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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.

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)

Patrick Wensink

posted 9.10.15

“A mess. I need an absolute, total, tsunami-like mess on my desk to be productive. I cannot be creative when things are neat and tidy. Oddly enough, my work does not fit any sort of neat and tidy structure. I avoid pre-planning by figuring a book out as I go along and groom all the wreckage into shape later. Currently on my small maple desk is a laptop; three paintings my three-year-old son made at summer camp; a giraffe sculpture he also made; eight children's books; a biography of children's author Ellen Raskin; five novels for grownups—including a copy of my latest, Fake Fruit Factory, with its front cover blown off by M-80 firecrackers (a casualty of the book trailer filming); a faux Tiffany lamp that is not plugged in; a picture frame and a print of a cat wearing 3-D glasses I intended to put together and give to my friend, MacKenzie, at Christmas eight months ago; a Breathe Right strip still in its package; stacks of notes and notepads; some CDs; and a book called Magic Tricks & Card Tricks. My wife hates this salvage yard of an office I have carved out, but I love it. I feel comfortable amongst all this information and history and strangeness. When I feel comfortable, I can work. And when I work, I am less of a grouch. Thank you, mess!”
—Patrick Wensink, author of Fake Fruit Factory (Curbside Splendor, 2015)

Robert James Russell

posted 9.03.15

“I have an insatiable appetite for movies—they were my gateway to the creative world when I was a kid, long before books were. Books, I can’t live without books, but movies help my brain wrap around an idea, help me put it all into pictures that I can translate into words. When I’m starting a new manuscript I find a movie, something that speaks to the general feeling or atmosphere of what I’m going to be exploring (for Mesilla I was inspired by All Is Lost and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). I write down scenes, copy them verbatim, and study the pacing of the language. I examine how long the shots are held and what they’re showing us, the viewer. And then I root around and find a soundtrack for my writing, something that I will listen to incessantly and that will immediately bring me back into the writing—I hear that music, I remember the visuals, and zoom, I’m off. Movies and music ultimately supply my writing with a tangibility that makes the process, the ideas, that much more real, even at the very early stages of drafting and character mapping.”
—Robert James Russell, author of Mesilla (Dock Street Press, 2015)

Tanwi Nandini Islam

posted 8.27.15

“When I’m feeling stuck, on a chapter, on a character’s next move, I’ll have a destination in mind to clear my head. It’s usually the waterfront around sunset. But I always take a roundabout way, on some sort of open-ended scavenger hunt. Sometimes I’ll take photos on my phone, or collect found objects for my desk. It depends on whether I’m feeling visual or more tactile. I’ll bring a journal to record interesting details: a biker’s shadow on the side of a bridge, milkweed bursting out of an abandoned lot, spray painted rocks, the different languages I’m hearing. I’m very multimedia as a visual artist, and writing is no different for me. I’ll collage photos in my journal, arrange the found objects on my writing desk, and create a visual catalog of inspiration when crafting a story. By forcing myself to observe and be intimate with my everyday surroundings, I witness the familiar in a new way. By the time I get to the waterfront, I have a whole bevy of images to get me back into my work. I can meditate and see the city staring back at me, muted by the sunlit water.”
—Tanwi Nandini Islam, author of Bright Lines (Penguin Books, 2015)

Colin Winnette

posted 8.20.15

“I haven’t found any particular thing to be a consistently reliable source of inspiration. If there’s any consistency, it’s that it’s always something different. With Gainesville (Atticus Books, 2013), I listened to “Honey Hi” by Fleetwood Mac on repeat. I wrote every word of that story to that song. With Haints Stay, it was the band Earth and the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood. With the book I’m working on now, I’ve been watching scenes from Punch Drunk Love out of order, and—but in order—An Autumn Afternoon directed by Yasujirō Ozu. When I find something that works, I stay with it until it stops working. But if something works for a particular project, I can’t ever return to it—it becomes too closely associated with that project. I don’t want any of my books to feel too much like any other, so I force myself to accept the frustration and fear of not knowing what’s going to click when. That might be the thing I revisit the most: a voice in my head (or a recording, or an alarm clock) programmed to remind me to be patient, no matter how many times I fail.”
—Colin Winnette, author of Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio, 2015)

Jill Talbot

posted 8.06.15

“I went to see the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) in 2002. Sitting alone in the dark, I heard the opening notes of Philip Glass while I followed Virginia Woolf to the river, and I wept, not at Woolf’s urgency, but at the score. In the liner notes of the soundtrack Cunningham explains, ‘Glass and Woolf have both broken out of the traditional realm of the story, whether literary or musical, in favor of something more meditative, less neatly delineated, and more true to life.’ He continues, ‘For me, Glass can find in three repeated notes something of the strange rapture of sameness.… We are creatures who repeat ourselves, we humans, and if we refuse to embrace repetition—if we balk at art that seeks to praise its textures and rhythms, its endless subtle variations—we ignore much of what we mean by life itself.’ These qualities—continuation, meditation, and repetition—are all qualities I work toward in my writing and the reason I often write to the soundtrack of The Hours. The compression and articulation of those three notes churning, ever churning, helps me to play such variations in my essays, so much so that I feel I write best when I write inside Glass’s notes.”
—Jill Talbot, author of The Way We Weren’t (Soft Skull Press, 2015)

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