Writing What the Muses Tell Me
No, I may be a bit mad but I don’t think I’m not a full blown schizophrenic. However, only another writer who has been visited by the muses will understand that what we put to paper is not wholly of our own design but rather a collaboration with the muses whose words we are sometimes privileged to hear and record.
Take the setting of my novel. I sit down at the computer and decide in the most rational way that the most appropriate setting for me to write about is where I live. After all, that is what all the books I read on writing suggest. It is what all my writing teachers have told me since I first held a pencil. Their words echo loud and clear, “Write about what you know about.”
However, as I sit down and click the keys I find the words I type refuse to name my town, my state or even my own country. No, the muses have decided that in order for this story to be told it must be somewhere else. I fight it, typing in more familiar sights and sounds only to find that the story unravels like a piece of knitting with a pulled thread.
Realising that I’ve lost the battle of where the story needs to be set, I accept their setting and begin to spend hundreds of hours on the internet trying to find, absorb and write about this other, unfamiliar place. Cursing them, I research every sight, every scent, every nuance of the place they have sent me to in order to ensure the validity of my description of place.
Yet, as I research and learn more and more about the place, I begrudgingly admit that this is the only home for this story, the only place that supports what I want my readers to experience.
Satisfied with the setting, I call forth the characters to play out their roles. They step forward like actors reading the lines at the first rehearsal of a new play. The muses, sitting in the director chairs, shake their heads. No, this character must be reclothed in brighter hues, that one given darker, more sombre robes.
That one’s speech must be more high pitched, this one’s given more the sound of grinding stones. This one must glide as if on ice, the other creep as if afflicted with the advanced stages of arthritis. They toss out the ubiquitous roses in the vase and replace them with an arrangement of acorns and pinecones from the local forest. Their reconstruction goes on and on and I think, “Why did I bother with a script. They are the ones who know what the audience really expects.”
Even the plot that I had so carefully designed according to the recipes for ‘How to plot a story’ is the object of their derision. “No, not like that. Do it like this,” they suggest. Their new plot is full of more twists and turns than a shalom run down Everest. Subplots, like boulders on the run, begin to emerge, creating depth and mystery. I read what I’ve been given and am filled with surprise and think, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”
I have done their bidding: character, setting and plot are all there as they dictated. Then,having done the work that they enjoy, the creative and interesting work, they leave me to the far less amusing task of turning their ideas into words that will convey what they have outlined, words that are of the right spelling, phrases that are clear and concise, sentences that fit together into balanced paragraphs.. I write, rewrite, edit, rewrite a hundred times. And then, just when I think I have it right, one of them appears just behind me and whispers, “Nah, that character wouldn’t say that. Change it.”
I stare at the screen in despair. I’ve applied everything that I’ve ever been taught and they are still not happy. Then, they seem to take pity on my lack of imagination and suggest a word or phrase that lights up the page. I whisper, “Thank you.” I think to myself, “You couldn’t have said that five rewrites ago?”
I read over what seems the finished product. Damn, the muses have played one last trick. They have left a hole somewhere about a character or the action or something else that would leave the reader dissatisfied. I’m at the point of burning the pages and inviting friends around for a barbeque.
I go to bed. I toss, turn and curse the day that I ever thought about trying to write. “What a bloody waste of time,” I think as I pound my pillow. Then, as if some last-minute act of mercy, there is their final gift, the lynch pin that will hold the entire story together. I jump out of bed and wake up the reluctant computer.
Type. Type. Type. Hours pass. Then as the sun rises…together we read through what we have written. The setting works magically to support everything that the story wants to say. The characters strut the stage as they need to appear and speak their lines to perfection. The plot and subplots all work toward a reasoned yet surprising resolution. We have finished the story
Excited by the result, I ask if we can start another story. They yawn and say, “Do what you will. We are tired and are going to get some sleep.”