“When I was younger, it was dangerous to read fiction while writing it myself: Too easily, I found myself slipping into other people's voices. I read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and wrote eighty pages of a terrible knock-off. I adored Alice Munro's Open Secrets so much that I set a story in northern Ontario, a place I had never been and knew little about. I inhaled Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” and promptly produced my own version, complete with a visiting character who was deaf instead of blind.
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.
“There's a bit of hubris inherent in writing fiction—no one that I know of has ever been plucked out of a math lecture and told, "No, no. You really should devote more time to your writing. The world needs your impressions of thunderstorms." So after you've announced your intentions to friends and family, there's a moment of pause when you think: Maybe I'm... not vast; maybe I don't contain multitudes. To me, this fear comes from that scoop of bad advice doled out to every aspiring writer: Write about what you know.
"After a day of work in the grey cubicle farm on Michigan Avenue, coming home to work on a novel can feel like an indulgence. It takes practice and patience to tune out the snotty e-mail from a coworker that sent the office atwitter, or to forget about the cockroaches that appeared one morning some months ago, first in the hallway, then in the break room under the toaster. (How many times have you toasted a bagel in that toaster?) The stresses multiply, and over time so do the bugs. To write, I recommend a long walk or a hot shower. Boring tasks activate the mind. Do the dishes.
"I had to stop myself from reading 'Writing Habits of Famous Authors' articles. Such glamorized routines create unrealistic expectations the same way beauty magazines do for young women. The practice I'd recommend is refusing to compare yourself to some manic pixie dream writer who is getting piles of rainbow manuscript magic completed every day. Focus instead on the little victories: Being willing to slog through hours and hours of research and writing without much effect, only to have a burst of fantastic connection while in the shower.
“The balled up, impossible-to-unkink tangle of pain and joy that is family fuels a great deal of my writing. The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz reminds us: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” I never want my writing to finish anything. Rather, I want it to start things. Engage. Power conversations and questions. When I ignite the family drama in my poetry, I am aware of its ability to burn. That danger is exciting and terrifying for me—a challenge arises to see the poem form without censor, to be raw in the impulse to polish it down.
"Reading, at its best, is about getting inside someone else’s skin. Writing, for me, is about getting further into mine. The novelist Max Frisch said of his own writing: “What shocks me is rather the discovery that I have been concealing my life from myself.” I write for that same discovery and it requires a sort of soul-spelunking not always readily accessible. Sometimes the way is blocked. When this happens I stop writing, and turn to music. I pick one record, put on headphones, close my eyes, and listen. I do not pause.
“I’ll write ten more then go to the falcon. The falcon is my code name for Millennium Park in Chicago. I work across the street from it, and hide in it regularly. I write product copy for a large retailer. I write about power tools and mattresses, sometimes luggage. The volume is vast and comforting: an ocean of words, bold headlines lapping placidly at the sand. It’s different from the fiction I write, but not a competing force. They leak into each other at times, and that’s okay.
"Writing is about getting to a place of deep mediation. The writer’s job is, at a fundamental level, all about finding the habits that will get you there—somehow. Human beings are, fortunately, trainable animals. We can train ourselves, through habit, to access the parts of the mind that lead to great creative work. Here are my three most repeated, most consistent writing secrets: 1. Get dressed. This may seem obvious or unimportant (especially if you work at home). And yet, what you wear is a statement of intention. If you have lucky clothes, go put them on. Grab that pink bathrobe.
“I recommend taking advice with a grain of low-sodium salt (better for your heart), and being suspicious of anyone who makes writing seem too easy, too hard, or too sexy. The reality is usually in the boring, nougat middle. Done correctly, writing looks like a person staring at a table. Many instructors advise to ‘sit in the chair’ each day. Remember the ‘chair’ can be the commuter train or the washing machine as your kid’s clothes dry.
“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.