“Writing is wrestling. With time, with space, with memory. With confidence, sentences, syntax. With children, pets, partners, dinner. Essays have either gushed out of me, fire hydrant style, or I have coaxed and pulled at them painstakingly, like a parasitic worm from my ankle. There is no, this is how I write. There is only, I wrote this one this way. I have written late at night, laptop in bed, or sitting in the minivan waiting for basketball practice to end. I have dreamt whole essays, written them in my head while walking.
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 started dream journaling under lockdown, recording dreams because they seemed to be getting more vivid. Even though very little of this writing made it into a poem or anything I’d put into a book, it was a good way to keep my writing muscles ready. I was finding that showing up at my desk with too much head energy wasn’t getting me into the poems I was trying to write. I’d read somewhere that ‘dream poems are often the striving of the soul,’ and I found myself leaning into the mode of automatic writing, done shortly after waking.
“I’ve guided rafting trips for twelve seasons during my summers off as a writing professor. Guiding has taught me to seek the balance between pressure and calm, both on and off the river. On the river, it’s part of a guide’s job to create a bit of emotional pressure to help guests paddle well. Without pressure, guests might not put forth the effort needed for a good run down dangerous rapids. Maybe they came for the idea of rafting. A guide gets to introduce them to the work of it. In my writing process, there’s no pressure or guide like a good deadline.
“There are many avenues I turn to when I’m stuck in my writing—music, Edgar Allan Poe, the work of Gustave Doré, going for a long walk by whatever body of water I can find—but my main inspiration comes from immersing myself in mythology. Whether Greek or Babylonian or Norse or those of South America, or the (closer to home) pre-Islamic mythology of the jinn, clawing my way back into the deep recesses of human consciousness has always comforted me. My go-to is Joseph Campbell.
“When I hit that point where a wall is met with my writing, the sensation is gone and the train is gone, and my immediate environs lose their contemplative harmony. My focus is broken, so I find some pleasure. A heavy indica hybrid like Bubba Kush, a handblown glass pipe made by a local Maine craftsman sits perfectly in the palm of my hand. What I need is to get the language out of my head, which cycles in cynicism and judgment and too little trust for the flow that’s always on time.
“When I’m stuck, my breath becomes shallow. My shoulders and back stiffen. I squint and try to force my brain to produce the correct words. My brain refuses, and I become frustrated. I reach for distractions—my phone, the hunger I don’t feel but insist upon. I make elaborate sandwiches. One distraction leads to another, and before I know it, the day has gotten away from me. This makes me angry. With anger comes more tension, putting the next day’s work at risk. I know this pattern, but knowing it doesn’t always stop me from slipping into it.
“What I try to focus on most during the process of writing is a sense of pleasure, especially in the early drafting stage. Sometimes I take a walk or listen to music, which helps the visions. It starts with an image or vision. I like to walk through the desert. Sometimes I’ll pick up an old rotary phone and dial a number that registers a busy signal. There’s something about the busy signal that’s rhythmic and strange and hollow. Who knows where these things come from.
“When I’m slowly sinking in the quicksand of writing troubles (I don’t know what to write! This story’s going nowhere! I’m an impostor! I can’t manage all this contradictory feedback!), my tree branch is poetry. Poems afford me a chance to refocus on words: their sounds, their rhythms, their ability to tell stories in and of themselves. Perhaps it’s because I don’t fancy myself a poet that I’m drawn to poetry’s magic, that I view it as a never-ending well of inspiration, sustenance, and guidance.
“Poetry has become my daily prayer ritual, my practice, and my religion. Every day the music of R. Carlos Nakai and words of Ntozake Shange bring me to my writing table. There, I fancy myself a vast ocean tumbling as far as the eye can see. As I write, I am not thinking about what does or doesn’t work. I am purely putting words down, knowing that there will be time for editing later.
“When I’m stuck, I crave a literal remedy: motion. On days when a character refuses to untangle, or my head feels sunk in a soup of possibilities, I’ll go for a bike ride. Nothing with an incline, nothing that involves much physical expenditure, I’m not suggesting a spin class or anything involving athletic shorts. The flat-as-pancake streets of Beijing—or any other similarly hill-deprived city—are ideally suited to your purpose here, or really anywhere where it’s possible to bike lazily, effortlessly, watching the streets roll by and feeling the breeze on your face.