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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.
“Usually when I need to work something out in a poem or a piece of fiction, I go on a walk. If I’m at home I go to one of the parks—Riverside or Central Park. But, walking—and interior conversations in general—can only accomplish so much, so when I’m seeking literary inspiration, I turn to my heroes, one of whom is Mavis Gallant. I read and reread her fiction for the clean, precise, astounding concision of her storytelling, which captures both the vivid atmosphere of the places she’s been, and the bare, grim, beautiful human experience that takes place within them. Sometimes her writing can feel prim and distanced, but she can be very funny, and there is an overarching wisdom in her voice that is at once soothing and dauntingly assured. When she drapes the inevitable shadows, which fall on all her character’s lives, it’s with a gentle and aching grace that leaves you feeling both gutted and gifted. No matter the position of her narration, she always gives the reader everything they need to know in the most astonishing ways, and never with the expectation of applause. She is an intelligent writer who teaches me about economy, humanity, and a female’s view of the world.
“From ‘The Legacy: ‘They stared out of the car at brick façades, seemingly neither moved nor offended by the stunning ugliness of the streets that had held their childhood. Sometimes one of them sighed, the comfortable respiration of one who has wept.’”
—Nathaniel Bellows, author of Why Speak? (Norton, 2007)
"This is going to sound pretty awful, but I'm inspired by humiliation. My own, mostly, but also what I see in the world at large.There's an entire TV industry devoted to humiliation at this point, though I try not to get sucked too deeply into that. Humiliation is such a raw and pervasive human experience. And it's one we're constantly taught to avoid, or at least avoid disclosing. My stories (whether fictionalized or not) are mostly about pushing people into humiliation and seeing them through it. The reason I write 'funny' so much of the time is because the comic impulse is how we forgive our humiliations."
—Steve Almond, author of God Bless America (Lookout, 2011)
"I am currently surrounded by diapers, squeaky toys, and crayons scattered at my feet. This is the life of a working writer/mother. So how does one find inspiration in all of this? A good majority of my time is spent tending to the delicate, magical, maddening, profound needs of my children, both under the age of two and a half years. After the day is done, after the children are asleep, and after I have eaten my one good meal of the day, I take a few deep breaths and I say to myself, 'Put on your shoes.' If I can put on my shoes and my coat, I can then walk the three blocks to the office I rent down the street. If I can note the change in the air, the moon that has decided to appear between the branches hanging sweetly overhead, the hipsters laughing with abandon in front of the bodega; if I can turn the key to my office door, and pour myself a cup of tea; if I can sit myself down at my desk, I’m most of the way there. If I then begin typing, I hear the sweet sounds of the keys and know I’m that much closer to writing a poem. Maybe most of it will be discarded. Maybe some of it will be rescued by the gods."
—Tina Chang, author of Of Gods & Strangers (Four Way Books, 2011)
"Inspiration? A sleepless night helps, when my mind has nothing to do but wander. I'm also inspired by stories—hearing, seeing, remembering—by events that get stuck in my head. When the muse is quiet, however, I give myself permission to 'write badly' (so badly that anything I write has to be incinerated). Throwing internal editors aside, I write. Like building a fire with a few twigs and a single match, it takes a while, but eventually there's smoke and maybe a flame. This writing leads to more writing, which leads to inspiration."
—Janice N. Harrington, author of The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home (BOA Editions, 2011)
"I'd like to recommend the great and criminally undersung novelist Wright Morris. In spite of winning the National Book Award twice, Morris, a Nebraskan who spent much of his life in the Bay Area, remains unknown to too many readers. Last year was the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Among his many novels, three have been really essential to me: The Field of Vision, Ceremony in Lone Tree, and Plains Song. Morris took incredible narrative risks, and each time I reread his books I am more astounded by the things he is able to get away with. Each year I reread Plains Song, and each year my heart gets broken again. And why is having your heart broken so inspiring? I'm not sure, but I find this so."
—Peter Orner, author of Love and Shame and Love (Little, Brown, 2011)
"I’m obsessed with windows. How they organize the world by cutting away most of it. Then let some in. How light is refracted through an old bottle on a windowsill. How a screen pixilates autumn. The framing. I write to tug at the edges, to mess with right angles. What is just beyond what is seen? Just below? To write is to unravel the rectangle. To disbelieve it. Live performances—especially dance—are a way to attune myself to what is happening outside the house of language. Stages can be windows. The idea of training the body to try the impossible thrills me. To translate what most people assume to be nonverbal through language, that’s thrilling too. I want to write something you can’t write...that you aren’t supposed to be able to write. A book is a window. Windows are all the beautiful rules I want to break."
—Kirsten Kaschock, author of Sleight (Coffee House Press, 2011)
“A writer far more experienced than I once said to me something like, ‘You’ve got to bushwhack past the first million or so rotten words to get at the good stuff.’ That was twenty years ago. Since then I’ve bushwhacked my way through three million words—yet with the assumption that the formula is infinitely renewable. Each time I sit down to write I approach my task in that spirit: that of bushwhacking toward a clearing where a masterpiece waits.”
—Peter Selgin, author of Confessions of a Left-Handed Man (University of Iowa Press)
"For me, the best novels have a never-ending quality. Nothing is tied up neatly by the last page. You continue to ache, dream and wonder about the characters’ lives. And the thing that has helped me the most to achieve this in my work are movies. I live by Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass. In the last scene, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood are together after years apart. They belong together, but they have other relationships, and what was, can’t be anymore. It’s heartbreakingly subtle—and it inspires me to use gesture and subtext—and open-ended moral choices—in my work."
—Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You (Algonquin Books, 2011)
"Looking back and reflecting on my life, I realize how accident prone I have been in these eighty years. Apart from three car accidents, however, all have been for the good. The single book I have written was because I was fortunate enough to fall into a career as a civil servant in Pakistan, which happened to harmonize with my deep emotional interest in the tribal system, an interest that germinated in my schooldays and grew stronger with the passage of years. I never set out to be a writer. It started with this interest, a feeling, and resulted in my first book—published thirty years after I'd written it—finding an audience. That this effort has not ended as 'loves labor lost' is the most recent, and perhaps the best, accident."
—Jamil Ahmad, author of The Wandering Falcon (Riverhead Books, 2011)
“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)