“I’d say the sonnet saved me, but that would seem too dramatic. So instead I’ll ask that you imagine me four years ago: a new mom to a crying baby. A writer of two unfinished books. A queer woman marooned in West Texas. The winter rains won’t stop. I’m sad, alone, and uninspired. But then I sign up for a poetic forms class. I learn to scan. I read a curtal sonnet by Gerald Manley Hopkins, a terza rima by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, a jokey pantoum that makes me cry.
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.
“A cool thing about me that not a lot of people know, even though I talk about it almost daily, is that Hilary Mantel is my spirit twin. Consider the evidence: not only are we both writers, not only are we both masters of historical fiction (at least I assume I would be, if I’d ever written any), we also both like to take showers when we’re stuck in our writing. She’s written that this habit has made her the cleanest person she knows.
“Poetry is what I read when I just can’t with anything anymore, especially my own writing. I read it just about every day, more often when I am sick of or frustrated with my own writing voice. I have a tendency to overwrite, so unsurprisingly I’m in awe of the poet’s relative economy of language, everything they manage to convey in just a few dozen or few hundred words. A good poem always feels inevitable when you read it, as if these exact words had to exist in just this arrangement to help you understand how to live, how to survive, a little better.
“I write in irregular flares. This isn’t to say that I wait for inspiration to strike: I sift through lines that others have written before me, and use them as lassoes to catch my own. I locate an interesting image, a narrative structure, or even a word (its sound, its meaning, its shape) that does the job. When I’m lost and can’t find the next line or path in a poem-in-progress, the frustration can feel like disenchantment with the whole poem. Sometimes I need to step away and return to poems that reawaken me and offer guidance.
“Mary Oliver used to walk in the woods with a notebook. Walking so inspired her that she kept pens in the trees so if an idea or thought came to her, she’d be able to stop and write it down. Like Mary Oliver, my inspiration almost always occurs while I am walking, not while I am sitting at a stodgy old desk in my messy office where the enemies of thought—phones and computers—lie in wait to distract me. It is while walking that most of my writing takes place. Something about being on the trail in the early morning with the hawks, the owls, and coyotes inspires me.
“I tend not to need too much motivation or inspiration, but I do try to make sure I’m having good weird adventures each and every year. Sometimes that means traveling to a new place or imbibing a new psychedelic substance or forcing a new interesting person to be my lifelong friend. I like getting lost every once in a while—just something to remind myself that the world demands constant exploration, outward and inward.”
—Stephen Markley, author of Ohio (Simon & Schuster, 2018)
“As the mother of young children, the hours I spend working on poems are unaccountably precious. My husband and I exert huge amounts of energy to craft a family life that leaves space for my work, and after all that effort, I have no choice but to sit down and write. First I brew a cup of tea, and then I light a candle, a simple ritual of return that brings me back to my work. I’m a very methodical writer, so I believe wholeheartedly in the process of writing: ideas first, revision later, preferably in small, easily digested steps.
“For me, the struggle to move forward in my writing tends to be an issue with the characters in my short stories. I don’t know them well enough. The writing feels forced, labored. I step away from my computer. Maybe the hour I had designated for my writing ends up with me lying on my back on my yoga mat outside. I meditate on my characters. A narrative starts to form. Perhaps a line of dialogue comes to me. Sometimes instead of lying down, I go for a walk. I find that my imagination is most fruitful when I allow myself to be.
“Someone—a teacher of mine, though I am not sure who—told me that once you know what you’re doing in writing, you have to give up and move on. In major moments of writer’s block, I think of that advice and how writing from a sudden moment of loss or blankness is part of the vocation; how not knowing is such an important part, even central to language and what it can accomplish. And though it is important to understand the workings of writing and deploy its techniques and tools, it is equally important to remember that the writer is sometimes a seer, an adherent, or a conjurer.
“When I started to work on my first book, The Balcony, I took down the painting that had been hanging on the wall by my desk and replaced it with a taped photocopy of Judy Dater’s 1974 photograph ‘Imogen and Twinka at Yosemite.’ In that photograph, the ninety-year-old photographer Imogen Cunningham looks around a redwood tree, a camera around her neck, to peer at the young and nude model Twinka Thiebaud. Somehow, the Dater photograph reflected the idea of the book that I wanted to write, even if I couldn’t articulate how.