The Word Process is an interview series focusing on the writing process and aimed at illuminating the many ways that writers approach the same essential task. In this interview, Jericho Brown discusses his (lack of) writing desk, the books that inspire him as a writer, and the one thing that makes writers better.
[Jericho Brown is the poetry judge for Columbia Journal‘s 2018 Winter Contest. Submit your work here by December 15.]
You can read previous Word Process interviews here.
What does your writing desk look like? What objects, photographs, texts or talismans do you keep there?
Writing desk? Ha! I guess it looks like my lap. Right now, because of how I’m leaning, it’s a cream-colored couch in the Hurst apartment for visiting writers at Washington University. Sometimes, it looks like that tray that comes out of the back of the chair in front of me on an airplane. My gray bare kitchen table. Or my gray kitchen table with mail and books strewn all over it when I haven’t cleared it of clutter. Or the glass dining room table. Most often, though, my lap, and sometimes, in front of a window where I can see my front yard or my back yard. I’d describe my lap, but I’m sure that would get me into trouble since I can’t imagine doing so without hinting that it would be nice for someone other than my computer to sit on it.
Describe a typical day in your writing life.
I wake up and eat something. Then I read something by Ernest Holmes, usually just a few paragraphs. Then I pray. Then I open my laptop and see what lines are in the single file I have of all my lines that eventually (and magically, it seems) turn into poems over time. I do that for about an hour and a half to two hours and then I stop because by that time two to three hours have passed, and I know it because I’m hungry again. So I get up again to eat, and that means I’m done writing for the day unless some unexpected inspiration appears.
When it comes to the craft of writing, what do you think is the most important quality or skill for a writer to possess in order to excel, and why?
Discipline. It’s the only thing that makes anyone better. And it ensures that something is always in the process of getting made.
What book, poem, story, essay or quotation inspires you as a writer? What are your literary touchstones, the things that come to mind as you sit down to write a first draft?
“Tradition and the Individual Talent” by T.S. Eliot
“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” by Langston Hughes
“When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision” by Adrienne Rich
What do you do when you feel stuck in your writing?
I cry and complain. I see more films. Oh, I just read a little more than what I’ve been reading and I go on a bit of a search for a poet or for some poems that I can argue with in my head.
What’s the best advice about craft or process that you’ve ever received?
“Never say no.” –Nikki Giovanni