“I am not looking, usually, for inspiration. I am looking for an ambulance. I’m looking for a sturdy ladder. I’m looking for something that will make a good sentence seem possible. I read my Janes, Hirshfield and Kenyon, because they know what the dark at the end of the tunnel looks like. I hit my music very hard: Fats Domino, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dinah Washington, Regina Carter, The Hot Sardines, Esperanza Spalding. I put on my baggiest jeans and my daughter’s coffee-stained Smith College T-shirt and I cook like a meteor is heading to Earth and only food can stop 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.
“When I am locked out of the gates of literature, I despair, brood, obsess. I believe wholeheartedly that I will never write again. I pursue this line of thought to the bitter end. It’s an excruciating process, but there are no shortcuts on the road to writing. I’ve come to consider the atmospheric disturbance that exists at the edges of laying honest sentences across a page to be character-building experiences. After all, writing demands resilience, self-respect, discipline. More exhilarating, perhaps, is the fact that it requires an equal measure of disobedience.
“In my early thirties, I spent two years in Korea, investigating the particulars of my adoption and reuniting with my birth family. While there, I took Korean classes, and since I’d never had any real Korean instruction before, I became, for a while, a toddler, learning letters and sounds and words and numbers. Studying something as elemental as an alphabet enlivened a part of my brain that’d been dormant for years; overnight, it seemed, I viewed language not as a sophisticated mode of communication but as an elegant arrangement of shapes and sounds.
“I write because I read. I imagine many of us are this way, bewildered in the tangle of these co-creative activities: writing to understand how better to read, reading to understand how better to write. I seek out—both for inspiration and comfort—those writers who seem to share, and to illuminate, that confounding sense of wonder. Dearest to my heart over the past few years is Sir Thomas Browne. Every book he writes—Urne-Buriall, Religio Medici, The Garden of Cyrus—reveals to me again and again what thinking beauty a mind of true curiosity can create.
“I write from rage. White-hot. Electrified. Deadly. You? People are shocked when I tell them. But you’re so… So what? Even-tempered? Motherly? Professional? I am, I am, but beneath the affable corporate face is a blistering fury that fuels my fiction. As a younger writer, damaged by childhood violence, my anger was easily triggered; it was also unbridled. I’d create chaos in real life—quit my job, dump some guy—then rebuild on the page, ruins be damned.
“Most times, writing a poem does not require research. Drawing from personal experiences, observations, and emotions, a poem can hold the everyday. Yet, at other times, I’ve learned that research can be a tool to ignite unexpected, needed turns in your poetry. When I was writing my book Love, Robot, a collection where humans and robots fall in and out of love, I was researching heavily in robotics for a scholarly project.
“My favorite endings in fiction are the ones that bring us to a precipice. We feel keenly that we have reached some edge in the character’s life, and we know the story will continue on without us. The ending of Their Eyes Were Watching God (Lippincott, 1937) lives perfectly in the borderlands between past, present, and future. Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie returns home and she moves alone, content, through her sunlit house. The past lays heavily over these final moments, Janie’s mind thick with memory and ghosts. But the ending also gestures at the life yet to come.
“What keeps language alive for me is ritual and play. When my pen slows, I don’t treat it as a problem. Stillness is necessary. I listen, let things pass, and try to accept all of life, including the stuck parts. Sitting helps me do that. Fifteen minutes a day. Getting so quiet as to hear the construction and crackle of my thoughts. Often, in that stillness, lines appear. And it takes all strength not to leap up with that ambition to my notebook. I wait until after the fifteen minutes are up—ha!
“Since moving back home to Columbus, Ohio, I’ve had to reformat my writing time and how to make the best use of the moments when I find myself running up against a block, or several blocks. I am someone who now finds myself with less time to revel in the outdoors, but there is a park a few blocks from my apartment. It is a park I know and love well. Much of my time living in Columbus has been spent there reading or dancing or camping or holding hands with someone. I live closer to it than I ever have before, and I walk there once a day.
“When I started university, I wanted to be an art historian and classicist, I thought my first book would be about Greek sculptures, not a work of fiction. The places I love most in the world are museums. I love the tin cans and bits of wrought iron at the Victoria Albert Museum; Sir Hans Sloane’s collection of leaves, shoes, shells, and ancient vases at the British Museum; and this collection of strange Victorian cat paintings at a tiny museum in rural Ontario.