“When I’m writing but can’t quite put my finger on what I’m after, I often turn to a visual artist whose commitments and practices resonate with my own art—a kind of guiding light, someone whose work is different in clear ways from mine but who nevertheless asks similar questions. This can be a way of filling the creative tank, but also a way to remind myself of the experience I’m trying to create when otherwise lost in the weeds.
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.
“My advice to anyone suffering from writer’s block is, ‘don’t write.’ It may sound perverse, but that’s how I manage to survive those dry spells that afflict us all; it’s often difficult enough to make it through the day’s news cycle without the added ordeal of hammering away at your laptop only to delete everything as it’s written. Better to read, ideally something as far away as possible—stylistically, thematically, historically—from what you’re trying to write yourself.
“In the words of Depeche Mode: Enjoy the silence. Seek out John Cage’s 4’33’’. Or maybe read “Not Writing” by Anne Boyer. Daily, we are inundated with language, content, noise. I don’t always want to join the chorus. But, if the silence is too much (sometimes it is), and if I feel there is something unnameable holding me back, something I would prefer to name, then I try to meet my frustration and consider the conditions of my speechlessness, an aversion to words.
“Our present moment is in turmoil. It’s understandable that I have felt frozen in place, unable to take action, to set my mind in order. What act of creation should I pursue; what matters most to me, to humanity?
“Many things inspire me to write or help to get me out of a non-writing funk. Some are obvious, like reading other writers, especially poets, to get me re-excited about language and wanting to put down words. Some are less obvious, like sadness. I’m not sure I can recommend sadness as motivation, and I don’t imagine it would work for everyone, but I’ve found that I’m most prolific when I’m in an emotionally heavy place. I don’t mean rock-bottom sadness, because when that happens, even reading can feel like pulling myself uphill.
“I am often asked, who are you reading? Although I make a habit of walking around with books when I am working on a poem, I use the writers more as company, carrying them like an ‘in case of emergency’ policy so I don’t ever feel stuck. This makes it difficult to provide an answer that would satisfy one’s curiosity about my sources of inspiration. It’s also a difficult question to answer because the ‘who’ is often not another writer.
“When I get stuck while writing, I change my surroundings. If I’ve been working at the pine kitchen table for a few weeks, I’ll switch to writing on my bed. If I’ve been working on the bed, I’ll migrate to the office. Changing the view from the watercolor on the bedroom wall to the quote ‘Never a Day Without a Line’ (attributed to Horace on the sign, but to others elsewhere) tacked up in my office triggers a new set of associations in my mind. So, too, does reorienting myself toward or away from a window.
“Whenever I’m stuck, I call up a friend. Not to chat or commiserate, but to work. Specifically, to do their work. My only reliable solution for writer’s block is to set aside my draft and pick up someone else’s.
My chapter sucks. Hey Laura, send me your latest chapter.
I’m bored with my research. Hey Sindya, need a fact checker?
I don’t want to write today. Hey Robyn, here’s why you should write today.
“I think of writer’s block as a bubble, a physical thing I can step out of. When I am stuck or when the words sound hollow and wooden, I stop trying to write and instead try to regain my rhythm in movement. I physically change something. Sometimes it’s my location; I try working in a different room in my house, on the patio if the weather allows or away from home at a writers studio. Other times I move away from the work altogether by taking long walks around a lake, or by baking or cooking.
“When I get stuck on a project or between things, my first reaction is to grumble around the house and act like the world has come to an end. Once I’m through that stage, I return to this ever-evolving list of ‘books that matter to me,’ which I keep on a torn notebook page tacked above my desk: Pedro Páramo, the Grimm’s tales, My Ántonia, The Leopard, Darkmans, Sula, By Night in Chile, another dozen or so. I feel like everyone has a list like this, whether they’ve written it down or not.