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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 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)
"I never go searching for inspiration to write, especially when it comes to short stories; if I’m not moved to write I create in some other way, like drawing or painting or designing botanical arrangements. When I feel that smack that says write, these visual creations often inform my descriptions, characters, and topics. Years ago I was thrilled to learn that one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Bishop, had also painted, and I received a book of these paintings titled Exchanging Hats. They are spirited, loving homages to scenes and spaces of her life, including a whimsical 'E. Bishop’s Patented Slot Machine' that makes me giggle every time I look at it and reminds me to try to add a bit of play into everything I create."
—Kate Hill Cantrill, author of Walk Back From Monkey School, (Press 53, 2012)
"My writing influences are mainly photographs and music and they always convey a somewhat dark mood. I stare at landscape photographs by Michael Light or David Maisel just to let my brain settle and prepare to write. Once I clear away the debris from the day, I can start channeling the voices of my characters. I also listen to music while I'm writing and almost always one album on repeat for an entire night. Usually I'm listening to my fiancé Jon DeRosa's ambient/drone project "Aarktica," because it's not lyric-heavy and I can get lost in it. I recommend his album In Sea. I also listen to Rachel's for the same reason. Their album Music for Egon Schiele is great to write to and on heavy rotation at my house. It's moody music with strings, but isn't obtrusive to the writing process at all. It's really interesting to see how different songs and albums on repeat influence the outcome of my chapters."
—Karolina Waclawiak, author of How to Get Into the Twin Palms (Two Dollar Radio, 2012)
"All my good writing comes out of vulnerability. The other stuff, the stuff that came from cleverness or vanity—I wish I could throw it all out. I am terribly vulnerable to nature and I love to fish. I have a favorite creek in western Colorado. There is so much excitement and loss—sometimes for the fish, if he is pan-sized; for me when he gets away. And the loss of the day as evening settles, and the quietness that allows many other losses to be remembered and felt. And beauty. And gratitude. And focus. Intense focus on moving water, which swirls and silvers and blackens and moves back on itself. On wind. As I focus on those, the circle of awareness somehow expands outward to take in the steep banks of dark spruce, their smell, a kingfisher, the flags of Spanish moss, the shoulders of the mountain upstream. Then I crack open. The whole world is in the circle with all of its heartbreak and beauty and I have cried while I fished and never been happier. Go figure. If I can’t fish I read the poets of the late Tang—Li Po, Wang Wei, Li Shang Yin. They can put me there in a moment, knee-deep in a stream, up in the tearing clouds of the mountains. They are aficionados of loss, and they make me feel vulnerable and stricken and full of joy. That is a good place to write from."
—Peter Heller, author of The Dog Stars (Knopf, 2012)
"Once upon a time, I had no habit for writing, and I waited to feel like writing. Recalling the advice of my college psych professor, I decided to invent an association to teach myself to feel like writing. I settled on sound, because I am a stickler for total psychological privacy. At first it was a fan; now, I use the free White Noise Lite app on my iPhone. I set it to the sound of airplane travel––a steady, polyphonous static––and I put on my admittedly oversized headphones, and my brain begins to think: I should be writing. If I find myself distracted, I turn off the sound so that I can keep the habit strong. It’s ingrained now––I am both Pavlov and his dog."
—Hanna Pylväinen, author of We Sinners (Henry Holt, 2012)
"Film is very different from fiction—I’m always reminding my graduate students of this—but every so often a movie comes along that captures with full force what you’re trying to do as a novelist. Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me is just such a movie. Quiet and character-driven, it made me want to sit down and write when I first saw it twelve years ago, and it still does that to me. My friend Joel Lovell wrote about it recently in the New York Times Magazine, which made me go back and watch it again. The scene Lovell quotes, when the character 'Terry' is talking to his young nephew, reminds me of what good fiction does, and how so much good fiction captures adults behaving like children and children, therefore, forced to behave like adults. In any case, it’s a movie that reminds me of why I’m a writer, that makes me want to get back to work, and get back to work, and get back to work some more."
—Joshua Henkin, author of The World Without You: A Novel (Pantheon, 2012)
"There are two visual artists, diametrically opposed in their intent, who I look to for inspiration. First is the photographer Gregory Crewdson. His extravagantly staged photos are mysterious and dark and often suggest relationships or the very recent loss of relationships. Crewdson, the son of a psychiatrist, has said in an interview that his work is driven by a need to imagine and understand what his father was talking to patients about in his basement office. The people in his photos appear so closed off, tight-lipped. They seem to be struggling with submerged emotions. Faced with a Crewdson image, I find myself looking for the story. On the other end of the spectrum is one of my favorite painters, Mark Rothko, who famously said that the subject of painting is painting. His colorscapes offer me a place of ease. I don’t question and wonder and strive to make a story when I stand in front of a Rothko, I just absorb and rest."
—Natalie Serber, author of Shout Her Lovely Name (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
"Lately, I have been drawing much of the inspiration for my poems from my reading of psychological case studies. I'm speaking mostly about textbooks and other source material that contain actual dialoguebetween patient and therapist. Some examples from my current reading are Danny Wedding's 'Case Studies in Psychotherapy,' Oltmanns's 'Case Studies in Abnormal Psychology,' and Freud's 'The Wolfman and Other Cases.' Besides being utterly fascinating, they give me a deep insight into the mind of some everyday and not so everyday people. I have been composing dialogue poems, which end up reading more like tiny plays. I have also been using them as inspiration for 'dream' poems. I see these case studies as being a great tool for both poets and fiction writers alike."
—M. A. Vizsolyi, author of The Lamp With Wings: Love Sonnets (Harper Perennial, 2011)
"For years, I've found inspiration by going to museums by myself. Going solo is key. When I'm with other people I'm always wondering whether they're having a good time, and whether I'm lingering too long in a gallery. One of the first poems I ever published was inspired by seeing Gustav Klimt's portrait of Mäda Primavesi at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when I was nineteen and nearly friendless in New York City. I have another poem sparked by Marc Chagall's 'The Birthday' at the MoMA. I love the Art Institute of Chicago and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I rarely ever bring a camera, but I always bring a notebook."
—Leigh Stein, author of Dispatch From the Future (Melville Books, 2012)
"I write while I run; music and my pounding feet lull me into a self-hypnosis, allowing my mind to wander and compose on its own. A good running route is scenic enough to inspire but not distract, and the music has to fit your mental labors. For The Long Walk, I listened to a lot of jangly '60s rock (The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival) and their modern equivalents (The Black Angels). The prep before the run is just as important: coffee, breakfast, and a truly good book the night before. I try to be very selective about what I read, and feed myself a steady diet of quality writing as creative food. I’ve started to avoid the newspaper, bad magazine copy, and throw-away novels during heavy writing bouts. I’m easily influenced, and I only want the best to percolate to the surface during my runs."
—Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk (Doubleday, 2012)