“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?
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.
“Like many writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, so I sometimes get stuck in the echo chamber of my own brain. The best remedy I’ve found, and the fastest way to inject new energy into my work, is eavesdropping on others. I go to a cafe, settle down with some tea, and listen to the conversations around me.
“When I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’ve been overwriting. That’s when I take a break and watch clips of stand-up comedians. Essayists and comedians are, in my opinion, doing pretty much the same work, but most of the time comedians do it better. I watch a lot of Louis C. K. and a lot of Patrice O’Neal. There’s one Richard Pryor bit where he talks about setting himself on fire while freebasing that is so stunningly open and vulnerable. It’s the best personal essay I’ve ever encountered, without trying to be.
“I tend to work in bursts where I’ll write a lot of fairly polished work in a short amount of time. When I’m not in that mode, I use a notebook all the time to record what I see, read, think; to work out structural problems that are keeping me from writing; to take down ideas for future work. I also use these notebooks to collect objects—plant matter, stickers, scraps of paper or fabric—that accumulate in my daily life.
“I have been preoccupied lately, to an alarming degree, by the creative process of collage. I spend most of my free time cutting out words from newspaper headlines and pictures from fifty-year-old magazines. Combining the stern, authoritative tone of ‘the News’ and the wholesome and charmingly hopeful images of fifties and sixties advertising (or that era’s glamorous photojournalism) makes for a jarring and often hilarious piece of art.
“Ideas come to me through my ear. I will hear a character’s voice before I can see her face or know anything about her circumstances. As long as the voice is talking, I am writing. But inevitably that voice starts to wane, and with it my ability to put words on the page. To combat this, I make sure to have a companion book that I am reading with a voice that is similar in some way to my protagonist. When I was working on Dear Lucy, I read The Sound and the Fury three times.
“When I’m not working on a specific project, I write two hours before bed and I spend two hours in the morning trying to make at least one decent paragraph out of the mess I wrote before bed. I’ve become obsessed with paragraphs in my old age. I try to create one dope paragraph every other week and trust myself to organize those somewhat dope paragraphs into a revelatory piece that means something to someone somewhere. I listen to a lot of Jay Electronica, Janelle Monáe, and Kendrick Lamar. I hear and see their verses in paragraphs.
“For inspiration I've found that doing something unrelated to writing serves me well, like viewing documentaries or people watching on a bus or train. Or, for example, I'll assemble a book case, go for a walk, or do mundane chores around the house. These types of tasks give my brain quiet time to construct lines and make necessary associations before I ever get any words on paper. Putting my mind in a fallow state allows it to absorb the art that feeds my writing.
“I have an almost religious belief that nonfiction is built from careful observation, which reveals that almost anything—from the tree outside the window, to a horrible sandwich, to a devastating life event—has some kind of meaningful system, or structure, to it. Sometimes that structure is defined by entropy, or resembles a Greek play, or is purely Freudian in nature. I feel like I have remarkable things happening to me all of the time, probably because I’m always looking at everything so carefully and analyzing its structure.
“By 10 AM I’ve been writing for a few hours, and my mind’s muddled with sentences, so I go jogging. Like most people, I don’t enjoy exercising, and I welcome anything that distracts me from the fact that I’m breathing hard and my muscles hurt. I don’t think about individual sentences, but more the overall shape of the text I’m making. I don’t think about the hill looming ahead, and how much it will suck running up it. I think about my character, and how I’m going to get him where he needs to be.