“There are certain writers whose prose is so deft and beautiful that reading them can inspire whatever I happen to be working on, even if the style, setting, or genre are completely different. One is Thomas Pynchon, whose prose I’ve been obsessed with ever since I discovered his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49. I’ll often go back to the first paragraph of that book to remind myself that it’s possible to write something complex, lyrical, and full of specific detail, but also something that’s funny and that really moves. Hilary Mantel is another such writer.
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.
“Stuck feelings come to me in two ways: first, a story-level stickiness, when I’m working on a project but don’t know where it’s headed next, and second, a more existential stickiness, when I don’t have a project and don’t know where I myself am headed. The first one is easier to handle. In those moments where the next sentence, paragraph, or scene isn’t coming, I turn away from my draft toward the outlining exercises in John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story.
“I find that the hardest work of my writing is done in my subconscious brain, somewhere in the back of my skull far out of the reach of my control. So if I am stuck, if the proper image or plot point has not yet been presented to me, it usually means that other brain functions are in the way, namely the nervous, anxious, day-to-day processes required for moving throughout the world.
“Taking a spin through the Smiths album Hatful of Hollow is one of the things I allow myself when faced with troubles on the page. It’s not so much to inspire as to reset. There’s a relaxing familiarity in coming back to songs that were on heavy rotation for me growing up as a teenage misfit in Singapore. The listening experience is less urgent now, and functions more as a calmative in retracing that line from Morrissey through to Oscar Wilde (whom Morrissey adored growing up as a teenage misfit in Manchester).
“When it’s warm enough in Maine—May through October, mostly—I write in a small attic that sits above a 20-by-20-foot garage/shop building in my backyard. I do a lot of carpentry on the side, and all my tools are in my shop. When I get tired of thinking in words, I go downstairs and dig into a list of projects that I’m working on. Or sometimes I’ll just take a few minutes to very carefully put things—drill bits, odd wood scraps, chisels—in their proper places.
“I begin my writing day with a sip of coffee and a vape (or two) of marijuana. (Disclaimer: I live in a state where medical marijuana is legal.) I never actually compose stoned, but I do read what I wrote the day before and take notes—silly, hallucinatory notes, but sometimes ideas that I might not have stumbled upon otherwise. The high, which also causes me to be forgetful, makes rereading a paragraph that I have read a hundred times before feel fresh and full of possibilities. The intoxication never lasts more than fifteen to twenty minutes and then I get on with the business of writing.
“Seeing is an act of imagination. When I am stuck in writing, it means that I have stopped seeing, that I have reduced the myriad forms to irrelevant background shapes like extras in a film, that I have closed off the sense doors to dwell in an anxious hermitage of bills and paperwork.
“If I’m stuck, it usually means one of two things: either I need to travel further into myself, or I’ve gone too far and need to be pulled out. If I sit down to write and can feel that everything I’m making is relying on the old tricks, just bobbing at the surface, then I know I haven’t dug a deep enough well. On the other hand, if writing feels painful or laborious, or if it’s been a long time since I wrote anything because the thought makes me sick, it usually means I’ve dug too deep a well!
“When I get stuck on the question of what’s happening in a piece of fiction, when my words feel stilted or dull, I like to read a bit of Lyn Hejinian’s My Life (Burning Deck, 1980). The book consists of thirty-seven prose poems, each one corresponding to a year of Hejinian’s life, each one exactly thirty-seven sentences long. It’s a kind of autobiography, but it’s not narrative—instead, it’s moments, details, language. Freed from the strict confines of a more traditional sense of story, I think about feeling and movement.
“When I feel uninspired or uncertain about my work—especially when struggling with self-doubt and falling prey to comparisons with better writers—I find it helpful to think about art. I remind myself that, just as there’s room for a wide variety of visual art to coexist, there’s room for a wide variety of fiction to coexist without ranking. We can love Rembrandt and also Paul Klee; we can admire both Vincent van Gogh and Louise Bourgeois without ever dreaming of comparing them. In the same vein, we can love both Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis, Charles Dickens and Kelly Link.