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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.
"Whenever I’m feeling stuck or stale in my writing, I find that the proverbial walk in the woods offers everything from relief to inspiration. When my subject is too raw, I’m soothed by the solitude of the forest—solitude meaning alone without the page staring me in the face. When I feel like my writing is lacking texture or isn’t visual enough, I get outside and try to run through all my senses—what scents are in the air? What sounds? Getting my legs moving, feeling the prickerbushes rip at my arms, the sharp glare of the sun or snap of wind in my face all offer a physicality that jolts me out of the rote rhythm of writing, that computer cocoon. My husband, Mark Milroy, is an artist and I also like to look at his landscapes for this same awakening effect. I call him a nonfiction painter and I know firsthand most of the views where he paints his landscapes. Yet I am always astounded by what he sees. His work has changed the way I see—the layering of hills, the purple of a field, the strange rectangular angle of an oncoming ocean wave. His skies are never simply blue, his grass never simply green. It took me a while to realize the same is true in real life—a fundamental realization for a nonfiction writer!"
—Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town (PublicAffairs, 2008)
"I’m not so much interested in things like plot and character and pacing and all that other literary nonsense, but rather the discrete quanta with which those things are built: Words. I like that the little music in a single word can, by its placement, or its very presence, beautify or corrupt the sentence that bears it; that the resulting sentence can test the truth of its paragraph, the paragraph of its page, the page of its chapter, and so on, until the success of an entire work seems to hinge on the single word by which the writer was originally seduced. Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic. But you see where I’m going with this. A punchy gem found in, say, a dictionary of eighteenth-century maritime slang can be as inspiring for me as the rhythms in The Waste Land can inspire other writers; a fun new word—something like 'mimp' or 'pourparlers'—can even pull me out of the oblivion of a long stretch of writer’s block, and make a blank sheet of paper seem no longer infinite and forbidding, but bright, open, and invitational."
—Bill Cotter, author of The Parallel Apartments (McSweeney's Books, 2014)
"I’ve actually found Twitter to be a strange and exciting writing device. I love the way it makes me think about text without context, content in spite of intent, form without formality. As a writer who likes to experiment with words (because otherwise what would be the point?), the sentences Twitter helps me to generate feel weirdly impactful. I resisted Twitter for so long because I thought it was nothing but meaningless promotion, and yes, that can be distracting, especially when I’m wondering how many people will get excited about a post that declares 'ONLY MEN HAVE FACES,' but I suppose only time will tell."
—Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, author of The End of San Francisco (City Lights, 2013)
"Most of the poetry I’ve written since 2008 has been written to the music of the band The Be Good Tanyas, specifically the album Hello Love and more specifically the song “Human Thing.” This song gets me into the clear-eyed and serious yet also kind of woozy/dreamy headspace I need to be in to write my poems. I can play that song on repeat for three hours and never get tired of it, its lazy downshifts and slow building pleasure. The entire album is truly amazing, bluesy and folksy and very deeply felt. It has been a big part of my creative process for almost six years now. It's a writing ritual I treasure."
—Carrie Murphy, author of Pretty Tilt (Keyhole Press, 2012) and Fat Daisies, forthcoming in December from Big Lucks Books.
“In addition to reading, I generate narrative nonfiction by wandering around. I stroll downtown and through populated neighborhoods in search of an interesting person, a dramatic event, an unexpected interaction, a surprise sighting. I’m not searching for a scoop. I want something that fascinates me so much that it demands further exploration and documentation. What are people saying? What are people doing? This is the world at this moment in human history. How does it look? The idea sounds so simple, but to recognize the familiar as fertile, it helps to suspend our resident identity and re-enter our hometown as a visitor.”
—Aaron Gilbreath, author of A Secondary Landscape (Future Tense Books, 2013)
“Like many writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, so I sometimes get stuck in the echo chamber of my own brain. The best remedy I’ve found, and the fastest way to inject new energy into my work, is eavesdropping on others. I go to a cafe, settle down with some tea, and listen to the conversations around me. My favorite coffee shop has a group of elderly regulars whose discussions range from the hilarious to the profound: one day, they may rehash poignant memories of their childhoods; another day, I might hear, ‘You don’t hear much about Princess Diana these days, do you?’ ‘Er—Princess Diana died.’ ‘Did she? What a pity. Recently?’ Sometimes I hear actual material to use in stories, but more often, the act of eavesdropping itself is transformative. Whether the topic is politics, the state of someone’s marriage, or the new sandwich guy with the facial tattoo, listening to others talk gets me focused on people again: their myriad and idiosyncratic interests, their biases and blind spots, all that they conceal and reveal—on purpose and accidentally—as they gossip and confide and debate. People and their relationships are the root of fiction, and an hour quietly listening is often just what I need to get myself going again.”
—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2013)
“When I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’ve been overwriting. That’s when I take a break and watch clips of stand-up comedians. Essayists and comedians are, in my opinion, doing pretty much the same work, but most of the time comedians do it better. I watch a lot of Louis C. K. and a lot of Patrice O’Neal. There’s one Richard Pryor bit where he talks about setting himself on fire while freebasing that is so stunningly open and vulnerable. It’s the best personal essay I’ve ever encountered, without trying to be. Lately, I’ve been obsessed with this joke that Mo’Nique did during a performance at a women’s prison. It involves fellatio and grape soda and it’s just perfect. She’s a brilliant writer, but it feels like she doesn’t care at all if anybody notices that fact. She makes me remember how fun language is and that makes me want to try again, even if I’ll just get frustrated and have to redo the routine three more times before lunch.”
—Lucas Mann, author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon, 2013)
“I tend to work in bursts where I’ll write a lot of fairly polished work in a short amount of time. When I’m not in that mode, I use a notebook all the time to record what I see, read, think; to work out structural problems that are keeping me from writing; to take down ideas for future work. I also use these notebooks to collect objects—plant matter, stickers, scraps of paper or fabric—that accumulate in my daily life. Later, when I come back to the notebooks during a dry spell, I’m reminded vividly of where I was and what was happening when I made these observations or affixed those dried leaves to a page. The notebook makes me remember (on my best days) that writing isn’t just the thing that happens at the computer when I finally make a story or poem: it’s an ongoing process made up of many, many small gestures that accumulate over time to make the work.”
—Éireann Lorsung, author of Her book (Milkweed Editions, 2013)
“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)
“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)