"Music was my first love, and it's still the source for me even though I haven't touched a piano or guitar in years. It continues to teach me about phrasing, pitch, shifts in rhythm, shifts in tonal register—all of the qualities I value in writing. I try to listen to a range of work, but every so often I go back to Joni Mitchell, whom I need to take breaks from as she already feels like my inner life.
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 write in periods of forty-five minutes using my cell phone timer, and take fifteen-minute breaks between each session. I repeat this until I’m done for the day. I am amazed how much gets done in just three of these sessions, versus days of unstructured writing, which often lead to irregular breaks, rampant Internet usage, and end with me in a fetal ball of self-loathing. It turns out that no matter how much I am theoretically dying to write, I need structure and limits to get it done.
“When I was in the thick of writing my novel, Juventud, I took dance classes two or three times a week. This provided obvious physical benefits, prying me from the long day otherwise spent on the couch, pecking away on laptop keys until my neck and back ached. Any style of dance would do—modern, ballet, jazz, Bollywood, Polynesian, Middle Eastern. I chose the latter, or maybe it ended up choosing me; the studio was only a fifteen-minute drive from home, the lesson package affordable.
“When in doubt, go further, deeper, weirder. Take the elements that make your story unique and double down on them. There's a tendency in writing classes and craft essays to suggest that writers work on their weaknesses and round out their skills. If you're great at dialogue and structure, you should put your efforts into character and plot. And certainly that can help. But if instead you work on using the dialogue and structure to your advantage and emphasize them even more, you might come up with something original. Not every shape needs to be round.
“Like most writers, I prefer to write in silence, but I’m not always free to enable it. Sometimes circumstances pull you on the road, out of the house or apartment into a library or coffee shop, or even stuck within a home buzzing with life that you’re otherwise grateful for and deeply enjoy. In those instances, I reach for a playlist of ambient, downtempo, and contemporary minimalist music. I used to be an ambient music deejay back in college at WNUR-FM in Evanston, Illinois, and I’ve continued to add to my collection ever since.
“Often when two of my characters are in a room together, they’ll reach a point at which neither wants to converse with the other anymore. They’ve talked and talked, and though they can’t advance the dialogue, they are forced to remain in the same space. Maybe it’s a home or a job or an airplane. The problem arises when I’m not sure how to make the story run without the characters speaking. Yet if you’ve ever watched a film on mute, you know that when language is stripped away, you read the movements.
“I write best from a place of stillness and quiet. I also live in New York City, a place known for neither of those things. That means I tend do a lot of writing in the middle of the night. It’s the closest thing to silence I can find in the city. The rest of the time, I collect. I’m always taking notes. I pick up pieces from magazine articles, news stories, radio, television, movies, from conversations with strangers, from eavesdropping on the world. Then, in the quiet, I take stock. I pick out the most compelling pieces and wait for them to speak. I translate and rearrange.
“Begin with bleakness. Bring yourself to the bare room. Voices will assail you, reminding you how many times you’ve been hit on the head, hard, reminding you of the bad genes, the narrow valley in Bohemia where your ancestors left their lives as factory hands, as milk maids, with their natural and legitimate children in tow, and walked to Trieste and boarded ‘the big boat’ right out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, out of history, out of the looming world war to give up their names at Ellis Island and live many long years, long enough for the mutation to work its will. Forget that.
“The solution to being stuck almost always lies outside the writing itself. Creativity arises from playfulness, not from relentless concentration. It’s more powerful to look at a problem askance than head-on. Insight will arrive during a walk or a shower or a tumble on the floor with my kids; while I’m scrubbing the toilet or strolling around the visible storage gallery at the Brooklyn Museum or reading a science article or going through airport security. When I’m in an idea drought, I try to experience as many random things as possible.
“I am in debt. I owe the world an unpayable sum, and yet each morning at my desk with the sun rising in the long distance—some mornings it blazes and on others it is a distant bulb barely able to raise smoke from the cold black tar of the roof—I sit down to repay that debt. My debt is simple. It is the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Larry Levis. The prose of Norman Maclean and Michael Ondaatje. Derek Walcott and Wallace Stevens. Henry Thoreau and Ed Abbey. Naomi Shihab Nye and Terrance Hayes. Jack Gilbert. The list goes on and on.