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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.
"Humble labors help when my mind becomes overwrought, when my thoughts stop being good company and start chasing each other’s tails. I have learned then to turn to concrete tasks, the simpler the better: washing dishes, mending clothes, paring apples, folding laundry, wiping crumbs, dusting shelves, peeling garlic, emptying trash, stirring sauce, shoveling snow, sweeping. Physical work returns me to the essential parameters of my body: its limitations and its modest usefulness. I take solace in being reminded of my own insignificance.
—Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others (Riverhead Books, 2011)
"Sometimes inspiration comes from unpredictable sources that I wish were more easily and predictably harnessed. A catalogue from an exhibition of Norman Daly’s invented civilization of Lhuros gave rise to thinking about what preconceived notions archeologists bring to excavations, and how they bring their own stories to those buried foundations, totems, gods, bits and pieces. I’ve always been interested in comics—from those written by Windsor McKay to Alan Moore's The Watchmen to their explanations of microeconomics—because of the way language and image are connected, and have to work together. Also, newspaper articles, observations of people and situations in the city, science writing, all get filed and turn out to be useful later on. I’m easily distracted. A couple of masks brought back from Indonesia many years ago hang near my desk. They aren’t overtly menacing, but just looking at them reminds me to knock it off, and get back to work already."
—Susan Daitch, author of Paper Conspiracies (City Lights, 2011)
"Before I was a writer, I tried to live like a writer and that was my great adolescent mistake. As Zadie Smith says, 'There is no writer's lifestyle.' Either you write or you don't. In one of his letters, Flaubert wrote that we should be ordered and regular in our daily lives so that we may be violent and original in our work. Nothing has changed or improved my writing more than the establishment of that order, of calm. I write every morning at the same place. I save the chaos and disarray for my stories."
—Alexander Maksik, author of You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions, 2011)
"I honestly have no idea what it is that inspires me, but there have
definitely been days and even years when it seemed nowhere to be found,
because I was crowding it out.I am sorry for the things I’ve written
and occasionally published in such a state. Whatever kind of artist you
may consider yourself, I recommend welcoming this thing that inspires
with a decent place to be. Put water, vitamins, leafy greens into your
body. Apples. Oats. Get plenty of sleep. Some exercise. Keep the company of
wise and more or less sober people. Don’t smoke. Don’t watch TV. Do
trust yourself. Especially when you’re honest with yourself, forgive
yourself. Listen to your heart. Consider what it means to be an elder,
then find one or two, and listen to them."
—Bonnie Nadzam, author of Lamb (Other Press, 2011)
“I treasure personal totems. The J. Geils Band’s album Bloodshot came out on red vinyl in 1973, and when I slide that bright record out of the sleeve, it takes me back to when I was a raw poet inspired by their R&B lyrics. Also, the greasy metal sign, “COVER,” that I stole from the assembly line at Ford’s. It hung above my machine while I welded covers onto axle housings. Also, birch bark cut from a tree in Northern Michigan during a family vacation. I wrote my name on it when I was a child. These magical objects take me back to those pivotal times and places to which I sometimes need to return as a writer, and as a person.”
—Jim Daniels, author of Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City (Michigan State University Press, 2011)
“The raw honesty and the gritty lyricism of any song by
Lucinda Williams hotwires me to the ugly beauty of hearts in conflict. Although
I don’t listen to music while I’m writing, I listen to it a good deal when I’m
done with the page for the day. When I wrote my most recent novel, Break the
Skin, I frequently listened to Williams’s
song, “World Without Tears.” That song doesn’t flinch in the face of
suffering—admits its necessity, even, while celebrating people’s
limitless capacity for hope. It took me to my characters and made me want to
respond with narrative. The right music often provides that sort of call and
response for me.”
—Lee Martin, author of Break the Skin (Crown, 2011)
“I was ten years old before anyone figured out I needed eye glasses. I relied on sounds and was good at memorizing stories and information.
When I was finally able to see that a tree was more than a green blob with a brown trunk and branches, a whole new visual world opened up for me. However, I still gain so much from listening to the sound of words and stories; listening to people read their work aloud always inspires me. The writing can be from beginners, children, or experienced authors who read their work with musical or theatrical cadence. The act of hearing words is transformative. I find myself writing down phrases that catch my attention. Hearing something familiar described in a new way makes me want to be a better writer.”
—Melinda Palacio, author of Ocotillo Dreams (Bilingual Press, 2011)
"Of all the myriad pronouncements on writing, the truest one, for me, is something the poet Robert Kelly said: ‘Craft is perfected attention.’
Only a poet could have written that, but it is just as applicable to writing fiction. To pay attention, in the fullest sense, is the most exhilarating activity I know of, an experience of total aliveness. Yet to sustain it for more than short periods is very difficult, at least for me. And to attain ‘perfected attention’ usually requires endless rewriting (re-attending). I also love Randall Jarrell's definition of a novel: ‘a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it.’"
—Evelyn Toynton, author of The Oriental Wife (Other Press, 2011)
“I find inspiration and solace in the wise proverbs of my ancestors, the great and noble Bulgarians. Sadly, their wisdom does not translate well. Meant to benefit our people alone, this wisdom is bound to our Bulgarian language, inseparably. The moment you lift it out and plant it into another tongue, this wisdom takes the shape of folly. “A dog that rushes its business,” teaches us one such proverb, “in the end gives birth to blind pups.” Wiser words were rarely spoken. So be careful then, not to hurry your writing. When you’ve written something, rewrite it. Set it aside. Think about it, then about other things. Then rewrite what you’ve written and rethink what you’ve thought. When it comes to waiting, trust the ancient Bulgarians. Take your time. Don’t condemn your pups to blindness.”
—Miroslav Penkov, author of East of the West (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
“I am thankful to be surrounded by lovely women—my wife, my three daughters not yet grown, my mother, my wife's mother, and my Czech American grandmother who we call the Great One. Our house is alive with conversation and music and dance, and the daily run is a high-speed dash until at last the house quiets and we whisper love to one another and the house sleeps. This threshold of quietness is like a descent into darkness for me, a powerful and intimate and abiding darkness in which the light emerges in words and the rhythm of words and the poetry of sound that has as its melody the breathing of my wife and three daughters as they fall into their dreams. I sit at the desk and feel deeply loved because of the way my wife's face is illumined by the light from the hall, and I remember when she spoke to me like an angel earlier, how I pressed my face to hers and felt the bones of her cheek against mine, the bones of her forehead and the orbital bones of her eyes, and the kiss of her lips against the underside of my wrist. She kissed me to grant me life, and to ward off death, and so the writing begins.”
—Shann Ray, author of American Masculine (Graywolf, 2011)