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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.

Kevin Sampsell

posted 1.21.14

“I have been preoccupied lately, to an alarming degree, by the creative process of collage. I spend most of my free time cutting out words from newspaper headlines and pictures from fifty-year-old magazines. Combining the stern, authoritative tone of ‘the News’ and the wholesome and charmingly hopeful images of fifties and sixties advertising (or that era’s glamorous photojournalism) makes for a jarring and often hilarious piece of art. I created a designated workspace in our kitchen that is now cluttered with all these cut-out things along with glue stick, old magazines I haven’t even looked at yet (I prefer copies of Life magazine bought at a place here in Portland, Oregon, called Periodical Paradise), X-ACTO knives, and other cutting utensils. Who knows how long I'll indulge myself with this creative outlet.

“For a long time, I’ve loved various kinds of disjointed art: anything that surprises the reader, the viewer, the listener. It could be the poetry of Zachary Schomburg, Rachel Glaser, and Ben Mirov, or the journals of Leonard Michaels (I highly recommend Time Out of Mind, published by Riverhead Books in 1999). The uncategorical writing of people like Chelsea Martin, Myriam Gurba, and Leni Zumas always blows me away. A great book on collage art is The Age of Collage. The films of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry push my mind through spectacular wormholes. The music of Sebadoh, Pavement, or Guided By Voices (note their collage-y cover art by Rob Pollard). All of these things are inspirations and comforts. I say ‘comforts’ because sometime I wonder if my own writing is too disjointed or too jump-cut (two books in a row of super-short chapters and shifting tones). So visual/textual collage is my newest passion. I think it’s important to follow your whims sometimes, even if you’re not sure what it will turn into.”
—Kevin Sampsell, author of This Is Between Us (Tin House Books, 2013)

Julie Sarkissian

posted 1.14.14

“Ideas come to me through my ear. I will hear a character’s voice before I can see her face or know anything about her circumstances. As long as the voice is talking, I am writing. But inevitably that voice starts to wane, and with it my ability to put words on the page. To combat this, I make sure to have a companion book that I am reading with a voice that is similar in some way to my protagonist. When I was working on Dear Lucy, I read The Sound and the Fury three times. Anytime my characters weren’t speaking to me, I turned to Faulkner’s characters that sounded close enough to my own to activate the auditory memory of their voices. The way being dropped in a foreign country whose language you studied in school will bring back years of vocabulary you were certain you had forgotten for good, reading a book with a similar voice, no matter how similar the content, will get my characters talking to me again.”
—Julie Sarkissian
, author of Dear Lucy (Simon & Schuster, 2013)

Kiese Laymon

posted 1.08.14

“When I’m not working on a specific project, I write two hours before bed and I spend two hours in the morning trying to make at least one decent paragraph out of the mess I wrote before bed. I’ve become obsessed with paragraphs in my old age. I try to create one dope paragraph every other week and trust myself to organize those somewhat dope paragraphs into a revelatory piece that means something to someone somewhere. I listen to a lot of Jay Electronica, Janelle Monáe, and Kendrick Lamar. I hear and see their verses in paragraphs. I love to imagine myself in a paragraph contest with those three. I published about twenty thousand paragraphs last year and maybe fourteen of them were on par with the best paragraphs Monáe, Electronica, and Kendrick routinely produce. This year, I’m going for fifteen. I think I can do that.”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Long Division (Agate Bolden, 2013)

Tara Betts

posted 12.31.13

“For inspiration I've found that doing something unrelated to writing serves me well, like viewing documentaries or people watching on a bus or train. Or, for example, I'll assemble a book case, go for a walk, or do mundane chores around the house. These types of tasks give my brain quiet time to construct lines and make necessary associations before I ever get any words on paper. Putting my mind in a fallow state allows it to absorb the art that feeds my writing. I also, of course, find enjoying art and literature helpful, which means I attend readings or read books on various subjects in multiple genres, go to exhibits and museums, view films, listen to music, or attend performances. It’s all part of the process of building unexpected links within my mind and therefore my writing.”
—Tara Betts, author of Arc & Hue (Willow Books, 2009)

Minna Proctor

posted 12.17.13

“I have an almost religious belief that nonfiction is built from careful observation, which reveals that almost anything—from the tree outside the window, to a horrible sandwich, to a devastating life event—has some kind of meaningful system, or structure, to it. Sometimes that structure is defined by entropy, or resembles a Greek play, or is purely Freudian in nature. I feel like I have remarkable things happening to me all of the time, probably because I’m always looking at everything so carefully and analyzing its structure. When I’m really stuck, or muddled because I've confused myself, I turn to something that has a really obvious banal architecture, like long-running TV shows. Buffy the Vampire Slayer works very well, so does Alias.”
—Minna Proctor, author of Do You Hear What I Hear (Viking, 2005)

Jamie Iredell

posted 12.10.13

“By 10 AM I’ve been writing for a few hours, and my mind’s muddled with sentences, so I go jogging. Like most people, I don’t enjoy exercising, and I welcome anything that distracts me from the fact that I’m breathing hard and my muscles hurt. I don’t think about individual sentences, but more the overall shape of the text I’m making. I don’t think about the hill looming ahead, and how much it will suck running up it. I think about my character, and how I’m going to get him where he needs to be. Soon I’ve jogged back to the desk after four miles have passed, and I’m ready to work through the sentences that so muddled me earlier that morning.”
Jamie Iredell, author of I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac (Future Tense Books, 2013)

Wendy C. Ortiz

posted 12.03.13

“I reread constantly for inspiration. Seek: Reports From the Edges of America and Beyond by Denis Johnson stokes my curiosity. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water reminds me to own my fierceness, to conjure it onto the page. I also look for synchronicities and act on them in my writing and in my life. The car radio becomes an oracle: What is this song asking me to write today? I consult my astrological chart or notebooks I organize according to particular themes such as loss, terrorism, and archetypes, among others. One notebook is entirely comprised of dialogues I have with different parts of myself. The more I poke and prod the material I'm working on with creative ideas, the more sparks shoot up.”
Wendy C. Ortiz, author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014) and Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2014)

Marjan Kamali

posted 11.26.13

"When I’m stuck or feeling unmotivated, I turn to the drawers near my writing desk. They contain notes from past English classes and old spiral-bound journals. Reading the passionate scribbles of the student I used to be reminds me of the hunger that drove me to literature and writing in the first place. Sometimes, I also pull out an old paperback and revisit my notes in the margins, the underlines I made, the stars I jotted down, and the dog-eared pages. These stories belonged to me as well as the authors. I’m reminded that when we write, we don’t write for ourselves. Our work will eventually belong to others so that they, too, can mark the pages of our stories. Thinking of writing in this interactive sense makes the process less lonely and lets me turn to the keyboard again. I remember that I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’m simply joining a conversation that has already been started, adding a drop or two to the river of literature."—Marjan Kamali, author of Together Tea (Ecco, 2013)

Dina Nayeri

posted 11.19.13

“I have a good old-fashioned muse—a brilliant friend who finds me music. His taste is exquisite and he takes the time to discover unknown artists, or rare, forgotten albums from long ago. I’m always hitting him up for new stuff and it’s never disappointing. Sometimes he sends a choppy track sung by two kids in Kenya. Sometimes it’s a well-known weirdo folk song, or a guitar piece from a Caracas slum, or an improvised ten minutes on jazz piano, or a bluesy, scratchy, whiskey-soaked dirge from some forgotten dive in Tennessee, a Rastaman with lyrics so good your mouth waters, your vocabulary suddenly altered, or a R&B track so sexy it makes you blush all the way down to your navel. Whatever he sends, it always works to put me in that place, the creative center where I’m at my best. I like to arrive at my favorite café, order a cappuccino, put on whatever song I’m obsessed with that week (right now it’s “The Werewolf Song” by Michael Hurley and “Não Existe Amor em São Paulo” by Criolo), and let my mind travel. I waste hours like this before I get to work. It’s a luxury of living a writing life, to wander so far from the physical world, and to soak in someone else’s art, taking the time to make it your entire sensory experience for a few minutes. When I listen to music and when I write stories I feel like I’ve finally stopped wasting my life, that I’m renewed every day, crackling and bursting with creative energy.”
—Dina Nayeri, author of A Teaspoon of Earth and Sea (Riverhead, 2013)

Ivy Pochoda

posted 11.12.13

“I sit down in front of my computer with my first cup of coffee before I’m fully awake. I hope that something exciting will come out of these liminal moments before I’m aware of the expectancy and stress of writing. The moment I hit a roadblock, I take a shower. I want to move as far away from my computer as possible so I don’t over-think the problem I’ve encountered and undermine the joy of writing so early in my day. I stay in the shower longer than is necessary, shocking my body into awareness, and calming my mind with the knowledge that I’m not forcing it to work at the moment. Soon that first problem will resolve itself and I’ll have to dash out of the bathroom still damp and rush to my desk. As my writing session draws to a close, usually because I’ve bumped up against some fresh obstacle, I usually want to take another inspirational shower. But that seems weird. So I go for a drive. I live in Los Angeles, so I’m always driving somewhere. Again, I try to get as far away from my work as possible, into a place where it’s impossible to work. That’s when my ideas usually take shape. I don’t listen to music in the car, but let my mind wander and often it stumbles across a way to untangle whatever mess tripped me up and ended my writing day.”
—Ivy Pochoda, author of Visitation Street (Dennis Lehane Books, 2013)

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