“Seek out influence. When I’m stuck on how to do something, I’ll reread a book that accomplishes what I am attempting—The Quick and The Dead by Joy Williams is one I return to often—and try to figure out how the author pulled it off. Sometimes just looking at a few passages, or reading them aloud, can alter my way of seeing. Also, I like to go to places that inspire me—a bench in my favorite park, a quiet spot in a museum, a seat in the dark back row of a movie theater.
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.
“I am, for the first time in my writing life, consciously taking a break from writing. By which I mean that I’m not involved in a big creative project just now. I just had a book published, and I have another manuscript that I’m about to shop around, so I’m not ready to dive into something new, if only because I have no ideas at the moment. ‘Sometimes,’ as one of my writer-friends likes to say, ‘you need to let the toilet tank fill up.’ So that's what I’m doing. Sort of.
“My childhood location, south of New Orleans, on the banks of the Mississippi River leaned me toward inclinations I think help with poetry’s desires:
“What’s coming around the bend, what might float by next on its waters, what weather will do to it, who will pass by, who will wave or hail and how, what’s it like in the day time and in the night, how many waves will any particular ship’s wake make, what tides do, how seasons are.
“Over the years a number of things (film, theater, writing, music, etcetera) have become catalysts and have boosted me in my writing. I just looked up the word boost and three definitions are (1) a push from below, like a boost over a wall, (2) an amplification, and (3) informally, to steal. So, almost randomly, here are two boosters I've had.
“I'm not sure many people think of insomnia as a good thing, but it is. As a ‘sufferer,’ I'm up until five or six in the morning almost daily. One thing I’ve found is that I write with the most imagination in the middle of the night, as though my subconscious and conscious are more in tune with each other—something about being liberated from cell phones and e-mails and other plights of the real world.
“I wrote The Boy Next Door in Geneva, Switzerland and one of the biggest challenges for me was to capture the essence of life in Zimbabwe, particularly the second largest city, Bulawayo, in the eighties, which was a delicate period: optimism and hope (Zimbabwe was newly independent after a brutal war) and fear (the peace, at times, seemed fragile). Music was what constantly brought Bulawayo during that period vividly alive for me.
“When I need poetic inspiration, I return to music. My go-to album these days is the Upsetters’ Super Ape. The songs ‘Underground’ and ‘Dub Along’ work like chiropractors for the imaginary. Behind the hoist of bass and reverb, voices twist up, then meld into rhythm. The same way good poetic imagery does (or should).
“Sitting at the desk. Naps. The painting over my desk shows a woman lying on a bed with her eyes closed: The Sheepshearer’s Dream. I jump rope to keep awake. Walk the dogs. Nuts, one at a time until my stomach hurts. No music—I get sucked into the emotion. Forget about lyrics. I reread what I really admire and can’t quite understand, say, Brenda Shaughnessy or Dawn Raffel or Caryl Churchill. I need rough edges or half a memory, the perfect story only if it’s mostly forgotten. The way you forget how bad birthing is—and still have sex again.”
“My sense these days is that I’m constantly inspired by all kinds of things
“There’s a studio recording of Nina Simone singing ‘My Father’ that always knocks me out. Ms. Simone actually sings only a few lines from the song:
My father always promised me
That we would live in France.
We'd go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance