“When I run out of words, I find it helpful to run out the door. Even if I only have fifteen minutes and it’s February and freezing, I find physically moving quickly gets my mind going again. It also helps if I listen to music with a driving rhythm and lyrics I admire. Over the five years it took to write my first novel, I turned to the bluegrass music of Valerie June more than anyone else.
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.
"The thing about creative drive, which you can just as well think of as a kind of pressure, is that there are so many ways it can be dissipated. Whenever I find that I’m not writing much of anything, or even just anything with real vigor to it, I usually discover—and always as if for the first time—that there are too many valves open, bleeding off this pressure. The releases are many, and some are unexpected. Food, for one. Curiously, I cannot write anything worthwhile on a full stomach. Come to think of it, though, hunger itself serves as a useful metaphor for thinking about creativity.
“I never know when a good idea will strike, but I know how to connect to the force. Or, my force. That is: whatever drives me to write and fuels my fight, my passions, whatever pertains to the current questions needing answers or problems in my life needing to be solved. What I’m trying to say here is I tend to get inspired when I figure out what battles are brewing in my subconscious. And even though they’re unique and personal battles, they’re typically part of a universal one. Usually I physically feel what I need to explore or write about, because it moves me in some way.
"I studied vocal performance before I was a writer, and my favorite singer—to my mind, one of the very greatest singers of the twentieth century—is Peter Pears. He has a strange, unruly voice, with none of the bel canto virtues (evenness of tone, ease of production) I was taught to emulate. Even singing the music of his life partner, Benjamin Britten—music composed so carefully for Pears’s voice it seems like an embodiment of love—one hears him struggle, approaching each passage as a problem to be solved.
"For a minor level stuck—a piece of dialogue too on the nose, a telling detail that just doesn't tell—I stay at the desk. I stare at the wall; I look out the window at the birds. And then, I fire a spreading burst of words at the page. It is in fact, surprisingly successful, particularly if you are willing to edit dispassionately the next day. Supposing, however, I have achieved a greater level of stuck—piano in a stairwell stuck—I get up from the desk because I know—from long practice—that no amount of pushing will do.
"There are a host of prescribed tricks for writing droughts, from the age-old divine intervention of Erato to the more practical jaunt around the neighborhood. 'Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow,' Thoreau wrote in his journal. And who am I not to listen to my elders? I take what I can. I wait for the beautiful voice. I step away from the screen and exit my apartment to clear my head for new ideas. A schedule can be good. I write for three hours each day between the time I arrive home from work and before my wife arrives home. This is just exercise.
"I never acquired the habit of keeping a journal, except to record my dreams. It always amazes me when I reread one from years ago, how fresh it still seems—more vivid even than my memories of actual events. One of the best tips I ever got was that you should title your dreams. Doing so makes the whole recording process into more of a literary activity. Some examples of my recent ones are 'In a Fog,' 'Dream Kitchen,' 'The Creeper,' and 'A Nice Voice.' Often with just a bit of minor editing, I have something I can type up and keep.
“I believe in fair trade. When I need inspiration I start giving more time and attention to the world around me. I write an e-mail to someone I miss. I make a mix of the best songs ever for where you are in your life right now. Or I set myself a challenge: I have to be kissed three times before an ending comes to me. Then I start chasing my children and my wife around the house. I have a little gang of coffee mugs I think of as my work friends; one of them generally sits around with me through the day and helps out when it can. I don’t just drink from them; I whisper into them too.
“Write first drafts on paper. This cancels self-criticism immediately; unless you have truly ugly, banged-up handwriting, everything you write will be visually and stylistically unified by ink. Better still, in an age of Internet-rehab apps like Freedom and SelfControl, nothing approaches the uncluttered nondigital quiet of a page. Take confidence in the fact that much of our canon was composed on paper.
"My working methods, I suspect, are too peculiar and old-fashioned to be instructive. Nevertheless, I don't make outlines. I don't do drafts—or not intentionally—not as such. I just obey the emotional impulse, always emotional, toward a novel or an essay and start writing (on a legal pad, then typing on an old Hermes 3000) with the expectation that diligence and fear will see me through to the discovery and prosecution of my duty.