Friday, July 18, 2008

Charming the Muse

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."

- Sylvia Plath

Lately, it seems like many writers are struggling with getting words on the page. Stress, family crises, looming deadlines, and general indecision seem to be the main culprits. I certainly haven't been immune - my husband just deployed to Afghanistan, I have two books I'm expected to finish very soon, school requirements suck up more attention, my kids are freaking out about their dad taking off again, my father just underwent bypass surgery, and I'm preparing to move our entire household twice in a year.

Yes, there's a wee bit of stress around here.

But stress is no excuse not to write. If we each took a break from our stories any time life tried to interfere, we'd never finish anything. I believe one of the best skills we can learn to help us become successful in our craft is perseverance through inspiration. There's a process to inspiration, and I like to call it charming my muse.

Flag Down the Muse
There are so many ways to get in touch with your own inspiration, to feel the passion for writing even when life is throwing a bucket of ice water on you. First thing, you must figure out what makes your muse sit up and take notice. It's different for everyone, but the part of our brain that accesses creativity is the same one that likes to play. Bright colors, varying textures, scents, interesting pictures, music or rhythm in general - these all access the playful, childlike area of our minds. Doing something that excites us in a playful way can inspire us to sit down and write.

What are some examples? Try a culinary experiment or go to dinner and order a dish you don't normally eat. Knit or crochet with fun fibers. Play an instrument. Try a new craft - beading, sculpting clay, rubber stamping, painting (even finger painting), floral arrangement, etc. Give yourself time and permission to play. Put on music that gets your foot tapping and whirl around the room. Put on a bellydancing DVD and shimmy. Just play!

Give Her a Reason to Help You
Once you feel ready to write, create a ritual to get started. The ritual can be anything that tells your brain that you're about to sit down and write, and it should be different from rituals that you already perform through the day.

Suppose your usual day looks like this: Brew coffee. Toast bread. Check e-mail while sipping coffee and eating toast. Shower.

Then the ritual for writing should not look like this: Pour soda. Grab crackers. Sit down at computer with snackage.

Instead, try putting on music that fits the mood of the story you're writing, light a candle, hang a collage of your story, reread the last scene you wrote. Perform a short but significant series of steps that speaks to your mind about the importance of your job. Make sure your subconscious is aware that you love these characters and feel compelled to tell this story, and you'll be able to get your ideas on paper without a struggle.

Make sure your desk, or wherever you write, is comfortable and decorated for the task at hand. I mentioned a collage above. That's one item I hang by my computer on a corkboard that also sports my scene ideas. The collage is something I create for each novel I write and contains random pictures and words clipped from magazines in one sitting and randomly glued to cardboard. It's really amazing when I sit down and write how a picture that spoke to me, but that seemed not to fit the story I wanted to tell, actually became significant as I got deep into the novel.

If you don't have time to create a piece of art for your book, dig around online or in a Michael's bin for inexpensive art that carries the essence or tone of your story and hang it next to where you work. You might also print out inspirational quotes and hang them up, or maybe jot down a creative thought on a sticky note and put it on your monitor. Don't feel constrained by rules. Your desk, your kitchen table, the corner of a cafe, wherever you like to write, is as important to the ritual as everything else you do. The decor you choose, the messages you surround yourself with, will influence your ability to write. Find a way to encourage and inspire yourself. Nobody else can do it better.

Put Her to Bed When She's Tired
Help your muse to relax when you're done abusing her. Craft another ritual that helps trigger your brain to slow down once more. Even if the ritual is nothing more than putting your pen and pad away, shutting down your computer, turning off music, or blowing out a candle, do it. Do anything and let that become your way of saying, "Thanks, Muse. Great work. I'll see you tomorrow."

Send Her Gifts
When your muse isn't actively working, she's still there, paying attention to everything you say and do. And it's so easy to hurt her feelings. Anytime you disrespect yourself, you disrespect your muse. "This scene sucks." In other words, "Thanks, Muse, for giving me a dungpile of words." Would you willingly go back to a job where the boss said such things to you? Even if you're not thrilled with a scene, you can find something positive to say, encouragement both for the work you put into the scene and for the inspiration your muse handed over. "Wow, there's a lot of potential in this scene. It'll be fun to rewrite. Let's knit a funky purse!" See? Much better.

In between writing sessions, comfort your muse and inspire her. Feed her with exercise - a brisk walk, more bellydancing, yoga, weights, whatever - and healthy, tasty, fresh food. Get enough rest, wear fun clothes, read and read and read some more. And most importantly, write every day. If you journal, if you blog, if you do Julia Cameron's morning pages, give yourself permission to write whatever comes to mind, and do it daily.

To get started, try anything and everything - variety helps. Your job as a writer is to stretch your creativity and let it fly. Inspiration, the muse, the creative mind, whatever you call it - this is our greatest asset, and it deserves every attention. Do what it takes to replenish its stores, and experiment until you find a combination that works for you. Don't be afraid to change things up if the muse ever feels stale.

Charm your muse. Show her you appreciate her gifts, and she'll shower you with her blessings.

Now it's your turn. What do you do to charm your muse? How do you keep her happy and yourself inspired?


Theresa said...

Hi KL,
Boy you're a tough cookie! But we've got to be disciplined when writing--especially when prepublished without any deadlines other than those self-imposed. Which I'm a BIG believer in--self-imposed deadlines.

I have a ritual when writing. Since I'm a control freak, I'm WAY into organizing and plotting--especially with my first draft. That's not to say I won't easliy deviate from how I'd plan the story to go when a better idea comes along--but I need a basic roadmap.

So each day I sit down at my computer and I plot out what I intend to write next. I write in my master chart, if the scene is a scene or sequel, whose POV I'm writing it from. What're the main points I'm to accomplish in the scene? Reveal character? Forshadow something? Intro character? reveal inciting incident or other key plot point. How am I advancing the plot? And finally, I write down, what is the ending scene hook. Once I know where I'm going, I reread and edit the work I did the day before, and then I'm off and runing.

When I'm in the midst of a book or a revision, I very very rarely have trouble with my muse, it's inbetween books that plagues me. So now it's time for me to get tough with me and try some of your inspiration jumpstarters.

Thanks for the helpful tips!

KL Grady said...

Me? Tough cookie? LOL

Your process reminds me that there's a free software giveaway here for Liquid Binder, a program that helps you plan, track, backup, and other cool things with your writing. :)

Donnell said...

I read your post early this morning, KL and had to sit back and think about your pop quiz. Because if I were you I would be soup. You'd have to spoon me off of the floor. Like T I have an outline but my recent trials have been when my muse places her hands on her hips and says oh, no you don't, you're not going there! It kind of veered me off focus because I kept trying to force my muse to behave. She decided she's boss and since I gave into her, we're getting along much better.

Your tips are invaluable. Thanks!

Donnell said...

P.S. KL, how apropos you chose Sylvia Plath to quote when it comes to muse. The Bell Jar is one of my all time favorite novels.


Leslie Ann said...

Hi guys,
KL, the liquid binder link didn't work. Got a URL?

Muse. I never thought of ritual as allowing time for my muse to emerge. I used to light up a candle under my "tart warmer" and fill the room with scents that pleased me, but I haven't done that much lately and only now realize how much I miss it.

But I COMPLETELY agree that your writing space has to be just that. Own it, even if it's just the corner of a kitchen, it's your space and it's used for writing.

My office is all me. It took awhile to get it the way I wanted, and I'm sure will undergo changes as I change. But I know when I'm in there I'm supposed to write.

I used to do needle work etc in there, but stopped that as it's too tempting sometimes instead of bullying my way through a scene to pick up my cross-stitch.

Great post KL. You know you're in my prayers, all of you.

KL Grady said...

LA - link is here:

Mary Marvella said...

Wonderful words of wisdom. Thanks!

Tina M. Russo said...

Nice post.

I treat my fiction writing like my non fiction writing and as Theresa stated, I set deadlines for everything and it all goes on a calendar.

Another great device is a kit you can buy by Chris Baty, founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). The No Plot? No Problem! Novel Writing Kit, is a great tool which includes:

48-page booklet

31 Daily Noveling Briefs recommended allowances of writing advice and activities for every day of the noveling month

Guided, month long, displayable log for keeping track of progress

Motivational materials, pep-talking letters, and commitment coupons

The Mighty Badge of the Triumphant Wordsmith

KL Grady said...

Mary and Tina - thanks for checking in.

The Chris Baty kit sounds really awesome. I've seen it in the bookstore but hadn't really looked at it. I'll have to do that.