“Writing is about finding a way in. And like in some hoary old fable, I must gather three items to be permitted entry. Here are the rules: 1. The items can be anything. They may be small things: an image, a snippet of dialogue, perhaps the twitch in a character’s cheek. Or they may be large things: an action, a situation, or the largest thing of all, a question. 2. There must be precisely three of them. Two items is too few, and four is too many. 3. The items must resonate with one another, and with me. 4. When I figure out how to connect these items, the story begins to emerge.
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.
“When I’m stuck, and I keep writing, I make whatever I’m working on worse. So now, I’ve learned to spot the moments where I need to do what I don’t want to do, which is to leave. Leaving always helps. Usually I take the dog, and we walk. Anywhere and nowhere. Paying attention to where you’re walking defeats the purpose of walking. Running errands, stopping to talk to people defeats the purpose of walking. Just wave, smile, and keep walking. Put your headphones on and pretend you’re on the phone.
“I love limited edition Oreo cookies, which is to say I love novelty and play. So when I commit to writing a novel, an act steeped in routine and the grind, I inevitably run into problems. Eventually, I get myself unstuck, but looking back on how I manage to do so, I cannot find a unified answer. I see only a scattershot collection of wacky solutions. Last month, I pulled out a typewriter I hadn’t used in four years and transcribed a page of my opening chapter every day, for three days.
“I’m a firm believer in low-stakes writing as a strategy for managing both writer’s block and the anxiety inherent to writing. When I’m stuck, if I’m wise enough to take the advice I give to my students, I return to free-writing, often by hand. There’s something about moving away from the computer keyboard and back to pen and paper—and a different movement with my hands—that stimulates exploration instead of stress.
“When I feel stuck or stupid, afraid or inferior, to shake loose some words I turn to three things: 1. Paul Westerberg—solo, or with The Replacements. 2. Invisibility—more on that later. 3. Bourbon—two fingers, two cubes. I don’t admit to number three without some shame. It’s not a trait or a crutch I’m necessarily proud of, which is something I explore in my new book, Kickflip Boys. Over the years, I’ve asked other writers where booze fits in their writing life. Some won’t take a sip until they’re done for the day. Others will drink while editing, not writing.
“Whenever my writing begins to feel boxed in, as if the words no longer possess any degree of freedom, trickling out painfully one by one, I remind myself of Grace Paley’s famous aphorism: ‘Everyone, real or imagined, deserves the open destiny of life.’ This is true for ourselves, certainly, but also for our characters and for the words through which we render their stories.
“When I stop writing it’s usually the first sign that I will soon cease responding to e-mails, doing my laundry, or getting water when I’m thirsty. To start writing again requires me to improve my emotional and mental health. This means it’s good for me to: exercise, socialize, reduce digital media intake, talk to my therapist, and generally take care of myself. These are also all the things I’m incapable of doing in this state. The first step is to give myself time to languish without shame, but not too much time. I set an arbitrary ‘stop languishing’ date.
“For years and years, there’s been only one book I turn to when I feel the well dry up: The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and specifically the opening paragraph. Of course, if I read the first page, I’ll read the next ten, twenty, and by that point I might as well read the whole thing. But only the first few sentences are necessary to spark. ‘One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me,’ it begins. The vertiginous flexing of time in that sentence, that strange use of ‘already,’ the danger or warmth (possibility, really) set up in the action.
“Have a dog, or get one, or borrow one. I have two, a serene pit mix with soulful eyes and a scholarly three-legged border collie–heeler mix, and they get me into and out of my head like nothing else. I use an app called Time Out that darkens my screen for five minutes, every twenty-five minutes—a work trick called the Pomodoro Technique—and in those five minutes I leave my desk and go find one of the dogs to pet. While a sentence or problem turns over in my mind, my hands slide over his fur, I kiss his smooth forehead, I inhale the corn-chip scent of his ears, I look into his dark eyes.
“If I’m stuck, I’m usually overwhelmed, and so I try to stop writing. I allow myself to do nothing. Daydreaming is undervalued! And it can be so restorative. Doing nothing is the hardest thing for me, and the thing I’m learning to embrace without guilt. I once fell asleep watching a movie about fly fishing, the most boring activity I can imagine (and mind you, I needlepoint). Yet that stillness, of a quiet river, an invitation to keep my mind still, is what I’m seeking when I stare at my neighbor’s tulips, the sycamore’s branches, cars sliding by. These are my brain’s massage table.