“In Mona Hatoum’s film Measures of Distance, the artist reads out letters from her mother, while on screen, photographs of her mother’s nakedness loom too close, overlaid with the Arabic text of the handwritten letters and murmurings of their recorded conversations. Sound, image, and text merge, unable to distinguish themselves from the mother’s body, obscured by the very closeness of the camera.
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.
“For me, feeling stuck in my writing really boils down to a sense of loneliness. The idea that writing is a solitary praxis is a truism for a reason, but that doesn’t mean that even the most private or individually driven writer doesn’t require some sense of community, of kinship, of conversation. When I feel like I can’t write, that feeling tends to stem from or be a manifestation of a sense that I have no one and nothing with whom or which to speak. Sometimes it’s worth dwelling on this solitude and loneliness.
“I’ve grown to understand that when I lack inspiration to write it’s somehow related, maybe even caused by, having strayed—mentally, emotionally, and probably physically—from my creative self. This is not to say that I always want to be producing work, but that I yearn to either be in or near a creative headspace. One way I try to keep in contact with my creative self is by watching and listening to the conversations of other creatives. Most often I seek out non-writers so that I can draw connections across disciplines.
“I write every day, but not always to share. When I am writing something that I want to share but the words stall, I remind myself what a privilege it is to voice my thoughts, to have access to language, put ideas to page, and to by and large feel safe doing so. Let’s be real—those of us in the world who have the time and space to do this, and who can do so without fear of persecution, without threat to safety are privileged—this not a given.
“I recommend grazing. When faced with a nebulous idea or impulse that resists being put to page, I often sit on the floor and surround myself with a cross section of books from different genres and historical periods that bear no relation to each other—novels, poems, dictionaries, trade magazines, scholarship. The more disparate the archive the better. I move quickly between them, flipping at random, noting turns of phrase, syntactical arrangements, sensuous nouns, whatever leaps out. Reading is essential for a writer, but this is not reading.
“Plot does not come naturally to me. Instead of staring at a blank page hoping for inspiration, I take a long walk and dictate to myself using my phone’s recording app. I pose a single question like: In this scene, how does character A anger character B? Then I talk to myself. My monologue is far from eloquent and includes a lot of hemming and hawing (‘How about.…’ ‘This is just terrible.’ ‘Oh, okay, this makes sense.’). Dictation lowers the stakes because I’m not committing my thoughts to paper yet.
“The world is often too much with us in all its tumultuous glories and calamities. Its whirling, tumbling, and churning can lay waste to our cognitive energies. The only way for me to still and organize the inner chaos is through my journal, which I’ve maintained since my early teens. Like many, I read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and, though my middle-class existence in 1980s Bombay was nothing like hers, I embraced the journal form like a long-lost friend. We’ve been inseparable since, despite dalliances with personal blogs and ever-present social media.
“The transition to new work after I complete a story or book is the tricky place for me, the liminal space in which I am no longer inside what I just finished, but am not yet inside whatever is on the horizon. I am closing a door and walking away, even as the path to the next work stretches ahead with no definition. That borderland is filled with promise, but also with unease. I leave my completed work spent, filled with doubts about what might come next. But I am not there yet. I am simply moving between. Nothing needs to be defined. I have come to love that scary in-between place.
“Poetry is my way of paying attention. Attention as a form of relational and intellectual rigor, attention as a political action. I’m practicing to trust my body’s signals. When the stuckness comes, I try to turn that attention back inward: What does the block feel like, and why is it there? What is it protecting me from? What is the risk in writing what I think I want to write, and what does my fear tell me about my responsibility as a writer? If I don’t know how to move through the stuckness, it might be because I’m not ready.
“The rituals of being read to, cooking, and showing up for my writing group are go-to cures for writer’s block—which I view as a form of avoidance. Within ritual lies variation and range. I love listening to audio books—especially novels and nonfiction—while chopping vegetables for a sauce or stew. As a kid, I luckily had many teachers and librarians who read to me. This was back in the day when we elementary school students legit felt giddy to be read to—even the so-called troublemakers!