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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.

Reif Larsen

posted 2.12.15

“I find that I generate new material via a two-step process. In the morning, I will sit my butt in the chair as close to 9:00 AM as possible. I’ve even contemplated purchasing one of those old punch clocks. Showing up every day is key. I’ll usually bang away all morning. When I’m working on a first draft, what I call 'fresh tracks,' the writing is inevitably bad. I used to be horrified by this and would immediately go back and try to improve it. I’ve learned over time to just let it lie, to be comfortable with the messiness. When I get hungry enough that I can’t see out of my left eye, I’ll go make myself a sandwich. Then comes the most important part of the day: I’ll take a run in the afternoon, around 4:00 PM. I won’t bring my headphones. And it is during the course of that run—as I move across the landscape, as I breathe, as the blood moves through my veins, as my muscles contract, as the pores open—that I begin to digest what I threw down on the canvas in the morning. I don’t try too hard. I just let my brain marinate on it. The Japanese call this kind of movement and reflection a 'brain bath.' These little connections begin to form and often about twenty minutes in, I’ll stumble upon some revelation and realize what I was actually trying to say. And I’ll run straight back to my office and make some notes. The next morning, I rake the soil and start again.”
Reif Larsen, author of I Am Radar (Penguin Press, 2015)

Steven Church

posted 2.05.15

"Though it may seem counterintuitive, I find that one way to keep from getting stuck or to find inspiration and new directions for my essays is to write with handcuffs on. Not real handcuffs. That would be weird. But I give myself constraints or limits, and in the case of several of my essays in Ultrasonic, these took the form of language, or specific words that served to narrow the focus of my writing. Focus, for me, is always a challenge, and these constraints became a way to harness my mind's tendency to ramble and digress. I have one essay where every section is either about 'blue' or 'noise' in some way, and another where each section is either about 'crown' or 'shoulder.' Every time I sat down to write, the constraint gave me a starting place and an assignment, a challenge to try and find a new way of looking at or thinking about the subject. I found that this led to all sorts of exciting discoveries—in terms of etymology, history, and metaphorical resonance—and for personal material that had otherwise been buried."
—Steven Church, author of Ultrasonic (Lavender Ink, 2014)

Todd Colby

posted 1.29.15

“When I’m feeling dazed and spent, and perhaps even a bit self-pitying, I turn my attention to the gleeful nihilism of E. M. Cioran. Romanian by birth, and a philosopher who wrote in French by choice, Cioran’s short paragraphs (he started writing in short bursts after he quit smoking) are instant jolts out of the narrowness of my own perceptions. He had a grand view of the senselessness and absurdity we encounter every day of our lives. At the same time, there is a dark humor bubbling around his writings, like a raging man who can’t stop himself from laughing. My favorite passage in all of his writings is a section in The Trouble With Being Born, where he tells us a story about Pope Innocent IX who, while still healthy, commissioned a portrait of himself on his deathbed. The Pope would look at the portrait of his dying self whenever he was about to make an important decision. Cioran reminds us that there’s a certain prickly solace in knowing it’s all going to end, and if we dig deeply enough into the true meaning of it all, we can’t help but laugh.”
—Todd Colby, author of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014)

James Tadd Adcox

posted 1.22.15

“I will try anything to break through my own perfectionism and dull literal-mindedness, my need to explain everything, my need to defend. I can be a very slow writer, prone to fidgetiness and second-guesses. What I’ve found helpful recently is to give myself the writing equivalent of stress tests. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but two summers ago I attempted to write a novel in a week, aiming for 50,000 words and managing 35,000. This past Labor Day weekend, I tried to write a novel, a novella really, one hundred pages or so, in three days, and succeeded. Results vary in terms of the content thereby produced: I’m revising my three-day novella and have generally positive feelings towards it, but I haven’t done anything further with the 35,000-word draft from my week-long novel and don’t really plan to. Regardless, after writing 10,000 words in a day, 2,000 becomes a much calmer and more manageable thing. It helps to remind yourself that ultimately you are only putting words on a page.”
—James Tadd Adcox, author of Does Not Love (Curbside Splendor, 2014)

Meghan Daum

posted 1.15.15

“When in doubt, channel your inner Fran Lebowitz. Obviously there’s a certain irony in suggesting that the cure for writer’s block is to channel the person who’s known for being among the most famously blocked writers of our time. But for me, Fran Lebowitz is not just a personal cultural and literary hero. She’s a kind of pacemaker for the brain. Sometimes when I’m at a loss for words or ideas, I type her name into YouTube and select any one of dozens of videos in which she holds forth on some subject or another. There’s Fran on young writers (‘I have no interest in them.’), Fran on Jane Austen (‘I don’t think she’s popular for the right reasons.’), Fran on work ethics (‘I am the most slothful person you’ll probably ever meet.’) There are clips from the wonderful documentary Martin Scorsese made about her in 2010 and from interviews with David Letterman dating back as far as 1978. When I say Fran is a pacemaker, what I mean is that she speaks with such total authoritywith such an absence of apology or hesitation or equivocationthat her voice lodges into my head and helps me to stop apologizing and hesitating. Her confidence is infectious. She reminds us that an author’s task, quite literally, is to exercise authority. Of course, the ‘inner Fran Lebowitz’ doesn’t literally have to be Fran Lebowitz. Everyone, if they’re lucky, has their own version of Fran, someone whose voice and pulse are strong enough to jumpstart their own. The key is in remembering to seek it out when you need itin other words, giving yourself permission to do something other than write. Which Fran, for one, would approve of.”
—Meghan Daum, author of The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Tim Johnston

posted 1.08.15

“Not long ago, I chanced on an interview with Raymond Carver in which this early hero of mine said: ‘I think it's important that a writer change... so when I finish a book, I don't write anything for six months.’ The statement seemed casual enough, matter of fact—minimalist, even. But after a lifetime of being told that a real writer writes every day, no matter what, its effect on me was maximal. I thought about the long unhappy period of not writing that followed a novel I'd spent two years writing—working on it every day, no matter what—only to have it go absolutely nowhere. When I finally began writing again, after far more than Carver's six months, everything had changed—my tone, my language, my intentions, even my process. Now, rather than working on the novel every day, no matter what, I would work on it only when I knew I had the entire day to do nothing else. Which is one reason it took me six years to finish it, because there weren't a lot of those days. But I did finish, and the novel is unlike anything I've written before—and I know that both of these outcomes are the result of that long period of not writing. Leading me to wonder, more or less calmly, as another day of not writing slips by: What kind of writer am I becoming now?”
—Tim Johnston, author of Descent (Algonquin Books, 2015)

Tod Marshall

posted 12.30.14

“‘What kind of beast would turn its life into words?’ Adrienne Rich asks in Twenty-One Love Poems, referring to the being/observing duality of a writer’s life—the persistent possibility of remove that turns the lived moment into ‘material.’ I also think of this quotation as a direct challenge about the time allotted to writing. If I spend hours fine-tuning phrases, reading and mulling and assigning myself difficult exercises, or if I am going to wile away mornings, evenings, and afternoons scribbling out my life, then I had better make the absolute most of writing time—those moments hammering on keys or etching ink across the page. Our duty and best possibility, I think, is to try. Edward Hirsch—responding to a question about partisanship in the contemporary poetry scene—once told me, ‘We need all of our poetries.’ I believe that assertion and apply it both to my reading (Mary Ruefle, François Rabelais, C. D. Wright, Countee Cullen, and Dante; books published by Wave, Copper Canyon, Bloof, and Alice Blue) and my listening (Blue Oyster Cult, Blondie, Bob Marley, and Bach) while struggling over sentences. I think that it’s best not to know where a poem or essay might come from and, of course, not to anticipate the next sudden swerve of where it might go. Cultivate possibility through a willed variety of influences.”
—Tod Marshall, author of Bugle (Canarium Books, 2014)

Nicholas Rombes

posted 12.23.14

“I often turn to poetry when I get stuck writing. Not far from where I write is an at-hand stack of slim volumes that includes Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And Her Soul Out of Nothing, Dana Levin’s In the Surgical Theatre, Cynthia Cruz’s The Glimmering Room, August Kleinzahler’s Green Sees Things in Waves, Christian Hawkey’s The Book of Funnels, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard. I’ll open to a random poem and more often than not—with these poets in particular—I have the sensation of falling, and the thrill of that helps me stop overthinking my own writing. Sometimes just one line or stanza will unlock a frozen idea in my mind. Honestly, The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing would have existed in a much more broken form if it weren’t for these lines from Dana Levin’s poem ‘Silo’: ‘Will you be pricked? Will you awake? / And move from this place / where the silo dwarfs you, the years inside / its tyrannous shadow.’ Levin’s book falls open to that poem, which carried me through the storm of dark thoughts that I willed into existence, so that I could write the novel.”
—Nicholas Rombes, author of The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio, 2014)

Eimear McBride

posted 12.18.14

“I never read when I get stuck, it doesn’t leave enough room to let the devil slip in. Instead, I look to other forms for the methods to resolve art’s various conundrums. Often music helps but, increasingly, I’m interested in photography and the work of the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, particularly. From subversive beginnings, in pictures filled with explicit vulnerability and heady life—I find the beautiful 'The Cock (kiss)' from 2002 intensely affecting and often stare at it when grappling with problems connected to youth and desire—to the silent concentration of his still lifes, the poignancy of his airplanes and their vapor trails contrasting with the agoraphobia-inducing astronomy pictures, the portraits which seem to offer the very essence of their subject while somehow remaining private and impenetrable. The provocatively humane work for homeless and AIDS charities, the abstract experiments with light and color, as well as some of his more recent work which challenges and interrogates the physical object of the photograph itself. The journey of Tillmans’s work reminds me of James Joyce and his literary voyage from the streets of Dublin to the dark heart of the world but, and most importantly, it opens the gateways of understanding, as only great art can.”
—Eimear McBride, author of A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing (Coffee House Press, 2014)

Justin Taylor

posted 12.11.14

“I think poetry is—or should be—a staple of any fiction writer’s reading diet. It doesn’t matter whether you ever intend to write any poems yourself. And it doesn’t matter (much) whether you prefer classics, or contemporary, or traditional, or experimental, or if you have no particular preference and can’t tell the difference. Any poetry, more or less, will do. Poetry invites you to read slowly and unpack all the different ways a sentence, or phrase, or single word, can have meaning. And of course, those lessons are transferrable to every other aspect of the writing life: the writing part, the prose-reading part, the self-editing part, the teaching-of-writing part (also the pleasure and edification parts). Lately I’ve been reading poetry in the morning, right after I get up, while the water boils in the kettle, and then again while the coffee steeps. There’s about ten, maybe twelve minutes of free time that accumulates around those two parts of the coffee-making process that’s enough time to get through two or three poems, or the same poem two or three times over. The poems—and the smell of the coffee, and eventually the coffee itself—are my bridge into wakefulness. In effect, the poems constitute the morning’s first experience or event, and I find that this sets a salutary standard from which to attempt the rest of my day. I read Derek Walcott’s White Egrets this way, and swaths of Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems, which is a phonebook—you’d never toss it in a backpack to take on the subway. So I leave it out on the dining room table, and then every morning when I go out there, there it is.”
—Justin Taylor, author of Flings (Harper Collins, 2014)

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