The writers of the Writer’s Retreat Blog have agreed to contribute essays to our series called, “Wiley Wednesday,” in which we will share our thoughts and opinions about the craft of writing. While we’ve all agreed to this, I’m not entirely sure that I’m qualified to be any sort of authority on the subject. I am, however, full of opinions. So let this be my disclaimer. These are my thoughts and musings only. They may not bear any relevance to the real world. I’m not really a writer (yet), I just play one on the internet.
Musing About the Muse
by Elizabeth Anne
It’s already been established that if you want to be a writer, you need to sit down and physically write. Period. End of sentence. There’s no way around that, no magic formula to somehow put your words onto paper without you doing the work. I think most writers understand that premise. We may whine, cry, and procrastinate about it, but we understand – at least at an intellectual level. The stumbling block that prevents many of us from actually putting pen to paper is a bit less clear. While we want to be writers, we also want something a bit less tangible, a bit more artistic. We want to connect with our readers. We want to evoke emotion. We want to be story tellers. But where do the stories come from? Just what is that elusive muse?
Several years ago, I saw the play, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I remember being struck by the power of one of the first scenes. In it, the narrator asks a room full of kindergartners, “Who knows how to dance? Who knows how to paint? Who knows how to tell stories?” After each question, the entire group has their hands in the air, excitedly trying to share their artistic talents with the world. The scene switches to a group of adolescents and adults who are asked the same questions. None of them admit to these abilities. Instead they offer embarrassment and excuses about the idea of even trying.
So if this play has accurately portrayed our society, and I believe it has, what happened to our artistic side as we grew up? Where did the stories go?
I believe that we are all born with an innate ability to tell stories. I look at my own children, and they were making things up and “playing pretend” even before they were able to talk. Their imaginations are in overdrive so much of the time that they can get confused about reality and have nightmares about the monsters they’ve made up. They tell anyone who will listen about their princesses and talking animals, their heroes and villains. I can also remember being the child who constantly made up stories and begged people to sit down and listen. Those stories don’t just magically disappear as we grow up, do they?
Maybe all these questions shouldn’t be about the stories. Perhaps we need to take a look at ourselves instead. Bear with me as I play amateur psychologist for just a moment. Erik Erikson, a famed psychoanalyst known for his theory of social development, asserts that as small children we strive to achieve autonomy and initiative. In other words, we are striving to be who we are for ourselves. Through the school and teenage years though, Erikson states that we struggle with inferiority and role confusion. At this point, we are concerned about where we fit into our world and what our peers think of us. Is it coincidence that when we start trying to fit into “the real world,” we lose touch with a bit of our creative side?
So, if we have trained ourselves to hide our creativity as a way of fitting in with society, how do we get our stories back? It seems to me that we need to turn back the developmental clock a bit, and rediscover who we are when we’re not trying to be what we think the world is telling us to be. Precisely how do we do that? Well, if I had an easy answer, I’d be more than happy to share it. Unfortunately, I think every person has to find their own solution, and I’m still struggling to find mine.
But all is not lost. Even if we never complete that quest to find our inner child, I believe we all see glimpses of our creative self, often when we least expect them. If we can learn how to listen, perhaps we can find those elusive stories again. No one can do this for us, and it is a step that seems essential if we want to really write. Even famous, prolific, bestselling authors have to start with an idea, and they all seem to find those ideas in different places.
J. K. Rowling states that she tries to put herself in a place where the ideas “can come out of my head.” She goes on to say, “For me, the most idea-producing situation is to be sitting in a fairly quiet corner of a café, looking down at a nice blank sheet of paper, with a big mug of tea slightly to the left and a new pen clutched in my right hand.”
Sara Douglass, arguably the best selling Australian author of all time, offers this advice. “I take a bath. To access your subconscious you need to be warm, relaxed and generally, utterly mindless. I find taking a bath works nicely for me.”
Stephen King has a different take on finding his muse. He has been asked these questions so many times, that he now quips that he gets his ideas from “a small, bloodthirsty elf who lives in a hole under my desk.” But he goes on to say that you can find ideas anywhere, if you’re willing to look at something that seems ordinary and ask, “What if?” He says that to write you must often seek out your ideas, rather than waiting for them to come to you. “Waiting for inspiration can become a long wait.”
I’m certainly not in the same category as any of these people. I hesitate to even call myself a writer, but I am learning to get more in touch with my inner muse. For me, ideas tend to strike when I am doing a mindless, routine task that keeps my hands busy. Washing dishes, folding laundry, and crocheting are a few of the tasks that seem to work. I have a friend who comes up with all of his writing ideas while running on a treadmill. I believe everyone must go through a bit of trial and error to see what works for them.
So, it seems that the stories may not be so elusive after all. Instead waiting for ideas to miraculously sprout from some outside source of inspiration, we must learn to pay attention to what we already have. We are all born to be storytellers. The stories haven’t gone away since we were children; they’re still inside us, waiting to be heard. If we pay attention, we may find that our muse is actually speaking to us all the time, we just need to listen.