“For years and years, there’s been only one book I turn to when I feel the well dry up: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and specifically the opening paragraph. Of course, if I read the first page, I’ll read the next ten, twenty, and by that point I might as well read the whole thing. But only the first few sentences are necessary to spark. ‘One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me,’ it begins. The vertiginous flexing of time in that sentence, that strange use of ‘already,’ the danger or warmth (possibility, really) set up in the action.
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.
“Have a dog, or get one, or borrow one. I have two, a serene pit mix with soulful eyes and a scholarly three-legged border collie–heeler mix, and they get me into and out of my head like nothing else. I use an app called Time Out that darkens my screen for five minutes, every twenty-five minutes—a work trick called the Pomodoro Technique—and in those five minutes I leave my desk and go find one of the dogs to pet. While a sentence or problem turns over in my mind, my hands slide over his fur, I kiss his smooth forehead, I inhale the corn-chip scent of his ears, I look into his dark eyes.
“If I’m stuck, I’m usually overwhelmed, and so I try to stop writing. I allow myself to do nothing. Daydreaming is undervalued! And it can be so restorative. Doing nothing is the hardest thing for me, and the thing I’m learning to embrace without guilt. I once fell asleep watching a movie about fly fishing, the most boring activity I can imagine (and mind you, I needlepoint). Yet that stillness, of a quiet river, an invitation to keep my mind still, is what I’m seeking when I stare at my neighbor’s tulips, the sycamore’s branches, cars sliding by. These are my brain’s massage table.
“When I was eight, I discovered that swaths of trees had individual leaves, that lawns were composed of blades of grass. Apparently, I had needed eyeglasses for quite some time before I got my first pair. Nonetheless, I maintained a myopic relationship to reading and writing, forever keeping my face within inches of my pencil’s point, my curling words; I read books so closely, I see the textures on the page. The literary life can, at times, feel confining, nearsighted, requiring a forced focus that can quickly become strained and dull.
“I watch movies when I want to be inspired. Sometimes I watch the same movies over and over again, leaving them on as company while I’m doing other things. Other times I specifically watch them, looking for small treasures I’ve never noticed before. I love the comfort of the dialogue I know by heart, the music cues, the sounds that have become so familiar. One movie I turn to often is the 2015 film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.
“Sometimes I wonder if what brought me to writing in the first place is the same thing that keeps me going. Last year I sat in a large barren field and called my friends because I honestly couldn’t find reason as to why I wrote anymore, I couldn’t find joy in it. I blew my nose, wiped my face, and drove away. I interviewed myself in my journal just to keep my hand moving: —Marcelo, are you okay? —It’s complicated.
“Like so many writers, the activities that once challenged and nourished me have been disrupted by the flood of chaotic daily news. Previously, I might have lifted a volume of poetry from my pile of unread books, chatted to friends about a manuscript, or attended a reading—and I would have been revived. While these kinds of engagements do still inspire, they often don’t provide the same charge they once did. What does revitalize me most now is the solitude of a natural space, a garden or a trail.
“If I am too in sync with the present, I can’t write. Or I can write, but I don’t want to, because too great an affinity with the present, of events currently happening, makes me queasy. This isn’t to valorize the past in any way; it’s just an objection to belonging too much to the assumptions of the now. I try to remedy this with strategic alienation. Physical exhaustion helps; I’ll walk twenty miles just to feel a different sort of rhythm, or clean something obsessively.
“One irony of being a writer is that we work alone, but the purpose of our medium—language itself—is communication. The word communication shares a common ancestor, of course, with common, which took on a snooty connotation in the late 1500s, but has always meant ‘belonging to a group.’ To communicate then is to offer up one’s thoughts to the collective. Solitary, on the other hand (from the Old French soul, meaning ‘only’), is about a hundred years newer than common and its relatives.
“I am inspired to keep writing during times of inertia or busyness by remembering that writing is a way not just to talk back to, but to co-create the world. When I don’t write for a long period of time, my powers of observation might be heightened (as I’m typically reading or watching or listening to more art and media when not writing), but I find myself slightly more quiescent—more willing or able to accept the status quo, or moan about social ills while feeling powerless to ameliorate them. Many activities return me to this space of co-creation—of acceptance of my vocation, too.