“I hate to sound so directly instructional, but a book I’ve found immensely useful is Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide From the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
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.
“I assemble things to maintain a place in my creative thinking, a little like stumbling around in the undergrowth of a slightly wild place.
“When my writing stagnates, I do occasionally turn to fiction for motivation or inspiration: I might read a favorite passage, say, the epilogue to A. S. Byatt’s Possession, or a random page of Bleak House. But I’m actually much more likely to read poetry—Yeats, Eliot, Auden, e.e. cummings, and Seamus Heaney are favorites—or listen to music to unstick myself. I love the baroque period—J. S.
“I find it easier to follow form to content than content to form (forgive the false dilemma), which means I depend on discovering an essential rather than an accidental relationship between the two
“Baffled by my obsession with writing about objects both in poetry and fiction, I discovered The Tears of Things: Melancholy and Physical Objects by Peter Schwenger.
“When I despair about my work, I dig out a book that I discovered years ago in college: Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write. Her essays explain how creativity in any form—writing, planting a garden, starting a business—is crucial for leading a good life. The book is anti-critic and anti-publishing world and this is what I like about it. Not because I don’t want to impress the critics (I do), but because Ueland writes so eloquently about what happens at the core—that scary moment when the author is alone at her desk with only a blank page before her.”
“Go to a museum. Not to find ideas or to seek inspiration from what hangs on the walls, rather to be in a place that’s purpose is for responding to art and artistic thought. The arts, in general, have become more and more marginalized; their value measured by commodity (especially writing, given its obsession with ‘publishable’). In the gallery, your relationship to the work is its vision, energy, technique, and, of course, its aesthetic—not its commercial promise. Go to a museum. Breathe in a place that’s only reason for being is art. Then go home. Then make art.”
"When I’m stuck in a poem it usually means my engagement with the subject is lacking intensity, and instead of fully entering the material, I feel like I’m at the doorway tentatively knocking in that lazy way we do when we don’t actually want to be admitted. One piece of writing that can reliably revive me from this state is the title essay in Guy Davenport’s Geography of the Imagination. In the grand finale of this short essay, Davenport looks at Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic. But here looking is the most active, most adrenalized, most divine activity possible.
“When I get stuck, I walk to the cemetery and sit by the grave of Polexenia Velicu, on the seat where I wrote my first chapters of The Great Inland Sea. Or I lie in the grass beneath the cypress tree with Grandma Caroline Hidden, as if I’m a sole surviving relative. I dream around my story, meditate on characters, wait.