“One of my favorite things to tell my students is, The poem is smarter than you. I rarely start writing a poem knowing how it will finish, and even when I think I have a general idea, it rarely turns out to be accurate. Writers often talk about strategies for revision and tips and tricks for how to overcome writer’s block, but I think letting go of what we’re writing—especially in early drafts—and not trying to shape it too much toward our own egos and aesthetic inclinations results in it speaking most powerfully and convincingly through us.
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.
“Because so much of my poetry explores language itself—the ways we shape and are shaped by it—my creative practice often begins with collecting words. My college mentor, appalled by the etymological dictionary I was using, introduced me to the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots edited by Calvert Watkins, which has been my constant companion ever since. It traces thousands of words from languages across the Western Hemisphere to their shared roots in a prehistoric language, Proto-Indo-European.
“When I am stuck in the perfection cog—as in, I am rewriting a sentence a million times over even though I’m in a first draft or, I am freaking out and can’t move forward because I am not sure how everything is going to fit together—I find it helpful to tell myself: You will fail. I have this written on a Post-it note. It might sound discouraging, but I find it very liberating. The idea is that no matter what I do, the draft is going to be flawed, so I might as well just have at it.
“When I feel like my identity as a writer is threatened by my flaws, failures, and limitations of health, I can become overwhelmed by fear so profound, I cannot face it alone. I recently wrote a journal entry describing what it feels like to read a book and fall in love with it. I focused on a time in my life when I was fully awake to my love for books but ignorant of what it meant to produce them. I recalled how it felt in my body to read a book I was in love with.
“Writing itself is such a solitary act that when I am finishing a project I often feel lonely to the point of distraction. I combat that isolation by surrounding myself with other artists. My need for a ‘writers community’ has taken on many forms: In high school, college, and grad school I rarely went a semester without enrolling in a creative writing workshop, which afforded instant access to readers, comments, and encouragement. After graduation, I struggled to recreate those ten years of workshops without the ready-made roster a classroom affords.
“Some of us are in confusion; we labor through it, we perceive it where it isn’t, we see it threefold where it’s thick; we can scarcely say anything at all for as soon as we begin to utter a word we learn how senseless it all is. This advice is not for those people, but for others who feel it is possible to say the anything-at-all that people enjoy saying. What is the advice? Well—when I feel that it is finally possible to open my mouth and speak, I stop to see if I should.
“Most of the time when I’m stuck, it’s because I’m trying to get a sentence or a scene to be perfect when it’s too early in the process for perfection. I tell myself going in nothing’s going to be perfect in the first draft, then I sit refusing to write one more imperfect line. Getting unstuck begins with reminding myself the first draft is where you get the mistakes out on the page. Perfect comes in later. I write long-hand and on-screen, so sometimes a switch can dislodge a block. I stockpile pages to transcribe for when I need a kick start.
“Walking in the woods helps free my mind. The loamy smell, muted light, envelope of green, and muffled sound help make a space for ideas to germinate. I used to feel guilty about not writing daily, until I realized that I pre-write while walking, and according to current neuroscience, the body drives the mind as well as the other way around. I then aim for a meditative state to write. I like quiet and solitude at my desk, whereas in the rest of my life I adore people and bustle and interaction.
“Whenever I reach a standstill, I find that I’ve detached from a text. I also find that the experience of being stalled isn’t something I receive as negative; it can be a defense against falsehood, in my experience, and against producing material that’s serviceable, but lifeless in the end.
“Above my desk are the famous lines from Wallace Stevens: ‘In the world of words, / Imagination is one of / The forces of nature.’ Kant would be proud. Or maybe it’s a matter of surrender (while I write this the rains are sweeping like the simplest of songs across the West Side of Chicago). And yet all I can suggest as inspiration is this: practice. Practice is its own kind of surrender, a surrender to the same. Pound would be disappointed.