“Rules. I'm a big believer in structure, and the idea that creativity loosens up when constrained a bit.
“Never start writing in a bad mood—makes it too easy to quit before you get going.
“I’ve been reading the journals of Albert Camus since I was thirteen years old and his words have become my most faithful and intimate companions.
“I take inspiration from the subtle daily forecasting of death. This should be impetus for anyone to get off his ass. Work is why we're here, and to waste an hour of any day, fretting or worrying or procrastinating, is to release into the air the odor of death. Emerson said, ‘To fill the hour—that is happiness.’ I try to fill the hour. And by filling the hour, the ones that follow come easier. Inspiration, then, is its own inspiration. But I must beware of why I work.
“Sometimes typos can be helpful. Looking at a poem in a language you can’t read, and working from the sounds. Taping poems on the wall and leaving them there for days—maybe something will come, just from looking at them, over time. Words from a dream. Within the last few months I heard: ‘Will it solve itself?’ And the answer: ‘When you are gone.’ I took this to mean: When the ‘I’ who is trying to solve it (whatever ‘it’ is) backs off.”
—Jean Valentine, author of Break the Glass (Copper Canyon Press, 2010)
“As Jerome Washington wrote, 'The blues is our antidote.’ So I listen. Blues doctors like Neal Pattman inspire something in a writer’s blood. Anyone who can play harmonica like he can, with one arm no less, will get me going. And inevitably my sons will hear 'Momma Whoopin’ Blues’ and start asking questions. I show them the CD cover and they ask more questions and I explain how he lost his arm in a wagon wheel accident as a boy and they ask even more questions.
“To get my mind ready for writing, I try to sit quietly and stare at nothing for ten minutes. It clears away the Salt-n-Pepa lyrics and staircase wit that have been clogging up the channels. After the silence, if I’m at a critical juncture, I then listen to records from Sublime Frequencies—a label specializing in a kind of post-field recording ethnomusicology—and try to transcribe what I hear. This doesn’t often result in work for the ages, but it’s a good reminder that the best writing comes from outside.”
“José Martí wrote, ‘In the world there must be certain degrees of honor just as there must be certain degrees of light. When there are many men without honor, there are always others who bear in themselves the honor of many men.’ What inspires me are the men and women who bear in themselves the ‘honor’ of survival—men like the brothers I taught at Graterford Prison, reconnoitering their lives after having fought in Vietnam; young mothers dragging their children around corners of fatigue at the end of the day, looking neither left nor right.
“I’ve figured out things that were stonewalling me during cross-country drives, and usually when I’m trying to pull an all-nighter to avoid traffic and get there in less time—maybe it’s all the caffeine and the mesmerizing white lines in the middle of the road. I keep a recorder or a yellow pad on the passenger seat and I talk into the recorder or write on the pad with one hand in big letters because I’m not looking at the pad and want to be sure I can read what I wrote later on.
“Nothing inspires me like the imagination in a vacuum. I always pick the most closet-like, even coffin-like, space in the house for my writing room. No windows, no photos, no ‘stuff.’ I never play any music, I don’t have an inspiration board, I disable the internet, and the cell is always off. The outside world is far too tempting. If I go out for a run, suddenly the body is of paramount concern; if I listen to my favorite music, I won’t be able to shake the imprints out of my head; if I watch a great movie, I’m seduced by images. I have to stay put with my project when I'm with-project.