“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.
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.
“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.
“This does not count as writing time: e-mail, Facebook, ordering another J. Crew cardigan, watching YouTube videos of that cute heavy metal band of eleven-year-old kids in New York, or anything involving cat pictures. This does count as writing time: lying on the floor of your office listening to Elliott Smith's Either/Or. Poetic, hypnotic, massively screwed-up and beautiful—this album reminds us that even with the most despairing work, creation itself is a light in the darkness. Handle with care because Either/Or stirs up the deepest kind of mojo.
“I read aloud. This can make writing anywhere besides at home nearly impossible. I envy those who write in cafés, but each time I try it myself, I only eavesdrop. Reading aloud, I become more emotionally invested in the moment I’m trying to create; I feel present in the dialogue, so I’m more likely to hear the response to something a character has said, rather than force it. I read aloud slowly and deliberately. If I have a particularly productive morning writing, I’ll often have a slightly sore throat in the afternoon from all that talking to myself.
“I grew up on New York’s derelict Lower East Side in the early ’90s when it was still a neighborhood full of dangerous beauty. Hydrants blasted jets of water into the streets in summer heat and rap music pumped from project windows. I fell in love, but was also scared by the rugged poetry of hip hop. As one of the only white, Jewish bookworms in my elementary school classes I found I could impress my classmates with poems and drawings. My father was an artist turned social worker and I learned early that art and writing was about thrilling escape.
“I recommend writing in libraries, and I highly recommend changing the table, reading room, and even library you’re working in often. Change of venue is a powerful and perhaps under-appreciated creative force. I don’t know why it should be this way, but if I’m stuck on a project I find that if I pick myself up and work somewhere new, the words begin to flow again. I’ll work in one place for a long time—for two years I worked on the 8th floor of Bobst Library overlooking Washington Square Park; I finished and edited my first novel there.
“I don’t actually look for inspiration. I look for ways to recoup the joy of writing when that joy is lost to me. Whenever I find myself stuck or just without any ideas, it’s because I seem to have forgotten how incredibly fun it is to mess around with words. So to remind myself, I read. But not just anything. I have to read fiction that is exuberant—not in content but style. Writers who howl on the page so loudly, you can hear them for miles. Barry Hannah and Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor and Angela Carter. Jose Saramago and Denis Johnson. Cormac McCarthy. Faulkner. Joy Williams.
“Prominently displayed on my writing desk is an index card on which I’ve written a quote by my dear friend, and boss at the Nervous Breakdown, Brad Listi. Some years ago, when I was at a creative low point—allowing the criticism of others to question my abilities as a writer—Brad told me: “Refuse to be denied or broken.” I often return to those words. They remind me that to be a poet or writer is not a passive act. Every day we must break through walls of self-doubt and denial. Stand our ground. Let our voices be heard.
“I’m pretty much a workhorse. I write everyday whether I’m inspired or not. Getting started is never the problem; it’s getting finished. When I get stuck mid story or essay (a regular occurrence), I put on my running shoes and head out. I’m a terrible runner—awkward, slow, and sweaty. But I run my guts out, as fast as I can for a far as I can. During this very labored experience, I picture something from childhood: My dad used to practice bow and arrow in the backyard.