“When I’m feeling dazed and spent, and perhaps even a bit self-pitying, I turn my attention to the gleeful nihilism of E. M. Cioran. Romanian by birth, and a philosopher who wrote in French by choice, Cioran’s short paragraphs (he started writing in short bursts after he quit smoking) are instant jolts out of the narrowness of my own perceptions. He had a grand view of the senselessness and absurdity we encounter every day of our lives. At the same time, there is a dark humor bubbling around his writings, like a raging man who can’t stop himself from laughing.
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 will try anything to break through my own perfectionism and dull literal-mindedness, my need to explain everything, my need to defend. I can be a very slow writer, prone to fidgetiness and second-guesses. What I’ve found helpful recently is to give myself the writing equivalent of stress tests. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but two summers ago I attempted to write a novel in a week, aiming for 50,000 words and managing 35,000. This past Labor Day weekend, I tried to write a novel, a novella really, one hundred pages or so, in three days, and succeeded.
“When in doubt, channel your inner Fran Lebowitz. Obviously there’s a certain irony in suggesting that the cure for writer’s block is to channel the person who’s known for being among the most famously blocked writers of our time. But for me, Fran Lebowitz is not just a personal cultural and literary hero. She’s a kind of pacemaker for the brain. Sometimes when I’m at a loss for words or ideas, I type her name into YouTube and select any one of dozens of videos in which she holds forth on some subject or another.
“Not long ago, I chanced on an interview with Raymond Carver in which this early hero of mine said: ‘I think it's important that a writer change...so when I finish a book, I don’t write anything for six months.’ The statement seemed casual enough, matter of fact—minimalist, even. But after a lifetime of being told that a real writer writes every day, no matter what, its effect on me was maximal. I thought about the long unhappy period of not writing that followed a novel I’d spent two years writing—working on it every day, no matter what—only to have it go absolutely nowhere.
“‘What kind of beast would turn its life into words?’ Adrienne Rich asks in Twenty-One Love Poems, referring to the being/observing duality of a writer’s life—the persistent possibility of remove that turns the lived moment into ‘material.’ I also think of this quotation as a direct challenge about the time allotted to writing.
“I often turn to poetry when I get stuck writing. Not far from where I write is an at-hand stack of slim volumes that includes Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And Her Soul Out of Nothing, Dana Levin’s In the Surgical Theatre, Cynthia Cruz’s The Glimmering Room, August Kleinzahler’s Green Sees Things in Waves, Christian Hawkey’s The Book of Funnels, and Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard.
“I never read when I get stuck, it doesn’t leave enough room to let the devil slip in. Instead, I look to other forms for the methods to resolve art’s various conundrums. Often music helps but, increasingly, I’m interested in photography and the work of the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, particularly.
“I think poetry is—or should be—a staple of any fiction writer’s reading diet. It doesn’t matter whether you ever intend to write any poems yourself. And it doesn’t matter (much) whether you prefer classics, or contemporary, or traditional, or experimental, or if you have no particular preference and can’t tell the difference. Any poetry, more or less, will do. Poetry invites you to read slowly and unpack all the different ways a sentence, or phrase, or single word, can have meaning.
“Show up: at your desk, on the page. Show up often, show up with an open heart, show up all hardcore and ready to work. But when you don't show up, when it's been days and weeks and months and you haven't shown up, take a bath. By which I mean: be kind, be gentle. Whatever you do, don't be an asshole to yourself. Screaming at yourself will—at best—carry you through an hour, a day of work.
“Choose several literary rivals. These should be people you know. They should be people you like, respect, and admire. They should be people who write at least a little bit like you do. They should be more talented and successful than you are. You probably already have some candidates in mind. You need to read each thing they publish, find their weaknesses, and make a plan to succeed where they fail. Find out what you can do that they can’t; build on that. Support them, be their best readers, promote their work at every opportunity. Write them fan mail. Start friendly arguments.