“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 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.
“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.
“The only working antidote I have found for spells where I struggle to write—the weeks and months where every poem seems to me some small, opaque machine, its inner workings altogether inscrutable—is to spend time with authors who unsettle my habits of analysis, especially at the level of genre convention. Christina Sharpe’s most recent monograph, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (Duke University Press, 2016), has been a rare gift in this regard.
“Writing looks much the same for me as others: a cup of coffee, music, a bare desktop, and so on. Eventually the tank runs dry, the wheels come off, or I'm simply at the end of my workday. What's left are inevitably the problems that stymied me while I wrote, or the ones I see on the horizon. The best way for me to come at tomorrow is to find three things: The first is a dimly lit bar, and the other two are whiskies.
“One practice I’ve found useful for generating new ideas is entering into conversation with other poets, other poems. Though in general the more variously I read, the more I’m able to stretch myself writing-wise. I specifically like talking to poems I love or am confused by or disagree with as a way of clarifying my thoughts.