Friday, May 15, 2009

The Muse as Moment and Place

This morning I went over to Neil Gaiman's blog to see what was up (actually, I was trying to see what his schedule was for WorldCon, but got distracted by the posts, as usual). He wrote an excellent response to a reader who was complaining about George R. R. Martin not cranking out the next book in a series.

Mr. Gaiman replies, very rightly,

"For me, I would rather read a good book, from a contented author. I don't really care what it takes to produce that.

Some writers need a while to charge their batteries, and then write their books very rapidly. Some writers write a page or so every day, rain or shine. Some writers run out of steam, and need to do whatever it is they happen to do until they're ready to write again. Sometimes writers haven't quite got the next book in a series ready in their heads, but they have something else all ready instead, so they write the thing that's ready to go, prompting cries of outrage from people who want to know why the author could possibly write Book X while the fans were waiting for Book Y."

There is much more than that, of course. But hard on the heels of my discussion of the "I Suck" moment and what to do when the writing needs a rest - and how color helps recharge those tired batteries - it made me think a little further about that process. The nice thing about Mr. Gaiman's post is that he describes the fact that writers have lives. People die, the house needs painting, or your pet needs to go to the vet. This is normal. It is easy to think of writers and artists - creative people - as being these lone madmen who drink too much, staying in their little apartment or cabin (or whatever), creating like a rabid monkey, typing or painting away to the detriment of their health and human relationships.*

This vision, of course, made me have to go find Anne Lamott's great essay about Shitty First Drafts, from her book Bird By Bird, and reread it, again:

"People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter...

"Very few writers really know what they are doing until they've done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do--you can either type or kill yourself."

Sometimes, I admit (much less often than BC: Before Children), I find myself bounding along like a husky through the snow. But usually it's following a long fallow period, where the ideas have been allowed to grow and mate and become fully-formed, and are now dying to get out.

So what is it that makes the muse happen? Where do the ideas come from?

I've often thought of ideas as spores. I walk around with the back of my head hanging open like a cargo plane, waiting for things to drift in. Sometimes I can feel them tickling in there when they alight, but I know by now that if I touch them at that stage they'll wilt. So I do the dishes or water the garden or drive to town, with my inner eye turned back there, peeking hopefully at the little sprouts. And eventually, some die, but some begin to get robust enough to deal with me pawing at them, examining them and even elaborating on them. Sometimes, I'll handle an idea thoroughly and then put it back into the cargo area so that other spores will land on it and change it into something beautiful. Sometimes, it meets another nice idea back there and they get together and have a happy marriage.

But they're never right in front of me. They're always in the back, or slightly to the side. They're rather slippery, and delicate, and they don't like being stared at too hard. They prefer being made concrete via my hands. If I talk about them too much, they fade; and if I get partway through making them concrete and then stop, sometimes they grow in the interim. The robust ones will poke me if I ignore them too long. The really delicate, lovely, strange ones will disappear if I don't do something about them right away, because they're too much like dreams, and don't do well in the workaday world.

In every historical discussion inspiration is seen as being, by its nature, beyond the control of the person being inspired. The Greeks, for example, saw inspiration as coming from the muses, creatures born of either Zeus and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), or of Uranus (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth). The muses were seen as repositories of all knowledge from the ancient age, who embodied the arts and inspired the creation process with their graces "through remembered and improvised song and stage, writing, traditional music, and dance." [wiki]

Later, the muses may have lost some of their anthropomorphic properties, but inspiration still remained outside the purview of rational, conscious thought:

"In the 18th century John Locke proposed a model of the human mind in which ideas associate or resonate with one another in the mind. In the 19th century, Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Shelley believed that inspiration came to a poet because the poet was attuned to the (divine or mystical) "winds" and because the soul of the poet was able to receive such visions. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud located inspiration in the inner psyche of the artist. Carl Gustav Jung's theory of inspiration suggests that an artist is one who was attuned to racial memory, which encoded the archetypes of the human mind." [wiki]

In American society, which is based more than we would like to think in the puritan, or Protestant, work ethic, the idea that something could be so uncontrollable, so beyond the reach of deadlines and time management, is unimaginable. We think that by eating right, by sleeping right, exercising, having good oral hygene, using underarm sprays and meditating, by learning to schedule play-time and carrying our watches and organizers with us everywhere, we can make sure that all the terrifying alternatives are covered and everything will go as scheduled.

Which is true of many things. But other than clearing some time so that you can clear your head, time management simply doesn't apply to inspiration. Eating, unless you're a restaurant critic, is unlikely to bring the muse. Sleeping enough might give you good, inspiring dreams; but then not sleeping enough could do the same thing. The rest of it... well, there is something to be said for the wild-man-in-the-cabin trope. At least he's not wasting valuable cargo space in the back of his head remembering music lessons and mortgage payments.

The back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960s and 1970s saw people clearing space in their lives to make room for the muse. Like the Puritans in the 1600s, the back-to-the-landers were fleeing what they saw as an oppressive society which did not let them live the life they believed in - one free of music lessons and mortgage payments. Unlike the Puritans, however, they did not believe their choices were shaping their entry into Heaven. They went to the country for much more earthly things - to grow their own food, build their own houses, and make the things they lived with. Most of the people who tried it, though, were unfamiliar with the hardships of rural living, and failed crops, leaking roofs, and lack of money to buy supplies eventually drove all but the most resourceful back to the cities.

Still, this movement planted the seeds for the voluntary simplicity movement, a more mature variation on the theme, advocating sustainable living patterns (solar power, homegrown or locally-grown organic food, and fewest possible consumerist items like credit cards and television, which eat up time and encourage spending).

"Some people practice voluntary simplicity to reduce need for purchased goods or services and, by extension, reduce their need to sell their time for money. Some will spend the extra free time helping family or others... Others may spend the extra free time to improve their quality of life, for example pursuing creative activities such as art and crafts...

"Advertising is criticised for encouraging a consumerist mentality. Many advocates of voluntary simplicity tend to agree that cutting out, or cutting down on, television viewing is a key ingredient in simple living. Some see the Internet, podcasting, community radio or pirate radio as viable alternatives." [wiki]

Unlike the desire in the 1960s to escape Baby Boom America, the new movement is a much more pragmatic desire to remake how we do things. The idea that one can take a breath and step outside the rat-race, take away all the extra parts of one's life - the things one doesn't really need but are paying for because of a perceived lifestyle definition - is not a new one. Epicurus, a philosopher of the fourth century, pointed out that troubles entailed by maintaining an extravagant lifestyle tend to outweigh the pleasure of partaking in it. Henry David Thoreau (another man in a cabin!), was famous for his desire to find a quiet place to write books, where he lived like a hermit (with weekly visits from his mother, who brought him goodies to eat).

Sometimes, though, we are simply tied to the life we have wrought. Not all of us can drop everything and go off to Walden to live alone in a cabin. Many of us have children, and must provide a place for them to live, and food for them to eat. Uprooting everything for a dream is not a simple thing. However, making time to think is not the lazy pursuit we are taught to believe. That mental space-clearing, the opening of the cargo hold and the time for the spores to take hold, is actually sacrament. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Many writers and artists I've spoken to have said that giving the muse a chance to speak is their secret to productivity - in other words, making that moment every day for her to come in and then sticking to whatever comes. One man I knew, a potter, said to my father once, "I've made a deal with myself. I have to go down to the studio every day, and put my hands in the clay. Then, if I don't want to make anything, I can wash my hands and go back to the house. But usually, by the time I've gotten my hands in there, I might as well throw a pot or two." Cory Doctorow said, at Viable Paradise, that you need to make a time every day to write. You don't have to get heroic - 500 or 1,000 words each day will do - but you need to put fingers to keyboard every day. And just like my potter friend, you might find yourself writing a story or two.

Sometimes, though, like Neil Gaiman says, the house just needs to be painted. And then that's your work time, 'cause while you're watching that color spread with the roller, your brain is just going to keep collecting the spores, keep turning the ideas over and looking for worms underneath. So when you go back to the easel or the keyboard, you'll be ready.

"To have laughed often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson


*Until they leave for Africa to become gun-runners.


V.V.F. said...

"However, making time to think is not the lazy pursuit we are taught to believe."

This this this! I have to remind myself of this all the time, even though I know in my heart it's true.

I recall a bit of anecdotal (?) history I was once told concerning Leonardo Da Vinci. They say that he spent nearly an hour simply contemplating the monastery wall upon which he was to paint The Last Supper. One of the monks came to ask him what the hell he was doing and when he was going to get started, and the artist indignantly replied with something to the effect of, "I have accomplished more in this 45 minutes of thinking than you have done in your entire life!"

Always better to take too long in starting, I think, than to take too long in finishing. (Like Michelangelo...)

Mary said...

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Natasha said...

Thank you for this post. I found it very helpful.

Reid said...

What a fabulous read while my brain is still racing at 3:30 am this morning. Mind you, it's given me MORE food for late night thoughts!

I love it.

kz. said...

I always love this blog, but this entry hits home. Why DON'T I make time to allow my ideas to collect? I love the description of ideas as spores, of them as slippery and elusive, of them working their way out while making other things.

I recently listened to a TED lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creative genius, worth a listen on the same topic.

Xellykins said...

You know, it's funny. Just today I wrote about how I didn't seem to have any ideas anymore. The well had run dry. I felt like I couldn't seem to create anything at all anymore and how frustrating and disheartening it's been.

I think... maybe it's time I go and paint some houses and stop worrying over it.

Thank you. You have no idea how much this particular post has helped me.

theue said...

i'm getting lost in your blog posts (and loving the journey).