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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.

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Joanie Mackowski

posted 2.10.10

"It helps me to remember that inspiration needs courting; it won't come if I wait passively. Also, let's say I get inspired but have a rusty hand...then the inspiration plugs into a faulty outlet. So, when I've time to write but no mojo, I count. I write iambic pentameter or sapphic stanzas, or I make up some rhythm pattern and repeat it for a while (like writing lines with spondees, which is way hard!). If these attempts fail, then I go to a park or a café for an hour or two and write down what I see—not trying to say anything, but just attending to shapes, juxtapositions, data. These things all help, plus, lately, reading John Ashbery—this shakes me alive."
Joanie Mackowski, author of View From a Temporary Window (University of Pittsburgh Press, January 2010)

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Elizabeth Bradfield

posted 2.03.10

"There is phenomenal beauty in the language developed for a particular field—whether it's architecture, dentistry, tree pruning, or accounting. Stories lurk in the specific tools and tasks. For me, the natural sciences and seafaring are muses. Science News and the American Practical Navigator come to mind as sources I've turned to. But immersion in the language and concerns of any profession can unveil rich sounds and provide a new lens through which the world can be seen. Take the scupper, the hole that allows water to drain from a boat's deck—how can you not be inspired by the word scupper? Using that 'other' language and making sense of the view it describes—bridging the plumber's or the neurologist's vision and your own—is a challenge and a delight."
—Elizabeth Bradfield, author of Approaching Ice (Persea Books, 2010)

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Michael Cirelli

posted 1.27.10

"I'm thoroughly inspired, moved, agitated, elevated by music (mostly hip-hop). My first collection, Lobster With Ol' Dirty Bastard, situates rap heroes, culture, and iconography inside the four walls of fourteen-line quasi sonnets. Writing based on music has almost become a compulsion of mine. When I listen to old Smiths' albums with names like Hatful of Hollow or Meat Is Murder, I think "literature!" When Morrissey sings, "I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving / England is mine / And it owes me a living / Ask me why and I'll spit in your eye," I immediately think remix. Remix is a term most commonly used in hip-hop music or, more recognizably, from grad school imitation poem writing prompts ad nauseum. Imitate it, re(in)state it, reconfigure it, say it in Braille! My forthcoming collection, Vacations on the Black Star Line, remixes the whole Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star album through the lens of race, privilege, whiteness, and exoticization. I could take a song like Lupe Fiasco's "Dumb It Down" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q1Et1siZhTk) and spend hours trying to dissect each line, each metaphor, each double and triple entendre. The stuff of good hip-hop puts language in a rocket ship!
—Michael Cirelli, author of Lobster With Ol' Dirty Bastard (Hanging Loose Press, 2008)

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Floyd Skloot

posted 1.20.10

"Notes—on Post-its, index cards, scraps of paper—have saved me as a writer. Because they fade so fast, I've made a habit of writing down fragments of memory that arise or images or phrases, sometimes just isolated words. Then I put them in folders, see what belongs together with what, find out where those fragments lead, and build very slowly to an essay or poem. I've learned to use writing as an act of discovery, and such small notes are for me the fundamental source."
—Floyd Skloot, author of The Wink of the Zenith: The Shaping of a Writer's Life
(University of Nebraska Press, 2008)

Jill Magi

posted 1.13.10

"Make a tiny book! At least once a year I write something quickly, in one day—a list poem or found-text piece—arrange it in sections, print, cut, stack the pages, staple, and make a handful of copies. I give one away immediately. It's not about showcasing my writing; it is about the playfulness of ungroomed surfaces and the intimacy of a gift.

"The poem 'Thinking a kite' from my book Torchwood began this way. But the point is to act without thinking of a result beyond your tiny book. This act of bookmaking is a writer's tradition: from literatura de cordel in Brazil to the Dusie Press Kollektiv. Check them out!"
Jill Magi, author of Threads (Futurepoem, 2007)

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Jarvis Jay Masters

posted 12.16.09

"I am inspired to write because for many, many years, while living in solitary confinement, writing was my only means of communication. In the world outside of prison, when we are feeling isolated or alone, we might reach for the phone to talk to someone, or reach for the refrigerator door and eat something. Living at San Quentin State Prison on death row, I reach for my pen. The pen is a form of therapy, meditation, and reflection."
—Jarvis Jay Masters, author of That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row (HarperOne, 2009)

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Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

posted 12.16.09

"I'm an American. My husband is from Ireland. We adopted our daughter from Vietnam. We live in Shanghai, China. During the past four years, I've traveled to India, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, France, Ireland, Italy, China, and, of course, the United States. Every time I land in a new country, a new city, I get this crazy buzz...this itch...this urge to see, see, see...watch, watch, watch...listen, listen, listen...and then write, write, write. When I'm a stranger, an explorer, images and sounds and people stick with me—the starved hound in Mumbai chomping dusty leaves from a half-dead potted plant, the wedding procession through the rainy streets of Milan, the slight suction of the elephant's trunk against my mouth when it kisses me. I tote these around in my head until at some point I hunker down at my desk where they become characters or moments in a story."
—Kristin Bair O'Keeffe
, author of Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009)

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Jonathan Lethem

posted 12.16.09

"Have lucky things. It doesn't matter what they are. I bought a green cardigan sweater for a quarter at a thrift store in Bennington, Vermont, and wore it nearly every day through the writing of my first three novels, until it was in tatters. Even then I kept it in my closet and wore the tatters for selected moments as I wrote the next book or two. When I wrote The Fortress of Solitude I had a fortune cookie fortune taped onto the hood of my computer—a mysterious, atypical fortune, I can't remember the exact words, something like ‘You don't know the whole story.' It encouraged me to go deeper in that book than I'd gone before, into my personal mysteries. Not to settle. While I was working on Chronic City I ate the same kind of breakfast cereal (Barbara's Shredded Spoonfuls) with the same bowl and the same spoon (it had a kind of fluted handle I liked) every morning, just like Wade Boggs eating chicken before every baseball game. The point isn't to believe in hokum, but to turn yourself over to the force of ritual, to deliver the project out of your own neurotic proprietorship. The philosopher Niels Bohr kept a horseshoe over his doorway, and when he was challenged by a visitor as to whether he believed in such things, he replied, 'Of course not, but I am told it works even if you don't believe in it.' Or the joke about the man who was searching for his lost keys on a darkened street: A policeman stopped to help him, and the man had the cop look with him under a street lamp. When the cop asked if this was where the man had lost the keys, the man said, 'No, but there's more light here.' Always search where the light is."
—Jonathan Lethem
, author of Chronic City (Doubleday, 2009)

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Adrian Blevins

posted 12.09.09

"I try—and I fail all the time as I am very idea oriented—to leave my desk and take a walk or a drive and just look at the world more closely, to take note of the names of things so I'll be able to mix them up later with the names of other things in an attempt to think and write some new thought: the Ash-throated Flycatcher, the silver hair barrette, and the cicada all mixed together with the sock, the respirator, and the container in the room with the awful word BIOHAZARD written on it in such bloody letters."
—Adrian Blevins, Live From the Homesick Jamboree (Wesleyan University Press, 2009)

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T. C. Boyle

posted 12.03.09

"I've been inspired by a whole host of music and writing, as is evident especially in my short stories. A few are retakes on classic stories, such as 'The Overcoat II' or 'The Devil and Irv Cherniske' or my sequel to For Whom the Bell Tolls, ‘Me Cago en la Leche (Robert Jordan in Nicaragua).' As for music, there is my story inspired by Robert Johnson's life, 'Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail,' which provides the final, absolute, and definitive version of how he died (he was poisoned by a woman he done wrong), and perhaps my best-known (or certainly the most anthologized) story, 'Greasy Lake,' which takes off from a line in Bruce Springsteen's 'Spirit in the Night' ('It's about a mile down on the dark side of Route 88' serves as the story's epigraph). And, in a more general way, I never sit down to write without music playing in the background. It opens me up. It thrills me. It sets me afire with rhythm and joy."
T. C. Boyle, author of Wild Child (Viking, forthcoming in January 2010)

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