“When I’m stuck, my breath becomes shallow. My shoulders and back stiffen. I squint and try to force my brain to produce the correct words. My brain refuses, and I become frustrated. I reach for distractions—my phone, the hunger I don’t feel but insist upon. I make elaborate sandwiches. One distraction leads to another, and before I know it, the day has gotten away from me. This makes me angry. With anger comes more tension, putting the next day’s work at risk. I know this pattern, but knowing it doesn’t always stop me from slipping into it.
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.
“What I try to focus on most during the process of writing is a sense of pleasure, especially in the early drafting stage. Sometimes I take a walk or listen to music, which helps the visions. It starts with an image or vision. I like to walk through the desert. Sometimes I’ll pick up an old rotary phone and dial a number that registers a busy signal. There’s something about the busy signal that’s rhythmic and strange and hollow. Who knows where these things come from.
“When I’m slowly sinking in the quicksand of writing troubles (I don’t know what to write! This story’s going nowhere! I’m an impostor! I can’t manage all this contradictory feedback!), my tree branch is poetry. Poems afford me a chance to refocus on words: their sounds, their rhythms, their ability to tell stories in and of themselves. Perhaps it’s because I don’t fancy myself a poet that I’m drawn to poetry’s magic, that I view it as a never-ending well of inspiration, sustenance, and guidance.
“Poetry has become my daily prayer ritual, my practice, and my religion. Every day the music of R. Carlos Nakai and words of Ntozake Shange bring me to my writing table. There, I fancy myself a vast ocean tumbling as far as the eye can see. As I write, I am not thinking about what does or doesn’t work. I am purely putting words down, knowing that there will be time for editing later.
“When I’m stuck, I crave a literal remedy: motion. On days when a character refuses to untangle, or my head feels sunk in a soup of possibilities, I’ll go for a bike ride. Nothing with an incline, nothing that involves much physical expenditure, I’m not suggesting a spin class or anything involving athletic shorts. The flat-as-pancake streets of Beijing—or any other similarly hill-deprived city—are ideally suited to your purpose here, or really anywhere where it’s possible to bike lazily, effortlessly, watching the streets roll by and feeling the breeze on your face.
“When I’m working on a book, I’m intensely focused and disciplined. I start at nine in the morning, turn off the internet, and work through until two in the afternoon. What that work looks like, however, also involves lying on my daybed and staring into space or nodding off on my keyboard so I wake with six pages of cccccccccccccccvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvbbbbbbbbbbbbb.
“Recently I read a poem by Leslie Marmon Silko in which she states, ‘the struggle is the ritual.’ I’ve continued to think of this line in regards to my process of writing—what comes before I begin a poem and what helps me gauge that it has worked in some way. When I feel stuck, it often means that I’m in a moment of transition and that I need to give myself space to explore whichever internal landscape may be shifting and what new focus I’m finding.
“As a professional book editor, I spend much of my time focused on how a manuscript can be improved, aka what is wrong with it. Admittedly, a paralysis can come from attending too closely to that with your own work—if you only see how much in it is broken, you might lose hope of ever mending it.
“For me, the key to staying inspired enough to come to the page with energy, confidence, and focus is all about my routine, as well as knowing when to break it. Before I go to sleep, I tell myself I’m going to write the next day, so that when I wake up, there’s no question about it. It’s going to happen. In the morning, I meditate, allowing my mind and body to gently enter the new day. Then there’s the normal hygiene stuff, and breakfast, which is the same every day that I’m writing—a waffle with a side of orange juice. Do I sound like a psychopath? I don’t know, let’s keep going.
“When I am struggling with writing, I move to a different medium. If I am unproductive at the keyboard, I pick up a pen and a yellow legal pad. The color alone makes me feel like writing. Or I draw a picture. I keep a messy drawing of the whole story of a novel where I can see it while I am working on it. After an agent dumped me because my book Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) had been rejected by more than forty publishers, I started asking dancers and martial artists to teach me how to physically fall. It helped.