“The worst thing I think I’ve done for myself when being unable to write anything is to wait for the feeling to pass. I’m a quitter. I give up easily when I can’t see a clear way out. That being said there are two things that I know will keep me going if there isn’t anything else, and that is spite and humor.
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.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, raging wildfires, police brutality, and a deeply unsettling, mind-boggling political reality, the urge to write can be nearly subsumed. Before all of this, I turned to—what else?—books for inspiration. Sometimes the same ones over and over. But in my post debut novel world slump, my normal go-tos haven’t sufficed. That is until Intimations: Six Essays (Penguin Books, 2020) by Zadie Smith, which contains a series of essays written during the early months of quarantine (who else but Zadie could put together something so artful in a time of panic?).
“As I’ve been navigating the funk that comes with releasing a first book, it has been very helpful to revisit my earliest work. Though reading my messy old poems and short stories sometimes makes my teeth ache, I’m captured by the freedom in the work: that reckless exploration before I took part in workshops, before I became mired in studies of craft, learned my strengths and how to lean on them too completely. Despite my best efforts I’ve been penetrated by myriad gazes.
“Last week a non-writer friend asked Facebook for advice on how to separate two drinking glasses that were stuck together. The hive mind responded: dunk the bottom glass in hot water and fill the top one with ice; add dish soap at the joint and wiggle; add oil; stick a straw between them; use a knife; flip them and tap against a wooden counter; put them in the oven at low heat and wait; the freezer overnight; the microwave. Writing advice is like this—what works for one person won’t work for everyone. So with that in mind, my advice is to move away from the framework of ‘stuck vs.
“In Mona Hatoum’s film Measures of Distance, the artist reads out letters from her mother, while on screen, photographs of her mother’s nakedness loom too close, overlaid with the Arabic text of the handwritten letters and murmurings of their recorded conversations. Sound, image, and text merge, unable to distinguish themselves from the mother’s body, obscured by the very closeness of the camera.
“For me, feeling stuck in my writing really boils down to a sense of loneliness. The idea that writing is a solitary praxis is a truism for a reason, but that doesn’t mean that even the most private or individually driven writer doesn’t require some sense of community, of kinship, of conversation. When I feel like I can’t write, that feeling tends to stem from or be a manifestation of a sense that I have no one and nothing with whom or which to speak. Sometimes it’s worth dwelling on this solitude and loneliness.
“I’ve grown to understand that when I lack inspiration to write it’s somehow related, maybe even caused by, having strayed—mentally, emotionally, and probably physically—from my creative self. This is not to say that I always want to be producing work, but that I yearn to either be in or near a creative headspace. One way I try to keep in contact with my creative self is by watching and listening to the conversations of other creatives. Most often I seek out non-writers so that I can draw connections across disciplines.
“I write every day, but not always to share. When I am writing something that I want to share but the words stall, I remind myself what a privilege it is to voice my thoughts, to have access to language, put ideas to page, and to by and large feel safe doing so. Let’s be real—those of us in the world who have the time and space to do this, and who can do so without fear of persecution, without threat to safety are privileged—this not a given.
“I recommend grazing. When faced with a nebulous idea or impulse that resists being put to page, I often sit on the floor and surround myself with a cross section of books from different genres and historical periods that bear no relation to each other—novels, poems, dictionaries, trade magazines, scholarship. The more disparate the archive the better. I move quickly between them, flipping at random, noting turns of phrase, syntactical arrangements, sensuous nouns, whatever leaps out. Reading is essential for a writer, but this is not reading.
“Plot does not come naturally to me. Instead of staring at a blank page hoping for inspiration, I take a long walk and dictate to myself using my phone’s recording app. I pose a single question like: In this scene, how does character A anger character B? Then I talk to myself. My monologue is far from eloquent and includes a lot of hemming and hawing (‘How about.…’ ‘This is just terrible.’ ‘Oh, okay, this makes sense.’). Dictation lowers the stakes because I’m not committing my thoughts to paper yet.