“I’m a software developer by trade. When I become stuck in my novel writing, and it’s something that has become less frequent over the years, I find myself turning to a developer trick to get things going again. In my case the issue is almost always that I’m trying to tackle something—a conflict, a character motivation, a shift of emotional state in the story—that is simply too large and knotty. It’s as if my intellect is a small snake working at swallowing an ostrich egg; try as it might, it just can’t quite get it down.
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 listen to Bach’s Goldberg Variations when I am making something new. I listen to his toccatas when I am revising and refining. (The recordings by pianist Glenn Gould have always helped me keep my energy and attention steady.) If there’s a momentary slowdown, a glass of water and the chance to do something with my hands can be a valuable distraction. That may mean folding a load of laundry or washing a few of the dishes in the sink.
“I’ve heard the arguments against writing in public, and I’m compelled by them: There’s no real way to concentrate in a library or café, people tell me, and maybe they’re right. Sometimes the distractions are pleasant ones (the other day, a conversation about a Marlon James novel I listened to on the walk over to the café). Sometimes the distractions are unpleasant ones (the arrival of the afternoon-shift barista, whose iPod never fails to sour my mood). Either way, it’s hard to get much done.
“Usually when I decide to write a poem, I immediately begin a fight with myself over whether I actually have something to say. This argument can often turn into a capitulation of my creative self to my practical self, resulting in my opening up my checkbook, changing the cat litter, emptying the dishwasher, or simply filling my day with the tasks of a so-called productive life. If I still feel tugged by a desire to write but can only allocate a few minutes, I turn to punctuation.
“Recalling memories and taking notes is a practice I prioritize over any writing activity. I don’t know what might interest me until I see it reflected in the physical world. This includes objects, nature, overheard dialogue, and sounds that I encounter in my everyday life. I keep a stack of note cards with context on the front and the visceral memory of what moved me on the back.
“Writing my way into a story can feel like walking in an unknown city, tangled with wrong turns that might lead to unexpected vistas, but can just as easily run into insurmountable walls. Even so, I’ve found mapping doesn’t work for me. I need to get a little lost in the process. But it differs if the impasse is one of staring into the void of a new project or just heading the wrong direction during a work in progress. When I don’t know how to begin something new, I’ll go for uncharted walks, usually bringing my camera to make pictures.
“I love to write and always have and don’t get stuck that often, but maybe that’s because I’ve also loved to toggle between languages since I started studying Russian as a teenager. The best way for me to get inspiration as a writer is to read, and by far the best and closest way to read is to translate. I have always thought of my translations as a kind of apprenticeship under expert writers whose work I deeply admire.
“In every audience Q&A the eternal question about the writing process is asked: What motivates or inspires? How do you begin? And for such occasions, I have this response handy: First thing in the morning I prepare myself a big mug of strong coffee and then sit down at my desk and switch on my computer and proceed to scroll through Facebook for the next four to six hours. Depending on the audience, that joke usually solicits a good laugh.
“As a once self-proclaimed ‘failed fiction writer’ and late bloomer to poetry, I try not to be too hard on myself these days—it’s challenging enough to just exist. If the words aren’t coming, I allow that time and space to refuel my brain and soul with a sense of play. We’re not writing machines (unless you’re a journalist, and mad props if you are, seriously), and I for one do not write every day.
“I once read about how Sheryl Crow told Bob Dylan she was having trouble writing her next album. Dylan told her to learn the songs that made her want to be a musician and play those during concerts. I think what Dylan was telling Crow was to remember how a song was made by living inside it, recreating it herself. After Crow did that, she wrote her album.