“I recommend getting to know the time of day when you write best and guard it as zealously as possible. If you can, work day jobs that keep that time free. If that isn’t possible, which it often isn’t, try to carry a small notebook and get a couple of five-minute stretches for idea generation—if that’s impossible memorize a few lines or write on your hand. Often all we need is a few words to key in on our imagination. When you are writing I recommend stopping midthought or at a point where you know what the next move or few lines will be.
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.
“Mary Shelley and Louise Bourgeois. All I have to do, and I could do this every day of my writing life for the rest of my life, is open up Frankenstein to any page, or open up my book of Louise Bourgeois drawings, and my gut-heart-strum is activated. I’ve used single lines to enter whole territories of story, single images to chase characters. Endlessly. I turn to their work like a woman who gave herself permission to create a new lineage, a motherline-motherload lineage, where other women writers and artists and musicians make up a second world, body first.
“Viewing visual art—works that deal with ripping off the polite skin of society—stimulates me. When in that process of discovery I return again and again to the paintings of Francis Bacon, de Kooning’s women, the portraiture of the South African painter Marlene Dumas, the works of Louise Bourgeois. In recent memory, the retrospective of Glenn Ligon at the Whitney moved me—his appropriation of texts and popular culture as well as the political consciousness of his work, which is akin to one of my favorite radical writers Kathy Acker.
“Before I was a writer, I was a traveler; as it turned out, almost all of my stories (and unfinished novels, and bad poems, and personal essays) evolved from journeying away from home. A misunderstanding on an oppressively hot, chaotic Bangkok street; a hurried descent from the high-altitude salt plains of the Atacama desert; a tequila- and sweat-soaked salsa party in the courtyard of a Yucatan peninsula hostel; and an impromptu fly-fishing lesson in a remote, swollen Montana river have all made their way into stories.
“I listen to music (with lyrics!) when I write, and I often need coffee and chocolate to get me into the chair. There’s all that, yes. But at the risk of sounding like an Om-loving yoga teacher, I have to admit that, lately, what’s inspired me to write is feeling grateful. Grateful for my family, for my friends, for my health, for this apartment, for this desk, for the washing machine churning in the other room, for this cup of coffee growing cold next to me. I’m grateful to have this opportunity to write. Grateful that writing is a thing at all.
“When it comes to inspiration, I’m an omnivore, an art whore: I’ll take it wherever I can get it. I come from a previous incarnation as a visual artist, so I see writing not as some sort of alchemy apart but as just another way of telling stories: of finding truths, of cutting through the quotidian, of—to blatantly steal from Joni Mitchell—‘touching souls.’ Yes, I know she was referring to love, but I’ve always experienced the best art, in whatever medium, as acts of simultaneous aggression and love.
“I go surfing, which isn’t so much an inspiration as something that clears away the many impediments to inspiration. I don’t think about writing while I’m in the water. I give myself over completely to the sublunary experience of weather, water, and waves. It’s often cold—the best season here is winter—and the ocean is not always hospitable. In real surf you confront your fears and recognize your limits. Your awareness is total and local; you can only ride the wave you're on, not the many wave-pictures you carry around in your head.
“I never go searching for inspiration to write, especially when it comes to short stories; if I’m not moved to write I create in some other way, like drawing or painting or designing botanical arrangements. When I feel that smack that says write, these visual creations often inform my descriptions, characters, and topics. Years ago I was thrilled to learn that one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Bishop, had also painted, and I received a book of these paintings titled Exchanging Hats.
“My writing influences are mainly photographs and music and they always convey a somewhat dark mood. I stare at landscape photographs by Michael Light or David Maisel just to let my brain settle and prepare to write. Once I clear away the debris from the day, I can start channeling the voices of my characters. I also listen to music while I’m writing and almost always one album on repeat for an entire night.
“All my good writing comes out of vulnerability. The other stuff, the stuff that came from cleverness or vanity—I wish I could throw it all out. I am terribly vulnerable to nature and I love to fish. I have a favorite creek in western Colorado. There is so much excitement and loss—sometimes for the fish, if he is pan-sized; for me when he gets away. And the loss of the day as evening settles, and the quietness that allows many other losses to be remembered and felt. And beauty. And gratitude. And focus.