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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.
“German composer Hauschka, a.k.a Volker Bertelmann, is a practitioner of the ‘prepared piano,’ a technique where the player places objects on the strings of the piano so as to alter the sound. Hauschka will wrap the piano hammers in aluminum foil, for example, or attach binder clips to certain strings. For some performances, he tops the strings with ping-pong balls, which pop and bounce within the hollow of the piano. On later albums, Hauschka has increasingly included additional instrumentation (often violin and cello, as on his excellent Ferndorf record), but most often I come back to his earlier ones (Substantial, The Prepared Piano) where the technique is more clearly on display. While the preparations are meticulous, there is always an unpredictability to how the objects will react to the struck note, and this is what I admire about the technique: the surrendering of control. It is something I try to emulate in my own writing process, a willingness to listen to how the words and images are bouncing off one another on the page in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.”
—Ian Stansel, author of Everybody's Irish (Five Chapters, 2013)
“I have lots of writing rituals, but the most important time for me is late at night, when I have no business being up. Night is when the children are asleep and only insomniacs are sending e-mails. I turn on Self-Control, so I can’t compulsively check e-mail, and I listen to electronic music. Every Boards of Canada album has been a backdrop to every book I’ve ever written, but I also really like the IDM channel on Pandora. Burial or Disclsoure on Spotify—music drowns out the crazy voices in my head that try and derail me.
“I have a giant handmade notebook that I write into only with very sharpened pencils, and I let myself write whatever comes into my head, even if it’s crazy, inappropriate, or bad, whatever that means because in my mind, revising is writing. This preliminary work is like mixing the materials to make the clay.
“I write in bed, too, which is probably shortening my life, but is the only place I can write. I surround myself with books that serve as muses and talismans, voices to guide me.”
—Carmen Giménez Smith, author of Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press, 2013)
“I’ll sometimes sit at my writing table and watch the trees outside—the play of sunlight and shade in their leaves. It instantly takes me back. Back to afternoons as a kid, walking home from school down a leafy street. Back to the half-year I spent in the Oregon woods in my twenties. And somehow that momentary plunge into memory puts me in touch with the mystery that compels me to write in the first place. I feel ready. Receptive. What words do I want to send tumbling down through the years like sunlight in a red maple?”
—Steve Edwards, author of Breaking into the Backcountry (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
“I’ve had numerous writing rituals over the years. They’ve tended to change as my life circumstances have changed, but they always revolve around two key ingredients: silence and geography. I cannot hear my own voice when my mind is cluttered, and what constitutes clutter could fill a small book. It includes, at its most basic, people, dogs, telephones, televisions, construction equipment, sirens, and the Internet (by which I mean the whole mind-numbing-soul-sucking-time-wasting thing). I’ve also learned that I have a much easier time dropping into that quiet place when I am in certain specific locations or doing certain things. When I’m writing poetry, and the weather permits, my preferred spot is my front stoop, where I can stare off into the middle distance to my heart’s content, risking only the occasional questioning stare of a mystified neighbor. When writing fiction, or forced inside by the elements, I often start my day by re-reading what I’ve written the day before, then closing my eyes and drifting into that limbo between sleep and wakefulness. Other generally foolproof kick-starters: long drives and long showers—neither of which is good for the environment but both of which have paid for themselves in killer first lines.”
—Kim Triedman, author of The Other Room (Owl Canyon Press, 2013)
“When I’m stuck, I paint or I draw. Or I cook. Or I garden—or I redecorate a room. I get away from words, but not away from creativity. It’s a way to keep those energies moving and alive, without the particular worries about content that writing can carry. And also, because none of those activities are my profession, they help me relocate the playfulness and pleasure that disappear when I feel creatively anxious or empty.
I also always keep a note nearby: No one has to read a word I write. It’s important to combat self-censoring whenever possible.”
—Robin Black, author of Life Drawing, A Novel (Random House, 2014)
“Nothing helps my writing, or makes me want to write, more than driving alone on lonely roads. That’s when I turn up the music—radio, scanning the stations for the surprise of what might get played. Something about this combination, the driving, the music, the landscape, feels generative. I’m currently working on my second nonfiction book and I’m pretty sure it started in the car, Howard Jones singing ‘No One Is to Blame,’ bringing me back, like it or not, to the sorrows of seventh grade. Songs, like food, like movies—signposts of culture, aspiration, childhood—seem always to find themselves in my work. Recent inspirations include Cyndi Lauper, ‘Time After Time,’ REO Speedwagon, ‘Keep on Lovin’ You,” Fleetwood Mac, ‘Never Going Back Again,” Poison, ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” Mark Morrison, ‘Return of the Mack,’ When in Rome, ‘The Promise,’ Prince, ‘Purple Rain.’”
—Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl (Viking Penguin, 2014)
“When I need to reach that pool of possibility within, I get something cold to drink and sit next to an open window—no matter the season. Listening to instrumental acid jazz from the late 60s and 70s gets me in a good zone—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay Suite, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Pharaoh Sanders, and many others (I can’t listen to singers or vocalists because I surrender to their soaring). The melodies and chord progressions soothe and challenge me at once—the moody, surprising forays and improvisations that the musicians make encourage me to riff off the scale of what I aim to write, freeing me up to travel wherever I’m moved to go stylistically, psychically, emotionally. Poet Lucille Clifton often said, ‘Something in me knows how to write poetry better than I do.’ I’m very clear that whatever I'm writing is always a collaboration between the self that forgot we were out of toilet paper on the way home last night, and the self that recalls blood memories from generations ago in dreams. As the years pass, I’m learning to trust this alchemy.”
—Kamilah Aisha Moon, author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books, 2013)
“‘If you don’t stir your soul with a stick every day, you’ll freeze solid.’ Rutger Kopland, the Dutch poet, uses this sentence from Gerrit Krol as an epigraph to one of his books. I often read poems as my chosen stick in preparing to write: usually poems from earlier generations, or poems in translation or from other languages and historical periods. I want quiet voices and the perspective of distance, avoiding the flash-bang of current poetics and contending fashions. I open the books of poets I love and honor: the Tang poets; the Spaniards Machado and Jimenez; Italy’s Sinisgalli and Pavese; Rolf Jacobsen; yes, Kopland and so many others who have written with such hard-won clarity and intimate simplicity. It’s a stick I need. Not a wand. Not a divining rod. Not a baton. Not a tool for whipping. A simple unadorned stick; one can be found almost anywhere, even underfoot.”
—Peter Everwine, author of Listening Long and Late (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013)
“Years ago when I was traveling in India, I found a junk shop in Cochin that was filled with random things. In one corner were stacks and stacks of old photographs from a photography studio that had long since closed. There were photos of families posed stiffly in their best clothes, brides and grooms with grim expressions, and photos of children—so many children. Many of them were posing in the odd sets of the photography studio—an oversized paper moon, a large cut-out boat. I bought several photographs and keep them near me when I write. I always wonder what the story is behind each photo; who were these people? Even in thrift stores here in the United States, I always buy old photos. It seems sad that they have been abandoned, and I find the faces of the unknown a good talisman for writing characters I sometimes find equally unknowable.”
—Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians (FiveChapters Books, 2013)
“I had an unfettered year to work on my memoir. No excuses. Terrifying. So I watched bad TV and learned six new ways to cook chicken. My house was spotless; my chapters unwritten. Classical music saved me—Erik Satie by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach cello suites, and the Schubert Ensemble of London’s beautiful piano quintets by Ernő Dohnányi. Each became an hourglass, pacing drafting sessions. I listened over and over. Months later, behind on major edits, I realized I’d forgotten the music. I cued up Satie’s Gnossiennes and, in a scene worthy of Pavlov, finally got back to work.”
—Sandra Beasley, author of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl (Crown, 2011)