Seducing Your Muse— UnBlocking Your Mind
I often hear of “writer’s block,” that nemesis of creativity. It’s as if the Muse stole your joy by sleeping on the job.
Instead of writing ‘sweet nothings,’ whisper to her, “Get up! I want to write!” Of course, ladies don’t like to be yelled at, so that might not work very well. At the same time, she needs to be on your schedule. (If we always wait for the Muse, it might be a very long time between epiphanies. And that would hardly be amusing.) I suppose then a gentle caress to stimulate her out of sleep might do the trick. Seduce her gently.
Okay. How do writers do that? There are two things that have worked for me (after I realized she can never be forced).
First, in the in between periods, do something, anything that is creative. The important thing here is to recharge our right-brains—our creative centers. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be related to our writing, which is what we are supposed to be doing anyway—read works of other writers, attend readings, participate in open mics, etc.—but it doesn’t have to be writing related. Yes, we can do the left-brain stuff, too—edit our own work, critique other’s works, read about the craft of writing, take a writing class, etc. This will soften our self-imposed guilt trips of not doing something associated with our writing.
I have discovered that the things which have successfully recharged my creative center are sensory, but mostly visual and auditory. Begin with the arts—movies, museums, music—for entertainment and relaxation. But don’t limit yourself to these. Explore nature! Take a walk in the park, hike a trail, or sit down and observe your backyard flora and fauna. Even if these aren’t practical, drive in the country or to the mountains or seashore. Go someplace that is quiet where only thing you hear is the symphony of nature. Embellish the experience: smell her hair, the scent in the wind, the moist earth, the salt sea; taste her, the honeysuckle and wintergreen berries, the mountain stream; touch her, the velvet moss, the paper skin of fallen pin oak leaves, the wet silk of her lake. Just look and be awed. In an August 2009 interview, I went into more detail, but here is an excerpt from it:
“What initially sparks creativity in me can be just about anything: a sound of a bird, the gurgling stream, the rustling leaves, a song, a radio commentator’s remark, an expletive; a sunset in the mountains, the “Hobbit’s glen” on a hike in the woods, the glitter of a thousand silversides on an underwater dive, a patch of pumpkins decorating a bumper-crop field from three thousand feet; a child’s smile; the smell of honeysuckle, the scent of my lover’s hair, a baby’s face, the incense of earth, the smell of death; the taste of Merlot, catfish with the flavor reminiscent of the pond, the sweetness of corn, and Oh-my-God plums; the texture of her lips (on mine); my hidden thoughts. Can I explain how it happens? No, but I can only guess. Something triggers a past memory/experience and is brought into sharp focus. And it is that thing which often sets the mood of the poem or becomes the metaphor for the heart of it. When I started writing seriously (May 2004), I used to think that inspiration was divine. Well, I still think it is divinely inspired, but not in the same way as waiting for an epiphany. The inspiration comes through much more subtly and often through associations among words, images, experiences.”
It is always a good idea to have a notebook, something that will fit in your shirt pocket or purse (don’t forget the pen that writes!). Record impressions and triggered memories, etc., but don’t worry about it if you don’t. Avoid being legalistic about it because it will be self-defeating to the creative process (stimulation here). That is, if you are poised, pen in hand, eyes scanning the scenery, ready to write something about the experience and it doesn’t happen, then don’t force it. Defeat any negative feeling for failure to write something. Relax. Don’t obsess over having to jot something. If you do, you do; if you don’t, no problem. Remember, your sub-conscience is recording things, too. You will be surprised what will wheedle them out later and what it is that is coaxed out.
Second, the prompting of the mind will awaken the Muse. As alluded to above, life experiences are recorded in memory—in short-term memory for interesting, but not necessarily significant events, and in deep memory if they were emotionally profound.
What a prompt does is trigger the retrieval of memories, even the volatile ones in short-term memory because a ghost image night remain, as if ethereal or latent, leaving an impression, perhaps associated with something important, even indirectly, to be accessed. Sometimes the prompt lets you cherry pick a gem from the past from which a story or vignette will emerge. At other times, the prompt acts like how a laser works, namely, just as a light particle can stimulate a simultaneous emission of a bunch of excited electrons “stored” in a higher energy state resulting in an intense coherent pulse of light, so too can a prompt cause a simultaneous cascade of memories stored up there concerning a specific recollection(s).
The prompt is not what you might think it is. It’s not “write about this or that” (where the “this” and “that” are very general things). How often have you heard, “write a story/poem about your childhood” or “write something about the Fall”? These might work for some who are already primed to write, but often don’t do much to “unblock” the writer’s mind. Rather, the prompt I am talking about is much more specific. But specific doesn’t mean excessively restrictive. The idea is to guide the mind to the memories and not insist on a restrictive one. In other words, the prompt should prod the Muse, not dictate to her. These specific things could be a group of words, images, and even sounds, textures, smells, and emotions, if additional context is provided. Soaking in all of this, the mind will have a fresh source of metaphors in the making.
For example, let’s look at something you are likely familiar with—a list of words to include in a composition. A single word may not do much for you, but a group of them might. There is a behind-the-scenes process the mind attempts—it tries to connect the words. Well, that’s the apparent effect when actually certain words or groups of words will be associated with some memory. Once a link to an experience is made, there is a focus on that—thinking and writing develops. The genesis of the poem or story begins and the remaining words are enveloped in that emerging theme. The more difficult or straggling words to incorporate will often stimulate out-of-the-box thinking to make them fit. Consider, for example, an actual list of ten words (including categories) that I was challenged with in March of this year: lapse, exacerbate, clatter, muscle, glow, squander, foible, a geographic formation, an animal, the name of a punctuation mark.
Don’t obsess with having to use all the words/categories. It is legitimate to use any part of speech (glow/glowing), number (muscle/muscles), or conjugation (clatter/clattered/clattering), as well as homonyms (muscle/mussel, lapse/laps). Now you try the exercise, then read on.
Look at my poem, “Empty Shell,” appearing in The Legendary (July 2010). I didn’t use all the words, but others were used in ways that were new to me. Exactly how did this poem evolve? When I read through the list, nothing jumped out at me. But on the second pass when I read the word “muscle,” I thought of “mussel” because the category, “geographic formation,” had triggered the image of sea in my mind (because I love the sea and the mountains, they were pinged first). Immediately, I realized that the word “mussel” performs double-duty, since it is a kind of “animal,” the remaining category. So the focus was set—a mussel in the sea—and my mind combed my memory for experiences with mussels. I remembered mussel shells on the seashore, the clink they made when dropped on pebble sand. I remembered its striking mother-of-pearl patina on the inside of the shell, this pearly sheen, of course made me think other shells, and particularly, the oyster, especially the pretty ones in the Pacific that make pearls. And some mussels make pearls, too, though not generally pretty ones. I wondered, how a pearl is made? And why? Philosophical ideas prodded more thinking and the context for the poem emerged. I let the epigraph by John Donne (a great 16th century metaphysical poet) make the important leap from what might have started as a simple poetic description of nature to a full-fledged poem with layers of meaning and depth. The literary metaphor in that epigraph enabled the novel use of the pearl as a “punctuation mark,” the final category in the list.
In another example, consider a themed venue or anthology. Sometimes the prompts are very general, but at other times, they are quite specific.
Here is one for an anthology, which might have been too specific. Paraphrased from the submission guidelines: in each story, the protagonist wakes up on New Years day in the morning and soon discovers that though there are thriving animals and plant life, every human is dead. Their bodies don’t rot, but just dry up, mummify. Within days, there will be no running water, no electricity, no phones, and no Internet. The protagonist will be completely alone.
The excessive detail might strain the suspension of disbelief, so I adapted the prompt, which I found to be at least intriguing. For a more realistic scenario, I had the animals gone as well as humans. And perhaps to relieve some of the restrictiveness, which I feel is unnecessary, is more appealing to me; e.g., I don’t think it’s necessarily important to consider the lack of utilities. It might unnecessarily lengthen the story, which I want short.
Note that it could have said just to write an apocalyptic story, but that would be too general and doesn’t really give a prompt a blocked mind could prosper. With enough detail though, the opening of the story might not be difficult to do. At least one could start writing describing the devastation. Soon, the plot will begin to unfold and the story then drafted. Try it out. Then look at my flash piece, “Dead Bells” (MicroHorror, October 2009). You might notice many poetic swaths in my work. Well, I am predominantly a poet, so that should be no surprise.
Finally, I want you to consider an example of a visual prompt. I will forgo a lengthy discussion on the visual stimulus of poetry since I addressed it in the essay, “Poetry Stimulated by Visual Art” (Liquid Imagination, Issue 4, Fall 2009). We hear the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words, so it should not be difficult to extract a few of them for a story or poem. Well defined pictures direct the observers thinking somewhat, but if the image is expressionism or impressionism, then it becomes easier to express our impressions about what we see. For example, what do you see in this painting by Jason Carusillo?
Does it evoke a particular emotion? Record your impressions or describe the expression. Look at the colors and texture, as well as the facial complexities. Some context for the story will emerge. I was struck with some very strong impressions. It led to a poem which received the nomination for the Rhysling Poetry Award in 2010. You can read it, together with three other works inspired by Carusillo’s paintings, in the same issue as the essay noted above.
And when you look at an abstract image, you might be surprised to learn it might be an even better prompt. Here is an excerpt concerning an abstract image from the essay noted above,
“We furtively search for identification or what the image might mean – concreteness. At the same time, the right side of the brain continues to fantasize about the image, not bounded by logic, but guided by impression. It’s a remarkable process, an unexplained dynamic happens (though I am trying to do just that). Associations are made among the concrete things imposed on the image, the fantastic elements conjured by imagination, and the memories or experiences triggered by them. Collectively, they spark the genesis for a poem (in a similar, but more complex way as simple word associations from a list of words that we might be tasked to incorporate in our writing).”
Consider this piece of digital abstract art by Lisa Marie Peaslee,
What do you see? Imagine? Geometry and color will play significantly in shaping your impressions. After you have considered the exercise, contact me for the poem that was stimulated by this artwork. It was published in Silver Blade, Issue 6, Summer 2010 before I became their poetry editor. (The poem has been archived and is no longer available on the Internet).
There are many more effective prompts, and I plan to introduce them in a future course on The Anatomy of Poetry.