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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.
"Over the years a number of things (film, theater, writing, music, etcetera) have become catalysts and have boosted me in my writing. I just looked up the word boost and three definitions are (1) a push from below, like a boost over a wall, (2) an amplification, and (3) informally, to steal. So, almost randomly, here are two boosters I've had.
"I remember getting ready for a reading I was doing in Chicago, and I had a lot of notes for the reading, but nothing was cohering, and as the night of the reading approached, for some reason, I happened to see an early Godard movie. I don't even remember which one it was, but I remember the freedom I saw in the movie, the joy and passion, and especially the fun of putting ideas and images and words together.
"The other catalyst is a play by Peter Brook, The Mahabharata. I only saw it once, but I remember one character in the play: Krishna. I sort of fell in love with Krishna, and for years I would quote his lines: ‘Resist what resists in you. Become yourself.'"
—John Haskell, author of Out of My Skin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
"I'm not sure many people think of insomnia as a good thing, but it is. As a 'sufferer,' I'm up until five or six in the morning almost daily. One thing I've found is that I write with the most imagination in the middle of the night, as though my subconscious and conscious are more in tune with each other—something about being liberated from cell phones and e-mails and other plights of the real world. So I recommend brewing some coffee at ten or eleven at night, settling in, and letting your brain get as reckless on the page as it wants, without any distractions pulling you back to earth."
—Joshua Mohr, author of Some Things That Meant the World to Me (Two Dollar Radio, 2009)
"I wrote The Boy Next Door in Geneva, Switzerland and one of the biggest challenges for me was to capture the essence of life in Zimbabwe, particularly the second largest city, Bulawayo, in the eighties, which was a delicate period: optimism and hope (Zimbabwe was newly independent after a brutal war) and fear (the peace, at times, seemed fragile). Music was what constantly brought Bulawayo during that period vividly alive for me. Mostly Johnny Clegg and Savuka with their song, "Scatterlings." That song had a visceral effect on me, the energy and vibrancy of its African beat surging through my body, sweeping away the years and landing me right there in that time. More so when I came upon the video on YouTube. It made me both sentimental and clear-eyed. And then there is the wrenching cry of the song 'Asimbonanga,' 'We have not seen him,' that captured for me the sorrows of that period when South Africa was still under apartheid and the southern part of Zimbabwe was suffering from a wave of killings. The music grasped me at a profoundly emotional level; when the emotion subsided its echo was still there as I sat down and wrote Lindiwe and Ian's story."
—Irene Sabatini, author of The Boy Next Door (Little, Brown, 2009)
"When I need poetic inspiration, I return to music. My go-to album these days is the Upsetters' Super Ape. The songs 'Underground' and 'Dub Along' work like chiropractors for the imaginary. Behind the hoist of bass and reverb, voices twist up, then meld into rhythm. The same way good poetic imagery does (or should).
"There is an inscription on the album cover, situated in the upper-right corner like postage: 'DUB IT UP Blacker Than DREAD.' This seems like an instruction for free writing, too. Dub it up: Make the verse echo, make it more extragalactic. Harmonize ideas and words."
—Adrian Matejka, author of Mixology (Penguin, 2009)
"Sitting at the desk. Naps. The painting over my desk shows a woman lying on a bed with her eyes closed: The Sheepshearer's Dream. I jump rope to keep awake. Walk the dogs. Nuts, one at a time until my stomach hurts. No music—I get sucked into the emotion. Forget about lyrics. I reread what I really admire and can't quite understand, say, Brenda Shaughnessy or Dawn Raffel or Caryl Churchill. I need rough edges or half a memory, the perfect story only if it's mostly forgotten. The way you forget how bad birthing is—and still have sex again."
—Terese Svoboda, author of Weapons Grade (University of Arkansas Press, 2009)
"My sense these days is that I'm constantly inspired by all kinds of things, and it's about extremely compelling works giving me the necessary jolts of energy, courage, and fear to continue. In that vein, Lucinda Childs's collaborative piece with Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass, Dance, which I saw this summer, made making feel possible, even ecstatically so, especially regarding matters of scale and light. This is no small thing for me, as I tend to write out of places of dense agitation, and am on the lookout for ways away from that. The second and third songs on Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, Scarlatti's harpsichord sonatas, and the poems 'Joe's Jacket' by Frank O'Hara and 'This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison' by Coleridge are high on the list at the moment as well."
—Anselm Berrigan, author of Free Cell (City Lights Publishers, 2009)
"There's a studio recording of Nina Simone singing 'My Father' that always knocks me out. Ms. Simone actually sings only a few lines from the song:
My father always promised me
That we would live in France.
We'd go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance
"And then she stops, suddenly, and says: 'I don't want to sing this song. It's not me.' She begins to laugh, wildly, infectiously. When she recovers, she apologizes to the musicians and tells them, with utter authority, 'Okay, we have to skip this one.' It's such a lovely moment of an artist being true to herself, refusing to say something that feels wrong in her mouth, in her body. She trusts her voice, and its inclinations. Every time I hear the recording, it makes me happy."
—Victor Lodato, author of Mathilda Savitch (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
"The Lure of the Detour: five things that feed me plus the sixth that haunts them.
"(1) Silence: the body and the breath that haunts that house.
"(2) Sound: Alice Coltrane, Yoko Ono, David Lang, John Cage, Krishna Das.
"(3) Words, usually shattered. Books of poetry that will never leave me: Sappho's Gymnasium by Olga Broumas and T Begley, The Veiled Suite by Agha Shahid Ali, Arcady by Donald Revell, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir 1969–1980 by Lucille Clifton, Selected Poems by Fanny Howe. Of course always Mahmoud Darwish. Always Jean Valentine.
"(4) Writers whose work provides a vibe for me—each time I read them I have to go write something: Bhanu Kapil, Nathalie Stephens, Richard Greenfield, Saskia Hamilton, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Sarah Gambito.
"(5) Pictures: Agnes Martin, Makoto Fujimura, Zhao Wou-ki, Hans Hofmann, Layla Al-Attar.
"The life and the art and the death of Layla Al-Attar. Feeds me and haunts me. Every day."
—Kazim Ali, author of Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009)
"I believe, as many writers do, that there are touchstone moments in literature—poetry, fiction, and plays—that spark the imagination. So here are a couple of personal inspirations:
"(1) The scene in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse in which Mrs. Ramsay despairs while sitting in Cam's room as she sleeps. She is the center of the novel's 'galaxy,' she is the heart. But unknown to her husband and children, who rely on her, she sits in the steadily recurring beam of the St. Ives lighthouse and wonders why people fall in love and why they have children, when all are doomed to die. It is the most devastating lyrical moment.
"(2) 'He Is More Than a Hero' is one of the many poem fragments by Sappho which always stir me. It provides a description of the physicality of being in love—how the heart races, the tongue is tied—as thrilling and accurate as if Sappho were speaking to us in this moment and not the sixth century BCE."
—Carol Muske-Dukes, author of Channeling Mark Twain (Random House, 2007)
"Running takes me out of the city and into nature, which does something to me that most man-made stuff can't. I pass the Brazilian transsexuals, wave, pass the mean forest cops on their big horses, salute, pass that one old guy with the terry-cloth headband, wave. I stop next to that pond with those two nasty swans and I hang upside down and stretch until my head feels as alive and as heavy as an electric watermelon. I go home (everything in the city now looks like a concrete cartoon), shower, put on ugly clothes made of soft material, stretch my hands to the higher, hidden deities of the unknown universe, bow to them, wait for them to bow back, then I open my computer. Sometimes I feel like a big zero a-hole loser with nothing to say and that is when I put on some Irish music—anything with fiddles and flutes—or some Chinese stuff and this music says yes you are an a-hole but so what and sometimes I buckle down in silence and get as close to my characters as I can and these are beautiful moments that make me really tired. When things are bad, I get up and walk around talking to myself; when things are worse, I stop everything and put my head on my knees, close my eyes, watch the darkness inside my head swirling around, and wait until the feeling passes. Writing isn't easy for me."
—Nicola Keegan, author of Swimming (Knopf, 2009)