“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.
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“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.
“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.
“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.