“When I feel like I am ‘irritably reaching after fact and reason’ and the writing turns to sludge or sand, I turn to chance operations and knowledge systems such as the I Ching and tarot to get my transmission moving. It was the I Ching that initiated my book A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, providing me with meaning and message in hexagram 51, Chên / ‘shock, the arousing thunder,’ which signals disruption, loss, and chaos, themes around which I found expression.
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.
“My bicycle’s name is Gertrude Stein, short for ‘Gertrude Stein, my personal Argot’ (because I keep needing to replace parts on it) and shortened, often, to Gertie. Perhaps that is the first thing I can recommend when you are stuck: name your bike. Develop a close personal friendship with it. The second thing I can recommend is riding it. But not just any bike ride—a bike ride with a turn you love. By my apartment in Portland, Oregon, there exists a Y intersection that isn’t very busy. It is my biggest, most delicious turn.
“When writing, I like to channel little ecstasies that fill me daily, bits of pleasure and pain I pick up from my immediate environments. But, as Niedecker’s poem ‘Laundromat’ notes, ‘After all, ecstasy / can’t be constant’—what would it be otherwise? To feel stuck, to find oneself in a lapse of intensity, inspiration, or just without the right words, can fuel necessary and powerful reflection, the casual calm before the next spin cycle.
“A benevolent seizure, this is how the writing begins for me. A seizure and a pouncing tiger—and this in the shape of a dream. To be sustained, they demand that I pay close attention. I have come to think that memories, dreams, and the creative impulse are all gifts of Eros and come from the same wellspring. When I lose my way, I ask for a dream to un-puzzle the enigma. Who am I asking? The dream itself. (Not long ago I was delighted to learn that the music of Philip Glass is also informed by dreams and, curiously, his is the only music I can listen to while writing.)
“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.
“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.