“I live in the Driftless Region of northeast Iowa. The land here isn’t perhaps what you think of when you think of Iowa. Rather, it’s marked by coldwater streams that snake through steep ravines and valleys, and around limestone bluffs, before meeting the Upper Iowa River, which eventually dumps into the Mississippi.
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 Spike Lee screened Do the Right Thing at Cannes in 1989, reporters at the subsequent press conference suggested that his film was too bleak, offered no hope for race relations and presented no solutions. Spike replied, ‘What makes you think that filmmakers are gods…what I have to do as a filmmaker is present problems so that the discussion can start.’ As a writer, I’ve never heard an idea so liberating.
“‘Everything will be very simple,’ wrote Thomas Bernhard in a letter to his publisher, ‘so long as we remember to service our complicated, our enormously complicated (mental) apparatus.’ It’s possible when Bernhard wrote about servicing the mental apparatus what he meant was to stop writing and to water the plants or walk up a steep hill or cook a meal for a friend or clean the house. There is garbage on the ground and in my thoughts. It needs to be picked up and thrown away properly.
“It’s funny how we can say things to students over and over (ad nauseum!) and only belatedly see how they shape our own approaches to writing. After twenty plus years in the classroom, I find I quote the following consistently enough that they seem driving philosophies. What I notice now is how each offers a prescription for getting around over-thinking and calculation: two activities that can stop a developing poem in its tracks. T. S.
“In the summer before my final year of grad school, I needed to finish a complete first draft of my thesis, a novel. My loony plan was to do it in one week while I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s unoccupied condo in Colorado. I packed my bags. Before I left, the great Robert Boswell—then and now my mentor—offered me this advice: ‘If it’s not working, change something.’ Here’s what he meant: If you find yourself going in circles, identify the variables by which you work, and one by one, session by session, change them. Keep changing them until your circling straightens out.
“Recently, for various personal and transcultural and political reasons, I’ve become very interested in cloning, cyborgs, robotics, and artificial intelligence. These aspects of reproduction, replication, immortality, and the programmability of affection are very provocative in terms of the territory of consciousness and the role of language as a technology of the self and of communication with other selves.
“When I’m really struggling with a chapter or story, and when I start to feel despair about it, I find that spending full days away from my desk is really important, full days in which I don't think about writing at all, but rather immerse myself in other writers’ worlds, and read for pleasure alone. I return to the books that have most moved me in my life. I read Alice Munro or Toni Morrison or Marilynne Robinson or Kazuo Ishiguro or Richard Adams.
“I read to be reminded of what poetry can do—especially on days when it feels like poetry makes nothing happen. I return to Anne Sexton to remind me of the first time a poem blew the top of my head off. I go back to Carolyn Forché, Eavan Boland, and Natasha Trethewey to remember how poetry can bear witness and protest, back to Robert Browning, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rita Dove to remember how it tells people’s stories.
“I find that writing rough patches are often a symptom of my not reading enough. I’ll reach for poetry, plays, fiction, essays, biographies—I try to read widely and deeply. Visual art is endlessly inspiring. I love richly designed films, films with style. I’m a sucker for period pieces or amazing costumes. Whenever I travel, I also make it a point to visit the local museum. Recently, I watched the biopic Jackie, a gorgeous study of Jackie Kennedy’s grief and desire to control the narratives of her own life as well as her husband’s.
“I keep this quote by Vaclav Havel taped next to my desk: ‘Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.’ I’ve had it explained to me in a dozen or so ways, most of them contradictory. Havel came from the theater, so his activism would embrace a certain improvisation. The path from anti-Communist playwright to post-Communist statesman must have seemed, to paraphrase Robert Hass, at best untranslated. Havel was an actor and a politician: quotable. Still, I am moved by his words.