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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.
"My yoga and meditation practices have become such an integral part of my writing life that I can't imagine what it would be like to sit down to write without knowing that, at some point in the day, I will be able to unroll my mat and quiet my mind. Quieting the mind is, for me, the biggest challenge. We live in an age of distraction, and the very instrument on which I write is also a portal into the outside world: The Internet is addictive and I have a hard time shutting it down. During the day I ping around—from my work to a quick e-mail check, back to my work, back online to look something up, something that could really wait until later—and before I know it, even if I've gotten work done, my mind feels like that old commercial about drugs. Do you remember the one? We see an egg. This is your mind. Then the egg is cracked against a hot griddle. This is your mind on drugs. My mind on the Internet needs soothing. It needs silence. It needs space, and when I unroll my mat, I am guaranteed that silence and space. Afterward, when I return to my desk, it is with that ironed, clean, smooth clarity, as if I'm starting my day all over again."
—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion (HarperCollins, 2010)
"For almost three years now I’ve been obsessed with the work of South African photographer Roger Ballen. His photos act as a propeller for me in my writing. There is a spookiness to his work that invigorates me. He has a somewhat consistent vocabulary of objects in his photographs: small animals, primitive or childlike wall drawings, smudged human beings that seem to be the embodiment of contrast, discarded and broken down household items. I often start a story or chapter with one of his photographs and allow that image to set the tone for what I’m working on. I let those objects show up and even reoccur. I try to get into the head of the subject and imagine it a new context. I can’t imagine what my writing would look like right now without his images in my head."
—Jac Jemc, author of My Only Wife (Dzanc Books, 2012)
“From the moment a writer is attached to a story, said Saul Bellow, he or she suddenly has ‘feelers all over the place.’ So once I’m attached, I draw inspiration from what I think the character in question would read or consume. My first novel is about a fashion designer starting his own label, and through a turn of events he winds up a suspected terrorist in post-9/11 New York City. I didn’t know squat about fashion design, so I read Coco Chanel’s biography by Edmond Charles-Roux from 1975. Then came The Beautiful Fall about the rivalry between Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. Those texts inspired an alternate persona that I took on when sitting down to write. My ‘feelers’ were up, and a real person began to take shape. Once my hero was labeled an enemy combatant and sent to Guantanamo Bay, I read the only book he would be allowed, the Koran. You could call all this ‘research,’ but I don't. I find it to be more mystical than that.”
—Alex Gilvarry, author of From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant (Viking, 2012)
“Because I am an American and often worry about many things, I seek out consolation before beginning to write, and little in this world consoles me more than the male falsetto: Skip James, Jónsi Birgisson, Pepe Núñez, Roscoe Holcomb, Antony Hegarty and company. A great falsetto contains everything—vulnerability, artifice, control, tenderness, breath, hoot, indirect sexuality, finitude—but most important, it is constrained by, and therefore expresses, a sort of transgression or otherness. The male falsetto reminds me that tension among all these things is exquisite and vital—in fact, I often try to ‘hear’ my poems sung this way—and grants me permission to move beyond my usual range.”
—Paige Ackerson-Kiely, author of My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta Press, 2012)
“Pandit Pran Nath was a conduit for an understanding of Indian classical singing, and a major influence on American minimalism, whose disciples included Lamonte Young and Terry Riley. His two recordings of the deep, meditative Raga Malkauns are among the most extraordinary pieces of vocal music I’ve ever heard. Pran Nath’s voice is vast, raw, chthonic—as if granite had learned to sing. Sometimes I write listening to this music. Sometimes I have to switch it off, as I forget to type.”
—Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men (Knopf, 2012)
"When I’m in the thick of a project, the most important sources of inspiration are those that help me open the gates of reverie, that make me descend into that nonverbal realm from which potent fiction paradoxically springs. These forms of inspiration are everywhere. I listen to music. I read. I re-read, especially Faulkner, Woolf, Morrison, Lispector, Saramago, Borges, Melville, Rilke, Whitman, and many others, roving the pages with more than my conscious mind, trusting the masterful prose to push my own work open. I also take walks, and tune in to the light as it spills into trees and sparks in the gutters. The infinite complexity of light on the varied surfaces of the world is a remarkable thing. It is constantly taking place all around us, and a lifetime of writing would not exhaust it. I don’t know why this works, why listening to the interplay of light and things while walking on a street or trail is so damn good for the writing, but I always come back to my writing desk with more to give the page than I had before."
—Carolina De Robertis, author of Perla (Knopf, 2012)
“Often I thumb through animal books—the National Audubon Society’s field guides to birds and fish almost always shake something loose. For instance my poem 'Parts of a Feather' in Sagittarius Agitprop (Black Lawrence Press, 2009) was inspired by, and depends heavily on, such bird facts. While taking notes for Pot Farm (on site at a California medical marijuana farm), I paged through my eastern birds field guide, reading about the birds I would never see out West. This cleared my head, prepared me to revise my notes and cobble them together into something readable. There’s something about birds and fish in glossy books—their skeletal diagrams, their oddball mating habits—that set me to jotting something down. Right now, I’m motivated by the giant squid. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately after having seen a photo of one in the Smithsonian. Travel also inspires. Last year, my wife and I traveled through India. The car-horn culture there is interesting, and infuriating. There are no rules of the road, at least none that we could detect. Cars shared space with rickshaws; tiny mopeds bearing families of eight, the two infants propped up on the handlebars; oxen; goats; dogs; and pedestrians. Drivers had to sound their horns constantly—not in a ‘get out of my way’ or ‘hurry up’ sort of construct, but as if to declare, feebly and succinctly amid the chaos, ‘I’m here! I’m here!’—as some kind of reminder, reassurance. In writing, I think I’m beeping that horn.”
—Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Pot Farm (University of Nebraska Press, 2012)
"I don’t intentionally scrapbook for inspiration, but that always ends up happening. I will see a graphic or image, or hear a song on the radio, and start to collect them for characters whose perspectives I am about to inhabit. Because I work in text, I find my emotional motivation within these other media. For Kim, in my story collection, We Should Never Meet (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), it was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' 'American Girl.' For Cam, a character in my novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (St. Martin’s Press, 2012), it was A Fine Frenzy’s 'Almost Lover.' When I was in France over the summer, I found these writing journals with these gorgeous graphic women on the covers. I bought one for each new character in my next project. With so much of my writing up in a digital cloud, it’s nice to have these tangible elements where I can root my characters."
—Aimee Phan, author of The Reeducation of Cherry Truong
“Lately I’ve been going to the symphony for inspiration. I don’t know classical music well, so most of what happens surprises me. The long segments of developing sounds break me out of my tight verbal boxes of thought. I listen for the emotions, rhythms, and phrasing, and think about how to do this with words. Occasionally a work leaves me stunned, like Arvo Pärt’s "Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten." A single chime repeats throughout and silence is written in, reminding me to let my writing breathe. When the string sections intersect and descend through dissonance, I am carried from the announcement of death through grief to acceptance. When the last bell rings, there is clarity, as when the sky suddenly clears after a storm, and I rush home and begin to write.”
—Mark Liebenow, author of Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite (University of Nebraska Press, 2012)
“A common statement, I know, but the best stimulant for writing is reading. When it's prose, I'll turn to rich sentences from Nabokov or F. Scott Fitzgerald. If poetry, I start with the Eastern Europeans (especially Zbigniew Herbert). Otherwise, I often begin with a simple exercise I call ‘negative inversions.’ Find a one-page poem with relatively short lines. In the right-hand margin, invert each line to its opposite. I stumbled down a kudzu-choked ravine becomes I picked my way over the talislope to higher ground. Or: They bloom and loom in cities and no one notices becomes It shrivels and cowers under the tiniest shrub and somehow everyone knows. A half-dozen lines in, the poem takes off on its own and you can abandon the exercise.”
—Sarah Gorham, author of Bad Daughter (Four Way Books, 2011)