“I recommend trying to write a set number of words each day, rather than for a set period of time. ‘The muse visits during the act of creation, not before,’ said Roger Ebert, a quote I found in Jami Attenberg’s TinyLetter newsletter. I also find it helpful to write in a bunch of different moods and physical states.
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 my writing gets stuck, I’ll clear time to sit with my last few months of reading spread around me, copying out my marginalia along with the passages I flagged and underlined. I have this massive document of annotations I’ve been adding to for years, a habit I started when I was an undergrad.
“When the words won’t come, I take my work for a walk. Literally, I put pages in my pocket and take a hike in an unfamiliar place. The idea is that both me and my writing could use the stretch of a new environment. Put your hand on it every day, no matter what, is my philosophy. Sometimes this only means taking pages with me in the car while I am out doing errands. If I need an extra jump, I will find ways to look at the story in a new light, again, literally.
“When the writing is slow or when I’m between projects, I pull on my boots and head to an art museum. Museums dilate us. Our job is to stay open and look—at this Rembrandt self-portrait, at this Rachel Whiteread casting, at this Kara Walker silhouette, at this Rothko color field. What happens as we look depends entirely on the looker and what is being looked at. But something inevitably happens—you love it and look more deeply, you hate it and wonder why, you remember something, your mood shifts, an image emerges, a line of thinking starts to lead you in an unexpected direction.
“Translating poems from Korean or Russian into English really increases the molecules of sound and sense in my head, makes me feel more attuned. Yorkshire Gold tea when good coffee isn’t available, and many books and works of art and music work for me too. But sometimes, if things aren’t going well, I’ll start reading a book that I both truly admire and, for whatever reasons, can’t get engaged with. After reading for a while, my mind gets pitched into the perfect state for a new creative act. It feels cleansed.
“I listen to arpeggios when I need help moving along in my writing. An arpeggio is a musical chord drawn out, note by note, ascending or descending, like a spinning wheel of notes. Arpeggios slow down time, letting our ears isolate and identify each note in a chord. And yet, when you listen to fast tempo music that contains arpeggios, your ear doesn’t know exactly what to do. The notes are going quickly but the chords are moving slowly.
“When I can’t write, I write. I write without expectation. I sit down and make the tips of my fingers touch the cool keys of my laptop, feel the connection, and let the words fall out without judgment. I ask. I explore. I release. I figure I can throw it all away anyway. I write for nothing more than relief. I don’t worry about being stuck in my writing because it is the writing itself that unsticks me. It is the magic made from letting the words slide out, collect, gather, bounce off each other; the childhood game of word association. No rules other than keeping the words coming.
“When I’m stuck or can’t make headway, I take a step back and reaffirm my commitment to this particular project. Am I really driven this way? Do I have something new to contribute? If yes, I take a few deep breaths to take this in and feel it. I may do a few restorative yoga poses. Child’s pose is so good for embodying humility toward the artistic process. I’ll then maybe cook a simple meal as the physicality of just making can often push my mind forward. Here’s my recipe for roasted potatoes: Slather cut yukon gold potatoes in olive oil and coconut oil.
“To be honest, writing can be a torturous affair. You have all of these emotions and scenes in your head, colorful and wordless. But when you write them down, in black and white, and look for a language, it often feels wrong. As if the translator between your head and your typing hands has failed. Or as Hemingway once said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ I wish that had changed over the years, but it remains the same with every book, and for me the first draft is the most difficult.
“A few times a year, usually in the dead of winter, I’m overcome by a remarkably strong urge to simply disappear. I pack up my cats and computer, climb in the car, and head to my family’s summerhouse in Rhode Island, which I am fortunate to have, and where I often remain for weeks on end. Once there, I am absurdly habit-forming: I write from nine to three; take long, music-fueled walks along the river; write again from five to seven; and finally reward myself with red wine, dinner, and whatever TV show I’m currently immersed in.