“When in doubt, go further, deeper, weirder. Take the elements that make your story unique and double down on them. There's a tendency in writing classes and craft essays to suggest that writers work on their weaknesses and round out their skills. If you're great at dialogue and structure, you should put your efforts into character and plot. And certainly that can help. But if instead you work on using the dialogue and structure to your advantage and emphasize them even more, you might come up with something original. Not every shape needs to be round.
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.
“Like most writers, I prefer to write in silence, but I’m not always free to enable it. Sometimes circumstances pull you on the road, out of the house or apartment into a library or coffee shop, or even stuck within a home buzzing with life that you’re otherwise grateful for and deeply enjoy. In those instances, I reach for a playlist of ambient, downtempo, and contemporary minimalist music. I used to be an ambient music deejay back in college at WNUR-FM in Evanston, Illinois, and I’ve continued to add to my collection ever since.
“Often when two of my characters are in a room together, they’ll reach a point at which neither wants to converse with the other anymore. They’ve talked and talked, and though they can’t advance the dialogue, they are forced to remain in the same space. Maybe it’s a home or a job or an airplane. The problem arises when I’m not sure how to make the story run without the characters speaking. Yet if you’ve ever watched a film on mute, you know that when language is stripped away, you read the movements.
“I write best from a place of stillness and quiet. I also live in New York City, a place known for neither of those things. That means I tend do a lot of writing in the middle of the night. It’s the closest thing to silence I can find in the city. The rest of the time, I collect. I’m always taking notes. I pick up pieces from magazine articles, news stories, radio, television, movies, from conversations with strangers, from eavesdropping on the world. Then, in the quiet, I take stock. I pick out the most compelling pieces and wait for them to speak. I translate and rearrange.
“Begin with bleakness. Bring yourself to the bare room. Voices will assail you, reminding you how many times you’ve been hit on the head, hard, reminding you of the bad genes, the narrow valley in Bohemia where your ancestors left their lives as factory hands, as milk maids, with their natural and legitimate children in tow, and walked to Trieste and boarded ‘the big boat’ right out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, out of history, out of the looming world war to give up their names at Ellis Island and live many long years, long enough for the mutation to work its will. Forget that.
“The solution to being stuck almost always lies outside the writing itself. Creativity arises from playfulness, not from relentless concentration. It’s more powerful to look at a problem askance than head-on. Insight will arrive during a walk or a shower or a tumble on the floor with my kids; while I’m scrubbing the toilet or strolling around the visible storage gallery at the Brooklyn Museum or reading a science article or going through airport security. When I’m in an idea drought, I try to experience as many random things as possible.
“I am in debt. I owe the world an unpayable sum, and yet each morning at my desk with the sun rising in the long distance—some mornings it blazes and on others it is a distant bulb barely able to raise smoke from the cold black tar of the roof—I sit down to repay that debt. My debt is simple. It is the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Larry Levis. The prose of Norman Maclean and Michael Ondaatje. Derek Walcott and Wallace Stevens. Henry Thoreau and Ed Abbey. Naomi Shihab Nye and Terrance Hayes. Jack Gilbert. The list goes on and on.
“I am fascinated by two types of characters: those who are deeply flawed—the morally ambiguous character who is looking for redemption or spiraling into a deeper chaos, and those who are on the brink of a life-altering epiphany. When I first began writing, I only wrote short stories. As my collection grew and my stories were published, I began relying on the same characters to make cameo appearances or take center stage in a story.
“I’m fortunate that I don’t often feel stuck, but I have plenty of days—most days—when I don’t feel like writing. Something always happens on the page if I can make myself sit in the chair and weather the ten minutes of terror as every excuse not to write darts through my head and I watch the cursor blink back at me. Two things that bookend my writing sessions help me stay in the chair, stay inspired, and stay motivated to do it all over again. The first, of course, is reading.
“First, I put down the pen and paper or step away from the computer screen and go for a walk. The dog helps. She gets me up and out and away from myself. Once moving, I focus on what it is that’s been spinning around in me. Generally, there is a phrase or an image that I keep returning to. Sometimes, it’s just a reoccurring image in a dream: a cat stuck in the middle of a raging creek, a whale knocking a boat over, and so on. Mostly it’s language, a phrase that keeps coming back: ‘I’m sorry,’ ‘Give me this,’ ‘Let me tell you something,’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Help’ to name a few.