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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.

Rebecca Dinerstein

posted 7.16.15

“The great chess and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin talks about ‘stress and recovery’ in his book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (Free Press, 2007). I think this theory of balance can help a writer as much as it helps an athlete. I tried to convert the ‘stress’ phase of writing into a ritual: wake up at eight, drink a cup of coffee, eat a bowl of yogurt, start working. I found the experience of being in the middle of a novel so uncomfortable—so much like treading water halfway across a river—I wanted to get to the other shore as fast as possible. So I wrote a thousand words a day. Keeping this pace helped me finish a draft which gave me something I could hold on to and show people for comments, and then rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I needed to embrace the stress of the work, so that I could get something done, but equally essential was embracing recovery. That’s where delight comes in handy. It’s crucial to know what brings you delight: whether it’s the view out a certain window, a Ciara music video, gooey pizza, or exchanging bitmojis with a friend. Take care of yourself, so you can stare down the next day's stress. That's the only way the cycle works.”
—Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Naomi Jackson

posted 7.09.15

“I am a cultural carnivore, a dually satisfying and frustrating way to be in New York City, where a clone would be useful to see all the art, plays, films, music, and dance that I would otherwise miss. A brief but eye-opening stint working at the Studio Museum in Harlem exposed me to the work of artists from around the African diaspora. I’ve had the good fortune of working with an incredible crew of visual artists recently. Sheena Rose is the dynamic Barbadian artist whose work appears on the cover of my debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. I am working on a screenplay adaptation of my short story, 'Ladies,' in collaboration with Barbadian filmmaker Lisa Harewood. Simone Leigh is a sculptor whose Tilton Gallery show, 'Moulting,' still haunts me. I wrote an essay for Waiting Room magazine as part of Leigh’s Creative Time project, the Free People’s Medical Clinic. I loved appearing in Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s performance art piece in Austin, Texas, one hundred black women, one hundred actions; I regularly look to Ogunji’s gorgeous, ethereal works on paper for inspiration. My partner, Lola Flash, aside from being a renowned portrait photographer featured in the film Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of the People, captured my headshot as well as my book launch—she is the only photographer who can get me to smile when I don’t feel like it. When the writing is going slowly (or even when it’s going well), I recommend getting your head out of a book and into another art form.”
—Naomi Jackson, author of The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, 2015)

Vendela Vida

posted 7.02.15

“Whenever I get stuck writing a scene I like to talk it out with someone. Sitting alone for too long with a plot problem or character issue can drive you crazy. But if you talk about it with a friend, any friend—they don't have to be a writer or a reader—and say, ‘Here's where I'm at. What do you think if I do this?’ I find it helps. They might not have the perfect solution or suggestion, but the process of talking about it often makes you think about the issue in a different way. Sometimes they share a great anecdote about something else that applies. When I was working on The Lovers (Ecco, 2010), I was talking to a friend of a friend, and this friend shared an anecdote that I immediately knew I wanted to use in the book. As soon as he'd finished relaying it to me I asked him, ‘Are you a writer?’ ‘Oh God, no,’ he said. And I said, ‘Good. Because I'm totally going to use what you just told me in a scene.’ So I guess my recommendation boils down to this: Don't spend too much time alone.”
—Vendela Vida, author of The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Harper Collins, 2015)

Sonja Livingston

posted 6.25.15

“Write hungry. This is not to say that writing while full can't be its own version of wonderful, your body so saturated with almond paste cookies, bourbon, or love that the words fall from you like overripe fruit. But on my best writing days, I come to the page as soon as I wake, uncluttered by the business of living, unburdened by Facebook or e-mail or even oatmeal. I get a cup of coffee and sit before my laptop. This simple act transforms my body into a receptive vessel, one tuned into the scent of coffee and the thoughts and images pooling just under the surface of things. If you’re a channel when you write (and you are), emptiness can clear the static. And it need not be the gut that's empty. Listen to a song from high school. Remember a place that was once home. Look into the face of an old photograph. Hunger. I spend most of my life avoiding it, but for writing, it has a place. Not so much that it distracts, but enough so that my senses are sharpened and space is made for the words to come, simple and true.”
—Sonja Livingston, author of Queen of the Fall (University of Nebraska Press, 2015)

Ben Tanzer

posted 6.18.15

“It starts with a step. Followed by another. I am running, and I am caught up in my creaky knee, sore lower back and the detritus of the day—check requests, press releases, my children, dumb fights, and bills. Much of the time when I am running it is along the lakefront in Chicago, enjoying the headwind that runs both north and south, and doing so year-round—some days with small chunks of ice clinging to my eyebrows, and other days melting in the mid-day heat. Sometimes I've been flying late the evening before, working all day without a break, or my kids haven't been sleeping, and I'm just not sure I'm into it. But soon, there is that first step. Then another. All the detritus from the day starts to slip away. There is inspiration, flow and words. The night sky might speak to me as I find myself wondering what's out there and what I might say about it. Or, I'm reminded of a trip with my family, and I will recall a snatch of conversation, an argument, something about my father or a memory from childhood. Maybe my achy knee prompts me to ruminate on pain, and aging, and the lack of grace that accompanies it. With each step I begin to sort things out. I see the kernels of a story connect, and unwrap, and build upon themselves. I picture the characters. I feel their confusion. I hear their dialogue. And then at some point I stop, and I write, and it is glorious.”
—Ben Tanzer, author of The New York Stories (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, 2015)

Sara Novi­ć

posted 6.11.15

“Most of my friends know—and enjoy mocking me about the fact—that I’m a Mets baseball fan. There is something about baseball I find very conducive to creative thinking—it occupies the eyes but not the mind, its slow pace leaving plenty of room for daydreaming. Back when I used to have a television, I’d sometimes turn on a baseball game and sit on the couch to write. Now that I live in Queens, I’ve occasionally taken the 7 train out to Citi Field, where I’ve sat with a notebook in my lap and watched the game. I’ve written a little, but thought a lot, and find that the more I can organize a story in my head, the less writer’s block I encounter when I finally do put pen to paper. Even when I’m just writing at the library, I often wear my Mets cap (a writing buddy calls it my ‘thinking cap’) as a way of channeling the feeling of being at the ballpark. I've also been known to wander my apartment with a baseball mitt, dropping ball into glove absentmindedly—the mind is, of course, somewhere else, and that’s the best part.”
—Sara Novi­ć, author of Girl at War (Random House, 2015)

Amy Butcher

posted 6.04.15

“Above all else, I consider writing to be an active art of questioning, and so any sense of ‘stuckness’ I might experience generally means I haven’t yet identified the heart of what I’m exploring. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak, and he encouraged a whole room full of people to push harder on the conclusions they’ve drawn, no matter how careful their considerations. Ask why, he implored: why he did that, why she said that, why a whole group of people feels or acts or thinks that way. Trace causation one level further. He was speaking specifically to the Baltimore riots, but speaking, as well, to process, to intent, to the larger goals we lay out for ourselves when we go about our work. When I feel stuck, I invigorate that sense of inquiry through immersion into a world that is markedly not my own—I navigate to the Feynman Series’ ‘Beauty’ episode. Just three minutes long, and yet this clip—pulled from Richard Feynman’s ‘Doubt and Ask’ lecture—renews this sense of the universe’s bigness, of my own woeful smallness, of the importance of doubting, of asking. ‘I can live,’ he states beautifully, ‘with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about.’ That reminder, to me, necessitates frequency.”
—Amy Butcher, author of Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder (Blue Rider Press, 2015)

Sean H. Doyle

posted 5.28.15

“My dog—a fifty pound wiggle machine of a rescued pit bull named Gracie—is the thing that keeps me from losing it when I run into rough patches where the words stop flowing or the open document starts to look like a mess of hieroglyphs. There is something amazing about being responsible for the care of an animal that gives back nothing but love without any kind of ask in return. Gracie helps me manage my day: early walk before I even turn on the computer, mid-day walk around the time I am starting to wonder if I even know how to construct a cogent sentence, early evening walk when the words are all starting to blur and I know it’s time to save whatever I am working on and go be a part of the world. Sometimes when things get really hairy and I can’t articulate anything at all, I like to get down on the floor with her and put my head on her ribs to listen to her heart and feel her breathing. It’s an auto-reset for me.”
—Sean H. Doyle, author of This Must Be the Place (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2015)

Morgan Parker

posted 5.21.15

“I recommend overstimulation. If it’s too quiet, I find it’s hard to hear my voice. When I write, I overwhelm myself: The TV’s on in the background playing a movie or a reality show, I’m listening to music, I’m texting five friends, the window’s open and I’m eavesdropping on the conversations and arguments on my Bed-Stuy street below, the coffee table is stacked with books—art books, poetry collections, essays. Because I don’t know what stimulus will jumpstart a poem, which voice or atmosphere will turn me on, I douse myself in all of them at once. I’m endlessly curious (read: nosy), and approach my writing as an ethnographer: observing the behaviors, languages, impulses, and rituals of other people and myself. I take furious notes wherever I am, recording observations and thoughts. I hoard and collect. That’s how I compose poems—getting full on everything. Revision and rewriting I do in silence and without distraction. That’s when I read the poem out loud to find its music, sift through the other voices and tongues to find the poem’s original voice: a kind of collaged Frankenstein or melting pot. The poem’s energy comes from outside stimuli, allowing its own voice to be thrust up to the surface.”
—Morgan Parker, author of Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me up at Night (Switchback Books, 2015) 

Liam Callanan

posted 5.14.15

"Troop 117, Verdugo Hills Council, Southern California: We were a uniforms untucked, let’s-see-what-else-we-can-burn bunch. And so we had a lot of trouble on multi-day hikes. Someone would start breakfast, someone would kick it over, a tent would collapse, and then it was 10:00 AM with the day’s worst heat rising, and we had made no progress. So we developed a new system: up early, strike camp, no breakfast until an hour up the trail. The important thing—more important than being entirely ready or even sure of your destination—is to get underway. I relearned this, years later, as a writer. Early on, I realized my first novel, The Cloud Atlas (Delacorte Press, 2004), would require a lot of research. But the more I did, the fewer pages I wrote, and I thought: I need to get underway. (I also thought about burning what I had, but that’s a less helpful scouting lesson.) So I wrote as much as I could, then stopped, researched, and wrote more, stopping again whenever I ran out of fuel. It’s not a foolproof method for scouts or writers: You forget things when you’re moving fast; you occasionally stumble. But it can work, and for me, it’s necessary. I need to see the pages pile up behind me, whether it’s a novel, or most recently, stories. Unlike my scouting days, I know I can go back later and fix what went wrong. Also unlike my scouting days, and necessary: coffee."
—Liam Callanan, author of Listen & Other Stories (Four Way Books, 2015)

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