“I think of writer’s block as a bubble, a physical thing I can step out of. When I am stuck or when the words sound hollow and wooden, I stop trying to write and instead try to regain my rhythm in movement. I physically change something. Sometimes it’s my location; I try working in a different room in my house, on the patio if the weather allows or away from home at a writers studio. Other times I move away from the work altogether by taking long walks around a lake, or by baking or cooking.
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.
“When I get stuck on a project or between things, my first reaction is to grumble around the house and act like the world has come to an end. Once I’m through that stage, I return to this ever-evolving list of ‘books that matter to me,’ which I keep on a torn notebook page tacked above my desk: Pedro Páramo, the Grimm’s tales, My Ántonia, The Leopard, Darkmans, Sula, By Night in Chile, another dozen or so. I feel like everyone has a list like this, whether they’ve written it down or not.
“I’ve struggled with writer’s block most of my life, but writing my novel, Beauty, taught me a lot. What got me in the flow of the writing—and helped me to stay there—was taking a shoemaking class. The protagonist in Beauty adores couture and boots. I, on the other hand, thought couture and high-end, luxury line products were elitist and snooty, and extravagantly expensive. $1200 for a pair of boots? No, thank you. I’ll make them myself.
“What motivates me to write? The honest answer is perhaps a little dark: I imagine the feeling of great regret I’ll have to live with, if I don’t write the book that I know I can write. The wish to avoid that regret feels like fuel. Still, on days when writing feels impossible (too many days now, during this pandemic) a good thing to do is touch the world of my new book by reading it, tinkering with a word, rearranging a sentence. It feels vital to keep the world of the book animate in my mind, the characters itching to tear ahead and stayed only by my hand.
“As much as I have always been a writer and reader, entranced by what language does on the page, I have always been in love with visual art and the movies, so much so that I call myself an ekphrasist: a writer whose work engages with visual art. During this time of sheltering at home in New York City, I have had to upend my rule that I will only write about art that I have already visited in person.
“Here’s an antidote for a writing slump: Record yourself reading a polished passage from your working draft. Go ahead—don’t be shy. Choose the one that is like a celestial harp strumming in the background when you first composed it because it’s so good, the one that gives you goose pimples and brings tears to your eyes. It only gets better when you hear it out loud, off the flickering computer screen. It’s not vanity. We may not be giving ourselves license to celebrate what’s actually working on the page. Despite my own nasal Chicago accent, I relish hearing successful parts of a draft.
“I recommend soup, always, and especially now. It is comfort and it is excitement, both specific and universal. Soup is highbrow or lowbrow, it is microwaved or simmered for days from scratch, it is an ox bone yielding up its unctuous interior, it is Campbell’s with a splash of dill to spruce up a dour night.
“Read. That’s the advice we give to writers, whether they’re young, or just starting out, or stymied by writer’s block. I’ve gotten this advice a lot, I’ve given it too, but for the longest time I took it to mean that I had to collect classic stories and well-critiqued narratives, horde the respected and unknown. The best book was the one I hadn’t read yet and only with a brimming awareness of everything written could I then go ahead and add my own humble scribbles.
“When I’m struggling with writing fiction, I turn to reading other forms: poetry or, most often, nonfiction that intensely investigates a topic unfamiliar to me. Research can be a way to take breaks while also feeling productive and enriched. This was how I came to find a book about the prehistory of aviation as well as the adventures of lighter-than-air balloonists.
“I do most of my writing longhand, in lined notebooks. One unquestionable benefit to this approach is that you can take a notebook anywhere, leaving laptop and phone behind, and when you get there your only options will be to write or to stare at a wall. I usually enjoy writing once I’m underway, but I have a hard time getting started; it helps to leave myself no other choice. One unquestionable cost is that at some point you have to type all this handwriting up.