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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.
“‘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)
“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)
“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)
“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)
“Show up: at your desk, on the page. Show up often, show up with an open heart, show up all hardcore and ready to work. But when you don't show up, when it's been days and weeks and months and you haven't shown up, take a bath. By which I mean: be kind, be gentle. Whatever you do, don't be an asshole to yourself. Screaming at yourself will—at best—carry you through an hour, a day of work. Ultimately, artistic journeys are about truth and self-discovery, and we can't be truthful or discover ourselves when someone is yelling at us, even if (or especially if) the yelling is taking place inside our own heads. But here's the thing: We all live with an inner asshole and he isn't going anywhere. Which means, we kind of have to learn how to become best friends. Take your inner asshole out on a date. Go to your favorite gallery, spend two hours at a coffee shop with a book, visit a spa—whichever act of kindness can shock your system. When the date is over, ask, Hey, what do you need? Say, I'm trying to write this story, this essay, this novel; is there anything I can do that would make it possible to work tomorrow morning? Ask, how can we do this together? When we're truly kind, something shifts in us.”
—Shelly Oria, author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
“Choose several literary rivals. These should be people you know. They should be people you like, respect, and admire. They should be people who write at least a little bit like you do. They should be more talented and successful than you are. You probably already have some candidates in mind. You need to read each thing they publish, find their weaknesses, and make a plan to succeed where they fail. Find out what you can do that they can’t; build on that. Support them, be their best readers, promote their work at every opportunity. Write them fan mail. Start friendly arguments. Most important, never tell them that you are their competitor. (If it’s working, they’ll know what you’re doing. They’ll start doing it, too.) Work as hard as you can to supersede them, to write something so beautiful that they become unnecessary. Who are my rivals? They are my friends. They are the kindest people I know. Someday, I hope to destroy them. Or failing that, to write a book that makes them weep.”
—Mike Meginnis, author of Fat Man and Little Boy (Black Balloon Publishing, 2014)
"I've led a good life, but I've definitely not led a regretless life. There are plenty of things I stopped myself from doing, people I stopped myself from meeting, things I didn’t let myself say. But I made a promise when I started writing my own fiction: I won't ever stop myself from writing something down. And so, when I'm drafting, I always say, 'yes' to what my brain comes up with. I cast aside nervousness. I never tell myself, 'Oh no, don't say that or say it that way, that isn't smart/serious/good enough.' I just say it. Worrying about that stuff—saying, 'no' to things—is for revision. And that is useful, too. But drafting is the time for saying, 'yes.' It’s like hitching a ride with a tall, dark, possibly dangerous stranger called your brain. And your brain drives the car into a dense, dark wood with one road (you think) and the weak headlights only illuminate what is right in front. You're alert and white knuckled in an exhilarating way. The road turns and twists and roads appear on the left or right and your brain follows them with a quick jerk, and then you're on a new bumpy, dark road with only possibility in front of you. You just don't know what is coming next and so you become a part of it. You let go and let your brain surprise you. For me, that is what makes writing so alluring. The realization that if I give up some control, I can go places I didn’t know existed."
—Diane Cook, author of Man V. Nature (Harper Collins, 2014)
“When I feel stuck, despondent, bored of my writing, I watch Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach movie trailers. Growing up, I despised movies. You could not get me to sit down and watch a movie, commitment-phobe was I. But in the past few years, I’ve become slowly obsessed with film. I’ve recently had a couple friends tell me they hate movie trailers and don’t watch them. I understand why—they can spoil the movie, they can be cheesy. But what I find fascinating about movie trailers is how and why particular moments are chosen for them. I like studying the way short scenes and small details are strung together, and a certain tone is being evoked in a few, brief minutes. I’ll watch Baumbach’s trailers for Frances Ha, The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and Margot at the Wedding. Or I watch Linklater’s trailers for Boyhood, Before Sunset, and Before Sunrise. The trailers remind me how important microdetails, dialogue, and tone are. They remind me that every single thing you put into your creative work matters. That dialogue is incredibly powerful. Though I also keep a stack of special books on my desk and read from them for inspiration, I find it’s nice to take a break from the written word and watch writing come to life through film. Plus, who doesn’t like to fantasize about their words coming alive through film?”
—Chloe Caldwell, author of Women (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2014)
“When I was younger, it was dangerous to read fiction while writing it myself: Too easily, I found myself slipping into other people's voices. I read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and wrote eighty pages of a terrible knock-off. I adored Alice Munro's Open Secrets so much that I set a story in northern Ontario, a place I had never been and knew little about. I inhaled Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and promptly produced my own version, complete with a visiting character who was deaf instead of blind. Though I look back at these pieces with embarrassment, I also know each of them had something to teach me. I learned through imitation, but it was only when I followed—or found—my own voice that I was able to derive a different kind of inspiration from reading fiction, something subtler and more expansive. Today, when I reach a wall in my own work, I turn to authors I love to remind myself what is possible: that sentence, that structure, that daring twist of plot. Now that I have a surer sense of my own style and interests, reading does not confine me to a particular approach. Instead, it enlarges my understanding of what's possible, helping me to see beyond my own habits. Reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel reminded me that a narrative arc can be made from smaller, impressionistic pieces, that every stop on a character's journey need not be addressed. Tana French's mysteries have shown me that language can be as propulsive as plot, and Alice Munro's stories continue to widen my understanding of the way that time can be handled within a short story—even if I no longer set my own in Ontario."
—Chloe Benjamin, author of The Anatomy of Dreams (Atria Books, 2014)
“There's a bit of hubris inherent in writing fiction—no one that I know of has ever been plucked out of a math lecture and told, "No, no. You really should devote more time to your writing. The world needs your impressions of thunderstorms." So after you've announced your intentions to friends and family, there's a moment of pause when you think: Maybe I'm... not vast; maybe I don't contain multitudes. To me, this fear comes from that scoop of bad advice doled out to every aspiring writer: Write about what you know. For some people that works—there are some stories that just need to get out. Not surprisingly, this writing often veers toward autobiography. But if you’re the kind of person who rarely checks in with herself, who notices how everyone else in the room is feeling rather than dwelling on self-analysis, this adage will mess with you. My advice is to write about something you know nothing about, and then get to know it intimately. Ten years ago I knew this novel involved the Olympics, Ancient Greek, conceptual art, and Iceland—all things that I knew absolutely nothing about. But I knew intuitively that this was the book. So I took up a new sport, learned a dead language, sculpted a piece for the New Museum, and traversed Iceland for two months. My writing begins by trusting intuition fully, especially if it's intuition into something I know nothing about. Learning excites me and pulls me through those rough early drafts. From there, it's a lot of reading and whenever possible, doing the things I'm writing about. Once I've actually re-enacted parts of the story, I can do the fine-tuning necessary for a final draft.”
—Will Chancellor, author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper, 2014)