“When I’m writing every day, I read and meditate a lot. I look to architecture—in landscape and art—as a way to generate stillness, inspire form, and make me feel less alone. I particularly enjoy artists who reinterpret indigenous crafts and translate them through other polished art forms. The work of Bay Area artist Ruth Asawa inspires me to perceive texture and time out of empty space. San Antonio painter Omar Rodríguez works with the brilliant colors of the Mexican marketplace; the way he quilts color reminds me that I can grasp warmth from inanimate detail.”
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.
“Sometimes all that saves me is being willing to make mistakes. There are projects that strike me as so beautiful, important, complicated, or just plain big, that they convince me of my own inadequacy. This awful state of reverence leads to paralyzing brain freeze. Times like that the only way out is for me to decide, ‘To hell with it. I can’t do it right, so I’ll do it wrong. I can’t do it well, but I can do it badly.’ Sometimes, with luck, while I’m sweating to do it wrong, I stumble on a right way.”
—Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love (Knopf, 1989)
“Ross McElwee’s self-reflexive documentary Sherman’s March changed my writing life. (Shortly after I watched it, someone said to me that it was ‘the first film I’ve ever seen in which I recognized the South in which I lived’; I misheard her as saying ‘the self in which I lived.’) What is it about this work I like so much?
“I ingest art daily—from the films of Lars von Trier, Takashi Miike, and Lucrecia Martel to fashion blogs to art openings in Los Angeles. Of course, I need my fix of poetry, fiction, and religious and theory texts. I read tabloids. For The Ravenous Audience, I read a lot of trashy biographies of starlets such as Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe. All of this digests into my writing, and then when I present my work to an audience, I think of how the work can ‘excrete’ beyond the book.
“‘Go see some live local music’” is the hourly recommendation from New Orleans radio station WWOZ, and it’s good advice, not only true to New Orleans—where I recommend all writers live (although I moved away)—but also wherever you live. Cover the typewriter and leave the house; see what’s happening. Go to Joshua Tree to see Noah Purifoy’s sculptures decaying in the desert, then to L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology.
“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.
“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.