A visit from your muse: the gift you give yourself.
by Ruth Harris
“What The Subconscious is to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse.” ~ Ray Bradbury
What Ray Bradbury called the muse, Stephen King called the “guys in the basement.” Others call it the sixth sense, the Spidey sense, intuition, superpower, or the subconscious. Whatever you call it, your subconscious—the thoughts you don’t know you’re thinking—is what makes the magic happen.
These unknown thoughts occur below the level of our ordinary, everyday awareness. They consist of our memories and experiences—all the interesting, offbeat, repellent, lurid, provocative, seductive, and enlightening content that rushes past in a torrent every day. This rich mixture of the half-forgotten, barely remembered, and even repressed is original and unique to each one of us, as individual as fingerprints.
These unrecognized thoughts announce themselves in different ways and at different times. Sometimes while we’re in the shower, on the highway, in a class, in a dream or fantasy or a nightmare. Often during those drowsy moments when we’re just about to fall asleep or when we first wake up, relaxed, our minds still unguarded.
Sometimes these buried thoughts shout. Sometimes they whisper. They leave clues everywhere, tapping us on the shoulder or bopping us on the nose just to make sure we’re paying attention. They speak in different languages and like Joseph Campbell’s hero, they appear to us disguised by a thousand faces, some foreign, some familiar.
Signs Of The Muse
The story you can’t get out of your mind.
It’s the one that wakes you up at night and intrudes when you really should be paying attention at that meeting or getting that boring report finished.
The chapter you’re bogged down on and hate writing.
Pay attention. Is your subconscious sending up a warning and telling you you’re on the wrong track? Do you need to go back and figure out where you’ve strayed?
The character who says or does something so amazing, awful or awesome that s/he surprises you.
Even though you created him or her, you’re appalled, impressed and/or intimidated.
The dazzling plot twist you never saw coming.
Even though you yourself planted the trail of clues that made it inevitable (and obvious) but only in retrospect. Where did that come from? How or when did you do it? You were the pilot but your muse was the engine.
The “perfect” word pops into your mind from “out of nowhere.”
Or the phrase you didn’t plan gets you past the cliché and you realize that you are beginning to develop a style of your own.
The minor character waiting at the bus stop.
The guy with the green umbrella you stuck in without thinking, but who turns out to be exactly the culprit/lover/villain/hero/heroine you need 150 pages later.
When you throw away the outline.
Because what your characters say or do when you actually start to write about them are a thousand times better and more interesting than you ever imagined.
The dazzling idea that flashes through your mind so fast it almost disappears the moment it becomes conscious.
That’s a whisper. Better write it down! You might think you’ll remember, but you probably won’t.
Like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, you mark a trail through the forest.
Not really thinking, you leave them as you write—the red-haired tap dancer who lives upstairs, the elegant, panelled room in an ordinary suburban tract house, the half-heard whisper at intermission in the theater. They’re the unexpected inspirations that can come back later and help create a great story.
The days you are “in the zone.”
When writing feels effortless and the words pour out as fast as you can get them down, you have lowered the gates and allowed your muse to range free.
When your Muse has Gone AWOL
This is when you can’t get out of your own way.
Have you been feeling hurried, harried or harassed? Overwhelmed, out of control and stressed out? Are you stuck? Or blocked? Or just in a rut? Feel frustrated and about to give up?
Don’t. Don’t give up and don’t give in. Shake up your routine.
Synch your work habits with those of your muse.
Your muse will not react well when you are tired, short of sleep or just dragging through the week. Some muses work better in the morning, others perform at their best later in the day or at night. Don’t expect your night owl muse to be perky and creative early in the AM and don’t ask your crack-of-dawn muse to come to your rescue at midnight.
Give your muse a break.
Try a yoga class, take some time out for meditation or a massage, unload the dishwasher, mow the lawn, or simply get up and take a walk. Getting away from what’s bugging you will calm you and let the ideas or words you need bubble to the surface.
Inspire your muse.
- Gallery hopping, brushing up your high school Spanish, taking a barre class, enjoying hot dogs and a beer in bleacher seats—each experience offers your muse new and invigorating experience.
- A summer vacation at the shore might inspire the next Jaws. With toxic-spewing robots?
- A visit to a natural history museum might result in Jurassic Park. With dragons?
- An hour or two with the food channel might inspire a new cozy set in a bakery or a political conspiracy among the waiters in a restaurant. Or what about a new horror novel starring a demented, knife-wielding chef, TV cooking-show host or obnoxious restaurant owner?
- Even the supermarket can inspire your muse—think of The Stepford Wives. Visit Whole Foods for the organic, more upscale version.
- Binge viewing The Sopranos or House of Cards could lead you to create the next Godfather or All The President’s Men.
- The business pages are a source for occupations and careers: your characters have to make a living, don’t they? The tabs are an endless wellspring of sex and scandal and niche magazines or blogs—bass fishing, rock climbing, stamp collecting, arctic biology—will open new dictionaries for the alert writer and his or her muse.
- Sports: for success and failure, triumph and tragedy, go to the sports pages. Seriously. Almost every story is basically about how an athlete, talented or otherwise, overcomes—or doesn’t—golden-boy good looks, a reputation for dogging it, a lousy attitude in the clubhouse, jail time, drugs, booze, injury, scandal, depression, poor parenting, mean and/or incompetent coaching. Besides, it’s not just the drama and the schmaltz, it’s also about the language: sports are all about action and sports writers are great with verbs.
Focusing on details can open up the subconscious
- Stilettos or clogs? Polos or Tees? Grunge or business casual? Black tie or white shoe? Fashion magazines, style blogs and catalogs are filled with photos and enticing descriptions of clothing. Check them out and your muse will find new ways for you to describe your character’s clothing and wardrobe in ways that brings them alive and makes them real to the reader.
- A Regency drawing room or a Victorian parlor? A cave house in Santorini, a terrorists’ cave in Tora Bora, or a man cave in an Atlanta suburb? A Park Avenue penthouse or a shack on the wrong side of the tracks, a snug farm house or a hideaway on a wild coast? Travel, design and architectural blogs offer a variety of settings that will energize your scenes and help bring your characters to life.
- Good hair day or bad plastic surgery? Muffin top or too rich and too thin? Beauty and grooming sites are filled with photos and comment, some of it snarky, some of it sincere, about exactly one subject: how people look. With their help, you and your muse can turn your descriptions from insipid to inspired.
Trust your muse.
Even when you don’t know exactly why and even when you think s/he has abandoned you.
Your subconscious a.k.a. your muse knows more than you do. It’s what gives you that eerie, mysterious sense of knowing without knowing.
Steve Jobs called it “more powerful than intellect.”
Isabel Allende counsels:
“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”
Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft said the same thing in more words:
“Don’t wait for the muse. As I’ve said, he’s a hardheaded guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. This isn’t the Ouija board or the spirit-world we’re talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.”
by Ruth Harris (@RuthHarrisBooks) March 25, 2018