“I affectionately refer to my writer’s-little-helper as ‘the green book,’ but it’s actually called The Modern Library’s Writer’s Workshop. I've gifted this wonder of a book, which is less a writing manual and more of a spirit guide, to many of my writer friends and they’ve all been equally captivated and enriched by the author’s wise, old soul voice.
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.
“I recommend dipping salted almonds (not smokehouse almonds, just dried, salted almonds) into Nutella hazelnut spread and eating them like that. I tried this for the first time yesterday, and it was delicious. My best friend from growing up is Sicilian, and his grandmother used to tell him that he should eat three almonds every day—exactly three, no-more-no-less—because it would make him smarter. (I picture her covering one eye and spitting at the ground.) I know it sounds nuts.
“I keep going back to Flannery O’Connor’s quote: ‘The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where the human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal through the senses with abstractions.’ An exercise that I often give my fiction students (because it works for me) is to jot down the five senses on a piece of paper, then go for a walk and collect as many details as I can that correspond to sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. The second part of the assignment is that during this walk, there’s no talking allowed.
“I write in the mornings. Pre-breakfast, post-sending kids off to school. Just me and my computer on the porch, a cup of instant coffee and sad to say, the odd cigarette. I’m very particular about the mug I choose for my coffee—it seems to forecast the writing mood I’m in that day.
“This is going to sound very meta, but when I need a kick in the pants I like to read author interviews. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than eavesdropping on another writer talking shop. Writing books is oftentimes a solitary, lonely process. Authors discussing their own processes gives me a sense of connectedness to a larger community that extends hundreds of years into the past. It’s helpful to know you’re not alone.
“I feel very boring admitting that my biggest inspiration for writing novels is reading…novels. I spent four and a half years working on what will be my first published (and second completed) novel. During that time, I developed a habit of turning to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.
“Is it old fashioned to recommend love as a writing prescription? I could say a lot about the mind-quieting effects of long-distance running, regular meditation, and a well-crafted soundtrack, but what about the mind-blooming madness of love? I’m talking about the crazy kind, not the long-suffering wife who silently delivers tea to your desk and keeps your calendar. I’m talking about a heart torn open, in falling, in breaking, in longing, in pining, in mid-swoon mania. A little mania has always done wonders for artists, in work if not in life.
"I'm an extrovert. I talk to strangers at Target, to telemarketers too. When I can't find an actual person I turn to Twitter. When the Wi-Fi’s down, I watch TV. I live for voices. Of course, as a writer I need silence, so I impose it on myself. I take long walks, aimless drives. But when the walk turns into a neighborly chat or the drive ends in a flat tire, I come home and shower until the water runs out. And that is where I do my best work, where I puzzle out characters and timelines. Where nothing can reach me, no phone, no e-mail.
"While, like most writers, I gain all kinds of inspiration from reading and movies and art and music, what often inspires me most is silence and a dark room. I love to sit in a dark room, especially late at night, with nothing to distract me. I wait to see where my imagination might take me. With nothing to distract—no television, no online procrastination—with only my imagination and a still, quiet room, I tend to find the answers to problems I might be having in a given story or essay. I find new ways of thinking about how to tell a story.
"Like lots of fiction writers, I rely on research to reduce the odds of embarrassing myself. I don’t want to, say, have the wrong flowers in bloom at the wrong time in the wrong place or get everything wrong about whales or guano harvesting or France. Even one lonely mistake can ruin the reader’s willingness to participate in the illusion of fiction, and I’m not into making things harder for myself.