“If I am too in sync with the present, I can’t write. Or I can write, but I don’t want to, because too great an affinity with the present, of events currently happening, makes me queasy. This isn’t to valorize the past in any way; it’s just an objection to belonging too much to the assumptions of the now. I try to remedy this with strategic alienation. Physical exhaustion helps; I’ll walk twenty miles just to feel a different sort of rhythm, or clean something obsessively.
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.
“One irony of being a writer is that we work alone, but the purpose of our medium—language itself—is communication. The word communication shares a common ancestor, of course, with common, which took on a snooty connotation in the late 1500s, but has always meant ‘belonging to a group.’ To communicate then is to offer up one’s thoughts to the collective. Solitary, on the other hand (from the Old French soul, meaning ‘only’), is about a hundred years newer than common and its relatives.
“I am inspired to keep writing during times of inertia or busyness by remembering that writing is a way not just to talk back to, but to co-create the world. When I don’t write for a long period of time, my powers of observation might be heightened (as I’m typically reading or watching or listening to more art and media when not writing), but I find myself slightly more quiescent—more willing or able to accept the status quo, or moan about social ills while feeling powerless to ameliorate them. Many activities return me to this space of co-creation—of acceptance of my vocation, too.
“It’s hardest for me to write when I’m too worn out by the day-to-day to slow down and sense where I am in the world. When I’m not writing it’s usually because I’m not listening deeply to what’s happening in and around me. I’ve found a practice that gives me back to my imagination: I return to images, songs, or texts that still unsettle me in some valuable way. They hone in on issues always just beneath the surface of my mind: the complications of masculinity, Americanness (whatever that is!), sexuality, empathy, vulnerability, memory.
“During the week I am busy with my day job as a computer engineer, my children and family. I strive to live a low-drama life with a healthy routine. I don’t drink and rarely go out at night. I don’t even speak much. I live an ascetic life in order to bottle up my emotions for my writing. When it’s time for my creative endeavor, mostly on the weekends, I go to the cave. It is just my desk behind a closed door, but it’s the place where I permit myself to be a writer. I have a nice meal with my family first and ask if anyone needs me.
“In the year leading up to the publication of my debut novel, Everything Here Is Beautiful, I decided to create an archive of ‘beautiful, wondrous, and amazing things,’ posting one item a day on my Facebook page for 365 consecutive days.
“I am not looking, usually, for inspiration. I am looking for an ambulance. I’m looking for a sturdy ladder. I’m looking for something that will make a good sentence seem possible. I read my Janes, Hirshfield and Kenyon, because they know what the dark at the end of the tunnel looks like. I hit my music very hard: Fats Domino, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dinah Washington, Regina Carter, The Hot Sardines, Esperanza Spalding. I put on my baggiest jeans and my daughter’s coffee-stained Smith College T-shirt and I cook like a meteor is heading to Earth and only food can stop it.
“When I am locked out of the gates of literature, I despair, brood, obsess. I believe wholeheartedly that I will never write again. I pursue this line of thought to the bitter end. It’s an excruciating process, but there are no shortcuts on the road to writing. I’ve come to consider the atmospheric disturbance that exists at the edges of laying honest sentences across a page to be character-building experiences. After all, writing demands resilience, self-respect, discipline. More exhilarating, perhaps, is the fact that it requires an equal measure of disobedience.
“In my early thirties, I spent two years in Korea, investigating the particulars of my adoption and reuniting with my birth family. While there, I took Korean classes, and since I’d never had any real Korean instruction before, I became, for a while, a toddler, learning letters and sounds and words and numbers. Studying something as elemental as an alphabet enlivened a part of my brain that’d been dormant for years; overnight, it seemed, I viewed language not as a sophisticated mode of communication but as an elegant arrangement of shapes and sounds.
“I write because I read. I imagine many of us are this way, bewildered in the tangle of these co-creative activities: writing to understand how better to read, reading to understand how better to write. I seek out—both for inspiration and comfort—those writers who seem to share, and to illuminate, that confounding sense of wonder. Dearest to my heart over the past few years is Sir Thomas Browne. Every book he writes—Urne-Buriall, Religio Medici, The Garden of Cyrus—reveals to me again and again what thinking beauty a mind of true curiosity can create.