“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.
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 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.
"I've led a good life, but I've definitely not led a regretless life. There are plenty of things I stopped myself from doing, people I stopped myself from meeting, things I didn’t let myself say. But I made a promise when I started writing my own fiction: I won't ever stop myself from writing something down. And so, when I'm drafting, I always say, 'yes' to what my brain comes up with. I cast aside nervousness. I never tell myself, 'Oh no, don't say that or say it that way, that isn't smart/serious/good enough.' I just say it.
“When I feel stuck, despondent, bored of my writing, I watch Richard Linklater and Noah Baumbach movie trailers. Growing up, I despised movies. You could not get me to sit down and watch a movie, commitment-phobe was I. But in the past few years, I’ve become slowly obsessed with film. I’ve recently had a couple friends tell me they hate movie trailers and don’t watch them. I understand why—they can spoil the movie, they can be cheesy. But what I find fascinating about movie trailers is how and why particular moments are chosen for them.
“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.
“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.