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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.

Sarah Tomlinson

posted 5.07.15

“I’m a big believer in snacking for inspiration. When I’m really struggling with a piece of writing, I get up and make myself a snack. I don’t mean something healthy or practical. I mean a treat that is pleasurable. Like a tablespoon of almond butter with a teaspoon of raspberry jam dropped on top, eaten off the spoon. While I’m standing in my kitchen, relishing my little morsel, I seriously apply myself to solving my current writing quandary. Away from the hard edges of my desk and my computer, and the lines of prose on the page, I get caught up by the pleasure of problem solving, which for me is also the pleasure of writing. Often enough to justify my indulgence, I solve my problem in these moments, or at least find a solution I can try out. After more than two decades of workshops and classes, and reading essays and books on writing, seeking secrets and tips related to the craft, I find myself more often these days considering my favorite writers’ habits. And as I do, I wonder: ‘But what do they snack on when they write?’”
—Sarah Tomlinson, author of Good Girl (Gallery Books, 2015)

Cynan Jones

posted 4.30.15

“Writing things down can be dangerous. If I sit at the desk without a clear idea of what I want to say, I can get into all sorts of trouble. I love the physical act of writing, like a kid who's just learned to whistle loves whistling, and before I know it, I can generate pages of prose. Hours (days) can be wasted on a story that ends up trying to beat a path through an increasingly thick jungle of possibilities, dead ends, and pitfalls. I've learned it's better to stalk the story down in my head first. Over a period of months, often longer, I try to build the story block by block until it feels right. Then I write it down as if I'm remembering it. That process is quick and intense. It's about getting the story onto the page as clearly and strongly as I can. The balancing and testing of that initial writing happens afterwards, and I try to trust the instinct that made me put the words down in the first place. The process as a whole takes a long time, even if the actual 'writing down' itself doesn't. I've learned to have patience with the process, and to be patient when the writing is only happening in my head.”
—Cynan Jones, author of The Dig (Coffee House Press, 2015)

Emily Schultz

posted 4.23.15

“I think the most valuable resource for writing is confidence, since everything from the vagaries of publishing to writing itself can wear you down. When you are writing, you are so in your own head that it can be hard to know if the work is brilliant or a failure, but you have to put aside those doubts. One of my secrets to maintaining confidence is a yearly viewing of Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood. As a director in the 1950s, Ed Wood was the ultimate outsider. He made movies with zero budgets that were deeply personal, strange, and completely ignored. But his films last, even beyond camp value, because his lunatic bravery comes through every badly framed scene. Ed Wood is my Rocky and damn if the scene where Johnny Depp takes control of a film set while wearing an angora sweater isn’t more stirring than Sylvester Stallone running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Deluding yourself is part of finishing a novel and if ever you have doubt, remember Ed Wood at the premiere of Plan 9 from Outer Space: ‘This is the one. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.’”
—Emily Schultz, author of The Blondes (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015)

James Hannaham

posted 4.15.15

“I’ve told my students in the past that writing is 90 percent procrastination. Very little of it involves actually sitting at a computer or scratching letters into a notebook; the thinking part comprises the majority of the work. Embracing that principle has kept me from going cross-eyed while frowning into the blue screen of an empty Microsoft Word document at 4:00 AM in an attempt to will some compelling character or situation to leap into life. It always helps to have a plan before you sit down and wrack your brain. But if you find yourself in such a jam, go do anything else. Take a walk. Exercise. Go sit in a café and watch people. Sketch. Write longhand on paper if you normally use a computer, and vice versa. If you become particularly blocked, consider doing something you would never do. Not something you hate, just choose an activity that you wouldn’t normally think to try: Go to an event you wouldn’t usually bother with. Get outside of yourself and your routine a little. In the past, I’ve taken a commuter train to a town I’d never visited before, and I once went on a birdwatching tour of New York’s East River in a ferry. From the water, I saw the city utterly transformed, full of new possibilities.”
—James Hannaham, author of Delicious Foods (Little, Brown, 2015)

Sandra Lim

posted 4.09.15

“Temperamentally, I set great store by orderliness for inspiration. I like a clean kitchen, a well-made bed, and a tidy desk before I start writing. Sometimes the orderliness gets sinister—not only because of the oft-made charge of procrastination, but also because once everything is collected, clean, and cheerful, a space suddenly appears for the spirit to wilt, the intelligence to become disenchanted. But philosophically, I tend to hold to it. As Gustave Flaubert advises: ‘Be well-ordered in your life, and as ordinary as a bourgeois, in order to be violent and original in your work.’ I write in bursts, and the rest of the time I’m filling the well. I read widely, deeply, and indiscriminately. I watch lots of movies, I clean, I feel at the mercy of my longings (though I take notes), I listen to music, I daydream, I make lists, but mostly I read. Suddenly I’ll want to be clear about something, and then I know I’m itching to write. Part of being well-ordered for me is simply to wake up very early, make the coffee (I enjoy this so much), and stay at my desk until I feel a little freedom from vagueness.”
—Sandra Lim, author of The Wilderness (Norton, 2014)

Matt Sumell

posted 4.02.15

“Look, I’m far from military material. Undisciplined, hate authority, my ethics—perverted. But there is one military tenant I can and do get behind every time I sit down to write, and you probably know it already: ‘Embrace the suck.’ It’s going to suck, you guys. Big time. The sooner you accept that and get on with it anyway, the sooner you’re done. Why prolong your own suffering? Instead, treat it like a job. And that is trick number one: Buy a time clock. Although a bit noisy, I like the old school ones with the punch cards. Put your hours in. Two or three hours a day, whether you feel like it or not. And now that I’ve got you working, do what I do when I’m working: avoid working. Kind of. For whatever reason, writing a personal e-mail is infinitely less intimidating than a page of prose. Sometimes—when I get and stay stuck—I take some pressure off by opening up an e-mail window and writing in there instead. It helps me to think there’s less at stake. If that doesn’t do it, I change locations: desk to kitchen table, kitchen table to couch, couch to closet. I really like a dark, enclosed space. Something about it lends itself to daydreaming.”
—Matt Sumell, author of Making Nice (Henry Holt, 2015)

Tania James

posted 3.26.15

“If you were to glance over the chaos across my desk—inkless pens, paperbacks, an infant toothbrush—you might miss the object I count most valuable: a plastic rainbow-colored slinky. For years, whenever I found myself blocked, I’d pick up the slinky and toss it from hand to hand while walking in circles around my room. Maybe it’s the repetition of the sound, the shuffling of springs, but my mind burrows inside the world I’m building, unobliged to form an elegant sentence. I like elegant sentences, but my initial attempts are almost always doomed. So instead, I begin by thinking about characters, moving with them through a maze of what-ifs. Situations unfold, a left turn takes me by surprise. I don’t enjoy the same focus when I go for a walk outside; my imagination seems to work better within tighter physical boundaries. I realize that my attachment to the slinky is two parts Pavlovian and one part superstition, but there’s a whole lot of mystery where writing is concerned. Maybe engaging in a certain kind of physical activity—meditative, yet constrained—helps to quiet the traffic moving round my brain, to open a way forward. Or maybe it’s the magic of the slinky.”
—Tania James, author of The Tusk That Did the Damage (Knopf, 2015)

Elisa Albert

posted 3.19.15

“Above my desk, some talismans: ‘The Floor Scrapers’ by Gustave Caillebotte. I saw it when I was fourteen at the Musee D’Dorsay. The play of light on the floor got my attention, then it kept opening: What are the two on the right saying? Whose apartment is it, and will the people who live there feel the presence of this work when it’s done? Regardless, here are occupied bodies on a given day. Here is sweat and companionship, craftsmanship, dedication, destruction, rehabilitation. Attention to detail. Getting the job done. Next, an old photograph of anonymous huddled masses, disembarking from steerage in New York City in the early-twentieth century. Ancestors are like celebrities: They don’t know me, can only imagine me, but I know them, or want to think I do. My existence is in conversation with theirs. Then, a drawing from Orli Auslander’s ‘I Feel Bad’ series: ‘I Insist It’s Not PMS,’ which reminds me to laugh at myself, because if you can laugh at yourself, life and work will be joyful. Finally, a picture of my husband holding our son. Stare at these things for a while, or fail to see them because they’re always there. Some days, recognition and renewal. Some days, blindness. Regardless, onward: I have work to do. Lucky me.”
—Elisa Albert, author of After Birth (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Monica Ong

posted 3.12.15

“My reality consists of full-time work, parenting, family, friends, and a laptop full of clients. When to write? One shift I made was to identify my ‘golden hour,’ the most conducive time of day for creative risk-taking, making, and doing. My husband is a night owl, but for me, it’s 4:00 AM to 6:00 AM. Everyone’s asleep, I’m freshly energized and not yet cluttered with the day’s noise. I make a list of no more than three goals to focus on so I can hit the ground running and make the most of it. I safeguard it from distraction or external requests, and show up adequately fed, with childcare covered. Outside of the ‘golden hour,’ I feed my writing with weekly self-care (zumba and yoga) and centering practices like chanting and meditation to help me prioritize playful messy progress over perfection. I obsessively watch modern dance (Pina) and choreography videos (Yanis Marshall, Jabbawockeez!) to observe how ordinary movements are deconstructed and reinterpreted into deliberate forms and primal gestures. But nothing beats the act of encouraging another human being: picking up the phone, or even better, meeting face to face over tea and cookies. Encouraging someone is how we exercise our most important assets: paying attention, listening, telling stories, braving the front lines of human struggle, and participating in shared vulnerability.”
—Monica Ong, author of Silent Anatomies (Kore Press, 2015)

Alice Eve Cohen

posted 3.05.15

“Years ago, a friend told me that she thinks of writer’s block as ‘fallow time,’ the season the farmer leaves the field unsown so that crops can grow more productively (I’m a city girl; I had to look it up). I’ve had some long fallow seasons—months, years—when I haven’t been able to start the story that’s burning inside of me. In retrospect, I realize that I wasn’t ready. But a writer has to write. So how do you start again after an extended dormant period? These strategies have worked for me: Try this prompt. Have your character reveal a secret she’s never told anybody before. The two-page secret I wrote a year ago won’t be in my book, but it got me started; I’m three hundred pages in. Invent deadlines. Mine have included: I must finish this essay by four o’clock today; I’ve promised to send a new piece to my writers group next week. Go out and be with nature. I live in New York City, where we are chronically nature-deprived. I’m lucky to live near Central Park. I have a favorite spot, overlooking the lake. It looks like the Adirondacks, with loads of wildlife and no traffic noise. Being there wakes up my imagination and makes me happy. Squelch your inner critic. If you have trouble, read and reread Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Anchor, 1995), for her profound and hilariously funny take on doing battle with that self-judging voice. I keep the book permanently on my bedside table.”
—Alice Eve Cohen, author of The Year My Mother Came Back (Algonquin, 2015)

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