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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.
“Merrill Garbus, who performs under the moniker tUnE-YArDs, recorded her first album using a handheld voice recorder and distributed it on recycled cassette tape. Listening to BiRd-BrAiNs—a collage of experimental rhythms, odd instrumentations, and found sounds—you never forget that this is something made. The songs are sturdy and bold, but also transparent—they contain unlikely pauses, trips and turnarounds on their way to surprising and beautiful crescendos. In a recent interview, Tom Waits compared the pop song to a bagel; these bagels are oddly shaped, multicolored, and glazed with mud or candy or spare buttons.
“At the forefront of these songs is Garbus’s voice, which she often pushes—yodeling, shouting, screaming. She frequently sings on multiple tracks, too, which creates a sort of dialogue—Garbus versus Garbus. As I hear the songs, one Garbus dares the other to go further, to find more joy, to have more fun. For me, BiRd-BrAiNs serves as a meditation on the creative process, and a reminder of the possibilities of art. I listen to this album in thirty-second or one-minute bursts, and then I carry that reminder, like food to a nest, back to my writing: have more fun, have more fun.”
—Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (Melville House Books, 2011)
"Rāg Lalit by Hariprasad Chaurasia, the flutist, inspires me as a writer. It is a predawn raga that evokes the hour in India when the sun is yet to burn away the mist that hangs over the fields. I have played this raga every morning for years because I believe its pace mirrors the pace of the mind, still sodden with sleep, still in a semi-dream state, beginning to process the first thoughts of the day. Rāg Lalit is one hour, nine minutes, and two seconds long and by the time it has reached its climax—and what a climax it is!—the day, with all the noise and suddenness with which it breaks in India, is upon the listener."
—Aatish Taseer, author of Noon (Faber and Faber, 2011)
"Typically my writing prompt is nothing fancy—just your basic same old, same old. Fear of death. Every now and then another impression does filter in. Recently I’ve noticed the mostly abstract paintings of Dimitri Kozyrev, a Russian American who lives near me in Arizona. Several things are to like in his work: its lack of doubt, its power of mood, its perfect composition. Kozyrev is rigorous and I admire rigor in all undertakings. He’s also subtle, and his work has the immovable but infinitely possible quality of most great art: It’s definite but not defined, might be one way to put it. It contains sadness, to me mostly through color, but the sadness is a broad gesture, the sadness of multitudes. Looking at his paintings makes me think and not think simultaneously, a state of being to which I aspire. I consider the possibility of drawing conclusions from the work, and I dismiss that possibility; happily this rejection has brought me into the presence of the unsayable, and in the task of my own work it’s the unsayable that wants to brim from everything.”
—Lydia Millet, author of Ghost Lights (Norton, 2011)
"I never try to write. If the work isn’t urgent enough to make me sit down and work, I don’t want it.
"I’m moved—and helped greatly, both spiritually and artistically—by the examples of other artists, often in different forms. Stravinsky’s Symphony in C, for example: I love the jagged fluency of it, the way sharpness and angularity combine with mellifluousness and lyricism. I love his formal innovation, and I love that he will not let that formal dexterity trump his feeling, his need to simply sing.
"Or Lee Bontecou. Her early pieces are huge, gray, militaristic looking (often made out of cast-off military supplies), each with a big actual and existential hole in it. They are emblems of great pain and despair. Her late work, by contrast, is made of mobiles at once impossibly complex and almost transparent. They seem pure spirit and pure joy—except that each one has a hole in it. Her pain was not renounced but transformed, not ameliorated but integrated into her art and (I’m guessing) into the life. A great model for any artist, it seems to me."
—Christian Wiman, author of Every Riven Thing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)
"Maybe the one good thing about having ADD, as I do, is that you tend to draw inspiration from whatever you are focused on at the moment.You get so deeply absorbed in your various passions that the house could fall down around you and you wouldn’t know it. In college I majored in art and English, unable to decide between the two. I loved the nonverbal element of art and found art making cathartic and less demanding than writing—there's something so pure about not dealing in words. But mainly the one was a source for the other. A hundred years later, I’m a writer and a gardener. My garden strikes the balance I require. It's the perfect place for the writer because it teaches patience and because it's always a work-in-progress. An hour in the garden has a renewing effect, like meditation. Working the soil, my distracted brain breathes deeply. Beneath the brim of a straw hat, I weed out all the kinks in my plot."
—Christina Shea, author ofSmuggled (Black Cat, 2011)
"Without fail, I am inspired to start writing a story in any hotel lobby, but particularly one with marble floors that is somewhat dim, at around three o’clock in the afternoon. I go into the gift shop and buy a bottle of soda, and then I sit down on a leather couch and stare at the several clocks and art posters on the wall. No one bothers me, everyone thinks I am a guest, waiting for my brother to finish up his call in the phone booth. There’s a fellow sitting alone at the bar, watching golf, chewing on a piece of shrimp. I take a piece of paper out of my pocket and jot down the first few lines of the story, and then rush out through the revolving doors. I hit the street like an idiot, and the hotel—once again—has been good to me."
—Joshua Baldwin, author of The Wilshire Sun (Turtle Point Press, 2011)
"Humble labors help when my mind becomes overwrought, when my thoughts stop being good company and start chasing each other’s tails. I have learned then to turn to concrete tasks, the simpler the better: washing dishes, mending clothes, paring apples, folding laundry, wiping crumbs, dusting shelves, peeling garlic, emptying trash, stirring sauce, shoveling snow, sweeping. Physical work returns me to the essential parameters of my body: its limitations and its modest usefulness. I take solace in being reminded of my own insignificance.
—Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others (Riverhead Books, 2011)
"Sometimes inspiration comes from unpredictable sources that I wish were more easily and predictably harnessed. A catalogue from an exhibition of Norman Daly’s invented civilization of Lhuros gave rise to thinking about what preconceived notions archeologists bring to excavations, and how they bring their own stories to those buried foundations, totems, gods, bits and pieces. I’ve always been interested in comics—from those written by Windsor McKay to Alan Moore's The Watchmen to their explanations of microeconomics—because of the way language and image are connected, and have to work together. Also, newspaper articles, observations of people and situations in the city, science writing, all get filed and turn out to be useful later on. I’m easily distracted. A couple of masks brought back from Indonesia many years ago hang near my desk. They aren’t overtly menacing, but just looking at them reminds me to knock it off, and get back to work already."
—Susan Daitch, author of Paper Conspiracies (City Lights, 2011)
"Before I was a writer, I tried to live like a writer and that was my great adolescent mistake. As Zadie Smith says, 'There is no writer's lifestyle.' Either you write or you don't. In one of his letters, Flaubert wrote that we should be ordered and regular in our daily lives so that we may be violent and original in our work. Nothing has changed or improved my writing more than the establishment of that order, of calm. I write every morning at the same place. I save the chaos and disarray for my stories."
—Alexander Maksik, author of You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions, 2011)
"I honestly have no idea what it is that inspires me, but there have
definitely been days and even years when it seemed nowhere to be found,
because I was crowding it out.I am sorry for the things I’ve written
and occasionally published in such a state. Whatever kind of artist you
may consider yourself, I recommend welcoming this thing that inspires
with a decent place to be. Put water, vitamins, leafy greens into your
body. Apples. Oats. Get plenty of sleep. Some exercise. Keep the company of
wise and more or less sober people. Don’t smoke. Don’t watch TV. Do
trust yourself. Especially when you’re honest with yourself, forgive
yourself. Listen to your heart. Consider what it means to be an elder,
then find one or two, and listen to them."
—Bonnie Nadzam, author of Lamb (Other Press, 2011)