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Refilling the Well

Flickr Creative Commons: Boxer Bob

I needed last Friday to be a great writing day. I knew exactly where to start. I was going to get up early, make my meals for the day, and write Pomodoro style all the way through to evening. I’d ignore social media. Wouldn’t even read the news.

Just a quick peek at the headlines to make sure the world wasn’t ending and then…holy hell, how was it two PM? Because, of course, history making news days are never really convenient to one’s writing schedule.

By two-thirty, frayed and bleary-eyed, I felt like I’d read the entire internet. Surely my writing day was toast. But I also recognized that I needed a break from news updates. There was a new season of Broadchurch up. I’d been saving it for the end of my project, but I decided to let myself watch twenty minutes.

One of the things I love about Broadchurch is its narrow focus. The small town. The lives of a few families. The setting, the mood, the music, the careful words. Every element carries weight, and watching felt like satisfying a gnawing hunger with exact food I’d been craving. Once my mind had been drawn away from the entire internet to something small and beautiful, I was ready to write.

I spent the next few days working intently, slipping in twenty minutes breaks to watch Broadchurch throughout the day. And even though on Friday afternoon it felt like the outside world was too crazy to ever find focus again, I got a ton of work done last weekend. I’d been inspired.

This past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of creative input make for good output. I think Broadchurch worked for me on that crazy day, because it’s completely absorbing. Our attention is pulled in so many different directions these days, and it makes the kind of art that draws us in completely all the more valuable. We need creative nourishment and touchstones for quality.

Here’s some of the work that’s inspired me this year.

Broadchurch, of course. And also The Americans. Both shows do a fantastic job of keeping the focus close and personal. Watching them feels like being a part of something.

The novels Homecoming and A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voight. I’d read The Tillerman books as a kid, and going back to them has made me keenly aware and appreciative of the creative input that shaped my worldview. And Jen Lancaster’s [1] new novel, The Gatekeepers is beautifully detailed and completely absorbing.

Nonfiction audiobooks by inspiring and creative women are one of my favorite ways to recharge. I particularly loved Scrappy Little Nobody, by Anna Kendrick, This Is Just My Face by Gabourey Sidibe, Shrill by Lindy West, Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco, and We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union.

My work time was fueled by Chris Pureka’s [2] album, Back in the Ring, Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, and Peter Mulvey’s [3] Are You Listening?

I thought I’d ask some friends (who have created some of my favorite absorbing works of fiction) about the books, movies, television, art, and food that’s refilled their creative wells this year. Maybe something from their lists will inspire you.

Caroline Angell [4], author of All the Time in the World.

The New York Sunday Times, cover to cover.
Kids, and all the hilarious and profound things they do and say.
Cooking and watching the Great British Baking Show (often simultaneous!)
Lindy West, Lauren Duca, and other brave women writers speaking truth to power.
Great Fiction, this year My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent and Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan were particularly notable

Cassandra Dunn [5], author of The Art of Adapting

This year, my well-fillers were very much back to basics: quality time spent with good friends laughing and sharing stories; hiking to clear my head, push my body, and find inspiration in the full-sensory awareness that I only find in nature; travel (Hawaii, the Sierras, Monterey, San Francisco) to get out of my daily routine and enjoy some time away with my favorite people; bingeing on BBC crime dramas (Broadchurch, Paranoid, The Missing, The Five, Wallander, Fearless); and nights spent reading with a cup of tea—I think the book that most inspired me this year was Lily King’s Euphoria, which was just stunning.

Bryn Greenwood [6], author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

I always go back to medieval romances, but especially Yvain, Morte d’Arthur, Gawain & the Green Knight, Chanson de Roland. Oh but this year has called for something new to me: Perceforest. All 1,070 pages of it.

Karen Essex, [7] author of Leonardo’s Swans

I like to get away from the written word to get inspired. Art museums are a particular source of inspiration (I wrote two books that were inspired while looking at art!). Well-written period drama inspired me this year, like The Crown and Poldark. Sometimes, I get so inspired at the theater that I have to sneak notes on my cell. This year: Indecent, Hamilton, Oslo, and Pierre, Natasha, and the Great Comet were all very inspiring. Great art in any form is renewing!

Sandra Gulland [8], author of The Game of Hope

Research (and getting off the news) rejuvenates me. That and sleep. And painting. Reading a wonderful novel, watching a great movie, a great TV drama. All of the above, but staying away from the news is the most important, and yet the hardest to do right now. The TV drama series Victoria was jaw-dropping, and since I write biographical historical fiction it reinforced the power of the personal/public points-of-view. I’m researching falconry right now and two movies were amazing: The Eagle Huntress, of course, but also Kes. For books—in addition to the ones specifically related to research and writing, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Saunder’s Lincoln in the Bardo were important to me because of the creative way in which they delved into history. I should also mention a podcast on writing I enjoy: The Story Grid. All of these brought me back to the creative process.

Greer Macallister [9], author of Girl in Disguise

I found myself gravitating, mostly unwittingly, to art by and about bold women. Everything from streaming TV’s Victoria and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel to books like The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and Deanna Raybourn’s Veronica Speedwell mysteries. And I’ve given up NPR in the car for audiobooks. Have never regretted the swap. Some of my favorite audiobooks from this year: I Liked My Life by Abby Fabiashi (three voices, all amazing), Not a Sound by Heather Gudenkauf, read by Julia Whelan, and Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, read by Lisa Flanagan.

Heather Webb [10], author of Last Christmas in Paris

I surf through my cookbooks and cooking magazines looking for new recipes with interesting ingredients. Food and Wine Magazine is my fav, and I had fun digging through the new cookbook called Brave Tart. There’s nothing like exploring in the kitchen to fill me up and knock something loose in my brain that I’ve been mulling over. Travel is huge for me as well, and strolling through museums. Just being out of my regular environment gets me thinking about story and characters in a new way, even if I’m just a few towns away. I visited MOMA, the Frick Collection, and the Morgan Library in NYC, and was wowed by the small but beautiful Rodin museum in Philadelphia. I enjoyed a dip into the past at the Unsinkable Molly Brown’s house in Denver as well.  And it’s not just for my fiction. These activities give me an overwhelming sense of pleasure and adventure

Kristina Riggle, [11] author of Vivian in Red

There’s this wonderful documentary called Every Little Step, which is an intimate portrayal of the audition process for the 2006 Broadway revival of A CHORUS LINE, in all its pain and joy for the dancers. There’s this line from Charlotte D’Amboise that goes, “It takes your guts. It takes your soul. And you’re willing to give it.” Every time I watch it, this part makes my heart sing. Yes, Charlotte, art does that to you. (Also I become newly grateful that I can’t age out of writing or have my career ruined by bad knees.) Plus, the song “What I Did for Love” is perfect for anyone trying to be an artist.

What were your favorite well-fillers this year?