“To write is to have rituals and then break them. Resolve, for instance, to arise at X hour, arrive at desk within Y minutes, drink coffee only in the round blue mug with the thumb handle. At Z hour, stop. Repeat the next morning. In this world, discipline and superstition are the writer’s friends. But at some gloomy moment, mid-ritual, one takes stock. The poem, the chapter, the manuscript—still not right. Dull. Overwrought. Superfluous.
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.
“I recently took adult swimming lessons. I can’t swim, I can’t even tread water, but I knew I had to get over myself and try to learn. I’ve also been trying to write a little bit every single night, and it’s very much the same. That blank page is there waiting for me to jump in, to sink or swim. I end up flailing about and not knowing what I’m doing. But I trust it’s all part of the process. I trust that with enough work and practice, I will be able to do what I need to do. Some fear is necessary to get to new places.”
“We all know that we are supposed to read the greats in order to become great. But who has the time? During the day, I toggle between writing and being constantly distracted from writing: via e-mails, texts, or Twitter. I find it nearly impossible to stop in the middle of the day and pick up a book. I’m never fully present—the pull to get back to the task at hand (or, frankly, to my phone) is too strong. So, as a bona fide night owl, I do my best, most productive reading late at night. After 11:30 PM, I put my phone on airplane mode for the night and dig in.
“I love writing that allows for many things to happen at once—writing that involves multiple collisions of multiplying constellations while a cruise ship full of handsome hearts comes pounding through. So, my recommendation is to (re)watch The Magic School Bus and then watch the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, keeping in mind and heart that Lily Tomlin is the voice of Ms. Frizzle. And that the full name of Ms. Frizzle’s iconic pet lizard, Liz, is Elizabeth Savannah Frizzle. One day I will write about all of this, but maybe you’ll beat me to it.
“I draw my greatest inspiration from my dreams. If we are lucky enough to recover the workings of our mind during the night, then we know that without much effort, we naturally create the most elaborate stories (in rapid succession, no less) while asleep. Though dreams do not always translate easily on the page in a work of fiction, often there is a single vision, either distressing or gorgeously otherworldly, from which I tease out a scene.
“Writing progresses from a selfish act to a selfless act. In your first draft, the work should be an undertaking of pure selfishness—you are writing only for yourself. Don’t trouble yourself with anyone else—they will all come later. If the writing is difficult, and often it will be, take pleasure in the difficulty because it will remind you of why you’re writing. The difficulty is never greater than the control you have. In the end, the vitality of the work will overcome the difficulty. Remember this Gerald Murnane quote:
“In my mid-thirties, I started jogging and, shortly thereafter, I began a new novel. My wife, Thisbe, and I had recently bought our first house in the Catskills, some three miles from Woodstock. I’d finished but failed to publish three earlier novels. I always hated jogging. I found the slog dull. Nevertheless, the new novel centered, at first, around a runner. A middle-aged ultra marathoner inspired by Diane Van Deren.
“Because so much of the writing life takes place in the mind, where risk taking requires acts of mental and emotional bravery, I am inspired by people whose work requires physical courage and endurance. This includes professional athletes, ballet dancers, and the increasingly long list of friends and family members who train for marathons and triathlons. But topping this list of superheroes are first responders and emergency workers who live and ‘wage peace’—as one organization, Preemptive Love Coalition puts it—in war zones and refugee situations.
“That Ornette Coleman’s music is not for everyone is the whole point. Because sometimes the most liberating thing of all is remembering that you can’t please everyone. So whenever I’m feeling especially burdened by imagined responses to some of my less conventional on-the-page moves, I listen to the man who with every breath urged us, in his own words, to ‘break away from…convention and stagnation,’ to ‘escape!’ But sometimes it’s also a matter of figuring out who you absolutely shouldn’t try to please. Like my college suitemate, Christian, for instance.
“In times of struggle, sadness and turmoil, personal or political, I find it hard to concentrate on writing. Writing feels useless and indulgent at the same time. It is precisely at that moment when I am hurting the most that I try to remember to take a breath and give myself a moment to grieve. Then I read and write to cast off the pain (or worse, the numbness) that comes with the realization of the limits of my power. Reconnecting to art and to writing helps me believe in the goodness of other people.