"If I don’t write for a few days, I feel hungover, like my muscles are tight. Creative and intellectual exertions parallel, for me, physical exertion. Having run cross-country in college, I spent thousands of hours and miles on roads all over Illinois. I still spend a lot of time running, witnessing the landscape, and finding my solitude mirrored by the Midwest. Writing after a run creates a dialectic between landscape and the personal thoughts I want to express. Sometimes it’s the corkscrew-tin gutters beneath a gravel driveway or the cinderblocks lifting up a mobile home.
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“Whether it's prose you want to write or poetry, if you're feeling blocked, simply open up Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian (Random House, 1985) to any page and begin declaiming in a grizzled and jaded voice his otherworldly descriptions of landscape, or Judge Holden’s discussion of chance, or the mules falling down the mountainside with the mercury in their sacks shattering into globes around them, or the static electricity coming off Glanton's murderous gang as they remove their shirts at night. This is not just McCarthy's greatest novel.
“My approach to short stories is to think of each as its own world, with its own parameters, and even its own aesthetics. The tradeoff for the fun and satisfaction this brings is that I often find myself between them—it can be difficult to gain momentum with a new idea if I’m not finding the ‘right’ language or feeling inspired by some leap of the imagination. It helps then, to immerse myself in other forms and be reminded of what’s possible in art more generally. Movies, even more so than written fiction, must necessarily make a world concrete.
“When I'm stuck, when I'm really stuck and the words can't seem to get out, there are a few things that I do to try to jar myself into action. Every poet has a few bibles of poetry—books that hit them hard upside the heart and soul, and take them to another understanding of the craft again and again. For me, returning to those texts urges me on, making me hopeful and challenged, and allowing me to rediscover why I do what I do.
“Like most writers, I frequently rely on trusted early readers to give me constructive feedback for my work-in-progress. But after a certain point, outside suggestions can send my mind spinning off into a dozen different directions, making me feel overwhelmed, unsure, and even discouraged about my story altogether. So, on the wall in front of my writing desk, I painted the words of Michelangelo: I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. This quote has become my guide, my emotional center, my touchstone.
“My tricks to break through writing barriers are pretty much indistinguishable from distractions. When I’m stuck, I pick up my guitar, or I watch old Oscar Peterson interviews on YouTube, or I read short essays on how to break through writing barriers. Almost anything I do outside of writing can be blamed as a waste of time one day, and praised the next as the reason I suddenly yearn to get back to work. Maybe this is unhelpful.
“As opposed to an art that occurs because of inspiration (divine or otherwise), I view writing as a skill that should be cultivated and developed. Inspiration happens, yes, but one must be ready for it. As Levertov puts it, writing often allows us to ‘set the table for the muse.’ I’ve found a good routine that’s working as of late. I keep a notebook and jot down images, phrases, and elements I encounter on a given day. They can be anything, whether they’re as memorable as a car on fire on the side of the road or as mundane as the wind blowing through the leaves of a maple tree.
“I’ve had to learn in those moments—when I’m desperate to get it right, when I’ve fought for the time to have the chance to write—not to let the defeat of not immediately having something to say overwhelm me to the point that I give the time away. I shouldn’t start grading papers or cancel the babysitter if I don’t immediately start writing. I’ve had to learn to give myself permission to go for a long run, or walk an hour through the city, or eavesdrop on the conversation next to me for half an hour.
“For a while, writing was everything to me: my identity, my job, the meaning of my life, the site of my deepest anxieties. Whenever the writing wasn’t working, I went to a very dark place. When I get stuck writing, it isn’t usually because of a logistical problem in the plot or because I can’t find the right word; it usually comes from a broad, circling, existential fear of failure. But writing requires failure and experimentation, and there’s a lot of pleasure to be found in that process. I recently took up modern dance. I love it.
“The one thing I’ve discovered about writing over the years is that not-writing is like a virus—it’s always mutating, always trying to overcome your defenses. Sometimes it will succeed. There’s no single answer that will work the rest of your writing life. You’ll think you’re a disciplined writer and then you’ll have kids; your first book will come out and all of those ideas waiting in your notebook just wither up; you’ll find a great community of writers and find that you spend more time talking about writing than actually writing.