Works like a charm

Jonathan Franzen's is a squeaky chair, Jane Smiley's a hot bath, Douglas Coupland's chocolate chips ... writers reveal what gets their creative juices flowing

Jake Arnott: my grandmother the dancer

This picture has followed me around for the past decade and a half. I've hung it in the kitchen of wherever I lived. Maybe because I remember her cooking, fixing an early evening gin and tonic, telling stories. It's a photograph of my grandmother in Paris, sometime in the late 20s, when she worked in a nightclub as a showgirl. I remember finding it with her as she was sorting out a chaotic bundle of memories. She pointed out that the costume was for a burlesque number that had a hunt theme. Note the stylised riding cap and gloves, the kinky, fur-trimmed boots, the diamanté riding crop. It could have been taken when she was at the Moulin Rouge or the Folies Bergères - she worked at both between 1927 and 1928. She left bits of a diary, hastily scribbled, absurdly terse. Here's some of February 1927, when she was at the Moulin Rouge:

Tuesday, February 1 Complet, sandwich

Wednesday, February 2 Bain

Thursday, February 3 No bath, complet

Friday, February 4 No bath

Saturday, February 5 Complet, bain

Sunday, February 6 1 cafe complet, 4 chocolates, 6 biscuits

Monday, February 7 Bath, 2 pommes, 2 biscuits

Tuesday, February 8 3 chocolates, 1 apple, 2 biscuits

Sunday, February 13 Danced but sat precariously on 1 ladder

Monday, February 14 Complet, bain, fell through ladder

Tuesday, February 15 Complet, fell through ladder, made resolve not to eat chocolates, bought jumper.

One hopes that she was eating a little more than she recorded, but you know what dancers are like. There are regular entries that indicate the dangers of her workplace ("2 stagehands hurt, sent to hospital", "stagehand fell on to a fireman", "chorus boy fell downstairs, badly hurt" - all in one month), but frustratingly scant details of her life then. I remember the stories she told me decades later in her house in Clapham. I recall a tough and rather frightening woman who had spent all her working life in show business and was still running after Routemaster buses in her 70s. I love this picture because it catches her at her most glamorous. When the writer's life seems at its dullest, I can remind myself that I'm in show business, too. That she lived so much and wrote down so little has perhaps been a provocation to me. One day I'll tell her stories. When I'm good enough to do her justice.

Jonathan Franzen: a squeaky chair

This is my office chair, which I've been using continuously since scavenging it off a street in Rockland County, New York, in 1982. It squeaks horribly and irremediably, but it's been many years since I've been able to hear the squeak, just as I can't hear myself talking when I write dialogue, even though, when I leave the office, I can tell from my hoarseness that I've been talking loudly all day.

David Guterson: driving

I used to have clear ideas about writing, but as time has gone on I've had to acknowledge the difference between my ideas about it and reality. What actually occurs when I write has no form or principle. I don't know what's going to happen or how it will happen, and most of the time I'm either happily or unhappily surprised by what's going on, as opposed to being in charge of it.

I was staying with a friend in Deer Park once, north of Spokane, Washington, and got up at three and took a shower and crept out of the house and drove away. It was a Sunday morning and so early that all the traffic lights on Division Street were blinking. I was just awake and hadn't spoken a word, and so the driving was like dreaming. In the dream I was crossing my home state. Between Sprague and Ritzville there was plenty of darkness, except that a little of the glow from my dashboard lights illuminated the carved bear figurines tucked into the curve of my windshield. On this day off my writing, I began to think about my novel-in-progress and by the time I got to Ritzville I had to pull off the interstate, not only to buy a notebook but to cry because I felt badly for some of the people in my book. Inside the mini-mart, two young duck or goose hunters dressed in camouflage gear were getting self-serve coffee, and while I picked out a notebook, their conversation - which was frankly, I thought, a lot of idle foolishness - distracted me, and then I had to stand behind them in a line to make my purchase and, it couldn't be helped, listen to more of their sadistic banter underneath all of that mini-mart wattage. You would think this interlude would break the spell, but the road toward Othello was so overwhelmingly perfect in the darkness that the world dissipated within 15 minutes and I was "writing" again.

Jay McInerney: an axe in my hand

This is an Acheulian hand axe, approximately a half-million years old, crafted by Homo erectus, which was given to me by my friend, Anthony Hamilton Russell, who found it on his farm in Walker Bay, South Africa.

The design of this hand axe was pretty consistent for more than a million years. I like to heft it and hold it between paragraphs. It fits the palm beautifully. It reminds me of a friend and a beautiful landscape; sometimes I try to imagine its maker and his world.

Melissa Bank: a blindfolded rhino rescued from floodwaters

I came upon this picture in the New York Times after I'd published my first book and was trying to write my second.

Publication is what every unpublished writer I've ever met wants and hopes for, and it's what I'd wanted and hoped for, and yet it had its difficulties. For one thing, it made me aware of writing as a public act, as I never had been before.

The next time out, I wanted to be in control. The only problem: for me to write anything worth reading, I can't be in control. My conscious mind, the part that cares what critics might hate or readers might like, has to get out of the way for me to get anything done. My subconscious does all the heavy lifting, which brings me back to this picture.

It's tacked above the writing table at my cabin to remind me of how writing really works. I don't mean that it's a precise metaphor; it's more like an image from a dream about writing. It captures the emotion for me - the ungainly struggle, the possibility of rescue, the blind faith writing requires. It also reminds me that the alternative is drowning in a flooded cage in the zoo.

Nicholson Baker: earplugs

Some years ago I bought an industrial dispenser pack of 200 pairs of Mack's earplugs from Mostly, though, I buy them from the drug store. Recently, Mack's began offering them in orange, which is less disgusting than white.

I can sit anywhere, in any loud place, and work. Everything becomes 20 feet farther away than it really is. The chirping, barking, jingling cash-drawer of a world is out of reach, and therefore more precious.

You must have a good seal. When you unstick your thumb from a jammed-in plug, your eardrum will make a tiny, silent cry of pain, like a word in Arabic. Then you know you have a good seal.

Michel Faber: Krautrock

An HB pencil sharpened exactly halfway between sharpness and bluntness. A beloved old office chair with armrests at a 25-degree angle. A cup of filter coffee, served at exactly 8.15 in the morning, along with a blueberry Danish from my favourite baker. Notepaper in the long-superseded foolscap size, ruled feint, each page marked at the top right-hand corner with the date in red pen. A leather necklace I was once given by a shaman in Dakota, without which I feel I cannot connect with the mysterious forces of literary creativity. Jesus Christ, why not throw in a turtle aquarium, a belly dancer and a rainbow outside the bloody window, too? What does a writer really need in order to work?

Me, I need nothing special. I use a computer. Don't ask me what brand it is, I couldn't care less. What time in the morning do I start work? Whenever I wake up. What do I eat? Whatever's around. What are my bare minimum requirements? Solitude, and enough light to see the screen. Any talismans, lucky ornaments, superstitious procedures? Nope.

Mind you, I want to enjoy myself while I'm writing, and my most constant source of enjoyment is music. So I've set up my workspace to give me easy access to the jazz rock, prog rock, avant-garde electronica and Krautrock that I adore. A turntable sits next to the keyboard. A stack of music equipment looms inches from my left shoulder. Cassettes are piled near my ankles. The drawers of my desk are stuffed with CDs. LP sleeves litter the desk. What influence does this music have on my writing? Some, I suppose. The eerie yet poignant atmosphere of a story like The Fahrenheit Twins is the literary equivalent of the vibe I feel coming off sublime Krautrock albums by Neu!, Cluster or Klaus Schulze.

Mainly, though, I use music to sharpen up my own focus. When I was writing my Victorian opus, The Crimson Petal And The White, I didn't play 19th-century music to "get me in the mood". I played Miles Davis (his electric funk period), Mahavishnu Orchestra, Transglobal Underground, Severed Heads, Nurse With Wound. I did this not merely because I love this stuff. I did it because I'm wary of filling the air around me with the same ingredients as I'm trying to put into my prose. I don't want to fool myself into thinking I've captured something on the page when, in reality, it's swirling around the room. My most violent, angst-infused prose was written to a soundtrack of happy, serene music. And vice versa.

Now excuse me while I turn the record over.

Alan Hollinghurst: the Baths Of Diocletian

In the little study where I write, I have a large Piranesi engraving of the ruins of the Baths Of Diocletian in Rome, done, I think, in the 1750s. I bought it for myself as a present when my second novel came out 12 years ago.

It is one of Piranesi's diagonals, where a very long subject is shown in a very steep perspective. In the left of the picture, the ruins block out the sky, and we seem to stand at the foot of towering walls - walls which, on the right-hand side, stretch away, dwindling and tree-tufted, to an immeasurable, and certainly exaggerated, distance. In Piranesi, the scientific mind of the archaeologist was combined with the eye of a visionary poet. Close to, he shows us the construction of a huge functional building, brick, stone and Roman concrete, each brick distinct and countable; but overall the impression is one of romantic magnificence.

It's a picture rich with a sense of work, the immense labour of the ancient builders and the complementary labours of Piranesi himself, paying homage to the ancient world in his obsessive delineation of detail. As a slow, pen-and-ink, brick-by-brick kind of writer, I find it, when I look up, both sobering and reassuring. There's so much to get right in that rearing foreground, and the present page is such a small part of the long rhythmic perspective. The poetry is the not quite calculable thing that has to grow and bind and transform the picture once it's done.

Jane Smiley: hot water

I wrote my first novel in 1972 (unpublished) in a one-room apartment on Crete, using a fragile Royal portable typewriter, dressed in a kaftan I sewed from a bedspread. I am writing my current novel, in 2006, in a reclining chair, on a Mac iBook G4 placed on a rolling desk. The room, this room, happens to be filled with pictures of horses. I have my ancient Penguin paperback Roget's and my Columbia Desk Encyclopedia from 1967, but actually there is no object that has, over the years, remained iconic or even meaningful to my writing life. The locations, the motives, the furnishings, the equipment, the pictures on the walls and the objects on the surfaces have all changed.

Nevertheless, when blocked, I have always had recourse to the same remedy - water. Bath, hot tub or shower, it never fails. I sit, I think. I am stumped. I wish the phone would ring. I sigh. I go into the kitchen and rummage for something sweet. But no - when I sit down in my chair again, still blank. So I go into the bathroom and turn on the water. I disrobe. I step in. It's hot, almost hotter than I can stand for about 10 seconds. Within moments, I know what to write next. But I don't get out. As long as the water flows, I know I won't forget, so I stay in. I wash my hair, soaping it and using conditioner. I cultivate my little thought, but really I know it doesn't need anything more that the water can provide - now it needs fingers. I get out and dry off. By this time, I'm too impatient to put on layers of clothes, so I find my bathrobe (pink terrycloth Frette, from Costco) and my slippers (tan merino, from the duty-free shop in Brisbane) and sit in my chair again. I don't know why the water did it in the beginning, but now it's just a conditioned response, I am sure. It could be worse and a lot more trouble - drinking, driving, fighting, shopping - but after all these years, it's only hot water.

Douglas Coupland: chocolate

Last summer I had some stomach problems and had to remove several items from my diet - chocolate, hard liquor and tomatoey foods. Around that same time began a period of writer's block that, after seven months or so, began to frighten me. I think all writers are superstitious that way - that somehow, some day, whatever it is that makes their voice their own will simply leave. When you're inside writer's block it's horrible because you're simply not you any more. You're this person who used to be you. Now you're this person who's going to have to get a day job.

This winter I also began going to the gym with a trainer five days a week, and after a few weeks I noticed that, in general, when exercising, my endorphins take about 45 minutes to kick in. I've never been a jock and I always thought endorphins were a media hoax, but they do exist, and once your system releases them, exercise becomes fun.

I asked my trainer, Neil, how long it takes his endorphins to kick in, and he said maybe five minutes - so I began to wonder if maybe there's one simple chemical reason for jocks being jocks and nerds nerds: endorphin release rate. I asked Neil if he could find out if there was a food or a pill I could eat before the gym to speed up endorphin release. His answer? Chocolate.

So I began eating dark chocolate two hours before working out and was shocked at the almost instant change in my body's response to activity - I loved it - my happy chemicals were releasing within five minutes. I was wary of a placebo effect, but it's been a month now, and my endorphins kick in, bingo, right on the five-minute mark.

But the big shocker was that my writers' block ended. This was a block so bad that in its midst writing even these simple few hundred words could never have happened. And I owe it to chocolate: specifically, Baker's milk chocolate chips, which come in 300g bags - the chips used in chocolate chip cookies. Without these chips, there is no work. It's that binary. I keep them to the left of my keyboard and I eat maybe 50 or so medicinally once a day.

The one sad thing that happened as a result of this is that I no longer enjoy the taste of chocolate - my brain has reclassified it as a medicine and, frankly, I wish I could take chocolate pills and not have to taste it any more. Nature is, if nothing else, perverse.

· This is an edited extract from How I Write: The Secret Lives Of Authors, edited by Dan Crowe with Philip Oltermann, published this month by Rizzoli, New York, at £19.95. To order a copy for £18.95 with free UK p&p call 0870 836 0875 or visit bookshop.

The GuardianTramp

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