To Be Eaten in Case of Emergency: Inspiration and Comfort for Writers

February 24, 2015 | 12 books mentioned 10 5 min read

When fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen asked if I had any visuals that helped me to better understand my novel-in-progress — a timeline, for example, or an Excel spreadsheet — I didn’t have much to offer.  Her request made me think, though, about the other visuals we writers surround ourselves with, however silly or inessential: for inspiration or company, as talismans or reminders. I currently have two favorites. The first is a note from my husband that reads, “To Be Eaten In Case of Emergency!”, which last spring he attached to a chocolate bar and stowed away in the luggage I took to a writers’ retreat. The chocolate bar is long gone (alas), but the note by itself makes me laugh, offering comfort in my lonely little office. Someday, when things get really dire around here, I might just rip the note off the wall and stick it into my mouth.


The second is a photograph by Klaus Pichler, called “Middle Class Utopia 21.” I find the image ominous and strange and beautiful, as I hope my novel-in-progress, Woman No. 17, is — or will be.  There’s also a lot of photography in my book, and I find it useful to stare at this picture and think about staging, perspective, color, and artistic intention.


I asked a few writers to share what visuals they kept near them while working. Perhaps what they keep near them as they make sentences will inspire you to get writing, too.

1. Christian Kiefer, author of The Infinite Tides and, forthcoming, The Animals:

As a novelist, I tend toward strict realism. Nonetheless, for five years I’ve been working on a long novel in the spirit of [Jorge Luis] Borges and [Italo] Calvino, a book detached from strict realism. I’ve taped Kayama Matazo’s “Winter” to the wall in my workspace to remind myself of the world I’m trying to create: weird, malicious, strangely beautiful, and filled with flapping animal life. That book is at 650 pages in manuscript so far but I’m beginning to see the end.


2. Catie Disabato, author of the forthcoming novel The Ghost Network:

This is a picture of my mom when she was a teen; she’s the second girl from the left, the one looking at the camera. I love it because she looks beautiful but also like she’s the vicious enforcer in a ’60s girl gang. My mom is an artist and has supported my writing since I was a tiny little girl, so looking at this picture reminds me both of the foundation she built and the creative home I grew up in. When I need writing energy, looking at this picture charges my batteries. I have a copy of this image on every single device I own.


3. Susan Straight, author, most recently, of Between Heaven and Here, and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement:

Three things always on my desk are a photo of my three girls when they were little, a piece of fluff with a black seed inside that floated down from the tree my brother planted in the yard, a shell I found near a Sea Island in South Carolina to remind me of my first novel, I Been in Sorrow’s Kitchen And Licked Out All the Pots.  Two things for the novel I’m working on now are sea glass I found on a small beach on Prince Edward Island, and a wallet covered with PEI lupines given to me by my best friend, writer Holly Robinson.


4. Marie Mutsuki Mockett, author of the novel Picking Bones from Ash and the nonfiction book Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye:

A wise friend once said to me that sometimes you simply have to do things scared. I was scared the entire time I wrote Where the Dead Pause, and the Japanese Say Goodbye. No one really likes to hear about a writer’s insecurities, but I had and have had them in spades and they plagued me throughout this project. There’s really only one way out of fear for a writer, and that is to work. And so, I put a note on my computer that simply reads: “Work.” I’d switch on Facebook, from which I had previously taken a long hiatus, and get distracted, and then look down and see my note to myself, and then I’d exit Facebook and then I’d work. And wouldn’t you know — I finished writing the manuscript. And it became a book.


5. Paula Tang, a current MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside, at work on her first book, a novel in stories presently titled Little China House:

When you asked if I look at anything interesting on my desk when I write, I didn’t even know how to begin to describe this print that I have by artist Kimiaki Yaegashi. The illustration is beyond strange, and reminds me to push past the familiar in my writing, to always weird my images somehow and aim to surprise and electrify the reader.

Paula Tang

6. Rebecca Makkai, author of two novels, The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House, and the forthcoming story collection, Music For Wartime:

Okay, this is temporary, obviously, but: I’m at Yaddo now, writing from a little studio on the third floor of West House. Sylvia Plath wrote The Colossus in this room, and Patricia Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train. You start to go a little crazy working 16-hour days alone (making friends with insects, etc.). I drew a face on this orange, a la Wilson from Castaway. And then I decided it looked like Patricia Highsmith. It helps to get work done…You can’t spend too much time playing computer solitaire if Patricia Highsmith is staring at you. Of course, I’ll eventually have to eat her…


7. Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You:

This is a painting I made, which hangs over my desk. It’s actually a passage from Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. Each color represents a different letter of the alphabet, so the colored blotches can be decoded to read as follows:

Every morning you climb several flights of stairs, enter your study, open the French doors, and slide your desk and chair out into the middle of the air. The desk and chair float thirty feet from the ground, between the crowns of maple trees. The furniture is in place; you go back for your thermos of coffee. Then, wincing, you step out again through the French doors and sit down on the chair and look over the desktop. You can see clear to the river from here in winter. You pour yourself a cup of coffee.

Birds fly under your chair. In spring, when the leaves open in the maples’ crowns, your view stops in the treetops just beyond the desk; yellow warblers hiss and whisper on the high twigs, and catch flies. Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.

I love this quote, and it’s especially fitting as my office is on the second floor, accessed by French doors, and with maple trees right outside the window. But I wanted it to look visually beautiful too, and this is what I came up with. Whenever I look up from my computer, I see the painting and remember what it says, without getting distracted by words when I’m wordsmithing myself.


What do you keep by your desk?  I’d love to hear.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Let me see….. ruler… markers… notebook… stickynotes… mail…

    Speakers… vodka… caffeine… adderall… beer…

    Tomahawk… Biological Data Mining textbook… banana…

    Job fliers

  2. Some rocks (collecting rocks, either casually or seriously) is a minor family tradition. They make good paperweights for drafts and notes and other paper detritus, and you can hold them if you need to ground yourself. My friend recently sent me a painting of Heart Mountain in Wyoming that I’m planning to hang up to remind me of the place where I first really struck out on my own. I also used to have a framed copy of my birth certificate hung up (I’ve lost track of it over several moves–it must still be in a box somewhere) to remind me that I have the right to be here. I got the idea from something Donald Revell said in a class once–“Don’t hang up your diplomas; frame your birth certificate!”

  3. This is a terrific list. Thanks to all the writers who contributed.

    Like Marie Mutsuki Mockett, I keep a nudge-note to myself attached to my computer. Mine says: “Not having done the work is more painful than doing the work.”

  4. Outlines were difficult for me too. I recently took down the accumulated inspirational items I had taped above my desk – mostly quotes from poems, some drawings, some postcards of art, and for some reason, some HTML color codes. I also had a tented index card with a few encouraging lines that I only opened when times were desperate.

    Example here:

    I love the note above that went with the chocolate bar!

  5. woooah, love that painting and its story by celeste ng! that’s beautiful.

    i keep a cat by my desk — or i guess the cat keeps me. when she gets the chance, she likes to hop up on my workspace and sit on my stories and my mac, and i take it as encouragement because she wouldn’t want to park her butt on something bad, would she?

    in more seriousness, though, i have a note from a dear friend of mine that i read when i’m feeling discouraged or uninspired, as well as a postcard of sylvia plath and knick-knacks from japan! little bits of encouragement to keep going on and doing the work!

  6. I have a box of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards. I often turn one over and read its recommendation at the beginning of a writing session. They say things like “Emphasize the flaws” and “Do we need holes?” and I let my brain decide how that might help with the day’s quest. I also have a bottle of ink and the fountain pen I turn to when I feel frustrated and only writing by hand can calm me down. The pen is my late grandfather’s Parker 51. The way the nib allows the ink out helps calm me down.

  7. A small carved wooden sea turtle given me by a friend, a mysterious rusty object (four in a field) that vaguely resembles a stooping hawk or flying machine, and a wire & beaded dragon given me by a friend (on top of computer box), several small special rocks, a white-tail deer antler with one broken tine, a brightly-painted desk set that had been my mother’s, from Kashmir, India, with a letter opener in one end, and scissors in the other, and a little patterned woven purse from Norway that looks and feels like the material is older than when I bought it.

    The rocks and deer antler connect me to nature; the sea turtle makes me think of going below the surface, the dragon sends me flying above, the metal mystery does something I need but I’m not sure what, the desk set reminds me of family and also distant places and cultural beauty. The purse, its patterns geometric and colorful, suggest a lot of different folk-art weavings and it feels…comfortable.

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