“I’ll sometimes sit at my writing table and watch the trees outside—the play of sunlight and shade in their leaves. It instantly takes me back. Back to afternoons as a kid, walking home from school down a leafy street. Back to the half-year I spent in the Oregon woods in my twenties. And somehow that momentary plunge into memory puts me in touch with the mystery that compels me to write in the first place. I feel ready. Receptive. What words do I want to send tumbling down through the years like sunlight in a red maple?”
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’ve had numerous writing rituals over the years. They’ve tended to change as my life circumstances have changed, but they always revolve around two key ingredients: silence and geography. I cannot hear my own voice when my mind is cluttered, and what constitutes clutter could fill a small book. It includes, at its most basic, people, dogs, telephones, televisions, construction equipment, sirens, and the Internet (by which I mean the whole mind-numbing-soul-sucking-time-wasting thing).
“When I’m stuck, I paint or I draw. Or I cook. Or I garden—or I redecorate a room. I get away from words, but not away from creativity. It’s a way to keep those energies moving and alive, without the particular worries about content that writing can carry. And also, because none of those activities are my profession, they help me relocate the playfulness and pleasure that disappear when I feel creatively anxious or empty.
“Nothing helps my writing, or makes me want to write, more than driving alone on lonely roads. That’s when I turn up the music—radio, scanning the stations for the surprise of what might get played. Something about this combination, the driving, the music, the landscape, feels generative. I’m currently working on my second nonfiction book and I’m pretty sure it started in the car, Howard Jones singing ‘No One Is to Blame,’ bringing me back, like it or not, to the sorrows of seventh grade.
“When I need to reach that pool of possibility within, I get something cold to drink and sit next to an open window—no matter the season. Listening to instrumental acid jazz from the late 60s and 70s gets me in a good zone—Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay Suite, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Pharaoh Sanders, and many others (I can’t listen to singers or vocalists because I surrender to their soaring).
“‘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.
“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.