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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.
"I write while I run; music and my pounding feet lull me into a self-hypnosis, allowing my mind to wander and compose on its own. A good running route is scenic enough to inspire but not distract, and the music has to fit your mental labors. For The Long Walk, I listened to a lot of jangly '60s rock (The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival) and their modern equivalents (The Black Angels). The prep before the run is just as important: coffee, breakfast, and a truly good book the night before. I try to be very selective about what I read, and feed myself a steady diet of quality writing as creative food. I’ve started to avoid the newspaper, bad magazine copy, and throw-away novels during heavy writing bouts. I’m easily influenced, and I only want the best to percolate to the surface during my runs."
—Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk (Doubleday, 2012)
“It is my wife’s good graces that allow me to do this work at all, since my writing time saddles her with parenting our five boys. So when I do write—and in a good week I write every day—I want to make sure the writing comes easy. The music of Boxhead Ensemble, a loose confederation of improvisational musicians under the leadership of Michael Krassner, takes me into whatever liminal space writing comes from, when it comes best: Put your headphones on. Press play. Feel the pull of the outer dark? I’d tell you this is what I’m talking about, but you can no longer hear me. That sound is the slow hiss of your words tumbling out of the sky.”
—Christian Kiefer, author of The Infinite Tides (Bloomsbury USA, 2012)
“Any story I’m working on begins with a mood—a tone, an atmosphere for the story to grow out of—and that mood, for me, is always informed by music. So, very early on, I settle on a soundtrack. For instance, with Radio Iris, I wanted a haunting, echoing mood that immediately aligned itself with pop oldies: Sam Cooke, Buddy Holly, and other voices from the past, simple songs of love and longing that are touched by the tragic fates of their singers, and feel as though they’re trapped behind frosted glass. Before I start working, I’ll listen to the music I associate with the story to get the right feel. That’s the first part. The second part is walking. I like to write at cafés, not only for the caffeine and soothing background patter—though those things are important too—but for the walk to get there. Watching the neighborhood go by while songs rattle around my head puts me in the right mood to let a story unfurl.”
—Anne-Marie Kinney, author of Radio Iris (Two Dollar Radio, 2012)
"The thing that inspires me in my writing is chatting with my friends about family relationships. I’ve relished many conversations, over time, with two filmmaker friends: Kim Longinotto and Clio Barnard. We’ve had long chats, like winding rivers with many tributaries. I find myself compelled by the bizarre and terrible stories at the heart of families, and this theme features recurrently in our chats together. Kim’s documentaries, novelistic stories about the injustices suffered by women around the world, often carry the tang of her own deep history, yet somehow transcend any personal agenda. Clio’s drama documentary, The Arbor, layers a familial tragedy percolating through a generation. Her insights about families shine like a beam throughout her work. Chatting to them both, and seeing how their personal histories inform their work without overshadowing it, is a source of inspiration to me."
—Rosie Dastgir, author of A Small Fortune (Riverhead Books, 2012)
"I draw a lot of inspiration from visual art. One of the early and ongoing inspirations for me is a painter (and happily, a friend) named Michael Brophy whose ironic yet romantic images of western clear-cuts, slash piles, stumps, and domesticated forest scapes opened a whole new way of seeing my own backyard (the Northwest). I really can't overestimate what a gift Brophy's work is—the histories it suggests, the sense impressions it implies—to the degree that I can honestly say it has led in some way to all my fictive projects. There are a lot of other artists who've had influences on my work, too, some through their conceptual frameworks and others through very specific little details I've stolen—a coiled garden hose or a cursive tire tread that becomes part of a scene. There's something about a visual image that both focuses the mind and frees it to wander, and the artists who help me most—people like Robert Adams, Ed Ruscha, and Chris Johanson, to name a few—guide me into landscapes of thought and feeling I might not find on my own."
—Jon Raymond, author of Rain Dragon (Bloomsbury, 2012)
"The majority of us start off asking our peers and our instructors, How can I improve my prose/poetry? How can I become 'publishable'? These are necessary and essential questions. Equally essential, yet often neglected, is the question, How can I assist other writers? In my classes, and in my own writing life, I pursue the idea that one of the greatest inspirations for producing our own best work is by promoting and being inspired by other writers. These are coequal concerns. For me this manifests itself in a number of ways: attending readings, consuming work at a retail level, using the public library, writing editors about work I've most appreciated, etcetera. Experience has taught me the more one contemplates how one might assist other writers, the more one's own writing benefits. It's almost too simple a concept to advertise."
—Brian Leung, author of Take Me Home (Harper, 2010)
"My yoga and meditation practices have become such an integral part of my writing life that I can't imagine what it would be like to sit down to write without knowing that, at some point in the day, I will be able to unroll my mat and quiet my mind. Quieting the mind is, for me, the biggest challenge. We live in an age of distraction, and the very instrument on which I write is also a portal into the outside world: The Internet is addictive and I have a hard time shutting it down. During the day I ping around—from my work to a quick e-mail check, back to my work, back online to look something up, something that could really wait until later—and before I know it, even if I've gotten work done, my mind feels like that old commercial about drugs. Do you remember the one? We see an egg. This is your mind. Then the egg is cracked against a hot griddle. This is your mind on drugs. My mind on the Internet needs soothing. It needs silence. It needs space, and when I unroll my mat, I am guaranteed that silence and space. Afterward, when I return to my desk, it is with that ironed, clean, smooth clarity, as if I'm starting my day all over again."
—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion (HarperCollins, 2010)
"For almost three years now I’ve been obsessed with the work of South African photographer Roger Ballen. His photos act as a propeller for me in my writing. There is a spookiness to his work that invigorates me. He has a somewhat consistent vocabulary of objects in his photographs: small animals, primitive or childlike wall drawings, smudged human beings that seem to be the embodiment of contrast, discarded and broken down household items. I often start a story or chapter with one of his photographs and allow that image to set the tone for what I’m working on. I let those objects show up and even reoccur. I try to get into the head of the subject and imagine it a new context. I can’t imagine what my writing would look like right now without his images in my head."
—Jac Jemc, author of My Only Wife (Dzanc Books, 2012)
“From the moment a writer is attached to a story, said Saul Bellow, he or she suddenly has ‘feelers all over the place.’ So once I’m attached, I draw inspiration from what I think the character in question would read or consume. My first novel is about a fashion designer starting his own label, and through a turn of events he winds up a suspected terrorist in post-9/11 New York City. I didn’t know squat about fashion design, so I read Coco Chanel’s biography by Edmond Charles-Roux from 1975. Then came The Beautiful Fall about the rivalry between Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Those texts inspired an alternate persona that I took on when sitting down to write. My ‘feelers’ were up, and a real person began to take shape. Once my hero was labeled an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo Bay, I read the only book he would be allowed, the Koran. You could call all this ‘research,’ but I don't. I find it to be more mystical than that.”
—Alex Gilvarry, author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Viking, 2012)
“Because I am an American and often worry about many things, I seek out consolation before beginning to write, and little in this world consoles me more than the male falsetto: Skip James, Jónsi Birgisson, Pepe Núñez, Roscoe Holcomb, Antony Hegarty and company. A great falsetto contains everything—vulnerability, artifice, control, tenderness, breath, hoot, indirect sexuality, finitude—but most important, it is constrained by, and therefore expresses, a sort of transgression or otherness. The male falsetto reminds me that tension among all these things is exquisite and vital—in fact, I often try to ‘hear’ my poems sung this way—and grants me permission to move beyond my usual range.”
—Paige Ackerson-Kiely, author of My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012)