“As much as I have always been a writer and reader, entranced by what language does on the page, I have always been in love with visual art and the movies, so much so that I call myself an ekphrasist: a writer whose work engages with visual art. During this time of sheltering at home in New York City, I have had to upend my rule that I will only write about art that I have already visited in person.
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.
“Here’s an antidote for a writing slump: Record yourself reading a polished passage from your working draft. Go ahead—don’t be shy. Choose the one that is like a celestial harp strumming in the background when you first composed it because it’s so good, the one that gives you goose pimples and brings tears to your eyes. It only gets better when you hear it out loud, off the flickering computer screen. It’s not vanity. We may not be giving ourselves license to celebrate what’s actually working on the page. Despite my own nasal Chicago accent, I relish hearing successful parts of a draft.
“I recommend soup, always, and especially now. It is comfort and it is excitement, both specific and universal. Soup is highbrow or lowbrow, it is microwaved or simmered for days from scratch, it is an ox bone yielding up its unctuous interior, it is Campbell’s with a splash of dill to spruce up a dour night.
“Read. That’s the advice we give to writers, whether they’re young, or just starting out, or stymied by writer’s block. I’ve gotten this advice a lot, I’ve given it too, but for the longest time I took it to mean that I had to collect classic stories and well-critiqued narratives, horde the respected and unknown. The best book was the one I hadn’t read yet and only with a brimming awareness of everything written could I then go ahead and add my own humble scribbles.
“When I’m struggling with writing fiction, I turn to reading other forms: poetry or, most often, nonfiction that intensely investigates a topic unfamiliar to me. Research can be a way to take breaks while also feeling productive and enriched. This was how I came to find a book about the prehistory of aviation as well as the adventures of lighter-than-air balloonists.
“I do most of my writing longhand, in lined notebooks. One unquestionable benefit to this approach is that you can take a notebook anywhere, leaving laptop and phone behind, and when you get there your only options will be to write or to stare at a wall. I usually enjoy writing once I’m underway, but I have a hard time getting started; it helps to leave myself no other choice. One unquestionable cost is that at some point you have to type all this handwriting up.
“Marginalized writers are often taught to think our narratives are too messy, nonlinear, or cyclic under the gaze of western imagination—a mindset which naturally leads to trapping ourselves in our own heads. My Poetry began with the communities that pulled me out of my own head at my worst moments: from slam poets who Held me, to Arab/BIPOC spaces (e.g. RAWI, Kundiman) who continue to challenge my imagination.
“Writing is a best friend. I meet up with it every day thinking, hi, I love you. This meeting up might look like journaling or reading but it’s writing. And I think of this like a no matter what thing. Then, sometimes, I am surprised by my resistance to writing. I realize it’s because of what’s on my mind: Will anyone notice? Will I be loved?
“After my book was accepted for publication, I wanted to start a new project immediately. Over the past couple of years, I came up with several project ideas and tried to write poems that worked toward a theme or subject. I thought this would be the way to avoid the ‘first book slump.’ I realize now, after spending months doing this and not feeling very good about my new poems, that this big picture process was not helping me. I was trying to exert too much control over my writing which resulted in me feeling creatively blocked.
“For me, often the origin of a new story or project begins with found documents. I have always been entranced by letters, journals, hastily jotted down reminders. It may have started when I inherited a huge storage unit full of my mother’s belongings and took on the enormous task of going through it. I got rid of almost everything except photographs, letters, art, and journals. I was amazed by the sheer magnitude of writing my mother did—though she never considered herself a writer.