“At some point I realized that I’m incapable of writing poems unless someone forces me to do it. Revising is easier for me; it can happen even against my better judgment as soon as I open a document. But someone’s got to make me do that first act of writing—I have to feel accountable to real, meat-and-blood people other than myself to make it happen. So I write most of my first drafts as part of a poem-a-day challenge.
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.
“In order to start writing, I need to put myself in a receptive state of mind, which isn’t easy when you’re busy: ‘Stop, look, and listen,’ as they used to tell school kids crossing the street. It might just mean sitting in a different place, taking my notebook out into my garden or to a street café. The trick (for me) is to be patiently receptive without turning off my critical faculties. Sometimes I take a more active approach and turn to reading for stimulation. In that case, I tend to prefer certain kinds of nonfiction.
“I find that I generate new material via a two-step process. In the morning, I will sit my butt in the chair as close to 9:00 AM as possible. I’ve even contemplated purchasing one of those old punch clocks. Showing up every day is key. I’ll usually bang away all morning. When I’m working on a first draft, what I call ‘fresh tracks,’ the writing is inevitably bad. I used to be horrified by this and would immediately go back and try to improve it. I’ve learned over time to just let it lie, to be comfortable with the messiness.
“Though it may seem counterintuitive, I find that one way to keep from getting stuck or to find inspiration and new directions for my essays is to write with handcuffs on. Not real handcuffs. That would be weird. But I give myself constraints or limits, and in the case of several of my essays in Ultrasonic, these took the form of language, or specific words that served to narrow the focus of my writing. Focus, for me, is always a challenge, and these constraints became a way to harness my mind's tendency to ramble and digress.
“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.
“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.