When Muses Attack

I don’t mean to get all pedantic right away, but I’ve just had a transformative experience. I know nothing happens in a vacuum, and in all fairness I have slowly been making my way through Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, so it was inevitable I’d start seeing the things I was reading about happen to me either because I was looking for them and so giving them life, or because they have always happened and I was finally actually looking. But, ya know, here we are.

Gilbert talks about the concept of the muse in a couple pieces of media, so I knew what I was getting into when picking up her book. This Ted Talk is particularly great and will tell you what you need to know, but the simple gist is that she believes ideas are living things, actual entities, that come to you and use you like a tool to get themselves made real.

Yes, it’s very magical and romantic and incredibly appealing to someone who loves fantasy but isn’t particularly religious.

By Klügmann Painter – Jastrow (2006), Public Domain

Now I’m not saying she’s right (or wrong), but it is…a lot. I mean we all know about the Greek muses being divine inspiration personified, and we also all know they’re a myth. So to consider that an idea isn’t just something you come up with but, like, a floating ball of invisible light that buzzes around you and pokes and prods until it burrows deep enough into your skull that it gains control of your arm so you’ll write the damn thing down is borderline crazy, right? And we do have somewhat good definitions of an idea or inspiration already. Neil Gaiman says, while we don’t really know, it’s confluence, or two things coming together and then a person bothering to notice it (which a lot of people just don’t). And that’s a good explanation, but the sticking point is really that first thing: we don’t really know. It’s “daydreaming” and “just thinking” he says, and Gilbert agrees, she just says that what you’re noticing already exists; it’s not something you made.

And if you’ve ever had an idea, and I know you have, Dear Reader, you know it’s kind of true. They just fucking show up, and the best ones really do hit you while you’re taking out the trash or in line at the grocery store or on the toilet. They happen to you. This has been my experience forever. That isn’t to say I don’t sit down and tell myself I’m coming up with an idea now–I absolutely do and it’s necessary–and it also isn’t to say I don’t sit down with an idea and have to work very hard to expand on it and make it make sense and be palatable. But the heart of most of them, the biggest, best parts, almost always exclusively hit me while I’m passing through the kitchen to get a drink, scrubbing the shower, or falling asleep. There’s something to be said for allowing your brain a break and the freedom to manifest ideas without pressure or expectation, certainly, but I don’t think that’s the only thing at work here.

Whether it’s magical or not, this thing just happened to me in a very in-your-face way. I was sitting down to work Saturday or Sunday, and I picked up Big Magic and read a small section just to clean out my brain and get myself in the mood for creativity. When I finished, I looked around the room, and I said something like, “Okay, I’m paying attention. Let’s get to work, ladies.” Yes, my ass invited the invisible, glowy lights to work their magic on me. I meant that I needed their help to push myself over the edge with The Wayward Deed manuscript, and I did have a pretty productive day.

But then that night as I was falling asleep, a very specific image and a line of dialogue slipped into my head. I don’t say that I thought up a scene and a line because I didn’t. It literally came into me (that’s what she said), like I was watching it play out. And I wasn’t even that sleepy yet, but even if it was a pre-dream, that doesn’t make it any less shown to me. I have myself as a contact in my phone so I can text myself ideas on occasion. (This is more reliable than any note taking app I’ve found and forces me to catalog the idea better the next day.) So I quickly sent myself a text message with this vague inspiration, and that was that.

The next night, the same thing happened only it expanded. I knew who the people were in the scene, and I knew a little more about them before they met and how they would meet again. It was weirdly complex for the beginnings of an idea. Usually I build complexity out from something simple, but this started out with layers, with two people both pretending to be someone else, and somehow it all made sense. I texted myself a grossly long message and fell asleep.

Then a day went by. All the while I’d been working on The Wayward Deed for the entirety of each workday, and I was able to focus, but when I took breaks this other idea sort of teased at my mind. No distractions, I insisted, and stayed on task. But then Husband and I took a walk yesterday, and I mentioned I had this new idea. I told him about Elizabeth Gilbert, her living muse theory, and how I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea completely unrelated to Vacancy or even the world I usually write in. I was feeling everything so intensely that it may well be the very thing Gilbert talked about, and when I started explaining to him how I envisioned the story that was coming to me right before bed each night, I realized I knew even more about it than I thought and so much more than was sitting in those two late-night texts to myself.

I told him things about the characters and the world that I hadn’t articulated up to that point even to myself, but they were inside me. From there, I asked him to help me brainstorm, and we expanded on the stuff brilliantly. I don’t mean to sound self absorbed here–this thing could be a total dud–I’m just saying it felt really easy and flowed all together and was exciting in its clear complexity. We got back to the house and I opened a new Scrivener document, the first time outside of simple text messages to myself that I was actually writing this idea down. In about an hour I typed up two thousand words of character backgrounds and plot. Now, it’s easy to spew out words when you’re just coming up with ideas, especially how I do it where I write to myself conversationally, but the difference here was I didn’t have a lot of holes or vagaries; I knew almost exactly who these people were and where they were going.

Then this morning I did my normal routine, fed the cats, made my iced coffee, read on the couch, showered, but the desire to just fucking write was so strong that I sat down at my laptop without even getting dressed and started creating scenes in Scrivener and writing up synopses. I took one break to pee and put on clothes, and then I was banging out the actual draft which is not how I do things, but it was just happening. And I’m not saying they’re inspired words, but they’re honestly not terrible words, and they’re a much better starting off point than some of the turds I’ve polished. Then suddenly it was 9:30, I’d been writing since maybe 7:30, and I had three thousand words of an actual draft and at least another thousand of scene synopses.

And then I was done. Not that the book is done, not by a long shot, but I exhausted everything that was in me this morning and had been bubbling and hammering at my fingertips since the weekend. Now, I don’t expect every day to be like this. In fact, this is a rare day, I know that, but I am open to more of them. Was it some divine entity intervening? I have no idea, but it sure as hell felt like it. I mean, it felt so much like it that by 9:30 I realized my lips were chapped and I desperately needed a drink. Do you get dehydrated in two hours? No, but I felt drained and used and it was…good? I wish I could explain it better, but that’s the best I got.

So yeah, I’m probably just recognizing this thing I’ve woven into my subconscious through reading this book. But I first listened to Gilbert’s Ted Talk in late 2019 (here’s me blogging about having listened to it months prior), and while I gave her ideas consideration then and even a bit of credence, I didn’t fully accept them. I don’t even know that I do now, but I definitely feel something new. Not different because I recognize this, the way ideas come to you, I just have a higher awareness of it now.

My advice? Talk to an empty room and invite in the little glowing balls. It certainly can’t hurt. Probably.

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