How to write a book,  Projects,  Writing

Inspiration (or is there a muse?)

Yes. And no.

What there is, is this wonderful awesome thing in your head called a brain.

There was a reason in Greek mythology as to why Mnemosyne (nem-o-seen) was the mother of the muses. She was the goddess of memory and she named everything.

Cognitive science now tells us that memory and emotion are important in the process of creativity.

So let me use Sedition (the novel I am writing) as an example so you can understand what I am trying to tell you here. 

I have kept a weblog since I was sixteen and I wrote down a lot of my ideas and notes for stories. This was back in 1998. It was 2005 before the plot for Sedition actually started to take shape.

The plot for Sedition involves three people whose lives become entwined as they all struggle to deal with their individual versions of the same problem: the feeling of isolation. It has other bits and pieces in it that I wanted in there that actually now make sense as part of the plot.

But the idea didn’t pop into my head fully formed. To often people expect this to happen and are disappointed when it doesn’t and then write themselves off as not being creative people or as not having a muse.

But between 1998 and 2005, according to the weblog and what I wrote on it that I completely forgot about until I went back and reread it later was that I had always wanted to write the following:

1) A story about a particular kind of relationship in a particular kind of setting
2) More about life from a male point of view, for the experience of writing it but also because I wanted toshow the guys I knew that there were other ways of being and thinking – that they didn’t have to be macho, or have to assert themselves all the time.
3) A story that wasn’t about nature and the environment but that was wrapped up in the landscape so  that I could make the point rather subtly that environment is important but not let it detract from the main story

4) A story about emotions, about depression, about isolation and about society’s role regarding those things
5) Something funny and human – I wanted to show people that we don’t realise it but that the way we cope with difficult things best, is when we use black or sardonic humour and that that doesn’t mean that we don’t deal with them because we do but that we look back on difficulties in a certain way and that that perception helps.
So from 1998 to 2005, I was wondering – “How the hell do I write these stories?” By themselves they weren’t working for plot reasons or length.

And then in 2005, I had an experience that ended up providing me with the “What if?” moment.

What if? moment is extremely important. It is the cornerstone of your plot. The moment may come at the actual beginning of your story or the middle or the end or even in a sequel but it is what kickstarts the plot and character creation part.

Once I had the What if? moment: “What if this happened to this person? Wait, why would it – oh, because she is there because of this and then he must be there because of that, and oh, so and so wouldn’t like that but that must mean she’s pretty strong willed to go through with it and hmmm… I wonder why he would…”

That’s when you know you won’t be able to shut the characters up any more.

But when I had it, all those story ideas I had before came together and coalesced into one plot. The landscape showed up, I was writing about the relationship and it fitted neatly into the issues of depression and isolation, there was definitely a lot of sarcasm, wit and sardonic humour and I do have a male character whose view point you do get to see.

So back to muses and inspiration.

The way it works is this – you take the memories (all those random ideas I had) and you take experiences and you put them together in various ways and that is pretty much how your brain works with imagination and creativity.

We look at something and give it meaning because of our past experiences. In the same way, each time we dust off a memory, we can give it a new meaning via our experiences. And funnily enough, our past experiences are memories too.

In the brain, when we perceive something, we give it meaning because our past experiences modify the neural connections so that we analyse what we perceive in a particular way. Sometimes we do it so often with certain experiences that it becomes a set thought pattern or way of thinking such as looking on the bright side of things ALL the time. Sometimes a new experience occurs that we then link to memories and other experiences and that kickstarts the process of plot and character creation because it has created new neural pathways or new connections.

So, in a very simplistic way, that’s how it works in the brain. A neuroscientist called Antonio Damasio is a good place to start if you are interested in the actual science of emotion, preference and creativity.

Which is how it works – we create because we are inspired because we let experience, memory and perception influence each other.

So when they said Memory was the mother of inspiration, the Greeks were pretty right.

So do we have muses?

You can have one if you want to. But you have to train it. You can start with thinking that one shows up in order to brainstorm and make that new neural connection to solve a problem or to create something. A lot of the creative process is actually just the thinking part.

So if you have a muse in any form (who said it had to be humanoid?), you can train it to show up when you feel you need it to rather than just when it hits you.

The point is, this is your brain and you have an immense, innate ability to create whatever you wantincluding reliable muses that help you rather than hinder you. More often than not, a muse is the person you have a conversation with about what you are writing:

You: “Don’t like that bit.”

Muse: “Change it for this.”
You: “Don’t like that either.”
Muse: “Fussy.”
You: “Control freak.”
Muse: “Me? A control freak? I show up out of the goodness of my being to help you out and you are insulting me?”
You: “Goodness of your being? What kind of muse are you?”
Muse: “I have you know, I could be doing other things right now.”
You: “Yeah, right, like what? Playing poker and losing badly?”

So as a little exercise:

1) Go create a muse (yes, you non fiction types, you can have one too, if only to point out where you have gone wrong)

2) Don’t just say “I have a muse” – think about what they are like, what personality they have, how they interact with you best and what exactly to do with your writing that they help you with.

3) By this point, you should have realised that creating a muse is like creating a character.

4) I say “creating” and I mean that. A muse might seem to show up out of nowhere but given the way creativity works as I have outlined above, chances are you have thought of such a person before and forgotten about it.

5) Does the science take away from the “glamour” or “romance” or “mystical quality” of the idea of having a muse? I don’t think so – I think it opens up even more possibilities and counters a lot of stress associated with writing. But what do you guys think?




  • Sandra Roe

    A really interesting blog post about using memory, experience and perception to stimulate creativity. You say that we can create our own muse. I haven’t thought of that before, creating my own muse, but I believe it would work – it reminds me of something. Many years ago, I learned to tap into the positive male side of myself. His name is Michael, and I can ask him about anything, any time I want to. And he has always given me good advice. You’ve got me thinking, Marisa.

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