“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.
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.
“When the writing gets away from me, it’s rarely something creative that brings it back. Feeling stuck for me usually means being in a state of creative surfeit, where I want nothing to do with stories at all. In these moments I like reading articles filled with statistics. Give me crude oil outputs, carbon dioxide levels, employment growth rates, life expectancy projections by country, or the number of annual visitors passing through various airports. Documentaries about pharmaceutical companies, deep-sea life, and the exorable spread of Nordic minimalism work too.
“When I feel genuinely stuck in my writing, I find that it’s often because I’m bored. If I’ve done my pre-writing work, then I have an outline, and because I already know the story I’m going to tell, I’ve stripped myself of one of the greatest joys that comes with reading a novel—to discover the unexpected. So, if I’m in a rut, I’ll go back to the outline and toss in some wrenches. What happens if I remove a character, or add one? What happens if the current chapter four becomes the new chapter one? What happens if I give a character a dog?
“I have to listen to music while I write, and usually I play just one song at a time. I repeat it all day, often for weeks on end. Months, even. There’s one song that I replayed up to 30,000 times during the ten years I was writing The Incendiaries. I love that song and its powers; I can’t tell you its name, lest it stop helping me. By obsessively replaying a single song at a time, I can, if I’m lucky, set the pitch. It gives me a place to start. The ritual of it, the repetition, lulls and quiets my anxious, everyday self.
“I’m beginning to realize that the primary engine of my writing may be loneliness. I don’t want to recommend loneliness, however. So what I’ll say is that there are certain works I return to that make me want to write, that never fail to punch me in the gut and wash out my eyes. The scene near the end of ‘Old Boys, Old Girls’ by Edward P. Jones, in which Caesar attends to the body and room of Yvonne, his former lover, provides the ache and clarity I mean. Or the essay ‘Documents’ by Charles D’Ambrosio. Or Raptus (Penguin Books, 2010) by Joanna Klink.
“Writing tends to be a stressful activity. I worry when I’m not writing and when I am, I often wonder whether I’m just sending off lines of ink into some abyss. While working with my editor on my first novel, TITLE 13, I developed Central Serous Retinopathy, or stress-related vision loss in my left eye. Doctors said it was imperative that I relax, but I wasn’t about to give up my passion. Then it hit me: the absurd reality that writing a book robbed me of my sight. The human brain is powerful enough to send a man to the moon, yet, writing nearly blinded me.
“Writing is about finding a way in. And like in some hoary old fable, I must gather three items to be permitted entry. Here are the rules: 1. The items can be anything. They may be small things: an image, a snippet of dialogue, perhaps the twitch in a character’s cheek. Or they may be large things: an action, a situation, or the largest thing of all, a question. 2. There must be precisely three of them. Two items is too few, and four is too many. 3. The items must resonate with one another, and with me. 4. When I figure out how to connect these items, the story begins to emerge.
“When I’m stuck, and I keep writing, I make whatever I’m working on worse. So now, I’ve learned to spot the moments where I need to do what I don’t want to do, which is to leave. Leaving always helps. Usually I take the dog, and we walk. Anywhere and nowhere. Paying attention to where you’re walking defeats the purpose of walking. Running errands, stopping to talk to people defeats the purpose of walking. Just wave, smile, and keep walking. Put your headphones on and pretend you’re on the phone.
“I love limited edition Oreo cookies, which is to say I love novelty and play. So when I commit to writing a novel, an act steeped in routine and the grind, I inevitably run into problems. Eventually, I get myself unstuck, but looking back on how I manage to do so, I cannot find a unified answer. I see only a scattershot collection of wacky solutions. Last month, I pulled out a typewriter I hadn’t used in four years and transcribed a page of my opening chapter every day, for three days.
“I’m a firm believer in low-stakes writing as a strategy for managing both writer’s block and the anxiety inherent to writing. When I’m stuck, if I’m wise enough to take the advice I give to my students, I return to free-writing, often by hand. There’s something about moving away from the computer keyboard and back to pen and paper—and a different movement with my hands—that stimulates exploration instead of stress.