“‘If you don’t stir your soul with a stick every day, you’ll freeze solid.’ Rutger Kopland, the Dutch poet, uses this sentence from Gerrit Krol as an epigraph to one of his books. I often read poems as my chosen stick in preparing to write: usually poems from earlier generations, or poems in translation or from other languages and historical periods. I want quiet voices and the perspective of distance, avoiding the flash-bang of current poetics and contending fashions.
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.
“Years ago when I was traveling in India, I found a junk shop in Cochin that was filled with random things. In one corner were stacks and stacks of old photographs from a photography studio that had long since closed. There were photos of families posed stiffly in their best clothes, brides and grooms with grim expressions, and photos of children—so many children. Many of them were posing in the odd sets of the photography studio—an oversized paper moon, a large cut-out boat. I bought several photographs and keep them near me when I write.
“I had an unfettered year to work on my memoir. No excuses. Terrifying. So I watched bad TV and learned six new ways to cook chicken. My house was spotless; my chapters unwritten. Classical music saved me—Erik Satie by Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach cello suites, and the Schubert Ensemble of London’s beautiful piano quintets by Ernő Dohnányi. Each became an hourglass, pacing drafting sessions. I listened over and over. Months later, behind on major edits, I realized I’d forgotten the music.
“I spend ten minutes reading poetry before trying to write fiction. Poetry drags my lazy brain toward focus: on language, precision, rhythm. It’s like pushing in the clutch before I can start the engine. I also use an idea box. I scribble notes on scraps and throw them into a Payless shoebox and forget them. Most contain just a few words. If I’m stuck I pull out a few scraps and force them into a story. ‘Ms. Yamada’s Toaster,’ the first story in Hana Sasaki, came from: ‘appliance with a superpower,’ ‘Jehova’s Witnesses’ and ‘so much beer.’”
“Read the news. There are some strange things happening in the world. The New York Times is a huge part of my writing process. I rip out articles; I circle phrases from the science section, the business section, and sometimes (dare I say) the book review. I recently wrote a poem that came from an article Teddy Wayne wrote about Justin Bieber.
“I have a little metal pebble with the word 'success' on it that I slip into my bra (left side) when I go to a literary event, embark on a new novel, or start a new chapter. I always forget about it and at the end of the day it clunks onto the floor as I change into my pajamas, like a bullet that didn’t kill me. I write for teenagers and what that means is I write for the teenager in all of us. On the surface I am an adult. I am married. I have two kids.
“Sometimes even returning to the favorite books doesn’t work. There’s no inspiration to be found in the pages of Hopscotch, Pale Fire, or My Loose Thread. Words just seem stifling. Reminders of what I can’t seem to do. That’s when I turn to my photography books, cracking open their oversized spines and staring at images that stare blankly back at me.
“I write fiction but I find inspiration in stray facts, mostly when I’m not looking for it. I wander in books, in magazines; I go to odd exhibits and miscellaneous lectures; I try to stay open and curious. I learned about Isaac the Jew from a book that caught my eye in some library stacks: in 801 C.E. he transported an elephant from Baghdad to the emperor Charlemagne, passing a winter in Vercelli because snow kept him from crossing the Alps. How absurd! How interesting! How lonely. He became a character in one of my favorite stories.
“When I lived in NYC, my writing ritual was to ride the city bus. My favorite was the M104, which had both an uptown and a crosstown leg. Sometimes I’d ride all the way to the end of the line and back. I loved being on a journey to nowhere, a little higher than the other cars and pedestrians, completely free of the usual to-do-list urgencies. I think it gave me a sense of timelessness. Also, it helped me see the world with a child’s eyes (when is one more purely a passenger than in childhood?).
“When the well is dry, for me, it’s usually more about attitude than inspiration or lack of inspiration. It seems to me so much of writing is about courage, writing something so raw you don’t want to say it aloud. That’s how I felt writing unmotherly thoughts in my first novel, and feel now writing about desperation in my second. The key to moving forward is breaking through whatever is holding me back, which is usually being a Good Girl, lined up in a multigenerational kick line with Good Daughter and Good Mother.