“The logistical aspects of writing—figuring out how a character gets from point A to point B, or how two plotlines intersect—can spur anxiousness in me that leads to hours of avoidance. When I get to sections like these, I try to cook or bake something. I was not a frequent cook before beginning my novel The Turner House, a book with multiple storylines and over a dozen characters, but cooking has now become integral to me staying sane while working out the nuts and bolts of a narrative.
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.
“The great chess and martial arts champion Josh Waitzkin talks about ‘stress and recovery’ in his book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance (Free Press, 2007). I think this theory of balance can help a writer as much as it helps an athlete.
“I am a cultural carnivore, a dually satisfying and frustrating way to be in New York City, where a clone would be useful to see all the art, plays, films, music, and dance that I would otherwise miss. A brief but eye-opening stint working at the Studio Museum in Harlem exposed me to the work of artists from around the African diaspora. I’ve had the good fortune of working with an incredible crew of visual artists recently.
“Whenever I get stuck writing a scene I like to talk it out with someone. Sitting alone for too long with a plot problem or character issue can drive you crazy. But if you talk about it with a friend, any friend—they don't have to be a writer or a reader—and say, ‘Here's where I'm at. What do you think if I do this?’ I find it helps. They might not have the perfect solution or suggestion, but the process of talking about it often makes you think about the issue in a different way. Sometimes they share a great anecdote about something else that applies.
“Write hungry. This is not to say that writing while full can't be its own version of wonderful, your body so saturated with almond paste cookies, bourbon, or love that the words fall from you like overripe fruit. But on my best writing days, I come to the page as soon as I wake, uncluttered by the business of living, unburdened by Facebook or e-mail or even oatmeal. I get a cup of coffee and sit before my laptop. This simple act transforms my body into a receptive vessel, one tuned into the scent of coffee and the thoughts and images pooling just under the surface of things.
“It starts with a step. Followed by another. I am running, and I am caught up in my creaky knee, sore lower back and the detritus of the day—check requests, press releases, my children, dumb fights, and bills. Much of the time when I am running it is along the lakefront in Chicago, enjoying the headwind that runs both north and south, and doing so year-round—some days with small chunks of ice clinging to my eyebrows, and other days melting in the mid-day heat.
“Most of my friends know—and enjoy mocking me about the fact—that I’m a Mets baseball fan. There is something about baseball I find very conducive to creative thinking—it occupies the eyes but not the mind, its slow pace leaving plenty of room for daydreaming. Back when I used to have a television, I’d sometimes turn on a baseball game and sit on the couch to write. Now that I live in Queens, I’ve occasionally taken the 7 train out to Citi Field, where I’ve sat with a notebook in my lap and watched the game.
“Above all else, I consider writing to be an active art of questioning, and so any sense of ‘stuckness’ I might experience generally means I haven’t yet identified the heart of what I’m exploring. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Ta-Nehisi Coates speak, and he encouraged a whole room full of people to push harder on the conclusions they’ve drawn, no matter how careful their considerations. Ask why, he implored: why he did that, why she said that, why a whole group of people feels or acts or thinks that way. Trace causation one level further.
“My dog—a fifty pound wiggle machine of a rescued pit bull named Gracie—is the thing that keeps me from losing it when I run into rough patches where the words stop flowing or the open document starts to look like a mess of hieroglyphs. There is something amazing about being responsible for the care of an animal that gives back nothing but love without any kind of ask in return.
“I recommend overstimulation. If it’s too quiet, I find it’s hard to hear my voice. When I write, I overwhelm myself: The TV’s on in the background playing a movie or a reality show, I’m listening to music, I’m texting five friends, the window’s open and I’m eavesdropping on the conversations and arguments on my Bed-Stuy street below, the coffee table is stacked with books—art books, poetry collections, essays. Because I don’t know what stimulus will jumpstart a poem, which voice or atmosphere will turn me on, I douse myself in all of them at once.