The Egyptian writer and activist Alaa Al Aswany explains how one word in Dostoyevsky’s novel The House of the Dead showed him how literature can help us understand one another.
The author Jesse Ball discusses Lewis Carroll's ‘Jabberwocky’ and how precise prose doesn’t always make for powerful work.
The author Mary-Beth Hughes discusses how Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel The Blue Flower showed her that words can dance.
The author Viet Thanh Nguyen discusses how his novel The Sympathizer is the product of decades of enjoying other works.
Joshua Cohen, the author of Book of Numbers, discusses Dostoyevsky’s The Double, in which the author becomes a presence in the novella.
The nonfiction writer Lucas Mann offers advice for essayists worried about whether they have anything interesting to say.
The novelist and editor Anna North discusses the Odyssey’s timeless lesson about leaving the comforts of home.
Mark Z. Danielewski discusses how the interplay of words and images can open up new ways of perceiving both literature and the world.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic discusses the importance of noticing hidden truths—from the horrors of war to the mundane aspects of daily life.
The Norwegian author, known for the multivolume autobiography My Struggle, finds inspiration in the restraint of the tale of Cain and Abel.
The author of The Harder They Come adheres to an organic, spontaneous finale-writing process ruled only by his desire to leave readers with room for interpretation.
The English folk singer-songwriter reveals how an appreciation for humanity's history has informed her art.
The author Tania James shares a lesson she gleaned from a book about a poacher: The best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.
The author Yasmina Reza says that Borges taught her fiction, like joy, is borne of mysterious, instinctual processes achieved in an unconscious state.
The author Reif Larsen says Joseph Conrad and Anselm Kiefer taught him how to practice omission without infuriating his readers.
When novelist Harriet Lane received a serious diagnosis, she started telling stories that let her meet anxiety on her own terms.
Author Katherine Heiny describes how the best details in fiction can be ripped from small talk and eavesdropped conversations on the bus.
The writer draws inspiration from Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns, "a toolkit to think about humor using comics."
Writer Thomas Pierce finds inspiration in the concise beauty of Theodore Roethke's notebooks.
The songwriter-producer collaborated with author Michael Chabon on his new album.
Steven Pinker finds insight into the frailty of human nature within Measure for Measure.
Peter Stamm, author of All Days Are Night, says his work became deeper once he shed some delusions of grandeur.
The creator of a new documentary outlines how closely farmworkers' lives are connected to what's on grocery-store shelves
American Interior author and rock musician Gruff Rhys learned a lot by following in footsteps of a gullible pioneer.
Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi says the best books are "republics of imagination" erasing national and historic boundaries.
According to science fiction writer William Gibson, a book's opening should be an inviting enigma to the reader—and a motivational benchmark for the writer.
A panicked moment reciting William Butler Yeats in an MRI convinced the former poet laureate Billy Collins that oration is poetry's last, most enlightened defense.
Ernest Hemingway's matter-of-fact style taught author Vikram Chandra to find sublime in the ordinary, and depth in deceptively flat prose.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley looks to Our Mutual Friend for inspiration on how to harness the spontaneous, liberating energy that comes from writing imagery.
A crisis of quality in literary criticism led Robert Silvers to found The New York Review of Books—and he believes the crisis continues today, online.
The Cloud Atlas author keeps a James Wright poem as a reminder to live in the now.
The Wilco singer says Daniel Johnston epitomizes his mostly instinctual creative process.
Novelist Edan Lepucki looks to the subversive metaphors in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale for lessons in channeling characters' weird, rebellious spirits.
Using the guard-turned-vandal in The Heart So White as his guide, author Ben Lerner writes books in which characters interact with art, and occasionally try to set it on fire.
Author Stephan Eirik Clark returns to Don DeLillo's White Noise for lessons in interrogating American culture.
Memoirist Sean Wilsey says he knows he's finished with a story when it makes him laugh.
A Midsummer Night's Dream got it right, Richard Bausch says: Authors must find a way to turn nothing into something.
Author Lev Grossman says C.S. Lewis taught him that in fiction, stepping into magical realms means encountering earthly concerns in transfigured form.
Hot Chip singer Alexis Taylor explains why he tries to forget critics—and his own self-consciousness—when creating.
William T. Vollmann, author of Last Stories and Other Stories, explains why he works by an assassin's credo: "Nothing is true; all is permissible."
Author Joshua Ferris used to believe in 'art for art's sake.' Then he read The Human Stain.
Author Tom Perrotta, co-creator of a much-hyped new HBO drama, says Thornton Wilder's play taught him to write about finding meaning in the banal.
Songwriting lessons from the King, as told by indie-rock singer Hamilton Leithauser
Author Stuart Dybek talks about how to layer meaning into works of "flash fiction."
Author Rupert Thomson says a Yevgeny Yevtushenko poem taught him the value of risk.
The UnAmericans author Molly Antopol learned from Grace Paley how to inhabit characters that represent political sentiments but don't preach to readers.
Yes, that John Muir. His observations on nature's interconnected systems deeply influenced award-winning chef Dan Barber's new book, The Third Plate.
Gay, author of An Untamed State and the forthcoming Bad Feminist, sees her own questions of multi-ethnic and multi-national identity reflected in Smith's NW.
Stefan Zweig, the obscure Austrian writer whose life and work inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel, believed imagination could help propel society toward universal tolerance and accord.
Author Mona Simpson talks about Chekhov's "Three Years," which plays on rom-com tropes to convey just how grand a story of two people learning to appreciate each other can be.
The author Linn Ulmann makes the case for the importance of here in “Something happened here.”
Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven and a former college athlete, learned from Carter G. Woodson that teaching yourself is just as important as being taught in the classroom.
Maggie Shipstead, author of Astonish Me, looks to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse as an example of how to speed up and slow down fiction narratives effectively.
The Empathy Exams author Leslie Jamison felt ashamed of writing about the physical form until a Virginia Woolf essay vindicated her interest in the fluids and muscles that make us human.
As author Ted Thompson learned from John Cheever, a redemptive resolution doesn't erase the darkness of a story, but instead finds the light within it.
The author of The Woman Upstairs says that writing preserves the worlds we inhabit—even if so much of them dies with us.
John Steinbeck’s To a God Unknown showed author Alexai Galaviz-Budziszewski that great work can happen when you write without knowing where you're going.
Author Dinaw Mengestu says good books help you to recognize yourself in the unfamiliar.
Author Yiyun Li doesn't just study people on the subway—she studies her characters, unflinchingly imagining their gaze until she understands them fully.
Thirty Girls author Susan Minot says great writing—like T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"—is a source of nourishment readers turn to again and again.