“I find that the most useful approach to getting seriously unstuck is to stop talking about the work completely. I do not mean to stop writing, or to stop showing up for a regular practice of writing. I mean to stop bringing it up in conversation, to stop answering questions about it, to stop describing or summarizing it transactionally, to stop seeking mirroring from others in relation to it, to stop letting others in on it (or the self out of it) completely. To enter into an airtight relationship with the questions and the uncertainties of the work.
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.
“Every writer’s universe is a museum—there’s a permanent collection of concerns and obsessions and themes, then there are temporary rotating exhibitions, and then there are inventories of objects and curiosities that the writer has yet to employ. I led a writing exercise once where students listed the themes that pervade their work (their ‘permanent collection’), some present fixations or obsessions (their ‘rotating exhibitions’), and future topics they were interested in (their ‘inventory’).
“When I’m stuck and feeling overwhelmed (or underwhelmed for that matter) by my writing, my thoughts go right to water. I think I’m looking for the equilibrium of simply being whelmed, of being right in the flow of words, immersed in story.
“Staring intently doesn’t help us to see faint stars at night. We can see them better if we use our peripheral vision. This counterintuitive technique called averted vision works because rods—those light detectors in our eyes that allow us to see in weak light—are concentrated at the sides of our retinas. If we avoid a direct gaze and instead look slightly away from a star in the night sky, we involve our rods and thus see the star more clearly. I bring up this technique because it’s analogous to a practice that often helps me come up with creative ideas.
“When I’m deep in the woods of a novel and know I’ve lost my way, which has happened more times than I would care to admit, I look to the light of primary sources to see me back on track. When, for instance, I was some hundred pages into the battle-blasted landscape of my Civil War novel, Neverhome (Little, Brown, 2014), and could no longer figure how to move my character forward, I went for a walk in the stacks of the University of Denver’s library and found crumbling volumes of unvarnished Civil War diaries and letters, some that had not been checked out in fifty years.
“In her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain (Mariner Books, 2005), neurologist Alice W. Flaherty describes how the brain functions when we write: the temporal lobes deal in raw creativity—it’s the part of the brain we use when we generate new material; the frontal lobe is in charge of the editorial process. We need both parts of the brain working in concert to write well.
“All art has a rhythm, a pulse. Whenever I feel lost, when I seem to keep missing the beat, I find it elsewhere: in movies, music, or books. It always helps to revisit an old favorite, so when I can’t seem to make sense of my own work, I turn to writers whose work I trust, people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Junot Díaz, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I read their books over and over again, and their words click like a metronome in my head. Hopefully I’ll catch a vibe, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll just turn up the music and dance. Dancing makes sense to me; it’s instinctive.
“I used to think half the battle was simply sitting down to write, but over the years I’ve learned sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes inertia seeps in like the plague, my pen heavy with ink, the page blanker than it’s ever been. I know my conscious mind is responsible, and that I have to loosen up my associative memory, move it toward a dream state. For me, this process usually involves some combination of reading poetry and going on easy runs around Brooklyn.
“The origins of the word urge contain both the idea of pushing forward, forcing, but also to fasten or to tie. I turn to the urges of others and attempt to inhabit them through translation. I tie myself to someone else’s work, and the practice that emerges—the conflict of translation—can lead me into language, into saying, into translation’s agonistic pleasures of wayward mimicry and irresolution.
“When I was working on my novel there were two Bolaño novels that I kept returning to—not because their style or content was similar to what I was working on, but because they would get me into a sort of trance. I would be reading and my mind would be drifting, but at just the right frequency for inspiration. Writing feels a lot like the Magic Eye books—where you have to sort of relax and stare into the middle distance so that a 3-D picture will emerge, popping out towards you out of the abstract one. To see the image hidden in the page, you can’t look directly at it or you lose it.