"Sometimes I do this thing where I convince myself that writing is really hard. I bang my head on the desk. I suffer and moan. When I am being silly and insufferable like this, the only remedy is to listen to the Band. More specifically: to listen to Levon Helm, a man I think of as a kind of patron saint for my writing life. Levon Helm sang 'Ophelia.' He sang a cover of 'Atlantic City' that is better than the Boss's (don't argue, you know it's true). He played the drums like no one's business and a mean mandolin. And he was grinning the whole time he did it.
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.
"At a hotel in West Papua, New Guinea, above my bed in room 104, there hangs a painting. Three horses—cream, chestnut, and honey brown—gallop through pinkish-orange shallows. The sky—of a warmer, flooded world?—is goldenrod. Each horse, though wingless, looks as if it might take flight, especially the white one, who rears up with a pained expression in his eyes and bares his baby teeth. All three have steeled themselves, are focused—on what? What lies ahead?
"Whenever I get stuck—when the sentences close in on themselves or the characters don’t make sense or I just get that awful feeling of WTF STORY I HATE YOU I HATE YOU—I close the laptop and tell it out loud.
"Inspiration surfaces when I work with my hands. I garden. I rake until my arms ache. I tug ivy vines and roots rise with explosions of dirt, and with them, a revelation about my novel-in-progress rises in my silent labor-occupied mind. I knit baby blanket after baby blanket, the click-clacking of the knitting needles a metronome keeping time with my thoughts.
"I write with my whole body. It's best if I'm alone because surely I look like a maniac. Forget coffee shops. Librarians have eyed me warily. Even though I don't write longhand, I still have a physical relationship to the process of writing. I tap, sway, and chew through sentences. (Gum is handy; otherwise I'll gnaw through pen caps.) I stand up, pace, sit, dither, and bounce. I bob my head. I open doors and windows. My tongue is always out. It is not a solemn process. It is not graceful or serene or pretty. Writing is wild. Frenetic. Maybe I am forcing blood to the brain.
"Whenever I’m feeling stuck or stale in my writing, I find that the proverbial walk in the woods offers everything from relief to inspiration. When my subject is too raw, I’m soothed by the solitude of the forest—solitude meaning alone without the page staring me in the face. When I feel like my writing is lacking texture or isn’t visual enough, I get outside and try to run through all my senses—what scents are in the air? What sounds?
"I’m not so much interested in things like plot and character and pacing and all that other literary nonsense, but rather the discrete quanta with which those things are built: Words. I like that the little music in a single word can, by its placement, or its very presence, beautify or corrupt the sentence that bears it; that the resulting sentence can test the truth of its paragraph, the paragraph of its page, the page of its chapter, and so on, until the success of an entire work seems to hinge on the single word by which the writer was originally seduced.
"I’ve actually found Twitter to be a strange and exciting writing device. I love the way it makes me think about text without context, content in spite of intent, form without formality. As a writer who likes to experiment with words (because otherwise what would be the point?), the sentences Twitter helps me to generate feel weirdly impactful.
"Most of the poetry I’ve written since 2008 has been written to the music of the band The Be Good Tanyas, specifically the album Hello Love and more specifically the song “Human Thing.” This song gets me into the clear-eyed and serious yet also kind of woozy/dreamy headspace I need to be in to write my poems. I can play that song on repeat for three hours and never get tired of it, its lazy downshifts and slow building pleasure. The entire album is truly amazing, bluesy and folksy and very deeply felt. It has been a big part of my creative process for almost six years now.
“In addition to reading, I generate narrative nonfiction by wandering around. I stroll downtown and through populated neighborhoods in search of an interesting person, a dramatic event, an unexpected interaction, a surprise sighting. I’m not searching for a scoop. I want something that fascinates me so much that it demands further exploration and documentation. What are people saying? What are people doing? This is the world at this moment in human history. How does it look?