“When I was working on my novel there were two Bolaño novels that I kept returning to—not because their style or content was similar to what I was working on, but because they would get me into a sort of trance. I would be reading and my mind would be drifting, but at just the right frequency for inspiration. Writing feels a lot like the Magic Eye books—where you have to sort of relax and stare into the middle distance so that a 3-D picture will emerge, popping out towards you out of the abstract one. To see the image hidden in the page, you can’t look directly at it or you lose it.
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.
“In Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (Random House, 1991) by Agnes De Mille, Martha Graham spoke about the process of choreography. My mother is a dancer and choreographer and would share this quote with me and my sisters when we were growing up:
“Some days I find it difficult to sit down to write; other days it goes well. Most days I will snag on an idea or get restless. At home, I work with books all around me—the ones nearest to my desk have been my companions for years, while the ones by the door are the newest arrivals. I’ll get up and pace my room, open a book at any page, read a line, and return to my desk ready to take on the clutch of words that I’ve already got down. It’s poetry, familiar or new, that I pick up most. Right now I am traveling. When I am not writing, I’m usually browsing in bookshops.
“I recommend writers play with different modes of creativity. The first year of my MFA, I got really into designing logos for shirts and hats. The next year, I received a canvas and paint as a gift. These last couple of years, though I have very limited actual musical training (I played the trombone in high school), I've really gotten into music production and I have an MPC on which I try valiantly, but fail over and over again, to make beats.
“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.
“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)