond my own habits. Reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel reminded me that a narrative arc can be made from smaller, impressionistic pieces, that every stop on a character's journey need not be addressed. Tana French's mysteries have shown me that language can be as propulsive as plot, and Alice Munro's stories continue to widen my understanding of the way that time can be handled within a short story—even if I no longer set my own in Ontario."
—Chloe Benjamin, author of The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria Books, 2014)
“There's a bit of hubris inherent in writing fiction—no one that I know of has ever been plucked out of a math lecture and told, "No, no. You really should devote more time to your writing. The world needs your impressions of thunderstorms." So after you've announced your intentions to friends and family, there's a moment of pause when you think: Maybe I'm... not vast; maybe I don't contain multitudes. To me, this fear comes from that scoop of bad advice doled out to every aspiring writer: Write about what you know. For some people that works—there are some stories that just need to get out. Not surprisingly, this writing often veers toward autobiography. But if you’re the kind of person who rarely checks in with herself, who notices how everyone else in the room is feeling rather than dwelling on self-analysis, this adage will mess with you. My advice is to write about something you know nothing about, and then get to know it intimately. Ten years ago I knew this novel involved the Olympics, Ancient Greek, conceptual art, and Iceland—all things that I knew absolutely nothing about. But I knew intuitively that this was the book. So I took up a new sport, learned a dead language, sculpted a piece for the New Museum, and traversed Iceland for two months. My writing begins by trusting intuition fully, especially if it's intuition into something I know nothing about. Learning excites me and pulls me through those rough early drafts. From there, it's a lot of reading and whenever possible, doing the things I'm writing about. Once I've actually re-enacted parts of the story, I can do the fine-tuning necessary for a final draft.”
—Will Chancellor, author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper, 2014)
"After a day of work in the grey cubicle farm on Michigan Avenue, coming home to work on a novel can feel like an indulgence. It takes practice and patience to tune out the snotty e-mail from a coworker that sent the office atwitter, or to forget about the cockroaches that appeared one morning some months ago, first in the hallway, then in the break room under the toaster. (How many times have you toasted a bagel in that toaster?) The stresses multiply, and over time so do the bugs. To write, I recommend a long walk or a hot shower. Boring tasks activate the mind. Do the dishes. Deprive your body of external sensory distractions, and let the mind wander. Stare at a blank wall. It can feel like an indulgence to let go of the everyday shit show of your life, but sometimes you've got to tune out to tune in to the practice of writing."
—Susan Hope Lanier, author of The Game We Play (Curbside Splendor, 2014)
"I had to stop myself from reading 'Writing Habits of Famous Authors' articles. Such glamorized routines create unrealistic expectations the same way beauty magazines do for young women. The practice I'd recommend is refusing to compare yourself to some manic pixie dream writer who is getting piles of rainbow manuscript magic completed every day. Focus instead on the little victories: Being willing to slog through hours and hours of research and writing without much effect, only to have a burst of fantastic connection while in the shower. Managing to stay off social media for a two hour stretch. Being kind to yourself, without lying to yourself. Doing the work, without over-identifying with the work. (I learned this last one through my day job as a mortician: If I become emotionally involved with every dead body, every story, every family, I’d be paralyzed and unable to do my job. This same concept applies to writing. Don’t let yourself get too caught up.) If I’m able to accomplish any two, hell, any one of these goals a day, I feel like I did all right... even if no one will ever write a glowing viral article on my routines."
—Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons From the Crematory (Norton, 2014)
“The balled up, impossible-to-unkink tangle of pain and joy that is family fuels a great deal of my writing. The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reminds us: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” I never want my writing to finish anything. Rather, I want it to start things. Engage. Power conversations and questions. When I ignite the family drama in my poetry, I am aware of its ability to burn. That danger is exciting and terrifying for me—a challenge arises to see the poem form without censor, to be raw in the impulse to polish it down. When I am in the space where I truly feel vulnerable and surrender to the poem, the voice rises up.”
—Thomas Dooley, author of Trespass (Harper Perennial, 2014)
"Reading, at its best, is about getting inside someone else’s skin. Writing, for me, is about getting further into mine. The novelist Max Frisch said of his own writing: “What shocks me is rather the discovery that I have been concealing my life from myself.” I write for that same discovery and it requires a sort of soul-spelunking not always readily accessible. Sometimes the way is blocked. When this happens I stop writing, and turn to music. I pick one record, put on headphones, close my eyes, and listen. I do not pause. The fact that this seems radical to some shows how distracted we are—forty-five minutes? Alone? No computer? How frightening. Lately, my choice is John Coltrane’s Crescent, from 1964, the studio record he made just before A Love Supreme. In comparison, I find it a more ruminative record, and darker, more show than tell. It does not come with a prayer, as does A Love Supreme. Not that there’s anything wrong with prayer. In fact, it seems as good a word as any to describe Crescent, which never fails to take me outside of myself, even as I delve deeper, to those quiet, forgotten, foundational places I forget about. Crescent is both guide and pack mule on a long narrow road to the interior."
—Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles (Henry Holt, 2014)
“I’ll write ten more then go to the falcon. The falcon is my code name for Millennium Park in Chicago. I work across the street from it, and hide in it regularly. I write product copy for a large retailer. I write about power tools and mattresses, sometimes luggage. The volume is vast and comforting: an ocean of words, bold headlines lapping placidly at the sand. It’s different from the fiction I write, but not a competing force. They leak into each other at times, and that’s okay. My visits to the falcon are a reward for pounding out volume, but also a way to get out of my head—to stop using words to define and start letting them radiate. An endless stream of people and languages filter through the grounds. Clips of conversations and pregnant glances surround me. Toddlers charge through Crown Fountain’s thin sluice, police officers on Segways whir around sculptures, couples hold hands or look bored. All of this penetrates through me and allows me to pull up more from within.”
—Ryan Kenealy, author of Animals in Peril (Curbside Splendor, 2014)
"Writing is about getting to a place of deep mediation. The writer’s job is, at a fundamental level, all about finding the habits that will get you there—somehow. Human beings are, fortunately, trainable animals. We can train ourselves, through habit, to access the parts of the mind that lead to great creative work. Here are my three most repeated, most consistent writing secrets: 1. Get dressed. This may seem obvious or unimportant (especially if you work at home). And yet, what you wear is a statement of intention. If you have lucky clothes, go put them on. Grab that pink bathrobe. Don your hat with the moth holes and the bright, red feathers. You’re a writer. You’re encouraged to look eccentric. 2. Return to your lucky place. When I have a good writing day, I try to replicate it. Like a dog returning, again and again, to the place where it’s been fed, I go back to the same coffee shops where I’ve had success. Let your environment do some of the work for you. 3. Treat yourself. Yes, your back hurts because you are sitting in a chair. Yes, writing can create great cycles of angst in your life, and questions about money and art and time. But remember, you are a trainable animal. You like treats. So maybe you can have that eleven dollar kale salad, or that stack of sugar packets in your coffee, or that long, solitary walk through the rain. Bribery works, so use it. And a cautionary note: Since I don’t work at home, I often have to deal with table-takers and delays. Sometimes rude people set up camp in my lucky chair or at my lucky table. I have to glare at them with the steely eye of disapprobation. But then I remember: Often times, this is exactly how a new table is christened, and a new habit is born."
—Peyton Marshall, author of Goodhouse: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
“I recommend taking advice with a grain of low-sodium salt (better for your heart), and being suspicious of anyone who makes writing seem too easy, too hard, or too sexy. The reality is usually in the boring, nougat middle. Done correctly, writing looks like a person staring at a table. Many instructors advise to ‘sit in the chair’ each day. Remember the ‘chair’ can be the commuter train or the washing machine as your kid’s clothes dry. Or a doorpost you’re leaning against in the break room, smoking a Marlboro Light while counting tips, which is how I thought of the superheroes in my story ‘Great, Wondrous.’ In hindsight, I guess that was pretty sexy. I recommend rereading a work you think is perfect. I recommend going outside. I recommend going easy on yourself. Everyone worth their (low-sodium) salt has days when they think they’re doing it wrong. Please remember there are as many different ways to be a writer as there are writers.”
—Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas (Crown, 2014)
“First of all, it's okay not to write. Most writers are highly disciplined, equipped with a demanding, inner CEO. We tie our identities, our sense of worth, and our happiness to writing well. Not writing feels terrible, unless you consider that it too is part of the process. The muse is sly. Sometimes she goes into hiding. I've learned to accept that silence can be a kind of productivity. Loaf with yourself, to paraphrase Whitman. If you cannot relax, move on to another project or another genre. Teach yourself how to simply play with words; it’s time for recess and no one's grading. When writing essays, I juggle several pieces at once. There's the mountain essay, the water essay, the one about wind. I keep all three windows open on my computer and dash between them. In poetry, I start with description, plant my chair on the lawn, taking in what’s there. Or if nothing comes, my never-fail exercise is what I call “negative inversions.” First, copy out a short, simple poem on the left side of your blank book. Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, W. S. Merwin, all work well for this. Then, on the right page, write the rough opposite of the first line, then the second, and so on. Sky may become earth, earth may translate to moon, lime to fire red. Gradually, I’ll find my poem, hidden inside the original.”
—Sarah Gorham, author of Study in Perfect (University of Georgia Press, 2014)