I’ve just had the most scathingly brilliant idea!”
~ HAYLEY MILLS, The Trouble with Angels
Ideas are the most common things around. I have them. So do you. So does everybody. They’re as common as air, I think, and about as vital, at least to a writer. And they’re moving targets. When you first acquire one, it seems to come to you out of nowhere, but I don’t think that’s really what happens. You encounter things all the time that seem to have nothing to do with your field of creativity, and you pay them no mind at all, but it never fails. You’re watching an infomercial on gunkulator oil when here comes something, completely unbidden, that fits into your Weird West story in the most perfect way possible, and you have no idea what led to it. How the hell does that happen, you may ask? I’ve spent probably more hours than are warranted thinking about this, and I’m going to share my findings in a bit, but first I have to ask where the direct connections are.
Direct connections are what don’t get made for me. We here at chez Tyler have gotten into the habit of watching old TV series one per day until we’ve worked through a season. We have watched New Tricks, Battlestar Galactica, Hawaii Five-0 and Downton Abbey. Looming ahead are Shogun and The Murdoch Mysteries. During the course of these shows, I see dozens, scores, of plot points that cause me to think they would go great in this story I’m working on, and then it never gets regurgitated when I’m writing. Which is good, I guess, I don’t want to become famous for my plagiarism, but how is it that they go in, but they don’t come out? And that question, of course, brings me to the subject of the muse.
I have had people tell me that the muse is a myth. You’re a writer; sit down and write. I have had at least one writer, one I suspect of self-publishing drivel, though I refuse to read his work to find out, tell me that the whole idea of a muse was invented by lazy writers seeking an unimpeachable excuse to avoid writing (like Plato and Aristotle, I presume), and that a “real” writer, i.e., him, could just sit down and rip off thirty-five hundred words any time he wanted to. I suppose he’s right. I can sit down and knock out thirty-five hundred words any time I want to, as well, although it most often becomes a thirty-five hundred word trash can weight. As Bret Easton Ellis said,
I’m not a big believer in disciplined writers. What does discipline mean? The writer who forces himself to sit down and write for seven hours every day might be wasting those seven hours if he’s not in the mood and doesn’t feel the juice. I don’t think discipline equals creativity.”
I don’t either, and I’ve long-since learned to stop wasting all those precious hours on writing things that I’m just going to have to throw away. So all that leaves is the question of how these muses work, anyway.
Most people I’ve discussed them with describe their muses as beautiful women who come on a whim, leave their inspirations on gilded scrolls, and depart, as unbidden as when they arrived. That’s a nice picture. My muse is the most crotchety old man you’ve ever seen, on steroids. This old guy . . .
Look, everybody, writer or not, is exposed to thousands of mysterious stimuli every day of their lives. You pass people in the street and overhear half a sentence from a five-minute conversation; a police car speeds by, siren blaring, on the way to an exciting destination that you’ll never know anything about; a crowd is gathered outside an office, talking in hushed whispers about . . . what? Sane people go through their lives with events like these sliding off of them like water off a duck, but an author . . . Oh, sane people, you miss so much!
You might compare experiencing one of these little vignettes to finding a lone jigsaw puzzle piece on the sidewalk, and picking it up to look at it. It’s a smudge of colors on a tiny canvas, and could be part of Buckingham Palace or The Poker-Playing Dogs. You can’t tell what it is, and in all likelihood, you don’t care, discarding it moments after you’ve picked it up. But we writers are wired a little differently, aren’t we? We keep it. I know I do. I send it down to The Warehouse.
That’s how my head is organized. Behind my eyes is the bridge where “I” stand watch, observing, evaluating, and controlling everything (or so I think). Downstairs is The Warehouse. Think of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark where a forklift is taking the crated Ark into the depths of that giant warehouse with crates, boxes, and gunny sacks stacked on racks, row on row, disappearing into haze in the far distance. Now imagine that every one of those puzzle pieces I’ve ever encountered has gone into a lawn clean-up bag, and when the bag is full, it goes on one of those racks. Billions of stray puzzle pieces are stored there, most of which I’m not even aware that I’ve collected.
Now imagine a crusty little man who wanders the aisles, taking a piece from this bag and a piece from that, and trying to fit them together. This guy is my muse. Once in a while, he finds two that sort of fit, and then he goes looking for a third. Once he has succeeded in forcing five or six together into some sort of pattern, he puts it into one of those transit-tube canisters that you may have seen at a bank, and shoots it up to the bridge for further development.
This can arrives on the bridge with a bang and a clatter, and if you’re with me when it happens, you can almost see the impact. Sometimes there’s a vocalization, “Whoa!” or something of the sort. If you ask me what’s up, I’ll tell you, “I’ve just had the most scathingly brilliant idea!” If you then ask me to elaborate, I’ll describe something that has absolutely nothing to do with what we’ve been talking about, and the next question is usually, “Where did that come from?”
The only honest answer to that question is, “I don’t know.” That isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s all I’ve got. I don’t know what that old guy has stuck together down there, and I’m not allowed to question him. All I can guess is that he’s been wandering the stacks with something that came in yesterday, and he’s stuck it onto something I picked up in elementary school, jam-fitted the result onto something from my navy days, and topped it off with a piece I picked up working the counter in a dry-cleaning shop. Presto, here it is! Run with it.
How does your muse work? Or do you not have one? If you do, I’d love to hear how he works, what he looks like, and whether this fine creature allows interaction. Bring her along and introduce her. Let’s have a meeting of the subconscious minds. Might be fun . . .
In Other News…
My fantasy novel, The Stone Seekers, was released last week. It’s my longest work to date, over 350 pages, and is my priciest sale in paperback, even though I have it set to the minimum price I can charge. However, for the next three months it will be 99¢ US in its Kindle edition. I’m hoping to build an audience for my fantasy, or at least find out whether I should plan anything else in the genre. I would never ask anyone to buy a novel, sight-unseen, and there is a three-chapter sample at the tab above.
The cover photograph is by one Mr. Richard Schulte, and features a hiking trail in the Laguna Mountains in San Diego’s back country. It first appeared on Richard’s photo blog, Cool San Diego Sights as one of over 15,000 photographs of a beautiful corner of our great nation. Here’s the point of mentioning this: Richard has announced on his blog that anyone is welcome to use any of his pictures that are a good fit for their project, and the only payment he wants is an acknowledgement of him as the artist and a link to his blog to drive more potential readers. Anyone who has ever priced cover art or illustrations knows what an incredible deal it is that he’s offering. There are photos of every nook and cranny of the San Diego area, from the beaches and cliffs of the coast to the desert of the far east county. They aren’t all world-famous landmarks; many are quiet little corners, or panoramic vistas such as the one I used. They’re organized into over fifty tags for easy sorting, so if you find yourself in need of a picture, check with Richard first.
My next scheduled post will be a Blimprider Times on May 2nd. Regular readers know that I promote my friends’ activities as the lead segment of the Times, but the next issue will be devoted to ME, because May 2nd is the brightest, shiniest, neon-red letter day on my calendar. Be sure to visit Wednesday and find out why!