“I borrow often and widely. I recommend borrowing ideas from Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series to see the relationship various kinds of artists have with process and material. As someone who has spent more of my life cooking food than writing poems, I have an intimate relationship to material; how things feel in my hand and in my mouth. Faced with an empty page, sometimes I need to leave words, get up, go outside, and get my hands dirty.
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.
“First, I turn to my lit bars: Cane (Boni & Liveright, 1923) by Jean Toomer, Cooley High, and Ray Baretto. These are my aspirational spark plugs. When I was revising The Crazy Bunch, there were two nights during my Lucas Artists fellowship in California—rare nights—where I drank a little gin, listened to nineties hip-hop, and I danced as I wrote and rewrote. I broke night with my poems.
“When I find myself in the writing weeds, I have finally learned to pay attention to the warning signs: Stop. Go back. Do not push farther in. I resist the urge to soldier on, to muddle through, to fix a line here or there, to delete whole paragraphs that make no sense at that moment, to get to the end of the page. Sometimes I am concentrating so hard I can almost hear the synapses up there groaning, the machinery grinding to a slow, protesting halt. And I give in. I nap. Conk out. Let sleep’s hammer fall. Writers write, we’re told endlessly. Yes, but writers must also stop.
“I’m writing a novel, and have been for over a decade. I’ve had periods of great productivity, days when one thousand-word quotas turn into four thousand words, vivid dreams of a nineteenth-century Southwestern desert crisp with blue mountain air, mornings when I awake smelling the campfires of the past. I love the world of my novel-in-progress—the extravagance, the lush dance halls, a sharpshooting, tea leaf reading, snake charming, feminine, and indigenous Wild West. But working on a singular project for years isn’t easy.
“I’m a very visual thinker even when I write. So it helps me to infuse my brain with visual art. I love visiting museums (especially on their free days), and writing ekphrasis is a great method for generating new work, since I’m not just relying on what’s in my own limited brain. Paintings, sculptures, installations, anything works for me. I try to read the artist’s statement to get a sense of their process and what larger conversations they are engaging with.
“I’ve come to some kind of understanding about what it means for me to be in the act of making. Obviously people struggle with the negotiation of time when it comes to the needs of our professional selves, our personal selves, our creative selves. And because so much of our lens views a finished product as the metric by which we determine that work has been done, if I don’t actually have words on the paper or a finished poem then I’m supposed to believe I was ‘stuck.’ If I’m reading a book, I’m not stuck.
“I recommend trying to write a set number of words each day, rather than for a set period of time. ‘The muse visits during the act of creation, not before,’ said Roger Ebert, a quote I found in Jami Attenberg’s TinyLetter newsletter. I also find it helpful to write in a bunch of different moods and physical states.
“When my writing gets stuck, I’ll clear time to sit with my last few months of reading spread around me, copying out my marginalia along with the passages I flagged and underlined. I have this massive document of annotations I’ve been adding to for years, a habit I started when I was an undergrad.
“When the words won’t come, I take my work for a walk. Literally, I put pages in my pocket and take a hike in an unfamiliar place. The idea is that both me and my writing could use the stretch of a new environment. Put your hand on it every day, no matter what, is my philosophy. Sometimes this only means taking pages with me in the car while I am out doing errands. If I need an extra jump, I will find ways to look at the story in a new light, again, literally.
“When the writing is slow or when I’m between projects, I pull on my boots and head to an art museum. Museums dilate us. Our job is to stay open and look—at this Rembrandt self-portrait, at this Rachel Whiteread casting, at this Kara Walker silhouette, at this Rothko color field. What happens as we look depends entirely on the looker and what is being looked at. But something inevitably happens—you love it and look more deeply, you hate it and wonder why, you remember something, your mood shifts, an image emerges, a line of thinking starts to lead you in an unexpected direction.