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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.
“The balled up, impossible-to-unkink tangle of pain and joy that is family fuels a great deal of my writing. The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reminds us: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” I never want my writing to finish anything. Rather, I want it to start things. Engage. Power conversations and questions. When I ignite the family drama in my poetry, I am aware of its ability to burn. That danger is exciting and terrifying for me—a challenge arises to see the poem form without censor, to be raw in the impulse to polish it down. When I am in the space where I truly feel vulnerable and surrender to the poem, the voice rises up.”
—Thomas Dooley, author of Trespass (Harper Perennial, 2014)
"Reading, at its best, is about getting inside someone else’s skin. Writing, for me, is about getting further into mine. The novelist Max Frisch said of his own writing: “What shocks me is rather the discovery that I have been concealing my life from myself.” I write for that same discovery and it requires a sort of soul-spelunking not always readily accessible. Sometimes the way is blocked. When this happens I stop writing, and turn to music. I pick one record, put on headphones, close my eyes, and listen. I do not pause. The fact that this seems radical to some shows how distracted we are—forty-five minutes? Alone? No computer? How frightening. Lately, my choice is John Coltrane’s Crescent, from 1964, the studio record he made just before A Love Supreme. In comparison, I find it a more ruminative record, and darker, more show than tell. It does not come with a prayer, as does A Love Supreme. Not that there’s anything wrong with prayer. In fact, it seems as good a word as any to describe Crescent, which never fails to take me outside of myself, even as I delve deeper, to those quiet, forgotten, foundational places I forget about. Crescent is both guide and pack mule on a long narrow road to the interior."
—Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles (Henry Holt, 2014)
“I’ll write ten more then go to the falcon. The falcon is my code name for Millennium Park in Chicago. I work across the street from it, and hide in it regularly. I write product copy for a large retailer. I write about power tools and mattresses, sometimes luggage. The volume is vast and comforting: an ocean of words, bold headlines lapping placidly at the sand. It’s different from the fiction I write, but not a competing force. They leak into each other at times, and that’s okay. My visits to the falcon are a reward for pounding out volume, but also a way to get out of my head—to stop using words to define and start letting them radiate. An endless stream of people and languages filter through the grounds. Clips of conversations and pregnant glances surround me. Toddlers charge through Crown Fountain’s thin sluice, police officers on Segways whir around sculptures, couples hold hands or look bored. All of this penetrates through me and allows me to pull up more from within.”
—Ryan Kenealy, author of Animals in Peril (Curbside Splendor, 2014)
"Writing is about getting to a place of deep mediation. The writer’s job is, at a fundamental level, all about finding the habits that will get you there—somehow. Human beings are, fortunately, trainable animals. We can train ourselves, through habit, to access the parts of the mind that lead to great creative work. Here are my three most repeated, most consistent writing secrets: 1. Get dressed. This may seem obvious or unimportant (especially if you work at home). And yet, what you wear is a statement of intention. If you have lucky clothes, go put them on. Grab that pink bathrobe. Don your hat with the moth holes and the bright, red feathers. You’re a writer. You’re encouraged to look eccentric. 2. Return to your lucky place. When I have a good writing day, I try to replicate it. Like a dog returning, again and again, to the place where it’s been fed, I go back to the same coffee shops where I’ve had success. Let your environment do some of the work for you. 3. Treat yourself. Yes, your back hurts because you are sitting in a chair. Yes, writing can create great cycles of angst in your life, and questions about money and art and time. But remember, you are a trainable animal. You like treats. So maybe you can have that eleven dollar kale salad, or that stack of sugar packets in your coffee, or that long, solitary walk through the rain. Bribery works, so use it. And a cautionary note: Since I don’t work at home, I often have to deal with table-takers and delays. Sometimes rude people set up camp in my lucky chair or at my lucky table. I have to glare at them with the steely eye of disapprobation. But then I remember: Often times, this is exactly how a new table is christened, and a new habit is born."
—Peyton Marshall, author of Goodhouse: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
“I recommend taking advice with a grain of low-sodium salt (better for your heart), and being suspicious of anyone who makes writing seem too easy, too hard, or too sexy. The reality is usually in the boring, nougat middle. Done correctly, writing looks like a person staring at a table. Many instructors advise to ‘sit in the chair’ each day. Remember the ‘chair’ can be the commuter train or the washing machine as your kid’s clothes dry. Or a doorpost you’re leaning against in the break room, smoking a Marlboro Light while counting tips, which is how I thought of the superheroes in my story ‘Great, Wondrous.’ In hindsight, I guess that was pretty sexy. I recommend rereading a work you think is perfect. I recommend going outside. I recommend going easy on yourself. Everyone worth their (low-sodium) salt has days when they think they’re doing it wrong. Please remember there are as many different ways to be a writer as there are writers.”
—Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas (Crown, 2014)
“First of all, it's okay not to write. Most writers are highly disciplined, equipped with a demanding, inner CEO. We tie our identities, our sense of worth, and our happiness to writing well. Not writing feels terrible, unless you consider that it too is part of the process. The muse is sly. Sometimes she goes into hiding. I've learned to accept that silence can be a kind of productivity. Loaf with yourself, to paraphrase Whitman. If you cannot relax, move on to another project or another genre. Teach yourself how to simply play with words; it’s time for recess and no one's grading. When writing essays, I juggle several pieces at once. There's the mountain essay, the water essay, the one about wind. I keep all three windows open on my computer and dash between them. In poetry, I start with description, plant my chair on the lawn, taking in what’s there. Or if nothing comes, my never-fail exercise is what I call “negative inversions.” First, copy out a short, simple poem on the left side of your blank book. Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, W. S. Merwin, all work well for this. Then, on the right page, write the rough opposite of the first line, then the second, and so on. Sky may become earth, earth may translate to moon, lime to fire red. Gradually, I’ll find my poem, hidden inside the original.”
—Sarah Gorham, author of Study in Perfect (University of Georgia Press, 2014)
“I’m a doodler. This has never gone over well. In high school, it convinced teachers I wasn’t really listening, and in my various jobs over the years, it has convinced bosses that some part of me is still in high school. Which is true, obviously, but that’s hardly the point. The point is knowing what works for you. The thing is, I think better when I’m dragging a pencil across the paper. I always have. And with fiction, doodling is my way back into the story. Sometimes when I’m stuck with words, I’ll start fixating on something small that I know is somewhere in the scene at hand: a key ring, a toy car, a crumpled phone number written on a wrapper. I will shade and erase and refine, and I know it is working when I start seeing the lines before I’ve drawn them—a light trace on top of the paper that I know can’t really be there but I follow like faith. Soon enough, the words will start coming: snatches of dialogue, a single sentence that has to be written down. And even if it’s just the smallest bit, I know that it’s something I can come back to and fill in, something that will get clearer and more defined with every pass.”
—Mira Jacob, author of The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Random House, 2014)
“Over the last seven years, as I have worked to write and revise my first book and then claw a second one out of my gut, I’ve heard too many times that any successful writing practice will involve a minimum daily word count, good and round, or a slavish devotion to page and screen, no matter the quality of what comes. This advice used to make me insecure about my own practice, which, early in my book-building process, included stretches as long as a summer without writing. I have learned that there are plenty of ways to show up at one’s work: incessant contemplation, research, and the unconscious mapping of structure that might come as the body moves in the world. For a while, I tried to forgive myself for not writing every day, but now that the work of my first memoir is complete, I realize that taking long breaks, pacing my work, and allowing for retreat is nothing that needs forgiveness: My brain was protecting itself as it turned traumatic memory into crafted prose. An unflagging commitment to output might have gutted me. Now, with patience, I write when I feel that the work has begun to make itself inside of me.”
—Elissa Washuta, author of My Body Is a Book of Rules (Red Hen Press, 2014)
“As a research tool, the Internet is the best thing to happen to writers since the invention of the modern library. On the other hand, it can be a colossal time-suck and an addictive distraction for many writers—myself included. One of our most important challenges, then, is negotiating the use of technology in our daily writing practice. My creative nonfiction explores the intersections between personal history, cultural history, and ecology. The Internet makes research so easy—with a few keystrokes I can access endless information about, say, whaling, or early twentieth century mining accidents. The problem, as we all know, is how easily we get sucked down the rabbit hole of research. It's more than that, though—we now believe we can know everything via Google. But those habitual Google searches foster a superficial kind of knowing that kills one of the most essential aspects of writing and creating: allowing ourselves to rest in profound uncertainty. It's from this primordial darkness of unknowing that some of our best work comes alive on the page.
"What works for me lately is to head for the coffee shop first thing in the morning. I leave my cell phone at home. I write standing up at a tall countertop. As a firm rule, I stay 100 percent clear of e-mail and social media. I try to get comfortable with the uncertainty, puzzling together strands of research and personal narrative, filling out scenes, speculating, and hoping to find unexpected resonance between the personal and the historical. I save my online research and correspondence for later in the afternoon, when my creativity tends to wane. Once I've done my creative work for the day, some time on the Internet feels less like a compulsive habit, and more like a deliberate element of my overall practice.”
—Justin Hocking, author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir (Graywolf Press, 2014)
“What works to drive me to write is probably so idiosyncratic that it might not be generally useful, but it’s been my way of finding the motivation and the passion to put pen to paper. Sure, I like the hot afternoon walks in the hills of Altadena with my dog or even desperately trying to keep up with my marathon-training wife, but when I’m physically enduring, I’m not thinking of writing. I think of writing when I’m doing mindless yard work—raking and trimming trees and bushes. Or when I’m organizing my papers and books and endless stacks of comics; a task so stultifying that my imagination takes over and useful glimmers of where I might want to go with a project come to me. Sometimes while digging holes to plant or dragging fat bags of compost, buzzed by relentless flies, I get shards of dialogue. But by far what works best is when I recall a slight by a reviewer or editor—that's when the fires burn bright. A condescending statement about my inability to write authentic Black dialogue, for instance, will come back to me from decades ago, while I was in a workshop in the MFA program at the University of California in Irvine, and I’ll be driven anew to start work on the memoir or explore an idea for a new novel or biography. Seemingly, what most motivates me to write is drudgery or the venal and vindictive. It’s gotten me this far, being a maladjusted but productive writer.”
—Jervey Tervalon, author of Monster’s Chef (Amistad, 2014)