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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.
"Once upon a time, I had no habit for writing, and I waited to feel like writing. Recalling the advice of my college psych professor, I decided to invent an association to teach myself to feel like writing. I settled on sound, because I am a stickler for total psychological privacy. At first it was a fan; now, I use the free White Noise Lite app on my iPhone. I set it to the sound of airplane travel––a steady, polyphonous static––and I put on my admittedly oversized headphones, and my brain begins to think: I should be writing. If I find myself distracted, I turn off the sound so that I can keep the habit strong. It’s ingrained now––I am both Pavlov and his dog."
—Hanna Pylväinen, author of We Sinners (Henry Holt, 2012)
"Film is very different from fiction—I’m always reminding my graduate students of this—but every so often a movie comes along that captures with full force what you’re trying to do as a novelist. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is just such a movie. Quiet and character-driven, it made me want to sit down and write when I first saw it twelve years ago, and it still does that to me. My friend Joel Lovell wrote about it recently in the New York Times Magazine, which made me go back and watch it again. The scene Lovell quotes, when the character 'Terry' is talking to his young nephew, reminds me of what good fiction does, and how so much good fiction captures adults behaving like children and children, therefore, forced to behave like adults. In any case, it’s a movie that reminds me of why I’m a writer, that makes me want to get back to work, and get back to work, and get back to work some more."
—Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012)
"There are two visual artists, diametrically opposed in their intent, who I look to for inspiration. First is the photographer Gregory Crewdson. His extravagantly staged photos are mysterious and dark and often suggest relationships or the very recent loss of relationships. Crewdson, the son of a psychiatrist, has said in an interview that his work is driven by a need to imagine and understand what his father was talking to patients about in his basement office. The people in his photos appear so closed off, tight-lipped. They seem to be struggling with submerged emotions. Faced with a Crewdson image, I find myself looking for the story. On the other end of the spectrum is one of my favorite painters, Mark Rothko, who famously said that the subject of painting is painting. His colorscapes offer me a place of ease. I don’t question and wonder and strive to make a story when I stand in front of a Rothko, I just absorb and rest."
—Natalie Serber, author of Shout Her Lovely Name (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
"Lately, I have been drawing much of the inspiration for my poems from my reading of psychological case studies. I'm speaking mostly about textbooks and other source material that contain actual dialoguebetween patient and therapist. Some examples from my current reading are Danny Wedding's 'Case Studies in Psychotherapy,' Oltmanns's 'Case Studies in Abnormal Psychology,' and Freud's 'The Wolfman and Other Cases.' Besides being utterly fascinating, they give me a deep insight into the mind of some everyday and not so everyday people. I have been composing dialogue poems, which end up reading more like tiny plays. I have also been using them as inspiration for 'dream' poems. I see these case studies as being a great tool for both poets and fiction writers alike."
—M. A. Vizsolyi, author of The Lamp With Wings: Love Sonnets (Harper Perennial, 2011)
"For years, I've found inspiration by going to museums by myself. Going solo is key. When I'm with other people I'm always wondering whether they're having a good time, and whether I'm lingering too long in a gallery. One of the first poems I ever published was inspired by seeing Gustav Klimt's portrait of Mäda Primavesi at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when I was nineteen and nearly friendless in New York City. I have another poem sparked by Marc Chagall's 'The Birthday' at the MoMA. I love the Art Institute of Chicago and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I rarely ever bring a camera, but I always bring a notebook."
—Leigh Stein, author of Dispatch From the Future (Melville Books, 2012)
"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)