“Like most writers, I frequently rely on trusted early readers to give me constructive feedback for my work-in-progress. But after a certain point, outside suggestions can send my mind spinning off into a dozen different directions, making me feel overwhelmed, unsure, and even discouraged about my story altogether. So, on the wall in front of my writing desk, I painted the words of Michelangelo: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. This quote has become my guide, my emotional center, my touchstone.
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.
“My tricks to break through writing barriers are pretty much indistinguishable from distractions. When I’m stuck, I pick up my guitar, or I watch old Oscar Peterson interviews on YouTube, or I read short essays on how to break through writing barriers. Almost anything I do outside of writing can be blamed as a waste of time one day, and praised the next as the reason I suddenly yearn to get back to work. Maybe this is unhelpful.
“As opposed to an art that occurs because of inspiration (divine or otherwise), I view writing as a skill that should be cultivated and developed. Inspiration happens, yes, but one must be ready for it. As Levertov puts it, writing often allows us to ‘set the table for the muse.’ I’ve found a good routine that’s working as of late. I keep a notebook and jot down images, phrases, and elements I encounter on a given day. They can be anything, whether they’re as memorable as a car on fire on the side of the road or as mundane as the wind blowing through the leaves of a maple tree.
“I’ve had to learn in those moments—when I’m desperate to get it right, when I’ve fought for the time to have the chance to write—not to let the defeat of not immediately having something to say overwhelm me to the point that I give the time away. I shouldn’t start grading papers or cancel the babysitter if I don’t immediately start writing. I’ve had to learn to give myself permission to go for a long run, or walk an hour through the city, or eavesdrop on the conversation next to me for half an hour.
“For a while, writing was everything to me: my identity, my job, the meaning of my life, the site of my deepest anxieties. Whenever the writing wasn’t working, I went to a very dark place. When I get stuck writing, it isn’t usually because of a logistical problem in the plot or because I can’t find the right word; it usually comes from a broad, circling, existential fear of failure. But writing requires failure and experimentation, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in that process. I recently took up modern dance. I love it.
“The one thing I’ve discovered about writing over the years is that not-writing is like a virus—it’s always mutating, always trying to overcome your defenses. Sometimes it will succeed. There’s no single answer that will work the rest of your writing life. You’ll think you’re a disciplined writer and then you’ll have kids; your first book will come out and all of those ideas waiting in your notebook just wither up; you’ll find a great community of writers and find that you spend more time talking about writing than actually writing.
“When I am stuck, I don't like to force out work/words. If I'm having difficulty, I just walk away from the desk—sometimes not returning for weeks at a time. I find a quiet place in the day and stop. If I’m at home, I lie down on the carpet. Then I do this thing where I just say ‘thank you’ to all the things and people who helped me. I say, ‘Thank you, light, for helping me. Thank you, flowers in the jar, for helping me. Thank you, mom, for helping me. Thank you, Sivan, for helping me.
“When I get stuck, I jump mediums, which reminds me of the one time I was driving to high school so fast that the police officer, who was going the opposite direction from me, jumped the median and drove over a grassy patch at least twenty yards wide just to pull me over. But that's not what I mean. I will start stories on the computer, become stuck, and then take up a pen and a notebook, or start in a notebook and find myself unable to write fast enough—this is a rarity—to keep up with the dumb thoughts in my head and will have to jump back to the computer.
“Of all sources of inspiration, grammar is probably the most underrated. But any writer who’s been confronted with an empty page or blipping cursor knows that language itself, with its structures and inner connections, can suggest many possibilities. When I’m stuck in a sentence, I like to reach for a preposition. Why prepositions, and not verbs or nouns? Because they’re open-ended enough to accommodate any number of outcomes, but concrete enough to orient you in a specific direction. I’ll show you how this works. Say you write: I walked to the store.
“When I run out of words, I find it helpful to run out the door. Even if I only have fifteen minutes and it’s February and freezing, I find physically moving quickly gets my mind going again. It also helps if I listen to music with a driving rhythm and lyrics I admire. Over the five years it took to write my first novel, I turned to the bluegrass music of Valerie June more than anyone else.