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Beyond “Ass in Chair”: Poets & Writers’ “Writers Recommend”

By (August 12, 2014) No Comment

water_flowing_ms-archivesWell, hello. We’re back from a brief midsummer break—thanks eternally to Terry Weyna for holding down the fort—recharged, we hope, and refreshed, with all sorts of good things to share. As much as the labor-of-love aspect of blogging can feel like a liability, it’s unquestionably nice to be able to walk away from something for a little while without major repercussions other than a dismal page hit count and some impatient readers. Most responsibilities, though, require regular attendance even when the desire to do so has taken off for a long weekend in the woods—ironically, or maybe that should be especially, when it comes to the creative pursuits that we love enough to make them our livelihood, but which sometimes feel like nothing more or less than jobs.

My muse takes more vacations than I do, and better ones too. Not just mine, of course. But sometimes it feels that way, which is when it’s a good idea to sit down and read a few entries in Poets & Writers Writers Recommend series, where they “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.” The responses come from a diverse group of writers—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, published by large imprints and small, with best sellers and backlist books—all of them describing, in a paragraph or two, what helps them keep the words flowing.

I’m not necessarily a fan of the Internet as decentralized group therapy—you want therapy, go to a therapist. But there’s something reassuring to see how assiduously other writers have worked to find work-arounds, and how obviously happy they are to talk about it. We all know ass in chair. But that only goes so far; the ass has to leave the chair periodically to feed the process, whether literally or metaphorically, and I enjoy hearing how other writers do it.

The series is a great window into other people’s creative lives: the talismans, the workplaces, the prompts—music, junk shop photographs, a shoebox full of paper scraps with words and phrases on them—and my favorite, the unblocking techniques. There are a lot of odes to changes of scenery, long walks, mundane tasks, eavesdropping, and showers; I love that Ivy Pochoda has to fight the impulse to take a second shower during the course of her writing day—“that seems weird”—so she goes for a drive instead. Kevin Sampsell gets ideas from collage, both making his own and what he terms “disjointed art: anything that surprises the reader, the viewer, the listener.” In fact, the series is full of quotes that I’ve copied down (a number of writers, including Alix Ohlin and Kyle Minor, advocate writing out, longhand, passages of work they love). I can tell myself a hundred times in a row that impasse unfailingly precedes inspiration, but that can feel like talking to an eye-rolling teenager who sighs and mutters, “Yeah, mom, OK.” It’s much more encouraging to read that sentiment from writers I like and respect, and who have the track records to make me listen to them. And it’s reassuring to find out how many people ritually get out their “Write Like a Motherfucker” coffee mugs when the going gets tough. Mine comes out at least once a month.

Here, write this down for starters. It’s from poet Peter Everwine, quoting Rutger Kopland, quoting Gerrit Krol: “If you don’t stir your soul with a stick every day, you’ll freeze solid.”

(Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.)