“In my mid-thirties, I started jogging and, shortly thereafter, I began a new novel. My wife, Thisbe, and I had recently bought our first house in the Catskills, some three miles from Woodstock. I’d finished but failed to publish three earlier novels. I always hated jogging. I found the slog dull. Nevertheless, the new novel centered, at first, around a runner. A middle-aged ultra marathoner inspired by Diane Van Deren.
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.
“Because so much of the writing life takes place in the mind, where risk taking requires acts of mental and emotional bravery, I am inspired by people whose work requires physical courage and endurance. This includes professional athletes, ballet dancers, and the increasingly long list of friends and family members who train for marathons and triathlons. But topping this list of superheroes are first responders and emergency workers who live and ‘wage peace’—as one organization, Preemptive Love Coalition puts it—in war zones and refugee situations.
“That Ornette Coleman’s music is not for everyone is the whole point. Because sometimes the most liberating thing of all is remembering that you can’t please everyone. So whenever I’m feeling especially burdened by imagined responses to some of my less conventional on-the-page moves, I listen to the man who with every breath urged us, in his own words, to ‘break away from…convention and stagnation,’ to ‘escape!’ But sometimes it’s also a matter of figuring out who you absolutely shouldn’t try to please. Like my college suitemate, Christian, for instance.
“In times of struggle, sadness and turmoil, personal or political, I find it hard to concentrate on writing. Writing feels useless and indulgent at the same time. It is precisely at that moment when I am hurting the most that I try to remember to take a breath and give myself a moment to grieve. Then I read and write to cast off the pain (or worse, the numbness) that comes with the realization of the limits of my power. Reconnecting to art and to writing helps me believe in the goodness of other people.
“Staying fresh and inspired as a writer can be as simple as hopping in the car, driving around, and maybe even getting into a little adventure. A meaningful moment can be had anywhere if I surround myself with the inspiring beauty of, say, a Kentucky swamp, or by grabbing an earful from the local color at some corner bar. The idea is to stay fascinated with everything—everything in the world. I even let those quiet, philosophical moments seep in too. Random musings. They provide an unexpected foil to my ‘southern gothic’ writing style.
“Three years ago I picked up Marjorie Welish’s third book of poetry, The Windows Flew Open (Burning Deck, 1991), in a used bookstore in the Midwest as I was preparing to move away. I’d never read a word by her nor had anyone recommended it to me. I was searching for one last shard of mystery in a town that had been formative to my understanding of myself as a poet, and had become perhaps too familiar. In that moment for no particular reason the universe emphasized this book. I took it to Brooklyn, unpacked, read it on the subway.
“One of the hardest things about daily writing is getting back in, reconnecting with the page and your work. Far easier to fall down some Internet rabbit hole, and avoid it all. Meanwhile, your dog isn’t going to write your novel for you (if only). This recommendation can help you dive back in, almost fooling you into that deep, necessary level of engagement:
“When my words are jammed, I like to draw or paint. It’s a relief to let go of language for a few hours and work using light and shade. Drawing always feels more physical than writing—it clears my mind. Many of my blocks come from anxiety about whether I can excel as a writer. Painting calms me because I do it primarily for myself. I become absorbed in how the papery skin of a garlic bulb is streaked with ochre. Stories can seep into that calmer mind. The very best thing is to leave the house with a small box of paints. Outside, I’m jolted from my home’s overly familiar images and objects.
“Writing of any real consequence has to be brave. It has to take chances. For a long time, I thought being brave as a writer meant being experimental. But, actually, bravery is not necessarily about experimenting as much as it is about risk. The biggest risk we take as artists is making art. The second biggest is deciding we want to make art of consequence. To set yourself this task is to admit that you take your own work seriously, that writing is not a hobby, and that (to you at least), what you are writing has to matter. What does that mean?