“Intimidation works for me. Not when I’m stuck in the sense of needing to work out a specific problem in a story, but when the quality or ambition of my work has hit a plateau. Nothing pushes me past that like the intimidation factor of doing a workshop with a writer (whether an instructor or fellow student) whose work I really admire or who is known for excellent taste. The first passable story I ever wrote was in a class with the late Hubert Selby Jr. Up until that point, my graduate work in fiction had been pretty appalling; I was skating by on a few decent poems.
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.
“This is weird, but I have a somewhat athletic approach to writing. I start my days off meditating, take a few minutes to gather myself after that, eat some breakfast and drink some coffee, and then I put on my headphones and listen to music that gets me sort of fired up, like I’m about to play basketball or something. It’s usually faster stuff, usually something that shares DNA with the punk, indie, and rap stuff I grew up listening to. For my book it was a lot of stuff by the band Beach Slang, also the Weakerthans, Lil Yachty, Kanye’s ‘Ultralight Beam,’ and Jeff Rosenstock.
“We all write against the clock: before we have to get to our day jobs, before the sitter leaves, before we have to pick up our children from school. For me, my hours of power are in the morning and late afternoon (the latter a habit formed by working on deadline at daily newspapers), and I reserve that time for the writing most important to me, be it my novel, an essay, or something else.
“In any form, there are many different people making work, and there are an infinite number of ways to go about doing it. What matters, it seems, is having a method, identifying it, and making it work for you. For me, that's often: moving between projects, delay, dreamy delay, a burst of writing, discouragement, the drawer, delay, pulling it out, then consistent effort and repeating many of the steps above.
“On difficult writing days, I like to consider writing as much a physical act as a cerebral one, a manual labor versus an art. This doesn’t mean that I devalue the craft, or that I believe typing is synonymous with writing. Instead, I recognize that half the challenge, for me anyway, involves sitting still in a chair for long stretches at a time and moving my fingers across a keyboard. When I’m stuck, I often believe the blank page can sense my desperation; the harder I try, the more the blinking cursor resolves to blink, unmoved.
“I don’t always encourage my students to walk into a classroom without any clothes and the only thing on their body are porcupine quills, in the same fashion that I don’t always encourage neophyte literary beings to become writers. To caution writers from pursuing a career in writing, I tell them that the writing life, the good one that is, is like climbing a mountain, but this mountain isn’t made of rocks—rather it’s composed entirely of razor blades—and one would naturally assume in climbing this mountain, one would be wearing shoes, but the writer’s feet are often bare, sockless.
“Writing is a combination of sculpting and songwriting for me. The first challenge is to vomit out the raw hunk of material—gather the thoughts that will anchor the storyline, in their rawest form—and then carve them into something beautiful and cohesive from there. Once the base has formed, I can listen to the flow of the words and see if it sounds like my own music. Okay, all pretentiousness aside, I’ve got synesthesia, (I see things in shapes, rather than as abstractions), so visual references are key for me in trying to explain how my brain works.
“Most of what I write is memoir, which is a harrowing genre, but I have no choice in the matter. It’s what I have always been called to write. People often ask, ‘WHY do you write about yourself, your bumbling mistakes, your occasional epiphanies?’ They ask this with a certain tone, as one might ask a mountain climber why he scales a dangerous peak in the middle of winter.
“As readers, we writers seem to especially cherish what I call ‘permission-giving’ works, the kind we read and react to with momentary outrage, ‘You can’t do that!’ followed by dawning delight, ‘Oh, you can?’ (which, of course, is to say, ‘Perhaps I can’).
“Music has always played a big part in my writing. I started writing for a theoretical readership when I did a zine about punk and hardcore bands in the mid-to-late-1990s, and my first freelance pieces were also about music. Music has inspired stories, served as a plot element for novels, and provided a backdrop for many a long writing session.