“I used to get really distressed by my writing dry spells, but since I’m also an arts journalist I always have that medium to turn to when my poems are giving me grief. Taking in different forms of art and looking at them critically opens my mind up to different possibilities in my poetry. (Museums are great for that too.) But simply reading good writing helps most of all. Because I’m deeply in love with both theater and poetry, Anne Carson is one of my patron saints and inspirations.
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.
“Whenever I feel stuck in my writing, I change up my writing routine. I have kids, so I typically write for twenty- or thirty-minute spurts during the day, usually at coffee shops after I drop them off at school, then on the commute to and from work, or on my lunch breaks. But if I’m stuck, I’ll listen to music or read during my usual writing times, and instead, write at night. I won’t necessarily go back to the actual work-in-progress.
“Often it feels like overwhelm is a constant heckler and I’m on stage unable to formulate the next joke, word, sentence, line—entire stories robbed from me by this hack clown. When this was an intermittent problem instead of a chronic one, I came up with a solution I turn to more and more. I call it my Recharge List. The list is a catalog of activities that break through the clutter and allow imagination and sentences to flow again. There are different cures for different moods.
“There are certain writers whose prose is so deft and beautiful that reading them can inspire whatever I happen to be working on, even if the style, setting, or genre are completely different. One is Thomas Pynchon, whose prose I’ve been obsessed with ever since I discovered his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49. I’ll often go back to the first paragraph of that book to remind myself that it’s possible to write something complex, lyrical, and full of specific detail, but also something that’s funny and that really moves. Hilary Mantel is another such writer.
“Stuck feelings come to me in two ways: first, a story-level stickiness, when I’m working on a project but don’t know where it’s headed next, and second, a more existential stickiness, when I don’t have a project and don’t know where I myself am headed. The first one is easier to handle. In those moments where the next sentence, paragraph, or scene isn’t coming, I turn away from my draft toward the outlining exercises in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.
“I find that the hardest work of my writing is done in my subconscious brain, somewhere in the back of my skull far out of the reach of my control. So if I am stuck, if the proper image or plot point has not yet been presented to me, it usually means that other brain functions are in the way, namely the nervous, anxious, day-to-day processes required for moving throughout the world.
“Taking a spin through the Smiths album Hatful of Hollow is one of the things I allow myself when faced with troubles on the page. It’s not so much to inspire as to reset. There’s a relaxing familiarity in coming back to songs that were on heavy rotation for me growing up as a teenage misfit in Singapore. The listening experience is less urgent now, and functions more as a calmative in retracing that line from Morrissey through to Oscar Wilde (whom Morrissey adored growing up as a teenage misfit in Manchester).
“When it’s warm enough in Maine—May through October, mostly—I write in a small attic that sits above a 20-by-20-foot garage/shop building in my backyard. I do a lot of carpentry on the side, and all my tools are in my shop. When I get tired of thinking in words, I go downstairs and dig into a list of projects that I’m working on. Or sometimes I’ll just take a few minutes to very carefully put things—drill bits, odd wood scraps, chisels—in their proper places.
“I begin my writing day with a sip of coffee and a vape (or two) of marijuana. (Disclaimer: I live in a state where medical marijuana is legal.) I never actually compose stoned, but I do read what I wrote the day before and take notes—silly, hallucinatory notes, but sometimes ideas that I might not have stumbled upon otherwise. The high, which also causes me to be forgetful, makes rereading a paragraph that I have read a hundred times before feel fresh and full of possibilities. The intoxication never lasts more than fifteen to twenty minutes and then I get on with the business of writing.
“Seeing is an act of imagination. When I am stuck in writing, it means that I have stopped seeing, that I have reduced the myriad forms to irrelevant background shapes like extras in a film, that I have closed off the sense doors to dwell in an anxious hermitage of bills and paperwork.