“I don’t always encourage my students to walk into a classroom without any clothes and the only thing on their body are porcupine quills, in the same fashion that I don’t always encourage neophyte literary beings to become writers. To caution writers from pursuing a career in writing, I tell them that the writing life, the good one that is, is like climbing a mountain, but this mountain isn’t made of rocks—rather it’s composed entirely of razor blades—and one would naturally assume in climbing this mountain, one would be wearing shoes, but the writer’s feet are often bare, sockless.
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.
“Writing is a combination of sculpting and songwriting for me. The first challenge is to vomit out the raw hunk of material—gather the thoughts that will anchor the storyline, in their rawest form—and then carve them into something beautiful and cohesive from there. Once the base has formed, I can listen to the flow of the words and see if it sounds like my own music. Okay, all pretentiousness aside, I’ve got synesthesia, (I see things in shapes, rather than as abstractions), so visual references are key for me in trying to explain how my brain works.
“Most of what I write is memoir, which is a harrowing genre, but I have no choice in the matter. It’s what I have always been called to write. People often ask, ‘WHY do you write about yourself, your bumbling mistakes, your occasional epiphanies?’ They ask this with a certain tone, as one might ask a mountain climber why he scales a dangerous peak in the middle of winter.
“As readers, we writers seem to especially cherish what I call ‘permission-giving’ works, the kind we read and react to with momentary outrage, ‘You can’t do that!’ followed by dawning delight, ‘Oh, you can?’ (which, of course, is to say, ‘Perhaps I can’).
“Music has always played a big part in my writing. I started writing for a theoretical readership when I did a zine about punk and hardcore bands in the mid-to-late-1990s, and my first freelance pieces were also about music. Music has inspired stories, served as a plot element for novels, and provided a backdrop for many a long writing session.
“At the ninth annual Outsound New Music Summit, as Martha Colburn’s monsters reeled on the screen and Thollem McDonas improvised feverishly on the piano, I was reminded of both Slavoj Žižek’s speaking of voices as foreign to the our bodies in the context of The Exorcist and of a scene from my childhood in Guayaquil, Ecuador—a long forgotten scene in which my aunt Ana tried to exorcise a relative—and because for years I’d been attending performances like this as a way to exist in an alien planet of thought where new pattern
“The stories I write begin as fragments that spend months or years in the Failure Folder, a limbo where I hide unfinished pieces too raw, unspeakable, or unwieldy to share. In the years I regularly attended writing workshops, I had a habit of convincing myself to plan to turn in old, serviceable, safe work. And then, after dinner on the night before class, I’d inevitably begin tinkering with one of my failures. When I thought of going to bed I’d say, sometimes aloud, ‘You’re alright, just keep telling the story.’ I’d gently urge myself on in this way into the wee hours.
“One of my favorite things to tell my students is, The poem is smarter than you. I rarely start writing a poem knowing how it will finish, and even when I think I have a general idea, it rarely turns out to be accurate. Writers often talk about strategies for revision and tips and tricks for how to overcome writer’s block, but I think letting go of what we’re writing—especially in early drafts—and not trying to shape it too much toward our own egos and aesthetic inclinations results in it speaking most powerfully and convincingly through us.
“Because so much of my poetry explores language itself—the ways we shape and are shaped by it—my creative practice often begins with collecting words. My college mentor, appalled by the etymological dictionary I was using, introduced me to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots edited by Calvert Watkins, which has been my constant companion ever since. It traces thousands of words from languages across the Western Hemisphere to their shared roots in a prehistoric language, Proto-Indo-European.
“When I am stuck in the perfection cog—as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft or, I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how everything is going to fit together—I find it helpful to tell myself: You will fail. I have this written on a Post-it note. It might sound discouraging, but I find it very liberating. The idea is that no matter what I do, the draft is going to be flawed, so I might as well just have at it.