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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.

J. Ryan Stradal

posted 11.19.15

“Like most writers, I prefer to write in silence, but I’m not always free to enable it. Sometimes circumstances pull you on the road, out of the house or apartment into a library or coffee shop, or even stuck within a home buzzing with life that you’re otherwise grateful for and deeply enjoy. In those instances, I reach for a playlist of ambient, downtempo, and contemporary minimalist music. I used to be an ambient music deejay back in college at WNUR-FM in Evanston, Illinois, and I’ve continued to add to my collection ever since. If you’re like me and you’re looking for some quiet to drown out the noise, I’ve been writing to these ten songs for years: 1. ‘Rhubarb’ by Aphex Twin; 2. ‘Suspended’ by Lucinda Chua; 3. ‘An Ending (Ascent)’ by Brian Eno; 4. ‘Tippy’s Demise’ by Stars of the Lid; 5. ‘Pulse, Pause, Repeat’ by Harold Budd, Ruben Garcia, and Daniel Lentz; 6. ‘Warmed by the Drift’ by Biosphere; 7. ‘Oil’ by Jonny Greenwood; 8. ‘The Sinking of the Titanic, Hymn IV’ by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble; 9. ‘Brittle’ by Loscil; and 10. ‘Glassworks: Opening’ by Philip Glass. Often the ways to drown out the noise of the world needs to be as varied as the noise itself, but to me, there’s no substitute for these genres.”
—J. Ryan Stradal, author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Pamela Dorman Books, 2015)

Tracy O'Neill

posted 11.12.15

“Often when two of my characters are in a room together, they’ll reach a point at which neither wants to converse with the other anymore. They’ve talked and talked, and though they can’t advance the dialogue, they are forced to remain in the same space. Maybe it’s a home or a job or an airplane. The problem arises when I’m not sure how to make the story run without the characters speaking. Yet if you’ve ever watched a film on mute, you know that when language is stripped away, you read the movements. You remember the awkward ballet of two angry people trying to cook in a New York City kitchen, how bitterly one can jerk the top off of a pickle jar. When I’m jammed up, I look for the story to work outside of dialogue. I look for the emotional grammar in silences, where the things that seem unspeakable live. The gesture can sometimes speak to a reader, even if the characters fail to register its significance. My work as a writer then becomes evocative choreography. It is an impulse born of remembering that even fictional people have bodies.”
—Tracy O’Neill, author of The Hopeful (Ig Publishing, 2015)

Camille Rankine

posted 11.05.15

“I write best from a place of stillness and quiet. I also live in New York City, a place known for neither of those things. That means I tend do a lot of writing in the middle of the night. It’s the closest thing to silence I can find in the city. The rest of the time, I collect. I’m always taking notes. I pick up pieces from magazine articles, news stories, radio, television, movies, from conversations with strangers, from eavesdropping on the world. Then, in the quiet, I take stock. I pick out the most compelling pieces and wait for them to speak. I translate and rearrange. Sometimes, I’m out of ideas. I think I have something. Then I don’t. I take a break until it’s quiet again. I do this over and over until the idea takes shape, until I start to understand why these fragments called out to me, what the words mean. It takes a while. Sometimes I wish it didn’t. I get stuck, I get frustrated. But I’m learning, or trying to learn, to allow myself the time. The important thing for me is to keep my mind fed and alive, to always be open, always be listening, and to keep coming back and putting the words down, trying to make sense of what I hear.”
Camille Rankine, author of Incorrect Merciful Impulses (Copper Canyon Press, 2015)

Marsha de la O

posted 10.29.15

“Begin with bleakness. Bring yourself to the bare room. Voices will assail you, reminding you how many times you’ve been hit on the head, hard, reminding you of the bad genes, the narrow valley in Bohemia where your ancestors left their lives as factory hands, as milk maids, with their natural and legitimate children in tow, and walked to Trieste and boarded ‘the big boat’ right out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, out of history, out of the looming world war to give up their names at Ellis Island and live many long years, long enough for the mutation to work its will. Forget that. It has nothing to do with what you face. Your sirens will begin to sing electronically; your digital imps will call you personally, offer something you’ve never had and always wanted. Ignore them. The house is a shambles, your potted plants are parched, your Queen Charlotte violets cannot go another minute, the cat wants attention. Shine ’em on. Begin again with bleakness, with the bare room. You need stimulants, you need caffeinated beverages. This is totally allowed. Mr. Coffee is your only servant, your only friend. Bring yourself again to the bare room. Be prepared to stay.”
—Marsha de la O, author of Antidote for Night (BOA Editions, 2015)

Helen Phillips

posted 10.22.15

“The solution to being stuck almost always lies outside the writing itself. Creativity arises from playfulness, not from relentless concentration. It’s more powerful to look at a problem askance than head-on. Insight will arrive during a walk or a shower or a tumble on the floor with my kids; while I’m scrubbing the toilet or strolling around the visible storage gallery at the Brooklyn Museum or reading a science article or going through airport security. When I’m in an idea drought, I try to experience as many random things as possible. I want unfamiliar scenes and sounds clattering around in my head. I want to be catapulted out of my own clichés. I want to have a sense of myself more as a human than as a writer. Being in a situation that interferes with my writing time often breeds ideas. I’ll be visiting extended family for a week, forgoing my writing hours, and that’s when the ideas start to hit. I’ll have epic dreams every night, and I’ll become desperate to get back to writing, to play around freely in the mud; I’ll feel again that old urgency that is the basis of any good writing I’ve ever done.”
—Helen Phillips, author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat (Henry Holt, 2015)

Jeffrey Thomson

posted 10.15.15

“I am in debt. I owe the world an unpayable sum, and yet each morning at my desk with the sun rising in the long distance—some mornings it blazes and on others it is a distant bulb barely able to raise smoke from the cold black tar of the roof—I sit down to repay that debt. My debt is simple. It is the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Larry Levis. The prose of Norman Maclean and Michael Ondaatje. Derek Walcott and Wallace Stevens. Henry Thoreau and Ed Abbey. Naomi Shihab Nye and Terrance Hayes. Jack Gilbert. The list goes on and on. Some are my friends and some are people I know only in their words. But they have—each and every one—given me their language and their syntax. They have each offered me a gift—a fragment, story, a song, a glimpse of the sun streaming through their world. You want to know what keeps me going? I have no choice. The words are theirs and I owe the vigorish. It is all I can do to keep up the payments.”
—Jeffrey Thomson, author of Fragile (Red Mountain Press, 2015)

Aida Zilelian

posted 10.08.15

“I am fascinated by two types of characters: those who are deeply flawed—the morally ambiguous character who is looking for redemption or spiraling into a deeper chaos, and those who are on the brink of a life-altering epiphany. When I first began writing, I only wrote short stories. As my collection grew and my stories were published, I began relying on the same characters to make cameo appearances or take center stage in a story. Now I have a family, so to speak, that I draw upon depending on the crisis: a young girl in a dead-end relationship with a man she loves, a husband who realizes his marriage and children were a result of his wife’s manipulations, a little girl enchanted into her young brother’s world during his early stages of schizophrenia, and... secrets. All of my stories have secrets that are not always unveiled. Whether or not those truths surface isn’t as important as how my characters grapple with the secrets they hold. What keeps me going is the thrill in unraveling those moments.”
—Aida Zilelian, author of The Legacy of Lost Things (Bleeding Heart Publications, 2015)

Andrew Malan Milward

posted 10.01.15

“I’m fortunate that I don’t often feel stuck, but I have plenty of days—most days—when I don’t feel like writing. Something always happens on the page if I can make myself sit in the chair and weather the ten minutes of terror as every excuse not to write darts through my head and I watch the cursor blink back at me. Two things that bookend my writing sessions help me stay in the chair, stay inspired, and stay motivated to do it all over again. The first, of course, is reading. While I’m primarily a fiction writer, before sitting down to work on short stories or a novel, I read poetry. Right now that happens to be Daniel Khalastchi’s incredible book Tradition (McSweeney’s, 2015). The absolute concentration on language is palate cleansing and invigorating. The second thing is to work out. As writers we spend so much time in our heads that it’s good to remember we have bodies as well. Doing something physical after a long writing stretch helps me recharge so that I can summon the will to sit down at the desk the next day.”
—Andrew Malan Milward, author of I Was a Revolutionary (Harper, 2015)

Ada Limón

posted 9.24.15

“First, I put down the pen and paper or step away from the computer screen and go for a walk. The dog helps. She gets me up and out and away from myself. Once moving, I focus on what it is that’s been spinning around in me. Generally, there is a phrase or an image that I keep returning to. Sometimes, it’s just a reoccurring image in a dream: a cat stuck in the middle of a raging creek, a whale knocking a boat over, and so on. Mostly it’s language, a phrase that keeps coming back: ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘Give me this,’ ‘Let me tell you something,’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Help’ to name a few. With that phrase in the back of my mind (where it lives), I then try to compose a poem in my head. Composing without pen and paper or recording device is good for me because it makes the sounds so important. I end up repeating things, or rhyming, or using interesting phrasing because it’s only me and the words, with no false filter between us. I’ll say as much of the poem as I can out loud and then write it down as soon as I’m inside. These walking poems aren’t always successful, but they often break some new and necessary ground.”
—Ada Limón, author of Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions, 2015)

Rickey Laurentiis

posted 9.17.15

“I take my cue from visual artists, who can spend an entire career consumed by a singular shape, or color, or a set of strokes, meticulously working through ‘the problem’ canvas by canvas with no or very little or only very subtle changes. Think of Rothko, as example. Think Glenn Ligon’s textual paintings. Think Jay DeFeo’s ‘The Rose.’ This is a way of saying that visual art taught me to trust my obsessions. First, that it was fine to have them, to be preoccupied or even haunted by them. Second, that it was perhaps even healthiest to admit that they do have presence. Lastly, that I could use these obsessions, again and again, in my work, reinterrogating their meanings and histories. This isn’t license to write the same poem ad infinitum—heaven forbid! But it is permission to allow myself the pleasure/burden of their company, of remaining alert to the handful of themes or topics or images that truly arrest me and don’t give way to easy conclusions. Desire; the fact of the (gendered) body; the dark; the assault of history; water; race; our failures and triumphs of the imagination: all these are subjects that will always be there spiraling in my head, and who knows why. They are ideas that I can at least remember are there at those anxious moments I’m willing to believe in a thing like ‘writer’s block.’ But writer’s block, simply speaking, doesn’t exist if one’s willing to look back at all she’s done and—realizing knowledge is always limited—thinks, ‘Nope, I need to try this again.’”
—Rickey Laurentiis, author of Boy With Thorn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)

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