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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'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)
"My list of creativity-stimulators is long. It includes coffee, meditation, a giant hula-hoop, a standing desk, Salter, Duras, Eliot (George), Milton, Carson, Robinson, Hazzard, Gardam, Bishop, Munro, Arvo Pärt, Bach, Tristan und Isolde, baby-hugs, my gigantic compendium of Shakepeare's plays, dogs (when I have one), weeping, naps, and gratitude. But the motivator that surprises me with its potency and general infallibility is exercise, mostly of the long, slow, outdoor variety. After half an hour of semi-vigorous swimming or running, the paradox takes hold: The body falls away and you are left only with your mind, your characters, your words. The deeper I go into a project, the fitter I get. The converse is true, too: I wear my writing on my body. The flabbier I am, the more you can bet that I'm writing poorly, and the very best thing you can do for my work-in-progress is to buy me a pair of running shoes, dammit! As with everything else in life, energy in one area breeds energy in other areas."
—Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia (Hyperion, 2012)
"I recommend getting to know the time of day when you write best and guard it as zealously as possible. If you can, work day jobs that keep that time free. If that isn’t possible, which it often isn’t, try to carry a small notebook and get a couple of five-minute stretches for idea generation—if that’s impossible memorize a few lines or write on your hand. Often all we need is a few words to key in on our imagination. When you are writing I recommend stopping midthought or at a point where you know what the next move or few lines will be. I find when I do that I can start writing very quickly the next day because it gives me a way in, whereas returning to where I am stuck over and over becomes demoralizing. When refining, try reading your work in nonsensical Charlie Brown adult voice (wa, wawa, wa wawawa). It’s a good way to listen for repetitive rhythms and breath."
—Vanessa Veselka, author of Zazen (Red Lemonade, 2011)
"Mary Shelley and Louise Bourgeois. All I have to do, and I could do this every day of my writing life for the rest of my life, is open up Frankenstein to any page, or open up my book of Louise Bourgeois drawings, and my gut-heart-strum is activated. I've used single lines to enter whole territories of story, single images to chase characters. Endlessly. I turn to their work like a woman who gave herself permission to create a new lineage, a motherline-motherload lineage, where other women writers and artists and musicians make up a second world, body first. Where language and the image and the body are no longer divided from one another. A little bit I literally leave and step into their worlds, but don't tell anyone or it'll make me sound kooky. Just trust me: 'I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.'"
—Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Dora: A Headcase (Hawthorne Books, 2012)
"Viewing visual art—works that deal with ripping off the polite skin of society—stimulates me. When in that process of discovery I return again and again to the paintings of Francis Bacon, de Kooning’s women, the portraiture of the South African painter Marlene Dumas, the works of Louise Bourgeois. In recent memory, the retrospective of Glenn Ligon at the Whitney moved me—his appropriation of texts and popular culture as well as the political consciousness of his work, which is akin to one of my favorite radical writers Kathy Acker. I often wish to be stirred up, agitated, when fomenting projects, but when actually writing I need to be calm—listening to the same Haydn piano sonatas or Arvo Pärt’s choral works over and over, or being in complete silence, drinking two glasses of silver needle white tea in the AM, walking the dog, eating regular strict vegetarian meals, practicing yoga."
—Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines (Semiotext(e), 2012)
"Before I was a writer, I was a traveler; as it turned out, almost all of my stories (and unfinished novels, and bad poems, and personal essays) evolved from journeying away from home. A misunderstanding on an oppressively hot, chaotic Bangkok street; a hurried descent from the high-altitude salt plains of the Atacama desert; a tequila- and sweat-soaked salsa party in the courtyard of a Yucatan peninsula hostel; and an impromptu fly-fishing lesson in a remote, swollen Montana river have all made their way into stories. Sometimes a scrap of overheard dialogue is the spark; often it’s a character based on someone I’ve met—the driver of that Jeep in the Atacama desert, or the irate Thai police officer trying to tug the camera out of my hand. My novel, The Movement of Stars, began when I picked up a tourist flyer on the Nantucket ferry in 1996 (“Come and see the home of the famous girl astronomer from Nantucket!”). Her small, grey-shingled house; the sandy street; the image of a girl, in a grey dress, on her roof, every night, searching for something elusive in the night sky, something that would change her life: They held me in thrall for fifteen years, until the story was told. Parenthood has pretty much grounded all my flights these days, but the well of places that inspire me has yet to run dry."
—Amy Brill, author of The Movement of Stars (Riverhead, 2013)