Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Muse By Any Other Name

Let’s talk about writer’s block and muses. First, writer’s block, as a phenomenon afflicting writers of all types, has been done pretty much to death, but I don’t think anyone has examined it from the muse viewpoint. Maybe it should be in light of the close relationship between writers and muses.

Writers and other artistic folk—well, a goodly number of them, at any rate—firmly believe in muses. Now, they may pay homage to one of the classical muses (who is, more or less, associated with the particular artist’s medium) or they may have a muse of their own devising. I don’t think that matters, really. I think the muses, like the gods, understand human individuality and plain orneriness. So, whichever muse has been ascribed classically to one's art doesn’t really care whether we call her Terpsichore, Calliope, Erato, Melpomene, or any of their sisters, or not. We could just as easily call them Fred or Wilma or Catfish if we wished and they’d understand…and still treat us as tools they could haul out at their whim.

The particular name doesn’t matter. It’s the attending them when they whisper to us that is the crux of the matter. In an email to a writer friend, I said my own muse is a butterfly, and so she seems to be. She flits around from writer to writer, settling down for an eyeblink and whispering lightly into the writer’s ear, seducing himer with her song.

If that hapless writer fails to hear or doesn’t write her song down, she just flutters off to the next ear. If, however, the writer’s ears perk up and hesh stumbles half-blindedly to the nearest computer, notebook, or piece of scrap paper and begins to put the muse’s words to paper (electronic or wood-pulp being completely irrelevant), that muse may decide to tarry awhile and tell more, sometimes the whole story.

I fear that, usually, that mischievous lady will tell just enough to cause the writer to fully involve himerself in the story, then to drop himer like a no-longer-wanted lover and flit off to a new set of ears and hands.

This leaves our jilted writer in mid-stroke, as it were. The words just stop coming; sometimes the entire thrust of the story is lost. The writer can, of course, try to soldier on and bang something out, to salvage what hesh can of it, or can simply put it aside until—and if—that fickle lady muse visits himer again.

The writer finds himerself effectively blocked and utterly unable to proceed until inspiration in the form of hiser muse visits again. Sure, some writers can—or say they can—stimulate their thoughts and crank out the story in any number of ways, but I think all the writer in those instances are doing is finding ways to entice hiser muse to come back and whisper a bit more. Too many of us, though, can’t summon our muse (or inspiration, if that’s what you choose to call it) on demand. It’s all but impossible to herd butterflies, y’see.

So it is with me. Even now, with this blog entry. I had a rush of words and ideas, but was unable to capture nearly enough of them to make any sort of sense with this. True, I have an excuse: it’s extremely difficult to retain the focus needed to write when alarms are going off almost constantly and my job is to investigate each one and take appropriate action (which is, usually, to just turn the bloody things off). Maybe having to do this annoyed my muse enough that she took off to find a more attentive host. I feel the loss.

So, that butterfly nature of the muses may very well explain why we writers sometimes stumble and lose the thread of what we’re trying to say and we either push something through (because of publisher’s deadlines, perhaps, or pride or ego) or we set the piece aside with some excuse such as we need to do more research or the light’s wrong or it’s too cold or hot or there are too many distractions.

Oh, we solemnly promise ourselves we’ll get back to it just as soon as inspiration slams us upside the head again, and some of us actually do. Sometimes the muse will strike in a dream that fully explains what we are trying to say and then we feverishly attack our word processors to get those precious words down. Sometimes, lady muse will visit us again whilst we’re doing some mindless activity such as watching television or simply meditating.

And sometimes that won’t happen until months or years later. For instance, I began my story Alysse several years ago. The opening scenes presented themselves almost orgasmically, so powerful, complete, and seemingly unending. Then they just stopped. No more, not even a glimmer.

I tried over the years to revisit the story, but my mind was a total blank…until one day that ol’ muse sat herself down on my left shoulder and began to whisper to me, or maybe it was Alysse herself. It doesn’t matter, the lady’s identity. And the story that came out was absolutely nothing like I’d envisioned it all those years ago. This new Alysse revealed her utter and total humanity, and she made sure I heard her real story.

That happened again just recently, with my new addition to my Tales from the Painted Door series. This one, Wallace, began just like Alysse did: with an outburst of words and a smattering of ideas, but with no visible conclusion. There was—or would be—conflict aplenty, although I had no idea at the time just what that would be, but the resolution of that conflict was completely hidden.

The Muse flitted off.

I set Wallace aside for another day…and that day arrived less than a week ago in the form of a dream, or at least those almost subconscious thoughts that come to us as we are drifting off to sleep or just departing into wakefulness. Wallace’s story finished itself.

All I did was write the words. That’s all we writers do, really: just write down the words our muse whispers to us.

Wallace is now available for you to read. You’ll find him on our website, The book’s complete title is Tales from The Painted Door II: Wallace.

And I think the muse stuck with me with this blog post, too. I am grateful to her for that.



  1. An interesting perception of how inspiration presents itself to Dave. He has spoken convincingly of the Muse Butterfly but I perceive my Muse as something much more substantial, less fragile

    In my chaotic world, it is a misplaced piece of paper holding essential information. I use a square of stiff carton to note all my sign-in information on the internet. My working area is a mass of papers and books and general miscellany so that that piece of paper holding inspiration can soon be buried, mislaid amongst the clutter. It is well camouflaged as is the tree in the forest.
    I have spent many an hour searching for that scrap of paper and even when I can't locate it, I just know that I will stumble on it the day I'm not looking.

    It may be considered cheating but I often have several stories on the go at once. I reckon that with all those extra pieces of paper in the pile, I'm bound to pick up one of them every now and then. The adrenalin it injects into my writing has often been well worth the wait.t!
    Now where did I put that last piece of paper...?


  2. We all have our muses, Suzy, even if she disguises herself as lost pieces of paper. You are lucky that your own muse is more steadfast than mine - or, perhaps, the fault is within me.

  3. I rather love this post, because the muse is all important, and I think I really like Catfish for a moniker.

    My muse works in the manner of an idea forcing me to write the whole blasted thing, which is fine, except that I know for X amount of days, my life will revolve around writing. That occurred last week, and while I'm rolling now, the acceptance of it's time to write a novel was a bit jarring. I had been enjoying a bit of quiet, poking at some pieces, and suddenly I'm thrust in a story that is having its way with me. Good thing I;m starting to enjoy it.

    I loved Alysse, and am fascinated how it became a piece different than how it was first envisioned. Yet, this is sometimes how the story evolves. I set aside one manuscript last autumn, unable to return to it, and I wonder if/when I do, how will it change? Some, none, completely; that alone could bring me back to it. A wonderful post David!

    1. Hi, Anna. Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you like the post - and Catfish. And, no, that's not my muse's name as far as I know. Truth be told, I'm not sure what the lady's name is. She's an enigmatic lady, that one.

      I think muses strike in all manner of ways, perhaps partly because of the target's receptivity to them. Maybe mine knows I have little time to write, so takes some sort of pity on me. I wish she wouldn't, but there it is.

      Like you, I let the characters tell their stories in their own words. I like to say that I'm just their hands and arms, their secretary, as it were. Instead of my perching on their laps, though, they perch themselves on my shoulder. I'm good with that, even with those whose stories are painful. I tell people that we writers are just conduits for our muse. I'm good with that, too.

      Of course, I must put in a plug for my latest, Tales from the Painted Door II: Wallace. That one, too, didn't go where I had originally envisioned; rather, it went where it was supposed to go.

    2. David, that's it exactly; the stories go just where they are meant to land, which is a lesson in itself. My current WIP started off exploring an eccentric young woman, and has morphed into something much deeper, history and honor entwined with the original idea. I cannot corral it back to what initially was intended, for like you, I'm just a secretary for those characters, and those that turn up along the way.

      Looking forward to reading the new story too, btw... :)

  4. Any idea where the butterfly flies off to? Just a general location would suffice as I think it took my own personal critter with it and it is refusing to return.