“Whenever my writing begins to feel boxed in, as if the words no longer possess any degree of freedom, trickling out painfully one by one, I remind myself of Grace Paley’s famous aphorism: ‘Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life.’ This is true for ourselves, certainly, but also for our characters and for the words through which we render their stories.
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.
“When I stop writing it’s usually the first sign that I will soon cease responding to e-mails, doing my laundry, or getting water when I’m thirsty. To start writing again requires me to improve my emotional and mental health. This means it’s good for me to: exercise, socialize, reduce digital media intake, talk to my therapist, and generally take care of myself. These are also all the things I’m incapable of doing in this state. The first step is to give myself time to languish without shame, but not too much time. I set an arbitrary ‘stop languishing’ date.
“For years and years, there’s been only one book I turn to when I feel the well dry up: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and specifically the opening paragraph. Of course, if I read the first page, I’ll read the next ten, twenty, and by that point I might as well read the whole thing. But only the first few sentences are necessary to spark. ‘One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me,’ it begins. The vertiginous flexing of time in that sentence, that strange use of ‘already,’ the danger or warmth (possibility, really) set up in the action.
“Have a dog, or get one, or borrow one. I have two, a serene pit mix with soulful eyes and a scholarly three-legged border collie–heeler mix, and they get me into and out of my head like nothing else. I use an app called Time Out that darkens my screen for five minutes, every twenty-five minutes—a work trick called the Pomodoro Technique—and in those five minutes I leave my desk and go find one of the dogs to pet. While a sentence or problem turns over in my mind, my hands slide over his fur, I kiss his smooth forehead, I inhale the corn-chip scent of his ears, I look into his dark eyes.
“If I’m stuck, I’m usually overwhelmed, and so I try to stop writing. I allow myself to do nothing. Daydreaming is undervalued! And it can be so restorative. Doing nothing is the hardest thing for me, and the thing I’m learning to embrace without guilt. I once fell asleep watching a movie about fly fishing, the most boring activity I can imagine (and mind you, I needlepoint). Yet that stillness, of a quiet river, an invitation to keep my mind still, is what I’m seeking when I stare at my neighbor’s tulips, the sycamore’s branches, cars sliding by. These are my brain’s massage table.
“When I was eight, I discovered that swaths of trees had individual leaves, that lawns were composed of blades of grass. Apparently, I had needed eyeglasses for quite some time before I got my first pair. Nonetheless, I maintained a myopic relationship to reading and writing, forever keeping my face within inches of my pencil’s point, my curling words; I read books so closely, I see the textures on the page. The literary life can, at times, feel confining, nearsighted, requiring a forced focus that can quickly become strained and dull.
“I watch movies when I want to be inspired. Sometimes I watch the same movies over and over again, leaving them on as company while I’m doing other things. Other times I specifically watch them, looking for small treasures I’ve never noticed before. I love the comfort of the dialogue I know by heart, the music cues, the sounds that have become so familiar. One movie I turn to often is the 2015 film adaptation of Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.
“Sometimes I wonder if what brought me to writing in the first place is the same thing that keeps me going. Last year I sat in a large barren field and called my friends because I honestly couldn’t find reason as to why I wrote anymore, I couldn’t find joy in it. I blew my nose, wiped my face, and drove away. I interviewed myself in my journal just to keep my hand moving: —Marcelo, are you okay? —It’s complicated.
“Like so many writers, the activities that once challenged and nourished me have been disrupted by the flood of chaotic daily news. Previously, I might have lifted a volume of poetry from my pile of unread books, chatted to friends about a manuscript, or attended a reading—and I would have been revived. While these kinds of engagements do still inspire, they often don’t provide the same charge they once did. What does revitalize me most now is the solitude of a natural space, a garden or a trail.
“If I am too in sync with the present, I can’t write. Or I can write, but I don’t want to, because too great an affinity with the present, of events currently happening, makes me queasy. This isn’t to valorize the past in any way; it’s just an objection to belonging too much to the assumptions of the now. I try to remedy this with strategic alienation. Physical exhaustion helps; I’ll walk twenty miles just to feel a different sort of rhythm, or clean something obsessively.