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.

Mauro Javier Cardenas Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 8.25.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Victoria Smith

“At the ninth annual Outsound New Music Summit, as Martha Colburn’s monsters reeled on the screen and Thollem McDonas improvised feverishly on the piano, I was reminded of both Slavoj Žižek’s speaking of voices as foreign to the our bodies in the context of The Exorcist and of a scene from my childhood in Guayaquil, Ecuador—a long forgotten scene in which my aunt Ana tried to exorcise a relative—and because for years I’d been attending performances like this as a way to exist in an alien planet of thought where new patterns of associations might allow me to approach prose differently, the next morning I inserted both The Exorcist and the forgotten scene of childhood into a chapter in progress, a chapter where the planets merged and the exorcisms blended. A concert hall with unfamiliar progressions—Cage, Messiaen, Ligeti—is fertile space for interplanetary associations. Ask yourself: What are the conditions of contemplation to exist in an alien planet?”
—Mauro Javier Cardenas, author of The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House Press, 2016)

Anna Noyes Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 8.18.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Sean Hershey

“The stories I write begin as fragments that spend months or years in the Failure Folder, a limbo where I hide unfinished pieces too raw, unspeakable, or unwieldy to share. In the years I regularly attended writing workshops, I had a habit of convincing myself to plan to turn in old, serviceable, safe work. And then, after dinner on the night before class, I’d inevitably begin tinkering with one of my failures. When I thought of going to bed I’d say, sometimes aloud, ‘You’re alright, just keep telling the story.’ I’d gently urge myself on in this way into the wee hours. My first impulse is to doubt my work, but in this sleepless, trancelike state another part of myself—calm, steady, persistent—took hold. In the morning, bleary enough to be emboldened, I’d turn in the draft. Now, a few years older, my mind gets foggy after 11:00 PM. But I’m still trying to tap into that part of myself that holds inexplicable faith in those stories I have deemed failures. On a good day I know to keep telling the story, sentence by sentence, like a stenographer taking dictation. On a very good day, I might even be brave enough to risk sharing the result with the world.”
—Anna Noyes, author of Goodnight, Beautiful Women (Grove, 2016)

J. Scott Brownlee Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 8.11.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Matthew Valentine

“One of my favorite things to tell my students is, The poem is smarter than you. I rarely start writing a poem knowing how it will finish, and even when I think I have a general idea, it rarely turns out to be accurate. Writers often talk about strategies for revision and tips and tricks for how to overcome writer’s block, but I think letting go of what we’re writing—especially in early drafts—and not trying to shape it too much toward our own egos and aesthetic inclinations results in it speaking most powerfully and convincingly through us. I’m a proponent of the poet-as-vessel-for-poems approach rather than the poet-as-creator-of-truth/beauty approach to writing. If something aesthetically striking results from letting my poems wander where they want to wander, this occurs in part because I took the time to listen for it rather than articulate it myself. The other advice I like to give is to read selfishly whenever possible. By that I mean don't be too hard on yourself if you're reading the same four or five books over and over again so long as they are helping you generate new writing. It is of course helpful to read as widely as possible (I’d never advocate against that), but it is equally important to find writers you share an aesthetic kinship with. Read them specifically and repetitively so that some of the energy they've dialed into finds its way into your writing and, by extension, your imagination.”
—J. Scott Brownlee, author of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap (Orison Books, 2015)

Amaranth Borsuk Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 8.4.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Brad Bouse

“Because so much of my poetry explores language itself—the ways we shape and are shaped by it—my creative practice often begins with collecting words. My college mentor, appalled by the etymological dictionary I was using, introduced me to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots edited by Calvert Watkins, which has been my constant companion ever since. It traces thousands of words from languages across the Western Hemisphere to their shared roots in a prehistoric language, Proto-Indo-European. The word ‘root,’ for instance, comes from wrād-, which means both branch and root. Variant forms of wrād yield the expected rutabaga, radish, and rhizome, but one also finds radical, eradicate, and ramify listed among its derivatives. When I have a kernel of something I want to investigate, I find its entry (or that of an associated term) and copy out any and all relevant material—from definitions, to cognates, to neighboring words. With these seeds scattered across the pages of my journal, I can often coax my hand to continue scribbling (or sowing). Seeing how language carries over from one place and time to another and hearing the way different words take root in the same soil often bears fruit for me, or, to push the metaphor too far, gives me branches on which to graft improbable cultivars (homophones, anagrams, puns, and other tongues). Most of the poems in Pomegranate Eater arose in part from this kind of etymological play, which felt fitting, since they consider the ways we fashion ourselves in language.”
—Amaranth Borsuk, author of Pomegranate Eater (Kore Press, 2016)

Anna Solomon Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 7.28.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Beowulf Sheehan

“When I am stuck in the perfection cog—as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft or, I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how everything is going to fit together—I find it helpful to tell myself: You will fail. I have this written on a Post-it note. It might sound discouraging, but I find it very liberating. The idea is that no matter what I do, the draft is going to be flawed, so I might as well just have at it. I also like to look at pictures I’ve taken of all the many drafts that go into my books as they become books, which helps me remember that so much of what I am writing now will later change. When I am aware that my work is not as brave or true as it needs to be, I like to look at a particular photograph of myself as a child. I am about eight, sitting on a daybed in cut-off shorts, with a book next to me. I’m looking at the camera with great confidence, and an utter lack of self-consciousness. This photograph reminds me of who I am at my essence, and frees me up to write more like her.”
—Anna Solomon, author of Leaving Lucy Pear (Viking, 2016)

Lo Kwa Mei-en Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 7.21.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Elia Burkhart

“When I feel like my identity as a writer is threatened by my flaws, failures, and limitations of health, I can become overwhelmed by fear so profound, I cannot face it alone. I recently wrote a journal entry describing what it feels like to read a book and fall in love with it. I focused on a time in my life when I was fully awake to my love for books but ignorant of what it meant to produce them. I recalled how it felt in my body to read a book I was in love with. Sometimes I am so totally stuck I cannot write a single word of my own, not even to describe another’s work, so I have taken to picking up a book from my past that I have been hungering to reread and typing it out word for word, at a speed slow enough to feel the words relating to each other and hear new things in their music that I had not heard before. I will retype another’s book until I feel love and not despair. In doing these things, I feel fiercely for others’ work what I cannot always feel for my own, and this is ultimately the truest path I know of that leads back to my own work. At its most difficult, being stuck is an experience I cannot dissolve through gestures of production or consumption. Instead, I try to undergo a most beautiful and mundane adaptation, from someone who craves to be a writer to someone who knows she is a reader.”
—Lo Kwa Mei-en, author of The Bees Make Money in the Lion (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2016)

Patricia Colleen Murphy Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 7.14.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Brad Rogers

“Writing itself is such a solitary act that when I am finishing a project I often feel lonely to the point of distraction. I combat that isolation by surrounding myself with other artists. My need for a ‘writers community’ has taken on many forms: In high school, college, and grad school I rarely went a semester without enrolling in a creative writing workshop, which afforded instant access to readers, comments, and encouragement. After graduation, I struggled to recreate those ten years of workshops without the ready-made roster a classroom affords. I have filled this lack in myriad ways: 1. My writers group of six to ten trusted poets, exchanging work and comments online. 2. Attending writing workshops such as the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference and the Blue Flower Arts Writers’ Conference at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. 3. Attending fourteen AWP conferences, where I go to panels and readings, and work a book fair table for my magazine, Superstition Review. 4. Engaging with other artists at retreats such as Ragdale, Djerassi, and Vermont Studio Center. 5. Following other authors on social networks and engaging with them concerning new work. Even though I need to be alone in a room to do my work, connecting with my writing communities helps me get back to the page. Knowing that other writers are fiercely committed to the hard work of writing helps me stay focused on even the toughest goals.”
—Patricia Colleen Murphy, author of Hemming Flames (Utah State University Press, 2016)

Jesse Ball Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 7.7.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Joe Lieske

“Some of us are in confusion; we labor through it, we perceive it where it isn’t, we see it threefold where it’s thick; we can scarcely say anything at all for as soon as we begin to utter a word we learn how senseless it all is. This advice is not for those people, but for others who feel it is possible to say the anything-at-all that people enjoy saying. What is the advice? Well—when I feel that it is finally possible to open my mouth and speak, I stop to see if I should. Perhaps I am standing somewhere and the people around me have for reasons of their own decided to keep their mouths shut. Then maybe I have thought of something to say. What I do is: I say the thing I am going to say silently in my head, and then I say what I construe to be the opposite of that thing. Too often for my own comfort I find that the opposite proves also to be true. At such a time I keep my mouth shut and rescind my silent proposal. Or I don’t! Maybe I imagine myself enjoying saying one of them, the thing or its opposite, and then I do. I’ll just blurt it right out. Or sometimes I’ll say both, and then my friends and I laugh and laugh at how pitiful this life is.”
—Jesse Ball, author of How to Set a Fire and Why (Pantheon, 2016)

Bob Proehl Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 6.30.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Heather Ainsworth

“Most of the time when I’m stuck, it’s because I’m trying to get a sentence or a scene to be perfect when it’s too early in the process for perfection. I tell myself going in nothing’s going to be perfect in the first draft, then I sit refusing to write one more imperfect line. Getting unstuck begins with reminding myself the first draft is where you get the mistakes out on the page. Perfect comes in later. I write long-hand and on-screen, so sometimes a switch can dislodge a block. I stockpile pages to transcribe for when I need a kick start. Once all that fails, I find something to work on that keeps my head in the piece but leaves a lot of room for mistakes. Something unlikely to make it into a draft. Backstory, dialogue for a scene that I might not use. Things the reader doesn’t need to see but I need to know. I’m a proponent of staying at the desk. Once I’m away from the desk, I’m back in the world of housework and bills and all the things that were conspiring to keep me from sitting down at the desk to begin with.”
—Bob Proehl, author of A Hundred Thousand Worlds (Viking, 2016)

Toni Nealie Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 6.23.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Bruce Sheridan

“Walking in the woods helps free my mind. The loamy smell, muted light, envelope of green, and muffled sound help make a space for ideas to germinate. I used to feel guilty about not writing daily, until I realized that I pre-write while walking, and according to current neuroscience, the body drives the mind as well as the other way around. I then aim for a meditative state to write. I like quiet and solitude at my desk, whereas in the rest of my life I adore people and bustle and interaction. To break from the narrative and reportage of my working life, I read poetry or prose, often in translation. It helps induce a dreamy state of being, that allows me to distance myself from everyday life and frees my ideas, experiences, and craft to sift onto the page. Simone Weil, Elizabeth Bishop, Franz Kafka, Fernando Pessoa helped me when I wrote The Miles Between Me, along with A Book of Nonsense, a collection of poems I've had since I was a child. Looking is important—at art, at nature, at life around me. Several of the essays in my book were spurred by creating short film essays—a practice that loosened something in my perspective.”
—Toni Nealie, author of The Miles Between Me (Curbside Splendor, 2016)