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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.
"Writing is about getting to a place of deep mediation. The writer’s job is, at a fundamental level, all about finding the habits that will get you there—somehow. Human beings are, fortunately, trainable animals. We can train ourselves, through habit, to access the parts of the mind that lead to great creative work. Here are my three most repeated, most consistent writing secrets: 1. Get dressed. This may seem obvious or unimportant (especially if you work at home). And yet, what you wear is a statement of intention. If you have lucky clothes, go put them on. Grab that pink bathrobe. Don your hat with the moth holes and the bright, red feathers. You’re a writer. You’re encouraged to look eccentric. 2. Return to your lucky place. When I have a good writing day, I try to replicate it. Like a dog returning, again and again, to the place where it’s been fed, I go back to the same coffee shops where I’ve had success. Let your environment do some of the work for you. 3. Treat yourself. Yes, your back hurts because you are sitting in a chair. Yes, writing can create great cycles of angst in your life, and questions about money and art and time. But remember, you are a trainable animal. You like treats. So maybe you can have that eleven dollar kale salad, or that stack of sugar packets in your coffee, or that long, solitary walk through the rain. Bribery works, so use it. And a cautionary note: Since I don’t work at home, I often have to deal with table-takers and delays. Sometimes rude people set up camp in my lucky chair or at my lucky table. I have to glare at them with the steely eye of disapprobation. But then I remember: Often times, this is exactly how a new table is christened, and a new habit is born."
—Peyton Marshall, author of Goodhouse: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
“I recommend taking advice with a grain of low-sodium salt (better for your heart), and being suspicious of anyone who makes writing seem too easy, too hard, or too sexy. The reality is usually in the boring, nougat middle. Done correctly, writing looks like a person staring at a table. Many instructors advise to ‘sit in the chair’ each day. Remember the ‘chair’ can be the commuter train or the washing machine as your kid’s clothes dry. Or a doorpost you’re leaning against in the break room, smoking a Marlboro Light while counting tips, which is how I thought of the superheroes in my story ‘Great, Wondrous.’ In hindsight, I guess that was pretty sexy. I recommend rereading a work you think is perfect. I recommend going outside. I recommend going easy on yourself. Everyone worth their (low-sodium) salt has days when they think they’re doing it wrong. Please remember there are as many different ways to be a writer as there are writers.”
—Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas (Crown, 2014)
“First of all, it's okay not to write. Most writers are highly disciplined, equipped with a demanding, inner CEO. We tie our identities, our sense of worth, and our happiness to writing well. Not writing feels terrible, unless you consider that it too is part of the process. The muse is sly. Sometimes she goes into hiding. I've learned to accept that silence can be a kind of productivity. Loaf with yourself, to paraphrase Whitman. If you cannot relax, move on to another project or another genre. Teach yourself how to simply play with words; it’s time for recess and no one's grading. When writing essays, I juggle several pieces at once. There's the mountain essay, the water essay, the one about wind. I keep all three windows open on my computer and dash between them. In poetry, I start with description, plant my chair on the lawn, taking in what’s there. Or if nothing comes, my never-fail exercise is what I call “negative inversions.” First, copy out a short, simple poem on the left side of your blank book. Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, W. S. Merwin, all work well for this. Then, on the right page, write the rough opposite of the first line, then the second, and so on. Sky may become earth, earth may translate to moon, lime to fire red. Gradually, I’ll find my poem, hidden inside the original.”
—Sarah Gorham, author of Study in Perfect (University of Georgia Press, 2014)
“I’m a doodler. This has never gone over well. In high school, it convinced teachers I wasn’t really listening, and in my various jobs over the years, it has convinced bosses that some part of me is still in high school. Which is true, obviously, but that’s hardly the point. The point is knowing what works for you. The thing is, I think better when I’m dragging a pencil across the paper. I always have. And with fiction, doodling is my way back into the story. Sometimes when I’m stuck with words, I’ll start fixating on something small that I know is somewhere in the scene at hand: a key ring, a toy car, a crumpled phone number written on a wrapper. I will shade and erase and refine, and I know it is working when I start seeing the lines before I’ve drawn them—a light trace on top of the paper that I know can’t really be there but I follow like faith. Soon enough, the words will start coming: snatches of dialogue, a single sentence that has to be written down. And even if it’s just the smallest bit, I know that it’s something I can come back to and fill in, something that will get clearer and more defined with every pass.”
—Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, 2014)
“Over the last seven years, as I have worked to write and revise my first book and then claw a second one out of my gut, I’ve heard too many times that any successful writing practice will involve a minimum daily word count, good and round, or a slavish devotion to page and screen, no matter the quality of what comes. This advice used to make me insecure about my own practice, which, early in my book-building process, included stretches as long as a summer without writing. I have learned that there are plenty of ways to show up at one’s work: incessant contemplation, research, and the unconscious mapping of structure that might come as the body moves in the world. For a while, I tried to forgive myself for not writing every day, but now that the work of my first memoir is complete, I realize that taking long breaks, pacing my work, and allowing for retreat is nothing that needs forgiveness: My brain was protecting itself as it turned traumatic memory into crafted prose. An unflagging commitment to output might have gutted me. Now, with patience, I write when I feel that the work has begun to make itself inside of me.”
—Elissa Washuta, author of My Body Is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press, 2014)
“As a research tool, the Internet is the best thing to happen to writers since the invention of the modern library. On the other hand, it can be a colossal time-suck and an addictive distraction for many writers—myself included. One of our most important challenges, then, is negotiating the use of technology in our daily writing practice. My creative nonfiction explores the intersections between personal history, cultural history, and ecology. The Internet makes research so easy—with a few keystrokes I can access endless information about, say, whaling, or early twentieth century mining accidents. The problem, as we all know, is how easily we get sucked down the rabbit hole of research. It's more than that, though—we now believe we can know everything via Google. But those habitual Google searches foster a superficial kind of knowing that kills one of the most essential aspects of writing and creating: allowing ourselves to rest in profound uncertainty. It's from this primordial darkness of unknowing that some of our best work comes alive on the page.
"What works for me lately is to head for the coffee shop first thing in the morning. I leave my cell phone at home. I write standing up at a tall countertop. As a firm rule, I stay 100 percent clear of e-mail and social media. I try to get comfortable with the uncertainty, puzzling together strands of research and personal narrative, filling out scenes, speculating, and hoping to find unexpected resonance between the personal and the historical. I save my online research and correspondence for later in the afternoon, when my creativity tends to wane. Once I've done my creative work for the day, some time on the Internet feels less like a compulsive habit, and more like a deliberate element of my overall practice.”
—Justin Hocking, author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2014)
“What works to drive me to write is probably so idiosyncratic that it might not be generally useful, but it’s been my way of finding the motivation and the passion to put pen to paper. Sure, I like the hot afternoon walks in the hills of Altadena with my dog or even desperately trying to keep up with my marathon-training wife, but when I’m physically enduring, I’m not thinking of writing. I think of writing when I’m doing mindless yard work—raking and trimming trees and bushes. Or when I’m organizing my papers and books and endless stacks of comics; a task so stultifying that my imagination takes over and useful glimmers of where I might want to go with a project come to me. Sometimes while digging holes to plant or dragging fat bags of compost, buzzed by relentless flies, I get shards of dialogue. But by far what works best is when I recall a slight by a reviewer or editor—that's when the fires burn bright. A condescending statement about my inability to write authentic Black dialogue, for instance, will come back to me from decades ago, while I was in a workshop in the MFA program at the University of California in Irvine, and I’ll be driven anew to start work on the memoir or explore an idea for a new novel or biography. Seemingly, what most motivates me to write is drudgery or the venal and vindictive. It’s gotten me this far, being a maladjusted but productive writer.”
—Jervey Tervalon, author of Monster’s Chef (Amistad, 2014)
“My cures for writer’s block are alarmingly pragmatic and physical. So pragmatic that they arrange themselves in list form! To wit: 1. Get up and walk around. A few years ago, I realized that the solutions to most of my writing problems would come to me in the bathroom. It wasn’t the bathroom itself, of course, that was magic, but the act of getting up from my desk and walking there, getting the blood flowing, and tearing my eyes away from the computer screen. So now, when I’m staring down a huge plot problem, I take a long walk—without a notepad. It’s nearly always solved by the time I get back. 2. Vitamin B. It’s better than caffeine. It makes you both calmer and smarter. I keep a bottle on my desk. 3. If you can, sleep late. That last cycle of sleep is when the weird dreams come, the ones you’ll actually remember. (And how great is it to say, “I have to sleep late for work?”) 4. Yoga. My point with all of these being: Writing isn’t entirely mental. You’re a physical being, and sometimes when your writing is broken, it’s your body that needs attention, not your mind.”
—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House (Viking/Penguin, 2014)
“The very worst times in my life have been marked by silence: times when I wasn’t allowed to write, or couldn’t write, or when language completely failed me. I didn’t write a word, beyond e-mails or Facebook status updates, for nearly two years after I finished graduate school. After I had finished each of my two books, I spent at least six months casting around, writing nothing new. Each time, what finally got me off the block was digging for its root: It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t think of anything new to say, it was that I believed what I had thought of wasn’t any good. I realized that when I approached the page, I brought with me a ruthless, internal critic who killed words, lines, and whole essays before giving them a chance to breathe. Now I’m in the practice of writing nearly every day, and it’s because I learned to silence the voice of that ruthless critic, especially when starting something new. I type whatever comes to me, and do so with curiosity, not judgment. If I bring anyone to the page these days, she’s an adventurer, not a critic. She says only one thing: Let’s see where this goes."
—Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Other Side (Tin House Books, 2014)
“I do various things to keep the muse going, but mostly, I read, read, read! I make myself the ‘expert’ of the particular form I am attempting. I am a big poetry nerd and proud of it! The history of literature is rich and various. The more rigorous we are in our practice, the more interesting our poems will be. For instance, in my latest book of poems, Hard Love Province, I prepped myself by reading thousands of quatrains from different traditions: from the Chinese jueju ‘cut verse’ tradition of the High Tang poets of Li Bai, Du Fu, and Wang Wei to western ballads written by anonymous songsters (the ‘Unquiet Grave’ is a chilling ballad); from Auden's work and Dickinson’s weird hymns to children’s nonsense verse and even that reviled form, the limerick. The quatrain and the ballad are versatile and beloved forms that are here to stay. I listened to folk songs from all over the world, work songs, blues songs, and rap. And that Nicki Minaj is nasty! I love her. I’m researching hard, but I’m also having fun learning about my genre. It’s about loving and honoring my art. It’s about appreciating the work that came before us. It’s about adding and talking back to the tradition and passing on the good news.”
—Marilyn Chin, author of Hard Love Province (Norton, 2014)