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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.

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)

Dean Bakopoulos

posted 7.30.15

“While finishing Summerlong, I found myself in perhaps the bleakest emotional landscape of my life, negotiating a blindsiding divorce with my wife of seventeen years. While my therapist and well-intentioned friends suggested I do happy things, I knew my work-in-progress required me to go into the darkness that self-help wisdom told me to avoid. Always exhausted and sleep-deprived, and on more than one occasion hung over, I would wake up from terrible nightmares each morning, get the kids off to school, then get the dog from his kennel, and wander the timber and pastures behind my house. In those months, I listened to one song on perpetual repeat, “RE: Stacks,” off of Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Very often tears fell down my face when Justin Veron’s plaintive falsetto finally asked, “Whatever could it be. That has brought me to this loss?” Every morning that song destroyed me a little more than I was already destroyed, and put me even deeper into the terrifying darkness. I would come back to the empty house, feed the dog, brew the coffee, and with lines like, “This is not the sound of a new man or crispy realization,” echoing in my head, I could stay in that sad space until well after lunch, working at my desk, reworking a book that had become unintentionally autobiographical. Somehow, it made a huge difference to me that another artist, also in the deepening cold of the rural Midwest, had felt the same kind of heartbreak I was feeling and had made something beautiful out of it.”
—Dean Bakopoulos, author of Summerlong (Ecco, 2015)

Angela Flournoy

posted 7.23.15

“The logistical aspects of writing—figuring out how a character gets from point A to point B, or how two plotlines intersect—can spur anxiousness in me that leads to hours of avoidance. When I get to sections like these, I try to cook or bake something. I was not a frequent cook before beginning my novel The Turner House, a book with multiple storylines and over a dozen characters, but cooking has now become integral to me staying sane while working out the nuts and bolts of a narrative. When I’m deep into a writing problem with no easy solution, making a meal is a way for me to guarantee that I complete at least one task from start to finish each day. The improvisation that comes with making a sauce or substituting ingredients ensures that I’m still using the creative parts of my brain. On the other hand, I enjoy baking because of its precision: I plug in the right ingredients, set the oven to the right temperature, and magic happens (usually) without fail. I can knead dough and think about my characters, whip eggs and work out point of view shifts. Eating is also a happy bonus.”
—Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Rebecca Dinerstein

posted 7.16.15

“The great chess and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin talks about ‘stress and recovery’ in his book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (Free Press, 2007). I think this theory of balance can help a writer as much as it helps an athlete. I tried to convert the ‘stress’ phase of writing into a ritual: wake up at eight, drink a cup of coffee, eat a bowl of yogurt, start working. I found the experience of being in the middle of a novel so uncomfortable—so much like treading water halfway across a river—I wanted to get to the other shore as fast as possible. So I wrote a thousand words a day. Keeping this pace helped me finish a draft which gave me something I could hold on to and show people for comments, and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I needed to embrace the stress of the work, so that I could get something done, but equally essential was embracing recovery. That’s where delight comes in handy. It’s crucial to know what brings you delight: whether it’s the view out a certain window, a Ciara music video, gooey pizza, or exchanging bitmojis with a friend. Take care of yourself, so you can stare down the next day's stress. That's the only way the cycle works.”
—Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Naomi Jackson

posted 7.09.15

“I am a cultural carnivore, a dually satisfying and frustrating way to be in New York City, where a clone would be useful to see all the art, plays, films, music, and dance that I would otherwise miss. A brief but eye-opening stint working at the Studio Museum in Harlem exposed me to the work of artists from around the African diaspora. I’ve had the good fortune of working with an incredible crew of visual artists recently. Sheena Rose is the dynamic Barbadian artist whose work appears on the cover of my debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. I am working on a screenplay adaptation of my short story, 'Ladies,' in collaboration with Barbadian filmmaker Lisa Harewood. Simone Leigh is a sculptor whose Tilton Gallery show, 'Moulting,' still haunts me. I wrote an essay for Waiting Room magazine as part of Leigh’s Creative Time project, the Free People’s Medical Clinic. I loved appearing in Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s performance art piece in Austin, Texas, one hundred black women, one hundred actions; I regularly look to Ogunji’s gorgeous, ethereal works on paper for inspiration. My partner, Lola Flash, aside from being a renowned portrait photographer featured in the film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of the People, captured my headshot as well as my book launch—she is the only photographer who can get me to smile when I don’t feel like it. When the writing is going slowly (or even when it’s going well), I recommend getting your head out of a book and into another art form.”
—Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, 2015)

Vendela Vida

posted 7.02.15

“Whenever I get stuck writing a scene I like to talk it out with someone. Sitting alone for too long with a plot problem or character issue can drive you crazy. But if you talk about it with a friend, any friend—they don't have to be a writer or a reader—and say, ‘Here's where I'm at. What do you think if I do this?’ I find it helps. They might not have the perfect solution or suggestion, but the process of talking about it often makes you think about the issue in a different way. Sometimes they share a great anecdote about something else that applies. When I was working on The Lovers (Ecco, 2010), I was talking to a friend of a friend, and this friend shared an anecdote that I immediately knew I wanted to use in the book. As soon as he'd finished relaying it to me I asked him, ‘Are you a writer?’ ‘Oh God, no,’ he said. And I said, ‘Good. Because I'm totally going to use what you just told me in a scene.’ So I guess my recommendation boils down to this: Don't spend too much time alone.”
—Vendela Vida, author of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Harper Collins, 2015)

Sonja Livingston

posted 6.25.15

“Write hungry. This is not to say that writing while full can't be its own version of wonderful, your body so saturated with almond paste cookies, bourbon, or love that the words fall from you like overripe fruit. But on my best writing days, I come to the page as soon as I wake, uncluttered by the business of living, unburdened by Facebook or e-mail or even oatmeal. I get a cup of coffee and sit before my laptop. This simple act transforms my body into a receptive vessel, one tuned into the scent of coffee and the thoughts and images pooling just under the surface of things. If you’re a channel when you write (and you are), emptiness can clear the static. And it need not be the gut that's empty. Listen to a song from high school. Remember a place that was once home. Look into the face of an old photograph. Hunger. I spend most of my life avoiding it, but for writing, it has a place. Not so much that it distracts, but enough so that my senses are sharpened and space is made for the words to come, simple and true.”
—Sonja Livingston, author of Queen of the Fall (University of Nebraska Press, 2015)

Ben Tanzer

posted 6.18.15

“It starts with a step. Followed by another. I am running, and I am caught up in my creaky knee, sore lower back and the detritus of the day—check requests, press releases, my children, dumb fights, and bills. Much of the time when I am running it is along the lakefront in Chicago, enjoying the headwind that runs both north and south, and doing so year-round—some days with small chunks of ice clinging to my eyebrows, and other days melting in the mid-day heat. Sometimes I've been flying late the evening before, working all day without a break, or my kids haven't been sleeping, and I'm just not sure I'm into it. But soon, there is that first step. Then another. All the detritus from the day starts to slip away. There is inspiration, flow and words. The night sky might speak to me as I find myself wondering what's out there and what I might say about it. Or, I'm reminded of a trip with my family, and I will recall a snatch of conversation, an argument, something about my father or a memory from childhood. Maybe my achy knee prompts me to ruminate on pain, and aging, and the lack of grace that accompanies it. With each step I begin to sort things out. I see the kernels of a story connect, and unwrap, and build upon themselves. I picture the characters. I feel their confusion. I hear their dialogue. And then at some point I stop, and I write, and it is glorious.”
—Ben Tanzer, author of The New York Stories (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2015)

Sara Novi­ć

posted 6.11.15

“Most of my friends know—and enjoy mocking me about the fact—that I’m a Mets baseball fan. There is something about baseball I find very conducive to creative thinking—it occupies the eyes but not the mind, its slow pace leaving plenty of room for daydreaming. Back when I used to have a television, I’d sometimes turn on a baseball game and sit on the couch to write. Now that I live in Queens, I’ve occasionally taken the 7 train out to Citi Field, where I’ve sat with a notebook in my lap and watched the game. I’ve written a little, but thought a lot, and find that the more I can organize a story in my head, the less writer’s block I encounter when I finally do put pen to paper. Even when I’m just writing at the library, I often wear my Mets cap (a writing buddy calls it my ‘thinking cap’) as a way of channeling the feeling of being at the ballpark. I've also been known to wander my apartment with a baseball mitt, dropping ball into glove absentmindedly—the mind is, of course, somewhere else, and that’s the best part.”
—Sara Novi­ć, author of Girl at War (Random House, 2015)

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