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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.

Paul Lisicky

posted 12.17.15

"Music was my first love, and it's still the source for me even though I haven't touched a piano or guitar in years. It continues to teach me about phrasing, pitch, shifts in rhythm, shifts in tonal register—all of the qualities I value in writing. I try to listen to a range of work, but every so often I go back to Joni Mitchell, whom I need to take breaks from as she already feels like my inner life. I'm not talking Blue, as pure as the album is, but Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, which is admittedly a mess, but a gorgeous mess. I don't think there's ever a moment when five things aren't going on emotionally. Each measure is dense with animation. It goes down like inquiry, a mind at work. It's richer for the fact that it makes mistakes, even dares to make mistakes, as if Mitchell's stretching out the membrane of what a song could do. The form is entirely its own, and not a bit sounds packaged for the marketplace. The album is neither old nor new, but outside of time. Its bravery is an animal. I want to hold it."
—Paul Lisicky, author of The Narrow Door (Graywolf Press, 2016)

Asali Solomon

posted 12.10.15

“I write in periods of forty-five minutes using my cell phone timer, and take fifteen-minute breaks between each session. I repeat this until I’m done for the day. I am amazed how much gets done in just three of these sessions, versus days of unstructured writing, which often lead to irregular breaks, rampant Internet usage, and end with me in a fetal ball of self-loathing. It turns out that no matter how much I am theoretically dying to write, I need structure and limits to get it done. I started this practice when I was writing a dissertation, getting together with other people to work this way. We ‘dissertated’ in forty-five-minute periods using an egg timer, and shared snacks and gossips during the breaks. Back then, the forty-five-minute time period made writing a dissertation bearable. Writing fiction is more satisfying for me, but now life is more hectic with kids/job/house. These little sessions make it seem like I can do it all. It also helps to use one of the more Zen sound settings to signal the end of a session. Truth be told, the egg timer sound got to be a little traumatic.”
—Asali Solomon, author of Disgruntled (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

Vanessa Blakeslee

posted 12.03.15

“When I was in the thick of writing my novel, Juventud, I took dance classes two or three times a week. This provided obvious physical benefits, prying me from the long day otherwise spent on the couch, pecking away on laptop keys until my neck and back ached. Any style of dance would do—modern, ballet, jazz, Bollywood, Polynesian, Middle Eastern. I chose the latter, or maybe it ended up choosing me; the studio was only a fifteen-minute drive from home, the lesson package affordable. Rules of thumb if you try a dance class: Find a style that won’t frustrate you too much, because this is supposed to be an invigorating break, not another means to bang your head against the wall. Let that hour yank you from the world of words and bring you back into the body, into the senses. Like yoga, dance offers its own kind of meditation. Learning choreography—even simple combinations—will keep your brain sharp, the synapses firing. My dance practice led me to figure out strategies for scenes left stuck, and elusive plot points snapped to clarity.”
—Vanessa Blakeslee, author of Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015)

Lincoln Michel

posted 11.25.15

“When in doubt, go further, deeper, weirder. Take the elements that make your story unique and double down on them. There's a tendency in writing classes and craft essays to suggest that writers work on their weaknesses and round out their skills. If you're great at dialogue and structure, you should put your efforts into character and plot. And certainly that can help. But if instead you work on using the dialogue and structure to your advantage and emphasize them even more, you might come up with something original. Not every shape needs to be round. Often what makes great writers great is not doing everything well, but doing a few things in exciting, original ways. Franz Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Jorge Luis Borges, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Bernhard—we remember these writers for their unique qualities, for the way they pushed their art into strange new shapes.”
—Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015)

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)

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