“I take my cue from visual artists, who can spend an entire career consumed by a singular shape, or color, or a set of strokes, meticulously working through ‘the problem’ canvas by canvas with no or very little or only very subtle changes. Think of Rothko, as example. Think Glenn Ligon’s textual paintings. Think Jay DeFeo’s ‘The Rose.’ This is a way of saying that visual art taught me to trust my obsessions. First, that it was fine to have them, to be preoccupied or even haunted by them.
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.
“A mess. I need an absolute, total, tsunami-like mess on my desk to be productive. I cannot be creative when things are neat and tidy. Oddly enough, my work does not fit any sort of neat and tidy structure. I avoid pre-planning by figuring a book out as I go along and groom all the wreckage into shape later.
“I have an insatiable appetite for movies—they were my gateway to the creative world when I was a kid, long before books were. Books, I can’t live without books, but movies help my brain wrap around an idea, help me put it all into pictures that I can translate into words. When I’m starting a new manuscript I find a movie, something that speaks to the general feeling or atmosphere of what I’m going to be exploring (for Mesilla I was inspired by All Is Lost and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).
“When I’m feeling stuck, on a chapter, on a character’s next move, I’ll have a destination in mind to clear my head. It’s usually the waterfront around sunset. But I always take a roundabout way, on some sort of open-ended scavenger hunt. Sometimes I’ll take photos on my phone, or collect found objects for my desk. It depends on whether I’m feeling visual or more tactile. I’ll bring a journal to record interesting details: a biker’s shadow on the side of a bridge, milkweed bursting out of an abandoned lot, spray painted rocks, the different languages I’m hearing.
“I haven’t found any particular thing to be a consistently reliable source of inspiration. If there’s any consistency, it’s that it’s always something different. With Gainesville (Atticus Books, 2013), I listened to “Honey Hi” by Fleetwood Mac on repeat. I wrote every word of that story to that song. With Haints Stay, it was the band Earth and the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood.
“I went to see the film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Hours (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) in 2002. Sitting alone in the dark, I heard the opening notes of Philip Glass while I followed Virginia Woolf to the river, and I wept, not at Woolf’s urgency, but at the score.
“While finishing Summerlong, I found myself in perhaps the bleakest emotional landscape of my life, negotiating a blindsiding divorce with my wife of seventeen years. While my therapist and well-intentioned friends suggested I do happy things, I knew my work-in-progress required me to go into the darkness that self-help wisdom told me to avoid.
“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.
“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.