"I never acquired the habit of keeping a journal, except to record my dreams. It always amazes me when I reread one from years ago, how fresh it still seems—more vivid even than my memories of actual events. One of the best tips I ever got was that you should title your dreams. Doing so makes the whole recording process into more of a literary activity. Some examples of my recent ones are 'In a Fog,' 'Dream Kitchen,' 'The Creeper,' and 'A Nice Voice.' Often with just a bit of minor editing, I have something I can type up and keep.
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 believe in fair trade. When I need inspiration I start giving more time and attention to the world around me. I write an e-mail to someone I miss. I make a mix of the best songs ever for where you are in your life right now. Or I set myself a challenge: I have to be kissed three times before an ending comes to me. Then I start chasing my children and my wife around the house. I have a little gang of coffee mugs I think of as my work friends; one of them generally sits around with me through the day and helps out when it can. I don’t just drink from them; I whisper into them too.
“Write first drafts on paper. This cancels self-criticism immediately; unless you have truly ugly, banged-up handwriting, everything you write will be visually and stylistically unified by ink. Better still, in an age of Internet-rehab apps like Freedom and SelfControl, nothing approaches the uncluttered nondigital quiet of a page. Take confidence in the fact that much of our canon was composed on paper.
"My working methods, I suspect, are too peculiar and old-fashioned to be instructive. Nevertheless, I don't make outlines. I don't do drafts—or not intentionally—not as such. I just obey the emotional impulse, always emotional, toward a novel or an essay and start writing (on a legal pad, then typing on an old Hermes 3000) with the expectation that diligence and fear will see me through to the discovery and prosecution of my duty.
"Music was my first love, and it's still the source for me even though I haven't touched a piano or guitar in years. It continues to teach me about phrasing, pitch, shifts in rhythm, shifts in tonal register—all of the qualities I value in writing. I try to listen to a range of work, but every so often I go back to Joni Mitchell, whom I need to take breaks from as she already feels like my inner life.
“I write in periods of forty-five minutes using my cell phone timer, and take fifteen-minute breaks between each session. I repeat this until I’m done for the day. I am amazed how much gets done in just three of these sessions, versus days of unstructured writing, which often lead to irregular breaks, rampant Internet usage, and end with me in a fetal ball of self-loathing. It turns out that no matter how much I am theoretically dying to write, I need structure and limits to get it done.
“When I was in the thick of writing my novel, Juventud, I took dance classes two or three times a week. This provided obvious physical benefits, prying me from the long day otherwise spent on the couch, pecking away on laptop keys until my neck and back ached. Any style of dance would do—modern, ballet, jazz, Bollywood, Polynesian, Middle Eastern. I chose the latter, or maybe it ended up choosing me; the studio was only a fifteen-minute drive from home, the lesson package affordable.
“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.
“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.