“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.”
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.
“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.
“When reading Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, I get the sense that a very short movie lives inside each sentence. Whether focused on a wall or a person, his sentences contain a whirlwind of movement that culminates in a mini visual narrative, confirming that in Schulz’s world, there is no such thing as an inanimate object. Everything has life, because he breathes life into every thing by using surprising verbs and cinematic metaphors.
“Theodore Weesner’s 1987 novel The True Detective is a book I go back to again and again. The story of a child abduction, seen through the eyes of those closest to the case, it’s got the velocity and compulsion of a thriller and the depth and compassion of a great literary novel. Weesner’s brilliant at moving from one character’s point of view to another’s while keeping the action moving. It’s been out of print for years now, and every time I see a copy of it in a used bookstore, I buy it to give to someone else.”
“When I’m at my most creative, I call it being ‘sticky,’ and almost anything at all can help enrich the work. I’ve found a really simple, effective source of inspiration is to just go outside. I’ll settle into a big, old Adirondack chair in the backyard and try to enter my senses as fully as I can as I work. Writers spend their lives holed up at desks, so the ‘surprise’ of nature can be intensely vivid. Sometimes the details of sky, trees, stone will work their way into my narratives, sometimes they don’t, but the process always helps to move my writing forward.”
“Whenever I feel that I've lost sight of a story I’m working on, I return to one book in particular: Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago. I can open this book to almost any page, read a few paragraphs, and be reminded of why I wanted to start writing short stories in the first place. There’s such simple elegance in the storytelling, such honesty and clarity on every page. I’m sure that all writers have a book like this, a book they return to with such frequency that half the pages have fallen out. The Coast of Chicago is mine.”
"One of my enthusiasms of the moment is David Shield's great and overlooked book Enough About You: Notes Toward the New Autobiography, just reissued by Soft Skull Press. Shield's insights about the complex back-and-forth of fiction and fact in literature and our larger culture are remarkable. This new edition is introduced by documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, so I went back and watched his hilarious and amazing film Bright Leaves. Also, I was surprised recently while rereading Langston Hughes's Best of Simple to see how much my new
“Richard Siken’s Crush illuminates the intersection of passion and violence with perfect clarity. Poems like ‘Little Beast,’ ‘A Primer for the Small Weird Loves,’ and ‘You Are Jeff’ capture the chatty, campy voices of real people in real time without ever losing the sweep and musicality of great literature. I've worn my copy into a loose portfolio of coffee-stained pages, obsessed with the simplicity and bravado of lines like, ‘Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again.’”