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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 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)
“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)
“I am writing a serialized novel in the form of a Korean drama right now. If you aren’t familiar with them, Korean dramas are sort of all the rage in Asia. They’re melodramatic. They’re romantic. They have end points and clear arcs. When they are working well, they’re like watching sixteen-hour movies. Sometimes, I feel as if they are the perfect length to adapt a novel. I am doing the opposite. I am writing a book that will appear in sixteen episodes, twice per week, on the schedule these shows usually run, with illustrations. So far, writing this way has made me wish I could write for actors, for hundred-million-dollar budgets. It has been a process of limitations. But limitations have always bred creativity, in my opinion. Limitations are why these Korean dramas seem so much more satisfying to me than American TV shows, which often have one good season and then stretch on ad nauseum. I am inspired by what we can do if we’re told we have to stop. Here’s a quick list of Korean TV dramas if you’re interested: Secret Garden, Coffee Prince, The Greatest Love, and City Hunter.”
—Matthew Salesses, author of I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2013)
“Each of my novels has been unlocked by a song. Early on in the first draft I’ll hear a song—often one I’ve already known for a while—and there’ll be a sort of clicking into place, a physical sensation, and just like that I’ll have a much deeper understanding of a character or of the book as a whole. For The Revolution of Every Day it was “Stevie Nix” by The Hold Steady. For my new one, it’s “This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case. I love that, the way art feeds art. A conversation, all of us in it together.”
—Cari Luna, author of The Revolution of Every Day (Tin House Books, 2013)
“German composer Hauschka, a.k.a Volker Bertelmann, is a practitioner of the ‘prepared piano,’ a technique where the player places objects on the strings of the piano so as to alter the sound. Hauschka will wrap the piano hammers in aluminum foil, for example, or attach binder clips to certain strings. For some performances, he tops the strings with ping-pong balls, which pop and bounce within the hollow of the piano. On later albums, Hauschka has increasingly included additional instrumentation (often violin and cello, as on his excellent Ferndorf record), but most often I come back to his earlier ones (Substantial, The Prepared Piano) where the technique is more clearly on display. While the preparations are meticulous, there is always an unpredictability to how the objects will react to the struck note, and this is what I admire about the technique: the surrendering of control. It is something I try to emulate in my own writing process, a willingness to listen to how the words and images are bouncing off one another on the page in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.”
—Ian Stansel, author of Everybody's Irish (Five Chapters, 2013)
“I have lots of writing rituals, but the most important time for me is late at night, when I have no business being up. Night is when the children are asleep and only insomniacs are sending e-mails. I turn on Self-Control, so I can’t compulsively check e-mail, and I listen to electronic music. Every Boards of Canada album has been a backdrop to every book I’ve ever written, but I also really like the IDM channel on Pandora. Burial or Disclsoure on Spotify—music drowns out the crazy voices in my head that try and derail me.
“I have a giant handmade notebook that I write into only with very sharpened pencils, and I let myself write whatever comes into my head, even if it’s crazy, inappropriate, or bad, whatever that means because in my mind, revising is writing. This preliminary work is like mixing the materials to make the clay.
“I write in bed, too, which is probably shortening my life, but is the only place I can write. I surround myself with books that serve as muses and talismans, voices to guide me.”
—Carmen Giménez Smith, author of Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press, 2013)
“I’ll sometimes sit at my writing table and watch the trees outside—the play of sunlight and shade in their leaves. It instantly takes me back. Back to afternoons as a kid, walking home from school down a leafy street. Back to the half-year I spent in the Oregon woods in my twenties. And somehow that momentary plunge into memory puts me in touch with the mystery that compels me to write in the first place. I feel ready. Receptive. What words do I want to send tumbling down through the years like sunlight in a red maple?”
—Steve Edwards, author of Breaking into the Backcountry (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
“I’ve had numerous writing rituals over the years. They’ve tended to change as my life circumstances have changed, but they always revolve around two key ingredients: silence and geography. I cannot hear my own voice when my mind is cluttered, and what constitutes clutter could fill a small book. It includes, at its most basic, people, dogs, telephones, televisions, construction equipment, sirens, and the Internet (by which I mean the whole mind-numbing-soul-sucking-time-wasting thing). I’ve also learned that I have a much easier time dropping into that quiet place when I am in certain specific locations or doing certain things. When I’m writing poetry, and the weather permits, my preferred spot is my front stoop, where I can stare off into the middle distance to my heart’s content, risking only the occasional questioning stare of a mystified neighbor. When writing fiction, or forced inside by the elements, I often start my day by re-reading what I’ve written the day before, then closing my eyes and drifting into that limbo between sleep and wakefulness. Other generally foolproof kick-starters: long drives and long showers—neither of which is good for the environment but both of which have paid for themselves in killer first lines.”
—Kim Triedman, author of The Other Room (Owl Canyon Press, 2013)
“When I’m stuck, I paint or I draw. Or I cook. Or I garden—or I redecorate a room. I get away from words, but not away from creativity. It’s a way to keep those energies moving and alive, without the particular worries about content that writing can carry. And also, because none of those activities are my profession, they help me relocate the playfulness and pleasure that disappear when I feel creatively anxious or empty.
I also always keep a note nearby: No one has to read a word I write. It’s important to combat self-censoring whenever possible.”
—Robin Black, author of Life Drawing, A Novel (Random House, 2014)
“Nothing helps my writing, or makes me want to write, more than driving alone on lonely roads. That’s when I turn up the music—radio, scanning the stations for the surprise of what might get played. Something about this combination, the driving, the music, the landscape, feels generative. I’m currently working on my second nonfiction book and I’m pretty sure it started in the car, Howard Jones singing ‘No One Is to Blame,’ bringing me back, like it or not, to the sorrows of seventh grade. Songs, like food, like movies—signposts of culture, aspiration, childhood—seem always to find themselves in my work. Recent inspirations include Cyndi Lauper, ‘Time After Time,’ REO Speedwagon, ‘Keep on Lovin’ You,” Fleetwood Mac, ‘Never Going Back Again,” Poison, ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” Mark Morrison, ‘Return of the Mack,’ When in Rome, ‘The Promise,’ Prince, ‘Purple Rain.’”
—Bich Minh Nguyen, author of Pioneer Girl (Viking Penguin, 2014)