My muse and I recently went out to a local biker bar and slammed down a case of Budweiser and several guys wearing badass tattoos and dirty clothes who thought we didn’t belong there.
We probably shouldn’t have made fun of the bikers who were drinking lite beer or were riding Mopeds.
The good thing about going to a biker bar is this: nobody asks what you do for a job. They assume the answer is either nothing or something illegal and that asking is a good way to get beat up. Suffice it to say, biker bars don’t have Enya on the jukebox. So, don’t expect much empathy there.
The bad thing about drinking with your muse is that she doesn’t like excuses. When you explain why you haven’t been writing lately due to __________, she says “So what?”
Yes, I’m trying to juggle three writing projects at the same time. That’s a first for me. I don’t like it. When I try to tell my muse why I don’t like it, she laughs and comes up with profanity so bad I didn’t even hear it in the navy.
As I told another writer years ago, “I don’t have a muse because high school literature courses portrayed muses as women who looked like they were dying of consumption or thought they were princesses.”
After saying that, a lady named Siobhan showed up and announced that she was my muse. The first thing I learned was that if I mispronounced her name, she’d kick the crap out of me. The second thing I learned was that she’s more psychic than I am. (For those of you who didn’t grow up speaking Gaelic, her name is pronounced “Shivahn.”)
“I want the best for you and your writing,” she always tells me. My response is usually, “You’re the lady who invented tough love, right?”
After a few Buds, we’re saying things that shouldn’t be said. Yet, I have to say, muses are more forgiving than spouses. You can tell as muse to “_____ off,” and she’ll always be there. You can’t say that to your wife or husband.
Basically, my muse thinks I’m hiding behind the research. That is, that I’m doing research long after it no longer matters and that it’s time to start writing the story. Okay, she may have a point. I do have a tendency to over-research everything I write. Maybe that’s because I started out as a journalist and a technical writer. Or, maybe that’s because maintaining that I’m still doing research is a good way to avoid doing any real writing.
I don’t think I’m the only writer who does this even though I’d probably buy a Harley if the main character in one of my novels rode a Harley. Accuracy’s important, right?
My muse said, “that’s a crock.” She also said, “Why aren’t you writing the story yet?” My answer is always, “Because I’m scared that I can’t.” Suffice it to say, she doesn’t buy that.
“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.” – William S. Burroughs
In Casablanca, Ilsa says, “Kiss me. Kiss me as if it were the last time.”
I wonder if we should write like that, as though the story or novel in progress is going to be the last thing we do before we retire to Hawaii or the asylum or bee keeping. If we wrote like that, we’d make everything matter, the best we could do, like kissing a lover for the last time.
Burroughs says you can;t fake a good meal. Sure, we can throw something together in the kitchen or nuke a TV dinner or stop by a fast food place on the way home. It saves us a lot of trouble. I see a lot of advice on the Internet that urges us to write like that: write a novel in a month, turn out multiple books in a year, getting from nothing to a bestseller in 30 days. You can even get plot generators at some place called McNovels (or whatever it is).
What’s the hurry?
Myth: The sooner the book gets on Amazon, the sooner you’ll be famous. The money and the five-star reviews will come rolling in. A big publisher will send you $250,000 for your next book. Agents will actually call you.
Writing in a hurry as though that myth is true might be one way to cheat your muse. Or, possibly, cheat on your muse by sleeping with scam artists who make more money selling books and webinars that promise you ways of writing faster and faster and becoming famous before the ink dries.
It’s tempting, I know. A program or a method or a recipe usually promises us the world. It even comes with a lot of testimonials from writers that–guess what–you’ve never heard of. Nonetheless, when somebody says, “Last year I was digging graves in the rain at minimum wage, but then I saw Joe Smith’s miracle writing plan and I put down my shovel and followed his advice and became richer than J. K. Rowling.”
If you haven’t heard of the former grave digger’s books, Joe Smith is selling broken shovels.
The alternative is listening to the inspiration we have, that we know we have, and writing that story word by word by word the way we know we can do it even though the first draft might take months or years, and then the second draft might take more months or years. And even though we’re not on Amazon yet, we know the stuff we write when we write like that is good because we’ve read through it late at night and felt a chill run through us as we wondered where it came from and how we pulled it all together. When we re-read it just to make sure we’re not dreaming, it reminds us of the last kiss we gave somebody that we cared about who–for reasons unknown–disappeared from our lives as soon as we stepped away from each other.
Our muses get stronger when we try to write pages than send those chills through us or make us laugh harder than we did the last time we saw a Robin Williams comedy bit or make us shed more tears than we did when Ilsa got on that plane and left Rick standing there in the airport in “Casablanca.”
If Joe Smith reads this post, he’ll probably say, “Don’t you believe that goody-two-shoes stuff.” (Does anyone say “goody-two-shoes” any more?) Well, Mr. Smith, it doesn’t take much to see that the opinions of all the get rich quick gurus don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday we’ll understand that and write everything we write as though it’s the last time.
“Perhaps the most succinct evidence for the potent magic of written letters is to be found in the ambiguous meaning of our common English word ‘spell.’ As the Roman alphabet spread through oral Europe, the Old English word ‘spell, which had meant simply to recite a story or tale, took on a new double meaning: on the one hand, it now meant to arrange, in the proper order, the written letters that make up the name of a thing, in the correct order, was to effect a magic, to establish a new kind of influence over the entity, to summon it forth. To spell, to correctly arrange the letters to form a name or a phrase, seemed thus at the same time to cast a spell, to exert a new and lasting power over the things spelled.”
The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is rather false. Consider the sound-bite phrases and misleading comments in the current Presidential campaign alone that, once said, become gospel. Consider perjury in a courtroom, verbal bullying in a school, highly messaged government-speak, dear john letters, exaggerations on product labels and advertising, and phrases from religious books that are taken out of context. The pen and the voice really are mightier than the sword, the stick, or the stone.
In my Sun Singer’s Travels blog, I recently posted “What the hell are these important writers talking about?” Primarily, this was a rant about the obscure (and possibly gibberish) discussions between some writers and some interviewers that make no sense whatsoever to most readers and natural writers. By natural writers, I mean those who discover their stories as they write and, while they usually know the ins and outs of style and technique, they don’t look upon words as requiring a doctoral dissertation to set down on the page in a story.
If a writer creates elaborate outlines, s/he also may write organically while putting words on the page if s/he uses the outline as a rough guide rather than a recipe to be followed precisely. Personally, I think outlines get in the way of the story, though that’s simply my approach.
Hoodoo Reading the Bones
Traditional conjurers (also called hoodoo practitioners or root doctors) often use a form of divination called “reading he bones” to obtain answers to questions for themselves or their clients. Possum and chicken bones are often used; others (as the picture shows) add other objects such as stones, nuts and shells.
While some conjurers paint or number the bones, assign a meaning to each one–like the meanings assigned to individual Tarot cards–others throw the bones into a small circle drawn in the dirt (see picture here) and listen for the voices of their ancestors who were also conjurers. As with Tarot card readers who are advanced enough to forget the descriptions of each card that they read in a book, conjurers reading the bones may variously say they’re using their intuition, tapping into their inner selves, or hearing the voices of the “old ones” in their lineage.
In short, they use the bones as they view them on the ground as catalysts for channeling information from outside themselves. You can’t do this unless you can step away from the logical “what-ifs” that come to mind when you ask the bones a question. Too much logic destroys a reading because the conjurer is thinking of typical speculative answers to the question (my missing spouse stayed late at work, got in a car wreck, ran away with a co-worker, forgot to tell me s/he had a dinner meeting, etc.) rather than listening for the ancestors or intuition to speak.
Writing with no outline–or a few sketchy ideas–is often called “discovery writing” because the writer discovers what the characters are going to do and say while writing rather than creating an outline or a list of scenes in advance. Many of us have a general idea what we’re going to do before we start writing. While writing “Conjure Woman’s Car,” for example, I knew that my main character was an old-style conjure woman living with her cat in the Florida Panhandle in the 1950s. I also knew that the Klan was going to do something bad and she was going to respond with hoodoo (folk magic).
Other than that, the story evolved as I told it. In a sense, my muse, my intuition, and even the developing characters “decided” what was going to happen next. When I finished a scene or a chapter, suddenly the thing that was going to happen next came to mind. I supported my intuition by reading a lot about conjurers, spells and related blues songs. Quite often, I’d learn what was going to happen next in my story by the “coincidental” reading of a certain conjuring practice or a historical KKK tactic.
I like to think that when a writer is using discovery writing, s/he is following a practice very similar to the traditional conjurer who throws the ones and listens for the voices of her ancestors for the answer. The conjure woman asks a question and allows the process to create the answer. The discovery writer asks “What If,” listens for the voice of his “muse” and or his unconscious mind and allows the writing process to create the story.
We are, in this way, attempting to cast a spell in the sense David Abram suggests in the quote at the beginning of this post. No, we are not using words to “force” our readers to write us large checks or leave town or change their political beliefs. We’re using words to cast a spell called a story that claims the reader’s imagination from the first word through “the end.”
When the short story or novel comes out well, we’re often praised for our imaginations. That’s okay, but really, our ability is simply to listen and record what we hear. When the story or novel doesn’t turn out well, we probably stepped in the way of the natural process and tried to plan or micro-manage the action down one road or another where it didn’t belong.
At best, we’re conjurers who know as our experience grows how to establish a process that works. Those who read the bones know that they get better results when they wash and dry the bones before throwing them on an animal hide or into a circle. They know not to touch the bones with their hands but to use a stick. Likewise, writers know what conditions make it easier for them to write: some listen to music; others like the background sounds of a natural setting or a coffee shop. Whatever conjurers and writers typically do when they work evolves into rituals that support hearing the true answer to the question or hearing where the story needs to go.
Answers and stories live and breathe on their own. If we have a talent, it’s being able to keep out of the way.
I knew before life got derailed in April and May with unexpected trips to the hospital for unplanned surgeries, that a new character was about to appear in my work in progress, a guy named Rutherford “Rudy” Flowers. I also knew he was going to show up in the next scene in the book.
But after the surgeries–and a reasonable recovery period–I couldn’t write that scene. Uh oh, writer’s block. I even knew what critical piece of information he planned to tell my protagonist. But still, I hadn’t figured out the character, and that meant–well, the writer’s block.
This is a potential problem for those of us who write with no outlines and with no nailed-down sequences of events in mind for our novels and short stories. Every once in a while, something is supposed to happen. We don’t know why, and we can’t move until some of that why comes to mind.
When this happens to me–as it just did–I tinker around the edges of the book without writing anything. Since it’s set in the 1950s, I can always go more research into slang, clothing, events, foods and products of the time period. Some of what I learn actually comes in handy. This tinkering, though, ultimately unlocks my writers block. It’s odd, I know, but research often brings things to light that I wasn’t looking for, things that turn out to be vital to the story.
If you believe in muses–and I do–it’s almost as though the muse has put a hex on my being able to open the Word file with the story in it until I figure out there’s something I need to know before I go back to it. Now that I’ve found that something, I see there were clues to it all over the place that I just wasn’t noticing. Now I know who Rudy Flowers is and how vital he and his mother are to the story.
Writer’s block is usually aggravating, especially when your publisher is waiting for you to hand in the manuscript. I’ve never been able to force myself out of writer’s block like those writers and teachers who say it’s better to sit down and write anything at all rather than to write nothing. I’m better off writing nothing (not counting blogs and tweets) than trying to force a story to happen when the words aren’t there.
If you’re a writer, how do you face writer’s block and finally get back to work? As for me, I’m back to my story because the muse has come home.
Today at high noon, while the storm was frightening my cats, I got an e-mail from my muse that said, “Do not forsake me, O My Darling.”
Darling? What’s that about?
I let that ride in my reply: “Say what?”
“What have you done for me lately?” she asked.
Well, a lot of things. I thought about writing something. I mulled over some ideas. I wondered whether or not to dream up a short story for the Harper’s Bazaar contest. And I read the kinds of books that fire up my imagination and make it more likely I’ll write something. I told her all this.
Her response was, “pfffft.”
I wanted to tell her that writers, like normal people, become preoccupied with life. We’re concerned about GMOs in our food, fellow writers who are under the weather, why Cote de Pablo is leaving “NCIS,” and whether or not the Copyright Office has heard of our books. Okay, sometimes we wonder if anyone has heard of our books, but the muse doesn’t want to hear whiny points of view like that.
Some writers say that if we don’t write every day, we’re screwed, we’re going to lose our touch, we’re not being true to our art and craft. To that, I say (as Colonel Potter said on M*A*S*H): “Horsehockey.”
On the other hand, if there’s no manuscript in progress, then chances are good there won’t be, say, a Pulitzer Prize coming in the mail next year.
Many of us go through periods of limbo when, frankly, we have nothing to say. My friend Smoky Zeidel calls these “fallow times.” I like that. We need times when we can renew ourselves.
My muse told me, “At your age, you don’t have time for fallow times.”
You really know how to hurt a guy, I thought. I didn’t say that because I was busy saying: “I thought you’d forgotten my birthday, DARLING.” (We were now in Facebook chat mode and we all know how klugey that is.)
“Heaven’s no,” she said. “I’m sending you a dream tonight about a prospective new novel that’s going to be bigger than The Cuckoo’s Calling.”
“Please tell me it’s not a private eye story about a body that falls and/or is thrown off a balcony with a name like The Ostrich’s Calling.”
“You’ve been sticking your head in the sand too long already,” she snapped. “What I have for you is a dark Southern charmer called Rabbit on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Fortunately, I heard the storm blow a tree down across the driveway, giving me an excuse to run outside in the rain and snap a blurry photograph. I wondered though: “When a tree falls outside a writer’s house, does his muse hear it?”