Think Outside the Book


Traditional writing guidebooks can be excellent tools for getting your fingers typing (heck, we even have a whole list of favorites,) but we also know that inspiration and guidance can come from unexpected sources. We've asked our fall writing workshop leaders to share some of their uncommon guides to writing. 


Do you have an unusual text you turn to in your writing? Share with us in the comments section! 



Stefan Merrill Block:


"Show don't tell": the old writing workshop adage. Tangible, specific details make an invented world come to life on the page, and the handiest reference material is the writer's memory. But I've found that my own memory often fixates on a limited set of impressions; if I'm not careful, the same few names, faces, and places will dully reappear in everything I write. And so, in search of original names, I sometimes wander around the graveyard next to my house. Such great names there! Gronbach! Koagal! Pockwood! Giuffi! When I'm too impatient for a walk among the tombstones, a phonebook can work almost as well. As for faces? To avoid giving every character the eyes of a loved one, the lightly scarred chin of a close friend, or the wry grin of an ex, I bought a wonderful little book built from a blog, The Sartorialist, by the genius fashion photographer Scott Schuman. Schuman has now put out three volumes of The Sartorialist, and together they make up an extremely useful reference, a sort of phonebook for interesting faces. Similarly, each time I start a new project, I look for good picture books of whatever landscape I'm describing, preferably books that contain many macro lens photos of minute details along with the usual coffee table-romantic panoramas. My new novel is set in the deserts of West Texas, and I'm very lucky to have found an ideal photographic memoir of that moonscape: James Evans's beautiful, messy, somewhat surreal Crazy from the Heat: A Chronicle of Twenty Years in the Big Bend.



Andrea Chapin:


If I’m stuck or I can’t get started or I’m having trouble concentrating, I tend to reach for poetry. The spectacular language, rhythm, intense feeling, and overall mystery of verse centers me and encourages me to think creatively. Here’s a list of my go-to poetry books: The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, The Dream Songs by John Berryman, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Dante’s Inferno, Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us, Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems: 1927-1979, John Donne’s Complete English Poems, and, of course, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and his two narrative poems. 



Elizabeth Gaffney:


Some of the sources I've used include Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse for both inspiration and small acts of plagiarism; various years of Valentine's Manuals of Old New York, which include engravings of street scenes and buildings, information about public and private institutions, and listings of things such as ferry lines and schedules; a 1901 manual called "Paving Materials" by George Tilson; George E. Waring's Report on the Social Statistics of Cities (1902); and the 1911 Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which I have in my dining roomthe often outdated information there would have been state of the art knowledge for many of my characters.



David Gordon:


I do have, I am very proud to say, a compact edition of the complete OED, the one that comes with a magnifying glass, as well as dictionaries in other languages, grammar books, and guidebooks to several cities. Pre-Google, I’d use atlases, books of guns and cars, medical books. I also had people to call: my sister for legal questions, a friend’s mom who worked as a head nurse in the ER. “How many people minimum does it take to safely remove a kidney?” The answer, by the way, is three.


But now, thanks to the internet, most of that is online and what I reach to the overloaded shelves behind me for, is something harder to define: the feeling or structure or style that I want a particular scene or even just a sentence to have. Or a character whose way of talking reminds me of someone. This sort of “reference” can’t be found online or even in a library really, because sometimes all I recall is a poem with a bird in it toward the back of a certain Wallace Stevens book, so it has to be my old paperback copy. Also these associations are very vague: I will read a poem (lots of poetry) to try to get a certain tone even for a regular narrative passage. Or a P.G. Wodehouse scene to see how it is structured. Or just read a few pages of Bruno Schulz or Penelope Fitzgerald to get that sound in my head. I also flip through my pile of art books searching for certain images. To be honest, I also sometimes put certain records or even scenes from movies on in the background because I think they might help. I’ve had people come home and see me lying on the floor and ask, “Research?”



Molly Prentiss:


While writing Tuesday Nights in 1980, I often referred to Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, by Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman. In it there are countless lists, diagrams, color charts, and testimonies from people with synesthesia, and it was a consistent inspiration while rendering James' character. I also read the diaries of artists that were living and working in downtown New York in the 1970s and 80s (Keith Haring's, in particular), and dug through old issues of Art Forum

The book I am working on now takes place in Northern California in the 1970s, so I am reading a lot of California history. My mother is a historian of sorts and has amassed books about the history of Santa Cruz, CA, where I grew up. I pillaged her stacks recently and came out with: West of the West, Imagining California and a book from the 70s called The Californians, among others. I also like having guides to plants, trees, and animals of the region around to reference as I write.



Dawn Raffel:


I’m very fond of The Sun—the magazine, not to be confused with the tabloid. When I’m deeply immersed in writing a book, it’s hard to focus on another full-length work, yet I need to read. This wonderful ad-free magazine is filled with reportage, essays, stories, and poems that are “just enough.” One could say the same of many literary journals, but I gravitate in particular to a feature called Readers Write. Inspired by a prompt—say, high school, or fences, or breakfast—readers of all ages and from all backgrounds compose a few paragraphs about their personal past. I’ve no doubt the twenty or so vignettes in each issue are well-edited, but they also have an unvarnished quality that feels deeply authentic. Some of the writers are elderly, some are in prison, some write about rural lives that are rarely reflected in glossy publications. Some write frankly about cruelty and marginalization, others about survival and about kindness. Nobody ties it up with a ribbon. To read these stories is a gift. I never cease to be astonished and inspired by the infinite variety of human experience, and by the hard-to-name emotions that bind us.


When I’m not fully immersed in writing—when I’m flailing around, lost or stuck—I like to go to a library with open stacks (like the one at the Center for Fiction) and leave my preconceived agenda at the door. I’ll wander around, lighting on books I’ve never heard of, or that I meant to read ten years ago, or whose authors are famous but this book isn’t. Maybe I’ll find a volume that hasn’t seen the light of day in a decade. I’ll pick up a book in a genre that’s not “my thing.” Invariably, I’ll walk out with a pile of books I didn’t know I needed. There is always something to learn.    



Martha Southgate:


I don't have any one set of books that inspires me when I write. I tend to wander around the room and pick up what interests or distracts me (sometimes more distraction than is really useful.) But what I do have is a kind of parent book for each of my novelsa book whose techniques or themes have been instructive or inspirational to me. For my novel The Fall of Rome, the parent book was Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. I was very interested in how Ishiguro worked with an unreliable narrator, as the character I was developing was also somewhat unreliable. Ishiguro's masterful handling of this issue was very helpful to me. 

Same with my Third Girl From the Left and Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In that case, I was interested in how he gave a pop culture thing (comic books) enormous narrative weight. I hoped to do the same with Blaxploitation films. And in my most recent novel, The Taste of Salt, I studied the narrative techniques of Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex. Both books feature narrative voices ranging into spaces they could not realistically go and both do it masterfully, a technique that I emulated to some extent. Part of being a novelist is knowing when to look to other writers for guidance, even if you only know them through their work.



Simon Van Booy:


“...Then, unexpectedly, he [Lucian Freud] begins talking about his attitude to his own work. Evidently, for him the excitement is all in the actual making of the picture. 


‘I think half the point of painting a picture is that you don’t know what will happen. Perhaps if painters did know how it was going to turn out they wouldn’t bother actually to do it. Painting is rather like those recipes where you do all manner of elaborate things to a duck, and then end up putting it on one side and using only the skin...’”Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud by Martin Gayford


I use this book a great deal, as it gives evidence of how the creative process is really similar for other artists. There are also great moments of insight and inspiration for dealing with the grueling number of hours it takes to make anything even half-decent.