“For inspiration, I love to go to old, junky antique shops—which there are a lot of here in the South, thankfully—and hunt for a box of old postcards and photos. The messages that people wrote to each other in that fancy handwriting no one has anymore are often so weird or sad or funny. Handmade things are also inspiring to me, so I love to find an old carving or a crappy painting and think about the person who may have made it.
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 write to solo piano music (recently I’ve been listening to Edvard Grieg’s Lyric Pieces). Then I pick up something close to hand and see what strikes me. For instance, ‘At Wallace Stevens’ Grave’ was sparked by a detail in Paul Veyne's History of Private Life describing ancient Romans chatting about what they'd like on their own funerary bas-reliefs, and by other reading about early motion pictures and about Wallace Stevens’s last years. All three strands melded into a poem.
“I recommend finding time to write every single day, even when you don’t feel inspired. I’m a night person, but since I have a child in school I have learned to wake up early to make writing part of my morning routine, between brushing my teeth and exercise (which I also recommend; my current obsession is Kundalini yoga). Sometimes I write for five minutes, sometimes an hour. If I can't think of anything to say, I begin describing objects in the room as if drawing them. Prioritizing writing first thing helps focus a hectic day—and then the books get written.”
“I find inspiration in so many things—paintings by Gerhard Richter or Mary Heilmann, conceptual art, novels, a nice run at the blackjack table, a long mountain bike ride, talks with my wife, talks with other writers. Also, music, it isn’t inspiration for me exactly, but listening to certain albums puts me in a mood, a frame of mind, sort of like method acting for actors. For instance, I listened to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago over and over again as I was finishing my new novel.”
—Michael Kimball, author of Dear Everybody (Alma Books, 2008)
“When I’m writing every day, I read and meditate a lot. I look to architecture—in landscape and art—as a way to generate stillness, inspire form, and make me feel less alone. I particularly enjoy artists who reinterpret indigenous crafts and translate them through other polished art forms. The work of Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa inspires me to perceive texture and time out of empty space. San Antonio painter Omar Rodríguez works with the brilliant colors of the Mexican marketplace; the way he quilts color reminds me that I can grasp warmth from inanimate detail.”
“Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes. There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated, or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy. This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze. Times like that the only way out is for me to decide, ‘To hell with it. I can’t do it right, so I’ll do it wrong. I can’t do it well, but I can do it badly.’ Sometimes, with luck, while I’m sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on a right way.”
—Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love (Knopf, 1989)
“Ross McElwee’s self-reflexive documentary Sherman’s March changed my writing life. (Shortly after I watched it, someone said to me that it was ‘the first film I’ve ever seen in which I recognized the South in which I lived’; I misheard her as saying ‘the self in which I lived.’) What is it about this work I like so much?
“I ingest art daily—from the films of Lars von Trier, Takashi Miike, and Lucrecia Martel to fashion blogs to art openings in Los Angeles. Of course, I need my fix of poetry, fiction, and religious and theory texts. I read tabloids. For The Ravenous Audience, I read a lot of trashy biographies of starlets such as Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe. All of this digests into my writing, and then when I present my work to an audience, I think of how the work can ‘excrete’ beyond the book.
“‘Go see some live local music’” is the hourly recommendation from New Orleans radio station WWOZ, and it’s good advice, not only true to New Orleans—where I recommend all writers live (although I moved away)—but also wherever you live. Cover the typewriter and leave the house; see what’s happening. Go to Joshua Tree to see Noah Purifoy’s sculptures decaying in the desert, then to L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology.
“After years of thinking setting didn’t inspire me at all, I have come to realize that it does—but only after I’m gone. I’ve learned not to try to write about a place until I’ve left it, whether I was traveling or living there. For instance, I have written two books set in Madison, Wisconsin, but I didn’t feel an urge to set anything there until I had moved to Westchester, New York, to get an MFA. Once I was gone, Madison leapt into focus, and instead of looking out my window and going nuts trying to capture every little thing before me, distance let me edit and reimagine.