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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.

Rachel Cantor

posted 7.17.13

“I write fiction but I find inspiration in stray facts, mostly when I’m not looking for it. I wander in books, in magazines; I go to odd exhibits and miscellaneous lectures; I try to stay open and curious. I learned about Isaac the Jew from a book that caught my eye in some library stacks: in 801 C.E. he transported an elephant from Baghdad to the emperor Charlemagne, passing a winter in Vercelli because snow kept him from crossing the Alps. How absurd! How interesting! How lonely. He became a character in one of my favorite stories. I learned about the unreadable Voynich manuscript in my alumni magazine (!)—how cool is that, an unreadable manuscript? The Voynich became a major element in my forthcoming novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario. I file these oddities in my brain or in a notebook, where they amuse me even if I don’t end up using them.”
—Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa-Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (Melville House, 2014)

Alethea Black

posted 7.10.13

“When I lived in NYC, my writing ritual was to ride the city bus. My favorite was the M104, which had both an uptown and a crosstown leg. Sometimes I’d ride all the way to the end of the line and back. I loved being on a journey to nowhere, a little higher than the other cars and pedestrians, completely free of the usual to-do-list urgencies. I think it gave me a sense of timelessness. Also, it helped me see the world with a child’s eyes (when is one more purely a passenger than in childhood?). I pay a lot of attention to beauty and musicality when I write, but I also like plot—stories where something actually happens—and I think I borrowed energy from the act of moving through space. It was funny, though, because I enjoyed it so much that sometimes I’d be out with people, see a bus go by, and think: “I want to be on it.” Now that I’ve moved upstate, writing in a moving car isn’t as easy (or as cheap), but my ever-present tape recorder helps. I also escape pedestrian life with Smith Magazine and their wonderful six-word stories—the narrative equivalent of the world flashing by your bus window—where I’ve placed my own six-word memoir of the writing life: ‘Turned my struggle into my song.’”
—Alethea Black, author of I Knew You'd Be Lovely (Broadway Books, 2011)

Nichole Bernier

posted 7.03.13

“When the well is dry, for me, it’s usually more about attitude than inspiration or lack of inspiration. It seems to me so much of writing is about courage, writing something so raw you don’t want to say it aloud. That’s how I felt writing unmotherly thoughts in my first novel, and feel now writing about desperation in my second. The key to moving forward is breaking through whatever is holding me back, which is usually being a Good Girl, lined up in a multigenerational kick line with Good Daughter and Good Mother. I need to remind myself that being the mother of five in the suburbs might mean being responsible and routinized in a million small ways, but it doesn’t have to define me to the core. The antidote is being a badass in some small way, like sitting up on our pitched roof at night, or listening to “Jane Says” in the elementary-school car line. I have three leather bracelets, black and grey bands that wind around my right forearm, and when I put them on it feels like channeling superpowers. It’s important to find a small way to go off the reservation, even in the car line. Especially in the car line.”
—Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. (Crown, 2012)

Jillian Lauren

posted 6.26.13

“This does not count as writing time: e-mail, Facebook, ordering another J. Crew cardigan, watching YouTube videos of that cute heavy metal band of eleven-year-old kids in New York, or anything involving cat pictures. This does count as writing time: lying on the floor of your office listening to Elliott Smith's Either/Or. Poetic, hypnotic, massively screwed-up and beautiful—this album reminds us that even with the most despairing work, creation itself is a light in the darkness. Handle with care because Either/Or stirs up the deepest kind of mojo. I never listen to it when I'm actually writing, because I find the lyrics distracting. For a soundtrack, I prefer Phillip Glass's Etudes for Piano. Try it. Wear your glasses. You'll feel smart!”
—Jillian Lauren, author of Pretty (Plume, 2011)

Sarah Bruni

posted 6.19.13

“I read aloud. This can make writing anywhere besides at home nearly impossible. I envy those who write in cafés, but each time I try it myself, I only eavesdrop. Reading aloud, I become more emotionally invested in the moment I’m trying to create; I feel present in the dialogue, so I’m more likely to hear the response to something a character has said, rather than force it. I read aloud slowly and deliberately. If I have a particularly productive morning writing, I’ll often have a slightly sore throat in the afternoon from all that talking to myself. When hearing fragments from something I’m working on doesn’t help guide me, I read aloud the work of writers I admire—Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Italo Calvino, George Saunders, Roberto Bolaño, Joan Didion—writers whose language offers a kind of borrowed rhythm to embrace and articulate for a while. And when that doesn’t work, I go for a walk, a run, a bike ride—some outside activity, preferably in the sun and surrounded by the movement of other people, and I try again the next day.”
—Sarah Bruni, author of The Night Gwen Stacy Died (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013)

Royal Young

posted 6.12.13

“I grew up on New York’s derelict Lower East Side in the early ’90s when it was still a neighborhood full of dangerous beauty. Hydrants blasted jets of water into the streets in summer heat and rap music pumped from project windows. I fell in love, but was also scared by the rugged poetry of hip hop. As one of the only white, Jewish bookworms in my elementary school classes I found I could impress my classmates with poems and drawings. My father was an artist turned social worker and I learned early that art and writing was about thrilling escape. Memories of cars blasting bass-heavy beats into the wild downtown nights never left me. Those violently longing, lounging, laughing lyrics about making your own luck the hard way infused my early short stories. Rap like Mobb Deep, Nas and 50 Cent still inspires me. The hustle, intensity, and ferocity of these New York ghetto heroes who have made their lives into myths are constant reminders to me to take no prisoners with my words.”
—Royal Young, author of Fame Shark (Heliotrope Books, 2013)

Jessica Francis Kane

posted 6.05.13

“I recommend writing in libraries, and I highly recommend changing the table, reading room, and even library you’re working in often. Change of venue is a powerful and perhaps under-appreciated creative force. I don’t know why it should be this way, but if I’m stuck on a project I find that if I pick myself up and work somewhere new, the words begin to flow again. I’ll work in one place for a long time—for two years I worked on the 8th floor of Bobst Library overlooking Washington Square Park; I finished and edited my first novel there. I loved that space and knew everything about its moods and shifts of light during those years. But now that room is entirely associated with my novel and I’m much happier these days on the first floor near the reference desk, or in a different place all together. I read once that John Updike had a room for writing fiction and a different room for writing nonfiction. I suppose what I do is a version of that, but I don’t have enough space in my apartment. I make due with public spaces and whether it is the different walk to get there or the different people I see and overhear along the way, I find the change of venue always refreshes and inspires me.”
—Jessica Francis Kane, author of This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013)

Fiona Maazel

posted 5.29.13

“I don’t actually look for inspiration. I look for ways to recoup the joy of writing when that joy is lost to me. Whenever I find myself stuck or just without any ideas, it’s because I seem to have forgotten how incredibly fun it is to mess around with words. So to remind myself, I read. But not just anything. I have to read fiction that is exuberant—not in content but style. Writers who howl on the page so loudly, you can hear them for miles. Barry Hannah and Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor and Angela Carter. Jose Saramago and Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy. Faulkner. Joy Williams. Annie Proulx and Nicholson Baker. Writers whose work feels alive and fresh and a little nuts, so that before long, I'll start to feel more alive, too. Alive to possibility, which is generally when I start typing.”
—Fiona Maazel, author of Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press, 2013)

Rich Ferguson

posted 5.22.13

“Prominently displayed on my writing desk is an index card on which I’ve written a quote by my dear friend, and boss at the Nervous Breakdown, Brad Listi. Some years ago, when I was at a creative low point—allowing the criticism of others to question my abilities as a writer—Brad told me: “Refuse to be denied or broken.” I often return to those words. They remind me that to be a poet or writer is not a passive act. Every day we must break through walls of self-doubt and denial. Stand our ground. Let our voices be heard. Not so much to challenge the caustic critics, but to tell a damn good story, write a heart-seizing poem. And in the process, perhaps battle and tame a few of our demons along the way.”
—Rich Ferguson, author of 8th & Agony (Punk Hostage Press, 2013)

Leigh Newman

posted 5.15.13

“I’m pretty much a workhorse. I write everyday whether I’m inspired or not. Getting started is never the problem; it’s getting finished. When I get stuck mid story or essay (a regular occurrence), I put on my running shoes and head out. I’m a terrible runner—awkward, slow, and sweaty. But I run my guts out, as fast as I can for a far as I can. During this very labored experience, I picture something from childhood: My dad used to practice bow and arrow in the backyard. He felt I had to know how to do this too, so I spent a not insignificant amount of Alaskan summer evenings trying to manage a compound bow sufficiently enough to hit a bullseye nailed to a bale of hay by the shed. As I run and run, that old childhood arrow shuttles though my mind and hits the target with a satisfying thunk. I have no idea what this daydream/memory does or what it cleans out, but usually when I come back to the story or essay, I have some idea that will permit me to avoid the boring, embarrassing path I was about to take before leaving the desk.”
—Leigh Newman, author of Still Points North (Dial Press, 2013)

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