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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.
“When I’m stuck, I paint or I draw. Or I cook. Or I garden—or I redecorate a room. I get away from words, but not away from creativity. It’s a way to keep those energies moving and alive, without the particular worries about content that writing can carry. And also, because none of those activities are my profession, they help me relocate the playfulness and pleasure that disappear when I feel creatively anxious or empty.
I also always keep a note nearby: No one has to read a word I write. It’s important to combat self-censoring whenever possible.”
—Robin Black, author of Life Drawing, A Novel (Random House, 2014)
“Nothing helps my writing, or makes me want to write, more than driving alone on lonely roads. That’s when I turn up the music—radio, scanning the stations for the surprise of what might get played. Something about this combination, the driving, the music, the landscape, feels generative. I’m currently working on my second nonfiction book and I’m pretty sure it started in the car, Howard Jones singing ‘No One Is to Blame,’ bringing me back, like it or not, to the sorrows of seventh grade. Songs, like food, like movies—signposts of culture, aspiration, childhood—seem always to find themselves in my work. Recent inspirations include Cyndi Lauper, ‘Time After Time,’ REO Speedwagon, ‘Keep on Lovin’ You,” Fleetwood Mac, ‘Never Going Back Again,” Poison, ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” Mark Morrison, ‘Return of the Mack,’ When in Rome, ‘The Promise,’ Prince, ‘Purple Rain.’”
—Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl (Viking Penguin, 2014)
“When I need to reach that pool of possibility within, I get something cold to drink and sit next to an open window—no matter the season. Listening to instrumental acid jazz from the late 60s and 70s gets me in a good zone—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay Suite, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Pharaoh Sanders, and many others (I can’t listen to singers or vocalists because I surrender to their soaring). The melodies and chord progressions soothe and challenge me at once—the moody, surprising forays and improvisations that the musicians make encourage me to riff off the scale of what I aim to write, freeing me up to travel wherever I’m moved to go stylistically, psychically, emotionally. Poet Lucille Clifton often said, ‘Something in me knows how to write poetry better than I do.’ I’m very clear that whatever I'm writing is always a collaboration between the self that forgot we were out of toilet paper on the way home last night, and the self that recalls blood memories from generations ago in dreams. As the years pass, I’m learning to trust this alchemy.”
—Kamilah Aisha Moon, author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books, 2013)
“‘If you don’t stir your soul with a stick every day, you’ll freeze solid.’ Rutger Kopland, the Dutch poet, uses this sentence from Gerrit Krol as an epigraph to one of his books. I often read poems as my chosen stick in preparing to write: usually poems from earlier generations, or poems in translation or from other languages and historical periods. I want quiet voices and the perspective of distance, avoiding the flash-bang of current poetics and contending fashions. I open the books of poets I love and honor: the Tang poets; the Spaniards Machado and Jimenez; Italy’s Sinisgalli and Pavese; Rolf Jacobsen; yes, Kopland and so many others who have written with such hard-won clarity and intimate simplicity. It’s a stick I need. Not a wand. Not a divining rod. Not a baton. Not a tool for whipping. A simple unadorned stick; one can be found almost anywhere, even underfoot.”
—Peter Everwine, author of Listening Long and Late (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013)
“Years ago when I was traveling in India, I found a junk shop in Cochin that was filled with random things. In one corner were stacks and stacks of old photographs from a photography studio that had long since closed. There were photos of families posed stiffly in their best clothes, brides and grooms with grim expressions, and photos of children—so many children. Many of them were posing in the odd sets of the photography studio—an oversized paper moon, a large cut-out boat. I bought several photographs and keep them near me when I write. I always wonder what the story is behind each photo; who were these people? Even in thrift stores here in the United States, I always buy old photos. It seems sad that they have been abandoned, and I find the faces of the unknown a good talisman for writing characters I sometimes find equally unknowable.”
—Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians (FiveChapters Books, 2013)
“I had an unfettered year to work on my memoir. No excuses. Terrifying. So I watched bad TV and learned six new ways to cook chicken. My house was spotless; my chapters unwritten. Classical music saved me—Erik Satie by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach cello suites, and the Schubert Ensemble of London’s beautiful piano quintets by Ernő Dohnányi. Each became an hourglass, pacing drafting sessions. I listened over and over. Months later, behind on major edits, I realized I’d forgotten the music. I cued up Satie’s Gnossiennes and, in a scene worthy of Pavlov, finally got back to work.”
—Sandra Beasley, author of Don't Kill the Birthday Girl (Crown, 2011)
“I spend ten minutes reading poetry before trying to write fiction. Poetry drags my lazy brain toward focus: on language, precision, rhythm. It’s like pushing in the clutch before I can start the engine. I also use an idea box. I scribble notes on scraps and throw them into a Payless shoebox and forget them. Most contain just a few words. If I’m stuck I pull out a few scraps and force them into a story. ‘Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,’ the first story in Hana Sasaki, came from: ‘appliance with a superpower,’ ‘Jehova’s Witnesses’ and ‘so much beer.’”
—Kelly Luce, author of Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail (A Strange Object, 2013)
“Read the news. There are some strange things happening in the world. The New York Times is a huge part of my writing process. I rip out articles; I circle phrases from the science section, the business section, and sometimes (dare I say) the book review. I recently wrote a poem that came from an article Teddy Wayne wrote about Justin Bieber.
“Steal. Steal from the writers you like and the writers you don’t. Share their vocabulary and syntax. It’s good to shake up your nouns and verbs. (All poets steal.) Many of my poems have been appropriated from other writers like: T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Nabokov, and Rebecca Solnit.
“Join a workshop. It doesn’t matter if they are informal, or formal. Being around other writers, and getting feedback, is the best fuel to spark your creative process.”
—Leah Umansky, author of Domestic Uncertainties (BlazeVOX, 2013)
“I have a little metal pebble with the word 'success' on it that I slip into my bra (left side) when I go to a literary event, embark on a new novel, or start a new chapter. I always forget about it and at the end of the day it clunks onto the floor as I change into my pajamas, like a bullet that didn’t kill me. I write for teenagers and what that means is I write for the teenager in all of us. On the surface I am an adult. I am married. I have two kids. I have bills and difficult parents and the number 11 wrinkled between my eyes but underneath all that the sixteen-year-old romantic smartass in me always has something to say. I think of her as my true self, my best voice and I access her through music from my post-punk youth, lots of coffee, and fearless passionate remembering.”
—Arlaina Tibensky, author of And Then Things Fall Apart (Simon Pulse, 2011)
“Sometimes even returning to the favorite books doesn’t work. There’s no inspiration to be found in the pages of Hopscotch, Pale Fire, or My Loose Thread. Words just seem stifling. Reminders of what I can’t seem to do. That’s when I turn to my photography books, cracking open their oversized spines and staring at images that stare blankly back at me. Something happens the longer I look at the static ghostly fashion photographs of Deborah Turbeville, the shadow-swallowed teenagers of Bill Henson, the colorful coke bottles, shower tiles, and oven interiors of William Eggleston. Shards of narrative rise to the surface. Gestures begin to suggest movement and character. It’s a world awaiting syllables that haven’t already been soiled.”
—Jeff Jackson, author of Mira Corpora (Two Dollar Radio, 2013)