“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.
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 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.
“The other day I saw a headline that suggested climate change meant the end of coffee, and I had to close my laptop and do some deep breathing. Coffee! Each morning my kids vie to scoop grinds into my Melita filter cone. This is not about civic duty, this is about survival. I write at my local coffee shop, where the coffee is Stumptown and the children can’t find me. After two (or THREE!) cups my brain is clear and alert and focused and brimming with ideas. But if a coffee famine is indeed imminent, I will have to find another profession. Or, possibly, sleep more.”
“I once had a blind friend ask me to close my eyes and describe a restaurant for him. I tried descriptions from memory, using only my sense of sight. With my eyes closed, though, I could describe fork metal scraping against teeth, crunching paper napkins and snippets of conversation in the room. I realized my entire life has a soundtrack with layers of sound. It's the same as when I see any Romare Bearden collage or witness the building tensions at a dinner table. Everything—poem, story, character, conflict, silence—has its own sound. You sometimes have to close your eyes to hear it.
“Write toward your fear. That memory or worry or idea buried inside, that truth about you that you hope no one discovers. The thing you wish you could forget about yourself. Write directly to that. Repression, sublimation, fear, denial. These are creative energies, but they feed only cruel creations: Writer’s block, thin writing, clichéd ideas, and self-criticism. Hiding your painful truth is a wall without mortar. It takes work to maintain. Hold the stones in place, it might not fall. But good luck, and don’t forget to worry worry worry. That effort saps all others. Let the wall go.
“Whenever I’m in a rut, there are a few women writers whose voices I return to: Lorrie Moore and Anne Lamott come to mind first, but I know there are others. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction, the tone must be wry and honest, which in turn (hopefully) inspires me to be wry and honest. I find I am sharpest in the first two hours of the early morning after a strong cup of coffee. If I’m writing fiction and I’ve found myself in a plot cul-de-sac, the only way for me to get out of it is to go for a longish run outside. The treadmill just doesn’t cut it.”
“Here are two things that have helped me when I feel depleted or confused, which is often. One: I find that ideas like to come when they’re most inconvenient. So I daydream my way through situations where writing is impossible. In the shower. While dog-walking. On the subway. I don’t rush out of that situation to write anything down—I just let my mind go, fabricating and wandering, until the end of the day, when I make a record of where my thoughts have gone. It gives me material to start with the next morning.