“After years of thinking setting didn’t inspire me at all, I have come to realize that it does—but only after I’m gone. I’ve learned not to try to write about a place until I’ve left it, whether I was traveling or living there. For instance, I have written two books set in Madison, Wisconsin, but I didn’t feel an urge to set anything there until I had moved to Westchester, New York, to get an MFA. Once I was gone, Madison leapt into focus, and instead of looking out my window and going nuts trying to capture every little thing before me, distance let me edit and reimagine.
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.
“For some poetic guidance I always find myself going back to books like the Orphan Factory and Selected Early Poems by Charles Simic; also, Reasons for Moving and The Weather of Words by Mark Strand. I am deeply moved imagistically by poems such as “Dismantling the Silence,” “Watch Repair,” and “errata” by Simic; and “Eating Poetry,” “Keeping Things Whole,” and “The Accident” by Strand. While I write I love listening to the empathetic sounds of bands like Nirvana, Sonic Youth, the Organ, Interpol, the Smiths, Depeche Mode, and Die! Die! Die!”
“When I first moved to Philadelphia, a friend of mine was very excited to show me Marcel Duchamp’s assemblage Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau, 2° le gaz d'éclairage... in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I won’t describe it here—if you haven’t seen it, reading about it would lessen your first encounter. I have to go back a long time, though, to remember another work that so completely upended my sense of what one piece could do. What exactly is so terrifying about it? Is it also funny somehow, how we peep, how we admire the little twinkling waterfall in the background?
“Like most writers—specifically parents who are writers—I don’t have a lot of time to find inspiration. Galway Kinnell once told me to keep a notepad handy so I can take notes wherever I am: in the grocery store, listening to NPR, in the doctor’s office (I once wrote a poem waiting for my annual mammogram). On my commutes to and from work, I dictate my thoughts into my iPhone to store ideas until I can get to my computer.
“It helps me to remember that inspiration needs courting; it won’t come if I wait passively. Also, let’s say I get inspired but have a rusty hand... then the inspiration plugs into a faulty outlet. So, when I’ve time to write but no mojo, I count. I write iambic pentameter or sapphic stanzas, or I make up some rhythm pattern and repeat it for a while (like writing lines with spondees, which is way hard!). If these attempts fail, then I go to a park or a café for an hour or two and write down what I see—not trying to say anything, but just attending to shapes, juxtapositions, data.
“There is phenomenal beauty in the language developed for a particular field—whether it’s architecture, dentistry, tree pruning, or accounting. Stories lurk in the specific tools and tasks. For me, the natural sciences and seafaring are muses. Science News and the American Practical Navigator come to mind as sources I’ve turned to. But immersion in the language and concerns of any profession can unveil rich sounds and provide a new lens through which the world can be seen.
“I’m thoroughly inspired, moved, agitated, elevated by music (mostly hip-hop). My first collection, Lobster With Ol’ Dirty Bastard, situates rap heroes, culture, and iconography inside the four walls of fourteen-line quasi sonnets. Writing based on music has almost become a compulsion of mine.
“Notes—on Post-its, index cards, scraps of paper—have saved me as a writer. Because they fade so fast, I’ve made a habit of writing down fragments of memory that arise or images or phrases, sometimes just isolated words. Then I put them in folders, see what belongs together with what, find out where those fragments lead, and build very slowly to an essay or poem. I’ve learned to use writing as an act of discovery, and such small notes are for me the fundamental source.”
“Make a tiny book! At least once a year I write something quickly, in one day—a list poem or found-text piece—arrange it in sections, print, cut, stack the pages, staple, and make a handful of copies. I give one away immediately. It's not about showcasing my writing; it is about the playfulness of ungroomed surfaces and the intimacy of a gift.
“I am inspired to write because for many, many years, while living in solitary confinement, writing was my only means of communication. In the world outside of prison, when we are feeling isolated or alone, we might reach for the phone to talk to someone, or reach for the refrigerator door and eat something. Living at San Quentin State Prison on death row, I reach for my pen. The pen is a form of therapy, meditation, and reflection.”
—Jarvis Jay Masters, author of That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row (HarperOne, 2009)