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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.

Amy Shearn

posted 5.08.13

“The other day I saw a headline that suggested climate change meant the end of coffee, and I had to close my laptop and do some deep breathing. Coffee! Each morning my kids vie to scoop grinds into my Melita filter cone. This is not about civic duty, this is about survival. I write at my local coffee shop, where the coffee is Stumptown and the children can’t find me. After two (or THREE!) cups my brain is clear and alert and focused and brimming with ideas. But if a coffee famine is indeed imminent, I will have to find another profession. Or, possibly, sleep more.”
—Amy Shearn, author of The Mermaid of Brooklyn (Touchstone, 2013)

Cherryl Floyd-Miller

posted 5.01.13

“I once had a blind friend ask me to close my eyes and describe a restaurant for him. I tried descriptions from memory, using only my sense of sight. With my eyes closed, though, I could describe fork metal scraping against teeth, crunching paper napkins and snippets of conversation in the room. I realized my entire life has a soundtrack with layers of sound. It's the same as when I see any Romare Bearden collage or witness the building tensions at a dinner table. Everything—poem, story, character, conflict, silence—has its own sound. You sometimes have to close your eyes to hear it. Then write to get it out of your head.”
—Cherryl Floyd-Miller, author of Exquisite Heats (Salt Publishing, 2008)

Sean Ferrell

posted 4.24.13

“Write toward your fear. That memory or worry or idea buried inside, that truth about you that you hope no one discovers. The thing you wish you could forget about yourself. Write directly to that. Repression, sublimation, fear, denial. These are creative energies, but they feed only cruel creations: Writer’s block, thin writing, clichéd ideas, and self-criticism. Hiding your painful truth is a wall without mortar. It takes work to maintain. Hold the stones in place, it might not fall. But good luck, and don’t forget to worry worry worry. That effort saps all others. Let the wall go. Rush at the painful secret, write toward it, then through it. Rein the energy, direct it, feed yourself. Your work will show the vigor of it, and the revelation of the secret pain will turn into something better than simply a story. It will become acceptance and salvation.”
—Sean Ferrell, author of Man in the Empty Suit (Soho Press, 2013)

Jessica Grose

posted 4.17.13

“Whenever I’m in a rut, there are a few women writers whose voices I return to: Lorrie Moore and Anne Lamott come to mind first, but I know there are others. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, the tone must be wry and honest, which in turn (hopefully) inspires me to be wry and honest. I find I am sharpest in the first two hours of the early morning after a strong cup of coffee. If I’m writing fiction and I’ve found myself in a plot cul-de-sac, the only way for me to get out of it is to go for a longish run outside. The treadmill just doesn’t cut it.”
—Jessica Grose
, author of Sad Desk Salad (William Morrow, 2012)

Alix Ohlin

posted 4.10.13

“Here are two things that have helped me when I feel depleted or confused, which is often. One: I find that ideas like to come when they’re most inconvenient. So I daydream my way through situations where writing is impossible. In the shower. While dog-walking. On the subway. I don’t rush out of that situation to write anything down—I just let my mind go, fabricating and wandering, until the end of the day, when I make a record of where my thoughts have gone. It gives me material to start with the next morning. Two: When I’m in direst need of inspiration, I do what I call ‘sentence stealing.’ I find a sentence from a writer I admire and write it down. ‘In the beginning I left messages in the street.’ Or, ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ Then I write my own version of the sentence, focusing only on its rhythms: by which I mean, replacing a noun with a noun, a verb with a verb. What’s left is a ghostly echo of the original sentence with no relationship to its actual content. And I follow that new sentence wherever it takes me, down the road to an unfolding story.”
—Alix Ohlin
, author of Inside (Knopf, 2012)

Teddy Wayne

posted 4.02.13

“There are all the usual catalytic suspects—music, especially—but once in a while I hit upon a new comedic genius who makes me want to duplicate his or her efforts somehow. Recently, I was tipped off to Comedy Central’s Kroll Show. It’s an intertextual sketch-comedy show in which comedian Nick Kroll plays a wide range of characters who star on different (fictional) reality shows, from the Jersey Shore-like Bobby Bottleservice to Liz, one of two publicists named Liz on “Publizity.” His impersonations (and the production values of the fake shows) are pitch-perfect, but so is the insight into class and gender through the filter of one of our most vapid and addicting mainstream art forms, the reality show. I’m interested in literary ventriloquism, in articulating yourself—and a cultural critique—through wildly disparate voices, and Kroll does it as well as anyone. If there’s any justice in the world, this show will get many more seasons and Nick Kroll will get to do whatever he wants creatively.”
—Teddy Wayne
, author of The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Free Press, 2013)

 

Susannah Cahalan

posted 3.26.13

“I affectionately refer to my writer’s-little-helper as ‘the green book,’ but it’s actually called The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop. I've gifted this wonder of a book, which is less a writing manual and more of a spirit guide, to many of my writer friends and they’ve all been equally captivated and enriched by the author’s wise, old soul voice. Written by Stephen Koch, former chair of Columbia University’s graduate writing program, the book details the writing experiences of many of the greats—from Gustave Flaubert’s one-draft manuscripts to Philip Roth’s constant redrafting and tinkering style—in an effort to galvanize your own process. This book made me feel so much less alone and aided me through the darkest moments of writing Brain on Fire. In short, Stephen Koch is my hero.”
Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire (Free Press, 2012)

Dave Bry

posted 3.20.13

“I recommend dipping salted almonds (not smokehouse almonds, just dried, salted almonds) into Nutella hazelnut spread and eating them like that. I tried this for the first time yesterday, and it was delicious. My best friend from growing up is Sicilian, and his grandmother used to tell him that he should eat three almonds every day—exactly three, no-more-no-less—because it would make him smarter. (I picture her covering one eye and spitting at the ground.) I know it sounds nuts. (Sorry.) I would have liked to use this very writing exercise to try to test the theory scientifically, but there was no way, considering the addictive combination of salty and sweet and chocolate and umami, that I would have been able to eat only three. So here we are. I do think that inspiration can come from anything and everything in the world around us. So that good writing, or any kind of art, is as likely to be sparked by sensual perception as by other good writing or art. Jeez. That sounds like a boneheaded combination of Proust and Jim Morrison, doesn’t it? I should have stopped at three.”
—Dave Bry, author of Public Apology (Grand Central, 2013)

Aaron Hamburger

posted 3.13.13

“I keep going back to Flannery O’Connor’s quote: ‘The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where the human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions.’ An exercise that I often give my fiction students (because it works for me) is to jot down the five senses on a piece of paper, then go for a walk and collect as many details as I can that correspond to sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. The second part of the assignment is that during this walk, there’s no talking allowed. Great writers are really great noticers of life. You can’t come up with beautiful words and sentences if they aren’t somehow rooted in the kind of detail that can only be gleaned from life by becoming incredibly still and focused. It’s a state of being in the world that’s become increasingly rare and hard to achieve, but not impossible.”
—Aaron Hamburger
, author of Faith for Beginners (Random House, 2006)

 

Dagmara Dominczyk

posted 3.07.13

“I write in the mornings. Pre-breakfast, post-sending kids off to school. Just me and my computer on the porch, a cup of instant coffee and sad to say, the odd cigarette. I’m very particular about the mug I choose for my coffee—it seems to forecast the writing mood I’m in that day. Some favorites are my ‘Write Like a Motherfucker,’ ordered from the Rumpus, or the mustard yellow one with ‘Dagmara’ painted on it, which I bought in Poland, or a ceramic one I made for my husband when we first started dating.

"No music. No people. Just me and my mug. 

"Most other inspiration lies in my past, and, like most first-time novelists, I write what I know. Or what I remember. And when I’m stuck, when my own memory fails to ignite anything worthy, I mine old photographs. Black-and-white family photos. My grandmother leaning on a telephone pole next to a dapper gentleman who I know was not my grandfather, her wavy hair falling lazily over one eye. Cobblestones in the background. That kind of thing. Each photo becomes a mystery to unravel, a launching pad, a kernel of an idea. Sometimes I look at photos of myself as a kid, buckteeth and shy smile, the unfortunate zigzag set of my bangs across my forehead. I imagine that girl as someone other than myself, and sometimes if I’m lucky, a story unfolds.”
Dagmara Dominczyk, author of The Lullaby of Polish Girls (Spiegel & Grau, 2013)


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