“In every audience Q&A the eternal question about the writing process is asked: What motivates or inspires? How do you begin? And for such occasions, I have this response handy: First thing in the morning I prepare myself a big mug of strong coffee and then sit down at my desk and switch on my computer and proceed to scroll through Facebook for the next four to six hours. Depending on the audience, that joke usually solicits a good laugh.
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.
“As a once self-proclaimed ‘failed fiction writer’ and late bloomer to poetry, I try not to be too hard on myself these days—it’s challenging enough to just exist. If the words aren’t coming, I allow that time and space to refuel my brain and soul with a sense of play. We’re not writing machines (unless you’re a journalist, and mad props if you are, seriously), and I for one do not write every day.
“I once read about how Sheryl Crow told Bob Dylan she was having trouble writing her next album. Dylan told her to learn the songs that made her want to be a musician and play those during concerts. I think what Dylan was telling Crow was to remember how a song was made by living inside it, recreating it herself. After Crow did that, she wrote her album.
“There are times I find myself unable to write: not a block but a stasis. I need to be shook and shunted away from general predictability. Sometimes it works to have a slight ringing in my ears. The first noise show I went to might’ve been Justice Yeldham circa 2002. I was helping with sound as a work-study gig. That night the Australian musician held a pane of glass up to his mouth and blew aggressive raspberries. A contact mic on the glass picked it all up, broadcasting burred vibrations and body noises.
“When I get a case of writer’s block I quickly grow agitated and self-pitying. Personally I find the best cure is a new tattoo, small and flesh-colored, so I can tattoo over that same spot when needed.
“Whenever I’m out of words or my mind is jammed I usually do one thing: exercise. This takes the form of running or cycling. I usually go to the park for a quick run—four to five miles does the trick. During my run, I listen to trova, but it depends on my mood and what I’m writing about.
“I used to get really distressed by my writing dry spells, but since I’m also an arts journalist I always have that medium to turn to when my poems are giving me grief. Taking in different forms of art and looking at them critically opens my mind up to different possibilities in my poetry. (Museums are great for that too.) But simply reading good writing helps most of all. Because I’m deeply in love with both theater and poetry, Anne Carson is one of my patron saints and inspirations.
“Whenever I feel stuck in my writing, I change up my writing routine. I have kids, so I typically write for twenty- or thirty-minute spurts during the day, usually at coffee shops after I drop them off at school, then on the commute to and from work, or on my lunch breaks. But if I’m stuck, I’ll listen to music or read during my usual writing times, and instead, write at night. I won’t necessarily go back to the actual work-in-progress.
“Often it feels like overwhelm is a constant heckler and I’m on stage unable to formulate the next joke, word, sentence, line—entire stories robbed from me by this hack clown. When this was an intermittent problem instead of a chronic one, I came up with a solution I turn to more and more. I call it my Recharge List. The list is a catalog of activities that break through the clutter and allow imagination and sentences to flow again. There are different cures for different moods.
“There are certain writers whose prose is so deft and beautiful that reading them can inspire whatever I happen to be working on, even if the style, setting, or genre are completely different. One is Thomas Pynchon, whose prose I’ve been obsessed with ever since I discovered his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49. I’ll often go back to the first paragraph of that book to remind myself that it’s possible to write something complex, lyrical, and full of specific detail, but also something that’s funny and that really moves. Hilary Mantel is another such writer.