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.

iO Tillett Wright Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 9.22.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Ryan Pfluger

“Writing is a combination of sculpting and songwriting for me. The first challenge is to vomit out the raw hunk of material—gather the thoughts that will anchor the storyline, in their rawest form—and then carve them into something beautiful and cohesive from there. Once the base has formed, I can listen to the flow of the words and see if it sounds like my own music. Okay, all pretentiousness aside, I’ve got synesthesia, (I see things in shapes, rather than as abstractions), so visual references are key for me in trying to explain how my brain works. In trying to wrangle my thoughts, I keep very specific tools handy—my notebook, a printed version of the text I’m working on, a printout of the transcript I’m incorporating, a highlighter, and a set of Pilot V7 pens in blue, black, and red. That sounds insane, but each color means a different thing, and allows me to organize a wealth of raw material that needs to be carved out into a delicate, flowing object. Red is corrections, blue is new ideas, and black is raw writing. I also keep all my printed drafts so I can remember that a text has come a long way.”
—iO Tillett Wright, author of Darling Days (Ecco, 2016)

Elizabeth Lesser Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 9.15.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Dion Ogust

“Most of what I write is memoir, which is a harrowing genre, but I have no choice in the matter. It’s what I have always been called to write. People often ask, ‘WHY do you write about yourself, your bumbling mistakes, your occasional epiphanies?’ They ask this with a certain tone, as one might ask a mountain climber why he scales a dangerous peak in the middle of winter. ‘WHY did you climb that mountain…in January, all alone??’ And the climber says, ‘Because it’s there.’ And that is the only answer I have: I write because it is there; it is this life we are living—this confusing, splendid, sordid, glorious, despairing life. I am called to write about it. I would rather write a book about knitting, or a cookbook, but no, I’m called to the mountain where I struggle with unresolvable human and divine issues. If I am stuck as I write, it’s usually because I am trying to resolve an unresolvable mystery. That’s when I turn to a quote I have tacked on the wall above my computer. It’s by one of my favorite authors and meditation teachers, Pema Chodron. I read it; I sit up tall; I reclaim my birthright: We don’t deserve resolution. We deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright—an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.
—Elizabeth Lesser, author of Marrow: A Love Story (Harper Wave, 2016)

Peter Ho Davies Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 9.8.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Dane Hillard

“As readers, we writers seem to especially cherish what I call ‘permission-giving’ works, the kind we read and react to with momentary outrage, ‘You can’t do that!’ followed by dawning delight, ‘Oh, you can?’ (which, of course, is to say, ‘Perhaps I can’). I’ve seen students over the years respond in this fashion to varieties of meta-fiction, or the use of the second person, or the first person plural, and I suspect those works beloved by writers—whether Sebald’s, or Knausgard’s, or Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping—are similarly thrilling for the possibilities they open up for us. In my own case, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a work of this ilk. When he first came to prominence in the 1980s, Ishiguro, himself as a then young Asian writer in Britain, gave me a kind of permission to imagine myself—half Welsh, half Chinese—as a writer, but The Remains of the Day has continued to offer me a model of how to reconcile the poles of my existence, not least during the writing of my latest novel, The Fortunes. Stevens, the butler, the central character of the book is quintessentially British—of course, a descendant of Jeeves and the Admirable Crichton—and yet also in his restraint, his loyalty to his house, somehow ineffably traditionally Japanese. The link becomes more explicit if one reads The Remains of the Day alongside the novel that precedes it, An Artist of the Floating World, set in Japan. The narrators of both, Stevens and Masuji Ono, sound uncannily alike. The result in Stevens is a character who is both overtly British and subtly Japanese, a ‘bothness’ that has subsequently served as a touchstone whenever I’ve felt a choice between identities, and which moreover feels like a way for a writer to inhabit the ‘other’—by finding in him or her the familiar.”
—Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016)

Tobias Carroll Recommends...

Writers Recommend

Posted 9.1.16

Writer Photo Credit: 
Jason Rice

“Music has always played a big part in my writing. I started writing for a theoretical readership when I did a zine about punk and hardcore bands in the mid-to-late-1990s, and my first freelance pieces were also about music. Music has inspired stories, served as a plot element for novels, and provided a backdrop for many a long writing session. I can remember spending nights finalizing one project listening to Phosphorescent’s deliriously beautiful albums Aw Come Aw Wry and Pride; and more recently, I’ve found that playing parts of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops can put my brain in the ideal space to write. Over the last year and a half, I’ve become more and more reliant on one album as a soundtrack to long sessions of writing and editing: Spaces, a collection of live recordings by the German composer Nils Frahm. It can be difficult to find the right balance in an album: too subdued and it might as well not be there, too propulsive or noisy and it can become distracting. I’ve lost hours by cueing up what I thought would be an ideal musical choice, only to find that its textures and dynamics leave me fixated on it rather than the text in front of me. Frahm’s work, and particularly this album, strike the perfect balance: The steadiness of the rhythm brings in an elusive charm, while never feeling too intrusive. It’s compelling in an almost contradictory way, which provides another aesthetic goal to strive for.”
—Tobias Carroll, author of Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016) and Reel (Rare Bird Books, 2016)

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)