“Let’s say I’m trying to write a long poem about rainbow herbicides, the production of Agent Orange in New Jersey, ecological disaster, and a parent having leukemia, and I get stuck. There’s a problem with where to go next in the poem. Or there’s a transition I can’t seem to get right. Instead of looking even more closely at the poetry models that have helped me build the poem, I turn instead to something totally opposite, like a few of Carl Phillips’s small, intense poems about desire.
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.
“What do I always turn to for inspiration or energy when I am downcast or in need of invigoration? Classy and sapient answers crowd the brain: I reread the dinner scenes in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson (true, I do). I turn again to The Thurber Carnival (true, too). Or I look at a picture book, bought in Paris, of Manet’s watercolors, and am reminded of how truth to touch and tone is all the truth an artist needs—be true to those small things, and you will be true to your time. All...true.
“When I’m lost, first I pretend I’m not. Then I admit it and analyze. Am I coiled into a choking sentence that signals avoidance rather than deep delving? Am I short-circuiting what must be fully discovered, explored, and written? Have I lost the connective sinews, become emotionally distant? That checklist can send up a signpost. If no signpost appears, I read through my thick stack of possibly-to-be-incorporated thoughts, images, ideas, and fragments, hoping to sight the missing path.
“A few years ago, my friend and I began keeping an e-mail chain about writers who have wrecked their bodies through writing. It’s true: Occasionally intellectual labor is as backbreaking as physical labor. There’s the well-known example of Giacomo Leopardi, whose prodigious output—the result of countless neck-straining hours stooped over his desk—permanently deformed his spine. Then there’s Herman Melville, once an active, swashbuckling young man, who dove with such intensity into his whale book that his entire family circulated letters conspiring to make him rest.
“My pre-husband tells me that I am an obsessive person. He is right. When faced with a problem, I will stare at it until it goes away. I will actively try to fix the problem. Planning our wedding, for instance. Not a problem but a growing disaster. Similarly, if I am stuck on a story, a page, a line, I will sit there until I get it right. What helps me most with writing is sheer persistence and also reading writers I admire, wish I could sound like, can’t sound like, fail to mimic, and in that failure I start sounding like myself.
“In secondary school, one of my literature teachers would ask us to attribute lines from a play to the right characters. So, I prepared for exams by revising plays only after I’d covered each character’s name with a tiny piece of paper. My goal was to figure out who said what by paying closer attention to the speech patterns, and I soon discovered that how something was said could reveal as much about the speaker as the words themselves.
“When my son was a toddler, he loved to eat apples while roaming the house. I would find mushy cores stashed in the den toy bin, behind the sofa, in the toolbox or laundry hamper; everywhere but the trash can! One morning, while I was putting away a stack of clothing in my bedroom that had been piled on a chair for far too long, I stuck my hand under a silk ribbon sweater I’d just knit. I loved the feel of the basket weave pattern’s soft, bumpy waves. Except now, the soft bumps were suspiciously moist and squishy.
“Nothing is as alarming to me as being unable to write. Since it feels like such an unlikely, magical offering to begin with, the prospect of its departure is a troubling one. To jolt myself out of those writerly impasses, I like to write something I know will never be read: an obituary for an imaginary person; a dating profile for my eighteen-year-old self; a poem about Lisa Frank stationery.
“It took four years to write my first novel, and during that time, I learned to cook. This was not a coincidence. Before, my eating habits involved anything I could remove from the freezer and nuke in the microwave. Hot Pockets, mostly. My culinary skills were lacking, but like writing, cooking is a craft that requires more dedication than inspiration.
“To write is to have rituals and then break them. Resolve, for instance, to arise at X hour, arrive at desk within Y minutes, drink coffee only in the round blue mug with the thumb handle. At Z hour, stop. Repeat the next morning. In this world, discipline and superstition are the writer’s friends. But at some gloomy moment, mid-ritual, one takes stock. The poem, the chapter, the manuscript—still not right. Dull. Overwrought. Superfluous.