“Above all else, I consider writing to be an active art of questioning, and so any sense of ‘stuckness’ I might experience generally means I haven’t yet identified the heart of what I’m exploring. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak, and he encouraged a whole room full of people to push harder on the conclusions they’ve drawn, no matter how careful their considerations. Ask why, he implored: why he did that, why she said that, why a whole group of people feels or acts or thinks that way. Trace causation one level further.
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.
“My dog—a fifty pound wiggle machine of a rescued pit bull named Gracie—is the thing that keeps me from losing it when I run into rough patches where the words stop flowing or the open document starts to look like a mess of hieroglyphs. There is something amazing about being responsible for the care of an animal that gives back nothing but love without any kind of ask in return.
“I recommend overstimulation. If it’s too quiet, I find it’s hard to hear my voice. When I write, I overwhelm myself: The TV’s on in the background playing a movie or a reality show, I’m listening to music, I’m texting five friends, the window’s open and I’m eavesdropping on the conversations and arguments on my Bed-Stuy street below, the coffee table is stacked with books—art books, poetry collections, essays. Because I don’t know what stimulus will jumpstart a poem, which voice or atmosphere will turn me on, I douse myself in all of them at once.
"Troop 117, Verdugo Hills Council, Southern California: We were a uniforms untucked, let’s-see-what-else-we-can-burn bunch. And so we had a lot of trouble on multi-day hikes. Someone would start breakfast, someone would kick it over, a tent would collapse, and then it was 10:00 AM with the day’s worst heat rising, and we had made no progress. So we developed a new system: up early, strike camp, no breakfast until an hour up the trail. The important thing—more important than being entirely ready or even sure of your destination—is to get underway. I relearned this, years later, as a writer.
“I’m a big believer in snacking for inspiration. When I’m really struggling with a piece of writing, I get up and make myself a snack. I don’t mean something healthy or practical. I mean a treat that is pleasurable. Like a tablespoon of almond butter with a teaspoon of raspberry jam dropped on top, eaten off the spoon. While I’m standing in my kitchen, relishing my little morsel, I seriously apply myself to solving my current writing quandary.
“Writing things down can be dangerous. If I sit at the desk without a clear idea of what I want to say, I can get into all sorts of trouble. I love the physical act of writing, like a kid who's just learned to whistle loves whistling, and before I know it, I can generate pages of prose. Hours (days) can be wasted on a story that ends up trying to beat a path through an increasingly thick jungle of possibilities, dead ends, and pitfalls. I've learned it's better to stalk the story down in my head first.
“I think the most valuable resource for writing is confidence, since everything from the vagaries of publishing to writing itself can wear you down. When you are writing, you are so in your own head that it can be hard to know if the work is brilliant or a failure, but you have to put aside those doubts. One of my secrets to maintaining confidence is a yearly viewing of Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood. As a director in the 1950s, Ed Wood was the ultimate outsider. He made movies with zero budgets that were deeply personal, strange, and completely ignored.
“I’ve told my students in the past that writing is 90 percent procrastination. Very little of it involves actually sitting at a computer or scratching letters into a notebook; the thinking part comprises the majority of the work. Embracing that principle has kept me from going cross-eyed while frowning into the blue screen of an empty Microsoft Word document at 4:00 AM in an attempt to will some compelling character or situation to leap into life. It always helps to have a plan before you sit down and wrack your brain. But if you find yourself in such a jam, go do anything else.
“Temperamentally, I set great store by orderliness for inspiration. I like a clean kitchen, a well-made bed, and a tidy desk before I start writing. Sometimes the orderliness gets sinister—not only because of the oft-made charge of procrastination, but also because once everything is collected, clean, and cheerful, a space suddenly appears for the spirit to wilt, the intelligence to become disenchanted. But philosophically, I tend to hold to it.
“Look, I’m far from military material. Undisciplined, hate authority, my ethics—perverted. But there is one military tenant I can and do get behind every time I sit down to write, and you probably know it already: ‘Embrace the suck.’ It’s going to suck, you guys. Big time. The sooner you accept that and get on with it anyway, the sooner you’re done. Why prolong your own suffering? Instead, treat it like a job. And that is trick number one: Buy a time clock. Although a bit noisy, I like the old school ones with the punch cards. Put your hours in.