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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 keep going back to Flannery O’Connor’s quote: ‘The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where the human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions.’ An exercise that I often give my fiction students (because it works for me) is to jot down the five senses on a piece of paper, then go for a walk and collect as many details as I can that correspond to sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. The second part of the assignment is that during this walk, there’s no talking allowed. Great writers are really great noticers of life. You can’t come up with beautiful words and sentences if they aren’t somehow rooted in the kind of detail that can only be gleaned from life by becoming incredibly still and focused. It’s a state of being in the world that’s become increasingly rare and hard to achieve, but not impossible.”
—Aaron Hamburger, author of Faith for Beginners (Random House, 2006)
“I write in the mornings. Pre-breakfast, post-sending kids off to school. Just me and my computer on the porch, a cup of instant coffee and sad to say, the odd cigarette. I’m very particular about the mug I choose for my coffee—it seems to forecast the writing mood I’m in that day. Some favorites are my ‘Write Like a Motherfucker,’ ordered from the Rumpus, or the mustard yellow one with ‘Dagmara’ painted on it, which I bought in Poland, or a ceramic one I made for my husband when we first started dating.
"No music. No people. Just me and my mug.
"Most other inspiration lies in my past, and, like most first-time novelists, I write what I know. Or what I remember. And when I’m stuck, when my own memory fails to ignite anything worthy, I mine old photographs. Black-and-white family photos. My grandmother leaning on a telephone pole next to a dapper gentleman who I know was not my grandfather, her wavy hair falling lazily over one eye. Cobblestones in the background. That kind of thing. Each photo becomes a mystery to unravel, a launching pad, a kernel of an idea. Sometimes I look at photos of myself as a kid, buckteeth and shy smile, the unfortunate zigzag set of my bangs across my forehead. I imagine that girl as someone other than myself, and sometimes if I’m lucky, a story unfolds.”
—Dagmara Dominczyk, author of The Lullaby of Polish Girls (Spiegel & Grau, 2013)
“This is going to sound very meta, but when I need a kick in the pants I like to read author interviews. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than eavesdropping on another writer talking shop. Writing books is oftentimes a solitary, lonely process. Authors discussing their own processes gives me a sense of connectedness to a larger community that extends hundreds of years into the past. It’s helpful to know you’re not alone. I’m particularly fond of book-length conversations, such as David Lipsky’s portrait of David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and Lady Blessington’s Conversations With Lord Byron. In fact, the longer the interview, the longer I can procrastinate from returning to my work-in-progress. Speaking of which…”
—Andrew Shaffer, author of Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors (Harper Perennial, 2013)
“I feel very boring admitting that my biggest inspiration for writing novels is reading…novels. I spent four and a half years working on what will be my first published (and second completed) novel. During that time, I developed a habit of turning to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I could flip to any page of either for evidence of what makes them so terrific—the sheer density of smart observations (ideas that another writer would hang a whole chapter on a single one, in these books, follow each other in crackling succession), the deft prose, the intelligence, perspective and humor that is brought to bear on almost every character, no matter how mercilessly dissected. (Well, humor is in short supply in Revolutionary Road, but that lack is counterbalanced by Yates’s terrifically exacting eye for self-deception and affectation.) I keep both books on my desk always, along with Middlemarch.”
—Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (Henry Holt, 2013)
“Is it old fashioned to recommend love as a writing prescription? I could say a lot about the mind-quieting effects of long-distance running, regular meditation, and a well-crafted soundtrack, but what about the mind-blooming madness of love? I’m talking about the crazy kind, not the long-suffering wife who silently delivers tea to your desk and keeps your calendar. I’m talking about a heart torn open, in falling, in breaking, in longing, in pining, in mid-swoon mania. A little mania has always done wonders for artists, in work if not in life. If we met our characters with the endless curiosity we bring to our lovers’ bodies, we could hardly fail to conjure them in all dimensions. If we could direct love’s inexhaustible obsession, its hunger for possession to our language, how could we not hammer it to perfection? Passion is the desire to consume what we cannot, not completely. And writing is the effort to name what we cannot, not exactly. The agony of their impossibility is what drives us, so why not drive one into the other? So long as I’m not driven to distraction, I find they make an industrious pair.”
—Melissa Febos, author of Whip Smart (Thomas Dunne Books, 2011)
"I'm an extrovert. I talk to strangers at Target, to telemarketers too. When I can't find an actual person I turn to Twitter. When the Wi-Fi’s down, I watch TV. I live for voices. Of course, as a writer I need silence, so I impose it on myself. I take long walks, aimless drives. But when the walk turns into a neighborly chat or the drive ends in a flat tire, I come home and shower until the water runs out. And that is where I do my best work, where I puzzle out characters and timelines. Where nothing can reach me, no phone, no e-mail. A shower is, in this technological world, the only place I can force myself to be truly alone."
—Laurel Snyder, author of The Myth of the Simple Machines (No Tell Books, 2007)
"While, like most writers, I gain all kinds of inspiration from reading and movies and art and music, what often inspires me most is silence and a dark room. I love to sit in a dark room, especially late at night, with nothing to distract me. I wait to see where my imagination might take me. With nothing to distract—no television, no online procrastination—with only my imagination and a still, quiet room, I tend to find the answers to problems I might be having in a given story or essay. I find new ways of thinking about how to tell a story. I learn new things about the characters I'm writing and the places I put them in. We really underestimate how much creative inspiration can be found in ourselves."
—Roxane Gay, author of An Untamed State (Grove/Atlantic, 2014)
"Like lots of fiction writers, I rely on research to reduce the odds of embarrassing myself. I don’t want to, say, have the wrong flowers in bloom at the wrong time in the wrong place or get everything wrong about whales or guano harvesting or France. Even one lonely mistake can ruin the reader’s willingness to participate in the illusion of fiction, and I’m not into making things harder for myself. That said, I might be galloping along, churning out the pages (or, okay, sentences), when an uncertainty arises and suddenly I'm wallowing in a Wikipedia bog that gets deeper and wider the further in I go. Links lead to other links lead to actual books. I wade out toward the edge of the Internet; I consult my ever more crowded shelf of odd, specialized reference volumes; I might go to the library. Research slows down writing, but sometimes a little drag is a good thing. Often while looking up the answer to one question, I stumble across an unrelated detail or a chronological coincidence that changes the course of my story and gives it new life. Research gives you the chance to be a magpie, spotting those irresistibly shiny bits and pieces. Grab what you need and then grab what strikes your fancy; take it all back to your nest; get back to work."
—Maggie Shipstead, author of Seating Arrangements (Knopf, 2012)
"I'm a city girl. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and I've spent my entire adult life living in cities (Moscow, London, Amsterdam, New York, and now Washington again). I love big cities for the energy, the people-watching, the access to art and culture, the ability to feel anonymous. But I also need a daily 'forest bath,' as the Japanese call it. I take a long walk in the woods almost every day to clear my head. (In Moscow, I walked in wooded parks; in London, I went to Hampstead Heath; in Amsterdam, I walked in the Amsterdamse Bos; in Brooklyn, I was in Prospect Park every day; now my daily walk is in Rock Creek Park.) I've been doing this for years. There is something about being on the trails, in the silence, under all those trees that does wonders for my brain. (A couple of years ago, The New York Times noted the health benefits of 'forest bathing': apparently time spent among trees and plants reduces stress and boosts immune function.) I take my dog with me and sometimes I sort out character and plot problems on my walks. But more often than not, the walk is just a way to let go—of anxiety, of ego—and recharge my creative batteries. I always work better after I've been in the woods."
—Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them (The Penguin Press, 2013)
"On Saturdays I go look at art, partly because I wish I had become a visual artist. I’m not looking for narrative work, just powerful images that will push me out of my storytelling head. Abstract artists like Thomas Nozkowski and Jorge Pardo make me happy, while Georg Baselitz and Ida Applebroog hint that I shouldn’t envy their vocation. I think they want to tell stories, too. On nights before I write I absorb some great sentences that I’ll rearrange or just steal when I write the next day. I look at Isaac Babel’s short stories, or Leonard Michaels’ short stories, or pages from RK Narayan’s novels, especially Waiting for the Mahatma. I also look at this fiction because I’m always trying to regain access to what made me want to be a writer—the emotional curiosity part, not the full-of-rage part. And then when I sit down to write I listen to country music that’s really storytelling, like anything by Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings. I love their songs but as I work, I’m looking forward to the moment when I don’t hear the words anymore."
—Ben Schrank, author of Love Is a Canoe (Sarah Crichton Books, 2013)