“First of all, it's okay not to write. Most writers are highly disciplined, equipped with a demanding, inner CEO. We tie our identities, our sense of worth, and our happiness to writing well. Not writing feels terrible, unless you consider that it too is part of the process. The muse is sly. Sometimes she goes into hiding. I've learned to accept that silence can be a kind of productivity. Loaf with yourself, to paraphrase Whitman. If you cannot relax, move on to another project or another genre.
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’m a doodler. This has never gone over well. In high school, it convinced teachers I wasn’t really listening, and in my various jobs over the years, it has convinced bosses that some part of me is still in high school. Which is true, obviously, but that’s hardly the point. The point is knowing what works for you. The thing is, I think better when I’m dragging a pencil across the paper. I always have. And with fiction, doodling is my way back into the story.
“Over the last seven years, as I have worked to write and revise my first book and then claw a second one out of my gut, I’ve heard too many times that any successful writing practice will involve a minimum daily word count, good and round, or a slavish devotion to page and screen, no matter the quality of what comes. This advice used to make me insecure about my own practice, which, early in my book-building process, included stretches as long as a summer without writing.
“As a research tool, the Internet is the best thing to happen to writers since the invention of the modern library. On the other hand, it can be a colossal time-suck and an addictive distraction for many writers—myself included. One of our most important challenges, then, is negotiating the use of technology in our daily writing practice.
“What works to drive me to write is probably so idiosyncratic that it might not be generally useful, but it’s been my way of finding the motivation and the passion to put pen to paper. Sure, I like the hot afternoon walks in the hills of Altadena with my dog or even desperately trying to keep up with my marathon-training wife, but when I’m physically enduring, I’m not thinking of writing. I think of writing when I’m doing mindless yard work—raking and trimming trees and bushes.
“My cures for writer’s block are alarmingly pragmatic and physical. So pragmatic that they arrange themselves in list form! To wit: 1. Get up and walk around. A few years ago, I realized that the solutions to most of my writing problems would come to me in the bathroom. It wasn’t the bathroom itself, of course, that was magic, but the act of getting up from my desk and walking there, getting the blood flowing, and tearing my eyes away from the computer screen. So now, when I’m staring down a huge plot problem, I take a long walk—without a notepad.
“The very worst times in my life have been marked by silence: times when I wasn’t allowed to write, or couldn’t write, or when language completely failed me. I didn’t write a word, beyond e-mails or Facebook status updates, for nearly two years after I finished graduate school. After I had finished each of my two books, I spent at least six months casting around, writing nothing new. Each time, what finally got me off the block was digging for its root: It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t think of anything new to say, it was that I believed what I had thought of wasn’t any good.
“I do various things to keep the muse going, but mostly, I read, read, read! I make myself the ‘expert’ of the particular form I am attempting. I am a big poetry nerd and proud of it! The history of literature is rich and various. The more rigorous we are in our practice, the more interesting our poems will be.
“In the morning when I walk to work, I try to think up stories for everything I see along the way. Three birds sitting on a bag of trash behind the used record store. A waterlogged ball cap in a parking lot. A turtle gliding past sun-bleached beer cans in the stream that winds its way through downtown. Each has enough story in it to fuel an entire writing career.
"Before Knockemstiff made him famous, my friend Donald Ray Pollock came home from work at the paper mill, rolled a page into his typewriter, and began to copy, word by word, passages by writers he admired. One day Raymond Carver, the next day Cormac McCarthy, the next day Dawn Powell, the next day Larry Brown. This, he told me, was the bulk of his writerly education. Word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, painstakingly slow, a process not dissimilar to what literary translators do when they bring a work from Japanese into English.