“When I get stuck on the question of what’s happening in a piece of fiction, when my words feel stilted or dull, I like to read a bit of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (Burning Deck, 1980). The book consists of thirty-seven prose poems, each one corresponding to a year of Hejinian’s life, each one exactly thirty-seven sentences long. It’s a kind of autobiography, but it’s not narrative—instead, it’s moments, details, language. Freed from the strict confines of a more traditional sense of story, I think about feeling and movement.
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.
“When I feel uninspired or uncertain about my work—especially when struggling with self-doubt and falling prey to comparisons with better writers—I find it helpful to think about art. I remind myself that, just as there’s room for a wide variety of visual art to coexist, there’s room for a wide variety of fiction to coexist without ranking. We can love Rembrandt and also Paul Klee; we can admire both Vincent van Gogh and Louise Bourgeois without ever dreaming of comparing them. In the same vein, we can love both Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis, Charles Dickens and Kelly Link.
“Something that keeps me going when I get stuck in my writing is getting the hell out of the house. I take walks, very late at night, around the lake that sits nearby. It’s quiet—just me and all the nocturnal animals, many mosquitoes, and my sweaty beer—and I’ll stroll and listen to the cicadas shriek. It’s good to look around at all that expansive beauty and wonder about the largeness of the planet: I’m such a small thing, just one of many creatures. After being on the Internet all day, or staring at a blank Word document, being out in the Florida evening helps my mind reacclimate.
“When I’m overwhelmed that I’m lacking something—a metaphor, a meaning, a story even—I turn to words that make me think about words. And nothing accomplishes that more than music for me. I turn to music to get those thoughts flowing. I create playlists by artists who write how I want to write. I find music by artists I’m not familiar with. I listen to old music by artists I’m in love with. I dance to their words. I sing their words. I rap their words.
“I borrow often and widely. I recommend borrowing ideas from Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century series to see the relationship various kinds of artists have with process and material. As someone who has spent more of my life cooking food than writing poems, I have an intimate relationship to material; how things feel in my hand and in my mouth. Faced with an empty page, sometimes I need to leave words, get up, go outside, and get my hands dirty.
“First, I turn to my lit bars: Cane (Boni & Liveright, 1923) by Jean Toomer, Cooley High, and Ray Baretto. These are my aspirational spark plugs. When I was revising The Crazy Bunch, there were two nights during my Lucas Artists fellowship in California—rare nights—where I drank a little gin, listened to nineties hip-hop, and I danced as I wrote and rewrote. I broke night with my poems.
“When I find myself in the writing weeds, I have finally learned to pay attention to the warning signs: Stop. Go back. Do not push farther in. I resist the urge to soldier on, to muddle through, to fix a line here or there, to delete whole paragraphs that make no sense at that moment, to get to the end of the page. Sometimes I am concentrating so hard I can almost hear the synapses up there groaning, the machinery grinding to a slow, protesting halt. And I give in. I nap. Conk out. Let sleep’s hammer fall. Writers write, we’re told endlessly. Yes, but writers must also stop.
“I’m writing a novel, and have been for over a decade. I’ve had periods of great productivity, days when one thousand-word quotas turn into four thousand words, vivid dreams of a nineteenth-century Southwestern desert crisp with blue mountain air, mornings when I awake smelling the campfires of the past. I love the world of my novel-in-progress—the extravagance, the lush dance halls, a sharpshooting, tea leaf reading, snake charming, feminine, and indigenous Wild West. But working on a singular project for years isn’t easy.
“I’m a very visual thinker even when I write. So it helps me to infuse my brain with visual art. I love visiting museums (especially on their free days), and writing ekphrasis is a great method for generating new work, since I’m not just relying on what’s in my own limited brain. Paintings, sculptures, installations, anything works for me. I try to read the artist’s statement to get a sense of their process and what larger conversations they are engaging with.
“I’ve come to some kind of understanding about what it means for me to be in the act of making. Obviously people struggle with the negotiation of time when it comes to the needs of our professional selves, our personal selves, our creative selves. And because so much of our lens views a finished product as the metric by which we determine that work has been done, if I don’t actually have words on the paper or a finished poem then I’m supposed to believe I was ‘stuck.’ If I’m reading a book, I’m not stuck.