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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.
"I'm a city girl. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and I've spent my entire adult life living in cities (Moscow, London, Amsterdam, New York, and now Washington again). I love big cities for the energy, the people-watching, the access to art and culture, the ability to feel anonymous. But I also need a daily 'forest bath,' as the Japanese call it. I take a long walk in the woods almost every day to clear my head. (In Moscow, I walked in wooded parks; in London, I went to Hampstead Heath; in Amsterdam, I walked in the Amsterdamse Bos; in Brooklyn, I was in Prospect Park every day; now my daily walk is in Rock Creek Park.) I've been doing this for years. There is something about being on the trails, in the silence, under all those trees that does wonders for my brain. (A couple of years ago, The New York Times noted the health benefits of 'forest bathing': apparently time spent among trees and plants reduces stress and boosts immune function.) I take my dog with me and sometimes I sort out character and plot problems on my walks. But more often than not, the walk is just a way to let go—of anxiety, of ego—and recharge my creative batteries. I always work better after I've been in the woods."
—Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them (The Penguin Press, 2013)
"On Saturdays I go look at art, partly because I wish I had become a visual artist. I’m not looking for narrative work, just powerful images that will push me out of my storytelling head. Abstract artists like Thomas Nozkowski and Jorge Pardo make me happy, while Georg Baselitz and Ida Applebroog hint that I shouldn’t envy their vocation. I think they want to tell stories, too. On nights before I write I absorb some great sentences that I’ll rearrange or just steal when I write the next day. I look at Isaac Babel’s short stories, or Leonard Michaels’ short stories, or pages from RK Narayan’s novels, especially Waiting for the Mahatma. I also look at this fiction because I’m always trying to regain access to what made me want to be a writer—the emotional curiosity part, not the full-of-rage part. And then when I sit down to write I listen to country music that’s really storytelling, like anything by Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings. I love their songs but as I work, I’m looking forward to the moment when I don’t hear the words anymore."
—Ben Schrank, author of Love Is a Canoe (Sarah Crichton Books, 2013)
"My list of creativity-stimulators is long. It includes coffee, meditation, a giant hula-hoop, a standing desk, Salter, Duras, Eliot (George), Milton, Carson, Robinson, Hazzard, Gardam, Bishop, Munro, Arvo Pärt, Bach, Tristan und Isolde, baby-hugs, my gigantic compendium of Shakepeare's plays, dogs (when I have one), weeping, naps, and gratitude. But the motivator that surprises me with its potency and general infallibility is exercise, mostly of the long, slow, outdoor variety. After half an hour of semi-vigorous swimming or running, the paradox takes hold: The body falls away and you are left only with your mind, your characters, your words. The deeper I go into a project, the fitter I get. The converse is true, too: I wear my writing on my body. The flabbier I am, the more you can bet that I'm writing poorly, and the very best thing you can do for my work-in-progress is to buy me a pair of running shoes, dammit! As with everything else in life, energy in one area breeds energy in other areas."
—Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia (Hyperion, 2012)
"I recommend getting to know the time of day when you write best and guard it as zealously as possible. If you can, work day jobs that keep that time free. If that isn’t possible, which it often isn’t, try to carry a small notebook and get a couple of five-minute stretches for idea generation—if that’s impossible memorize a few lines or write on your hand. Often all we need is a few words to key in on our imagination. When you are writing I recommend stopping midthought or at a point where you know what the next move or few lines will be. I find when I do that I can start writing very quickly the next day because it gives me a way in, whereas returning to where I am stuck over and over becomes demoralizing. When refining, try reading your work in nonsensical Charlie Brown adult voice (wa, wawa, wa wawawa). It’s a good way to listen for repetitive rhythms and breath."
—Vanessa Veselka, author of Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2011)
"Mary Shelley and Louise Bourgeois. All I have to do, and I could do this every day of my writing life for the rest of my life, is open up Frankenstein to any page, or open up my book of Louise Bourgeois drawings, and my gut-heart-strum is activated. I've used single lines to enter whole territories of story, single images to chase characters. Endlessly. I turn to their work like a woman who gave herself permission to create a new lineage, a motherline-motherload lineage, where other women writers and artists and musicians make up a second world, body first. Where language and the image and the body are no longer divided from one another. A little bit I literally leave and step into their worlds, but don't tell anyone or it'll make me sound kooky. Just trust me: 'I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.'"
—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books, 2012)
"Viewing visual art—works that deal with ripping off the polite skin of society—stimulates me. When in that process of discovery I return again and again to the paintings of Francis Bacon, de Kooning’s women, the portraiture of the South African painter Marlene Dumas, the works of Louise Bourgeois. In recent memory, the retrospective of Glenn Ligon at the Whitney moved me—his appropriation of texts and popular culture as well as the political consciousness of his work, which is akin to one of my favorite radical writers Kathy Acker. I often wish to be stirred up, agitated, when fomenting projects, but when actually writing I need to be calm—listening to the same Haydn piano sonatas or Arvo Pärt’s choral works over and over, or being in complete silence, drinking two glasses of silver needle white tea in the AM, walking the dog, eating regular strict vegetarian meals, practicing yoga."
—Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines (Semiotext(e), 2012)
"Before I was a writer, I was a traveler; as it turned out, almost all of my stories (and unfinished novels, and bad poems, and personal essays) evolved from journeying away from home. A misunderstanding on an oppressively hot, chaotic Bangkok street; a hurried descent from the high-altitude salt plains of the Atacama desert; a tequila- and sweat-soaked salsa party in the courtyard of a Yucatan peninsula hostel; and an impromptu fly-fishing lesson in a remote, swollen Montana river have all made their way into stories. Sometimes a scrap of overheard dialogue is the spark; often it’s a character based on someone I’ve met—the driver of that Jeep in the Atacama desert, or the irate Thai police officer trying to tug the camera out of my hand. My novel, The Movement of Stars, began when I picked up a tourist flyer on the Nantucket ferry in 1996 (“Come and see the home of the famous girl astronomer from Nantucket!”). Her small, grey-shingled house; the sandy street; the image of a girl, in a grey dress, on her roof, every night, searching for something elusive in the night sky, something that would change her life: They held me in thrall for fifteen years, until the story was told. Parenthood has pretty much grounded all my flights these days, but the well of places that inspire me has yet to run dry."
—Amy Brill, author of The Movement of Stars (Riverhead, 2013)
"I listen to music (with lyrics!) when I write, and I often need coffee and chocolate to get me into the chair. There’s all that, yes. But at the risk of sounding like an Om-loving yoga teacher, I have to admit that, lately, what’s inspired me to write is feeling grateful. Grateful for my family, for my friends, for my health, for this apartment, for this desk, for the washing machine churning in the other room, for this cup of coffee growing cold next to me. I’m grateful to have this opportunity to write. Grateful that writing is a thing at all. Grateful that sentences can do what they do—produce meaning, offer me beauty, wisdom, tension, make me laugh. I mean, wow, right?"
—Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me (Nouvella, 2010)
“When it comes to inspiration, I’m an omnivore, an art whore: I’ll take it wherever I can get it. I come from a previous incarnation as a visual artist, so I see writing not as some sort of alchemy apart but as just another way of telling stories: of finding truths, of cutting through the quotidian, of—to blatantly steal from Joni Mitchell—“touching souls.” Yes, I know she was referring to love, but I’ve always experienced the best art, in whatever medium, as acts of simultaneous aggression and love. (There’s a reason Matthew Barney called his series The Cremaster Cycle, okay?) A random sampling of my most recent couplings: I saw Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities and couldn’t move for ten minutes after the audience filed out; I read Edward St. Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels and wandered around bereft, as if in mourning, when I was done; I went to a concert by The National and felt what I imagine others feel for Jesus; I randomly came into contact with four of Richard Rogers’ buildings over the course of three days (the Pompidou, the River Café, his house, and Heathrow’s Terminal 5) and felt permanently transformed; I downloaded Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz followed by Lena Dunham’s Girls followed by Tig Notaro’s Tig Notaro Live—legally! I paid for them! People, you must pay for your art or you want have any more of it—and wanted to reach through my iPad to hug them all; I keep Robert Frank’s The Americans easily accessible next to my dining room table, in case I need to commune with him over breakfast. Ditto for Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. If I’m feeling frisky, I’ll play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or Radiohead’s “Reckoner” or U2’s “One” or Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” as I’m drowning my Cheerios in milk. Works and artists like these set the bar for me. They say to me, 'Here’s what’s possible, lowly cereal muncher. Now sit your ass down and contribute.’”
—Deborah Copaken Kogan, author of The Red Book (Hyperion, 2012)
"I go surfing, which isn't so much an inspiration as something that clears away the many impediments to inspiration. I don't think about writing while I'm in the water. I give myself over completely to the sublunary experience of weather, water, and waves. It's often cold—the best season here is winter—and the ocean is not always hospitable. In real surf you confront your fears and recognize your limits. Your awareness is total and local; you can only ride the wave you're on, not the many wave-pictures you carry around in your head. I never come out of the water with an idea for a story or a solution for a narrative problem. Surfing is useless that way. But what it does for me—and this part is invaluable—is clean my mental clock. In essence, it reminds me, down to my bones, that I'm only a single human being on the planet earth, a link in a human chain, itself an infinitesimal link in the great chain-mail fabric of the universe. My many anxieties about time and significance dissolve, and I can get to work."
—Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)