Monthly Archives: May 2011

who’s a muse?

You may have noticed that I sometimes refer to my creative side as my “Muse-mind.”  This is a term I use intentionally and, thus far, without explanation under the assumption that you pretty much get what I mean.  The concept of an artist having a Muse is, of course, well known, though probably regarded as anomalous except in certain Romantic literary and artistic circles.

It is possible to see the trajectory of the Muse concept as one that encompasses both the Greek notion of three, then ultimately, nine goddesses who bestowed gifts of creative output and sentiment on mortals as well as later (mostly European male) artists finding their creative source embodied in actual women (as in Dante Alighieri’s case with Beatrice).

Of course, given the Enlightenment and subsequent eras’ preference for rationality and biologically proven reasons for human actions, these ideas fell out of favor. I doubt, too, that upholders of Christian doctrine approved of something that sounds so like heathen idolatry. Personally I don’t require completely materialistic explanations of everything or adherence to such religious tenets, so I’ve had the pleasure of toying with this idea that’s experiencing a resurgence.

In the past few years of learning more about my creativity, including what works, what doesn’t, how I avoid dealing with it and ways I’ve been conditioned to think about it or value it, I’ve come across an ongoing revitalization of the idea that there might be such things as “muses.”  What’s interesting to me is that the notion has evolved over time and has come to incorporate some of the findings and theories of (mostly Jungian) psychology as well as a willingness to look back to ideas that were shaped by early humans’ recognition of an animate world filled with varieties of sentience and states of consciousness.

By 2009 I had begun to read many writers’ thoughts on inspiration, creativity, the unconscious, and archetypes.  Almost simultaneously, I came across the notion of the useful (and perhaps imperative) concept of a personified Muse from several different sources.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s TEDtalk (embedded below) considers the Greek notion of one’s genius being something not wholly personal or subject to “ownership” but rather something one accesses or is given to use for particular work and it really struck a chord (and still moves me, two years later). Gilbert’s experience and the lesson in How to Think Sideways on personifying one’s Muse gave me a huge sense of relief and tools with which to actively nurture what until that point had felt like an arbitrary burden because of an underlying fear that there might be no way to encourage any flourishing while still feeling the pull of potential.  It felt capricious and mystifying.  In some ways it still does but learning to give (“imaginary”) form to my imagination was the first step in making this a mutual, reciprocal, engagement with the source.

As William Stafford’s poem, “When I Met My Muse,”  indicates, a generally unspoken but widely understood sense that it is one’s unconscious that adopts or receives a conceived form in order to facilitate engagement or communication between the conscious mind and the source of creative generation.  Matt Cardin, whose highly recommended site, Demon Muse, is a great source of detail on this topic, says,  

“In broad terms, everything a writer or any other creative artist needs to know about the psyche can be stated in a pair of linked propositions: First, your psyche — your entire inner world of thoughts, memories, emotions, drives, etc. — is comprised of two major levels, the conscious and unconscious minds, each of which plays its own discrete and proper role in the creative act. Second, your best gambit is to regard the unconscious mind as a separate presence, a personified entity with which you work in collaboration. And that’s it. That’s the whole truth in a nutshell. Everything else is just elaboration.”

(from A Writer’s Guide to the Psyche, Part 1: Muses, Demons and Egos.)

And though it may seem very farfetched when put forth in the form of belief (“Do you really believe in muses?” I can imagine being asked) as though they’re non-corporeal spirits floating about independent of everything, the whole concept is really one that one’s unconscious has to accept or deny, by trying it out imaginatively.  It’s a matter of whether or not it works for a particular artist, a choice of lens with which to understand things, let’s say.  Not everyone needs or wants a muse, many benefit by having the option. Something important, though, is that although the rational mind can justify the process with psychology terminology and awareness of the symbolic nature of the muse, the symbol still has to be treated with respect, with commitment, and with awareness that it simultaneously has a life of its own that wants to be lived. Only then can it find its power, no longer repressed.

The archetypal motifs of the Western religious tradition seem to have lost their effectiveness for the larger portion of civilized humanity or, at best, have been depotentiated to the level of a “merely psychological” reality.                                                                                                                        -Terence & Dennis McKenna (The Invisible Landscape)

Personally, my Muse-mind has a specific form it likes to be envisioned with, a name, and certain character traits (including a preference for Muse-mind rather than “My Muse” when being introduced to people) some of which I may share in a future post. Meanwhile, enjoy the video and Matt’s site to explore the ideas further..

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>When I Met My Muse

>

I glanced at her and took my glasses
off–they were still singing. They buzzed
like a locust on the coffee table and then
ceased. Her voice belled forth and the
sunlight bent. I felt the ceiling arch, and
knew that nails up there took a new grip
on whatever they touched. “I am your own
way of looking at things,” she said. “When
you allow me to live with you, every
glance at the world around you will be
a sort of salvation.” And I took her hand.

William Stafford

I offer this in way of introduction to an upcoming post about the nature of Muses (well, mine, anyway), and what it really means to accept such a thing.

Protected: the lightning show must go on

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Write or Flight response

By the way I hurry by my GOTS project papers you’d think I was avoiding the whole thing.  You might be partially right.  It seems I’m much more comfortable writing about working on it than I am actually tackling it.  See, here I am blogging.

Why is this?  It’s partially that I am consistently reminded (whether or not it’s correct remains to be seen) that this project is going to challenge me on every level.

PERFECT rearing its ugly little head?  One clue may be that I never feel capable of doing it justice.  But then I don’t work on it, so of course I fail that task.  Is it this simple?

It’s taken me two weeks to realize that considering asking for lightning strikes for projects unrelated to this is a bad idea as it would only serve to distract me from that which is making me uncomfortable.  Better to just get to the marrow.

I’m not really the kind of person to turn everything into some sort of personal, emotional drama, so forgive me as I try to shake myself out of it by giving play-by-play details.  It just turns out that I think more clearly in writing and that it’s usually writing that helps me recognize that there’s a path out of whatever dark forest I’ve wandered into.  The writing creates the path, perhaps.

The job for me now is to spend the next two days honing in on what element of the story has me stuck (and scrabbling to escape) and then look for a lightning strike to break the bond.

I sometimes wonder if I’m expecting too much this early.  I don’t have many personal details about my main character, but I have some critical ones.  I don’t have many details about the situation she finds herself in, but there is a critical change that occurs that sets the whole thing off. But I still feel lost because I don’t know what other characters are necessary or what’s really supposed to happen in huge chunks of the story.

What I really need is a stretch of uninterrupted time and a sworn promise from myself that I will not get up to clean the bathroom, the oven, or decide to organize part of the garage.  Even though all those things need to be done.

So far what has worked to just get ideas out there is the clustering.  So I think I’ll relax about the number of clustered pages I create and let them keep coming.  At least there’s that (though I fear I’ll be swamped with the unorganizable after this).

Translating Clustering for the Left Brain

I love that Holly (re)introduced the technique of clustering to us.  I’m sure it was offered as a tool sometime in high school, right around the time we learned to outline, but I used it only infrequently.

In my first HTTS go-round, I turned my Sweet Spot Map into a Sweet Spot Atlas just by writing it into a hand sewn book.  There’s so much room in my book, it’s a little overwhelming, but it also helps me face the fact that I have given my creative life permission to take up more room.  Little by little my SSM is growing.

For my 2008 NaNo novel (before HTTS), I did a little clustering, but really started in on it for my first HTTS project.  With the Walkthrough’s Lesson Two demo in which Holly clustered for her current book project, I realized I hadn’t tried giving GOTS its own SSM.  I spent some time last week doing that and it yielded some insights and possibilities which I’m so happy to welcome into the stew in my mind.

What I’m working on now, is taking that “stew” and trying to figure out a way to let my Left Brain, who takes one look at the cluster-mess and goes, “eww, you really want me to look at all the scribbles as if they mean something?” have an easier time making sense of it.  My Muse-mind LOVES t0 make the cluster bubbles, my rational side throws its hands up in despair.

I thought, however, since my logical and organized self likes lists, that making a list might be a way to make all the information useful (rather than just fun to collect).

Among the clustering pages I made which are not SSMs, which will only be posted under password protection, were ones organized around two problem areas I’m looking for solutions to.

The one I’m working with here had to do with a sense that I need to carefully approach how I represent the fairy tale element of the story.  I’m basing this story in the reality we (mostly) all inhabit.  Earth, 1930s, California, regular people.  At the same time there’s a very important connection with the fairy tale realm and I have a particular sense of how the two are supposed to relate.

So, in an attempt to translate a half-page of bubbles into something useful, here’s the information presented in list form.  Just having written the information down may have been enough, but it’s likely that I’ll need to go back and add to what’s here or insert things midway or make sharp turns elsewhere.

It was interesting to find that as I followed some branches further in I got into the detailed workings of the story itself – so this started out as a “talk” about the tone of the book and ended up with a few specific questions and ideas to be sorted out later:

  • **Fairytale element has to be subtle and believable**
  •      -not overly otherwordly or intrusive
  •      – a natural progression and regression to something Artie used to know but has forgotten
  •           – not so much another realm, but a return to an inner realm
  •           – she has to go somewhere she’s touched before
  •           – her dad’s book is key
  •                 – her mom’s been hiding it
  •                 – coloring/puzzles/mazes/riddles
  •                      – comic book expert brother? helps solve clues/codes/ciphers?
  •      – had to have been introduced naturally, by her dad?
  •           – why would mother reject it?
  •           – because she rejects father for hurting her
  •                – mother: he has stars in his eyes.
  •                – she resents his freedom
  •            – maybe he couldn’t be tied down or “pinned” down by relationship?
  •                – he’s imaginative, artistic, hard to get him to be responsible in a conventional way
  •                – but he’s still around

What I see is that I quickly turned to story specifics which don’t appear to be directly relevant to the original problem, except that having written it all down it’s as though I’ve put a bookmark in my mind, a mental sticky note, that will remind me of what is required as I write the story.  One thing I find, though, is that it’s the reality-based aspects of the story that allow for the fairy tale elements. So long as I keep true to the characters’ true needs and motives, I think the cross-reality aspects can be balanced.

Question for you:  How do you capture both the creative flow that clustering offers AND allow the clusters to become a useful planning tool?  Are they mostly just idea sparkers or do you have a way to integrate the information systematically into your planning?

Protected: The Barriers of the Mind – exploring my least likely ones

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piecemeal is ok too

Whether or not I’ll use the writing is irrelevant.  What matters is that I’m seeing what it’s like to fly the plane of this story even though I don’t think I’m quite ready.  Using a few opportunities of timed writing, I’ve created on-the-spot scenes from GOTS.  This lets me develop ideas off the top of my head and test them out.  I consider them test pilots and they’re helping me solidify characters and situations in my mind, something I really need to practice.

I’m looking forward to HTTS lessons a little further down the line when Holly discusses figuring out what’s critical and creating only what’s extraordinary.  I tend to waffle and need help in that area.

I’m trying to not spend all my time tweaking with this blog and instead focus on the lessons and what I can accomplish with the story, however, I’m thinking of including some of the SSM ideas that have been generated via the walkthrough.

Question for my classmates: I haven’t seen most of your Sweet Spot Maps that the walkthrough generated but shall go peruse your blogs shortly.  I wonder, did viewing other peoples’ help you come up with ideas as well?

giving form to the voices in my head

Hmmm, that title sounds like I’m entering tricky territory, like maybe you wouldn’t want to meet me at your local cafe for a cuppa conversation.  But that’s not what I meant.  Really!

What this is about is a technique for working with the mind’s tendencies (the helpful and the harmful) to track off into non-rational territory, into the realms of feelings or desires, creativity or judgments, or what have you.

Early on in How to Think Sideways, there’s a lesson on getting to know your creative/unconscious mind by personifying it as a Muse.  While I will post about that experience at a later time, here I will give you an example of how it can be useful to follow with the images presented by the unconscious mind when you become aware of territory that seems “loaded.”  This is along the lines of Active Imagination as developed by Jung but as I really haven’t explored that too deeply, I can’t say that there are more than nominal similarities.  While Jung’s method was really about “following” the images that arise out of the unconscious and letting them lead the way in further, I’m not talking about that here.  This is visualization at a basic level.

In the first week’s lesson, Holly analyzes the mental barriers that prevent writers and others from being successful, in whatever way they define it.  One of my biggest stumbling blocks is a very insistent case of perfectionism and residual (carried over from when I was a kid it seems) fear of screwing up and not fulfilling my own expectations.

I’d benefited years ago from visualizing my “inner critic” who had austere hair and a sharp, no-nonsense face with an eye for mistakes.  I sent her out a door in the attic of my brain and told her I didn’t need her help.  With her gone I’ve been able to be relatively free in my writing – I don’t freeze up on the page, don’t generally stall and humm and haw for time while I scramble about trying not to write something that would reflect badly on me.  That she would have judged me as having poor writing style or choosing tactless subject matter (for example, writing about depression or writing about family stories) has not been too much of a hindrance.  I don’t suffer under her insistence that I conform to certain social standards, for example and allow my writing to go where it will.  Likewise, the grammarian/hyper-spell checker (who cringes at all my parenthetical statements) doesn’t get free reign.  That came in handy when I was writing for NaNoWriMo because the goal is quantity of words typed and apparently a lot of writers get stalled on word choice and grammatical errors or typos.  Over the years, though, I’ve learned to be relatively undistracted by those issues, or at least to be able to ferret out the trail of what I want to say no matter the distractions that show up.

What I hadn’t realized until this week, however, is that the judge had crept back into my life but in a new form.  Or maybe it’s that I’m now recognizing the other areas where self-judgment has become a stumbling block and am looking to clean the path up a little.

One method for accessing the strange information in the unconscious mind is rapid, uncensored writing which is actively imagining on paper.  Julia Cameron, in The Artist’s Way, uses “morning pages” (and recommends they be in the morning, before rationality takes over for the day) and Natalie Goldberg talks about “writing practice” where pen is put to paper and you write whatever comes up for typically ten or more minutes.  In my Tuesday writing group (which follows Amherst Writers and Artists’ Guidelines) we start with a prompt and write whatever wants to be written.  I’ve wanted to incorporate more of that kind of writing on my own time though, and have attempted morning pages of my own.  Usually it’s a struggle because my eyes still want to be asleep if I’m just going to sit in bed at 5:30 am, no matter there’s a pen in my hand.  But I can type with my eyes closed and let the keystrokes report what’s going on behind the scenes.

I found a site that serves as a repository for just this kind of writing and they have little bells and whistles that make it a fun thing to log in and type up a storm (all writing is kept private).  So I’ve been doing that since Wednesday, writing whatever blather is in my mind when I wake up.  Trust me, it’s mostly blather, however on the second day I was writing about what had been covered in HTTS and I suddenly realized that my mental space was being inhabited by a newly recognized inner critic!  Had I not been doodling about on 750words.com I probably would’ve been a lot slower to figure this out.

It turns out that Mr. Slick is a promotional agent and he’s judging everything I do to see if I meet his standard of awesomeness.  He cares about his reputation and how well I carry it for him.  He has an eye toward whether or not my life (and therefore my writing) meets the standards of the genre into which he’s steering me:  Am I imaginative enough? Mystical enough? Deep and mythological?  He requires it.  Do my ideas tie up tightly, like perfect intricate origami? Is there intelligence and subtlety?  Is the meaning profound?  Do I measure up on his cool-meter?  Apparently, according to him, I hired him so that I could fulfill his expectations of brilliance and edgy non-conformity.

He lives in Berkeley (it’s an easy commute), where on the street I never measure up to anyone who’s anyone and in Berkeley everyone is someone and if they’re not, they’re at least up and coming (in intellectual/creative circles.  I don’t think Berkely’s a hotbed of pop idols).

Thursday, when he knew he was ratted out and I was looking to sack him, this Mr. Slick started saying, “Why neighbor, you don’t mean that!  I’m here to help you. Stick with me baby and you’ll go far!  I have it all planned out, there’s a trajectory to stardom and you’re riding the train with the ticket I got for you.  If you don’t screw it up, you’re going to be the next big thing, the Billy Collins of the blogging world, the Mary Oliver of novels, the Rumi, the Rilke of the century [oh how he’s pandering to the poet these days]. You’re going to be different from all the other struggling writers with me on board.  I’m going to hold you to task and only then will you accomplish what you can’t accomplish on your own. Only I know what you’re capable of and without me you’re going nowhere.”

How the hell did this guy get on my payroll?

I imagined a wolverine eating him.  Neatly and symbolically, I mean.

Which seems to have worked because now I feel like laughing about how ridiculous it all sounds.
——
Later, the astute  Texanne suggested that Mr. Slick would make a great comic villain… something I hadn’t considered, but now the idea of him, working for me on a really short leash does sound about right.

image source: National Geographic
No wolverines or figments of my imagination were harmed in the making of this blog post.

The convoluted history of GOTS

The idea for GOTS was conceived in 2010, on my second run through How to Think Sideways.  The first attempt (called The Bird Story) ended with me realizing that though I loved the premise and though the characters were charming, I was not loving the idea of writing a kids’ chapter book.  I enjoyed reading them with my kids, but was finding myself simultaneously bored and hemmed in by the restrictions of a young audience.  So lightning struck with GOTS not long after making the decision to drop the project.   Some time after I read the Grimm’s fairy tale, The Frog Prince, my Muse-mind said, “I like fairytale retellings, hint, hint,” and I listened.  GOTS itself is VERY loosely based on the fairytale; the primary relationship is that the fairytale provided the seed of an idea and I ran in another direction.  But my Muse was good with that.

Originally my main character was a young girl – she started out around five or six years old because of what I assumed to be the necessity that she not be too psychologically distant from the fairytale realm.  I also located the story in the Central Valley of California.   As I was planning, she kept getting older, wavering around ten or eleven.  Likewise, I couldn’t get the setting to cooperate fully. After a hiatus where I found myself challenged again by my inability to inculcate good boundaries while my kids were on summer vacation, I revisited the idea and found that I had resistance to the story for some important reasons.  I didn’t love the location one bit and my main character was not a young child even though I kept trying to make her so.

I didn’t give up at that point, though – something I might have done with an earlier attempt.  Instead I started asking questions and to my surprise and joy answers arrived.  “Remember,” said my Muse, “that I really like myths?”  I nodded. “Well,” he said, kindly not calling me doofus, “what is your mythic city?”  And I realized that one of the locations I’d love to write into a story is San Francisco.

This is important because place-ness and landscape intersect boldly with meaning making in my perception of the world and so story setting is one of the things I can’t ignore or gloss over.  It remains to be seen if I can create dialogue and scenes with great conflict with the enthusiasm I hold for landscape symbolism.  San Francisco, it turns out, is even the city I dream in.

Simply switching out Stockton for San Francisco, a five/six/ten year old for a sixteen/seventeen year old, and contemporary times for the 1930s has me reinvigorated about GOTS and has my Muse willing to talk to me.

If I can maintain that, I’m happy.