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.”
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..
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.
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.
You need not do anything. Remain sitting at your table and listen.
I’d like to reconsider Kafka’s original, “it will roll in ecstasy at your feet,” with how I posed it above: “roll in ecstasy with the world,” and pass along the gift of Jane Hirshfield’s words from “Against Certainty,” where she reminds us of waiting as path to disappearance into the world and becoming, again, one with it.
When the cat waits in the path-hedge,
no cell of her body is not waiting.
This is how she is able so completely to disappear.
I would like to enter the silence portion as she does.
To live amid the great vanishing as a cat must live,
one shadow fully at ease inside another.
>One of the writing paths I follow is influenced by Zen Buddhism as interpreted by Natalie Goldberg, whose Writing Down the Bones woke me up to writing truth out of experience, without allowing the judging mind to intercede. Fueled by mindfulness practice, this type of writing requires awareness of the immediacy of lived experience. It’s free to be exactly what it is: from the minutiae to the expansive but writing it doesn’t mean only repetition of lifeless facts. Creation is involved.
Creation is, of course, a beginning, but it’s only recently that I’ve actually let that sink in after years of struggling with the act of beginning. It’s easy to not begin, to not sit down and do the work, to avoid it in favor of the vacuuming. Many who have written about writing, from Dorothea Brande to Anne Lamott, have already said this. Yet the beginning – and not just the beginning of a story or poem, but the actual beginning of the day’s creation no matter where you are in the project – is the hardest part. Rituals are helpful tools, like on-ramps to a freeway that allow no exit, that solidify your commitment to travel. They can be applied across disciplines and to suit your needs. For example, in The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp has written about her daily ritual of getting up and dressed and hailing a taxicab. The hailing of the taxicab sets her in motion to spend two hours exercising at a gym. She says:
First steps are hard; it’s no one’s idea of fun to wake up in the dark every day and haul one’s tired body to the gym. Like everyone, I have days when I wake up and stare at the ceiling, and ask myself, “Gee, do I feel like working out today?” But the quasi- religious power I attach to this ritual keeps me from rolling over and going back to sleep.
It’s vital to establish some rituals – automatic but the size of patterns of behavior — at the beginning of the creative process, when you are most at peril of turning back, chickening out, giving up, are going the wrong way.
There’s a reason I say on my profile page that I’m “beginning (again) with writing practice” and that’s because creativity is made up of beginnings – the most challenging thing ever. But all I have to do is start. Something always follows. Obsessing about it, ignoring it, avoiding it and postponing it are all impediments to recognizing the fact that creative activity is made up of a million beginnings.
So far this year, my ritual is to go to the library. That’s worked well for me in the past and it seems to be very helpful this time around too. Once I’m at the library I feel I’ve entered productive space, that it’s a place to be quiet and focused and since I’m not interested in checking out more books (in deference to the pile next to my bedside), I only have what I’ve brought with me to keep me occupied. Unpacking the backpack and setting up the table space clears the field and reminds me of what I’m doing, what I want to pay attention to. Then I do the same with the writing: pay attention.
Author Oriah Mountain Dreamer writes,
“I begin with what is, and I am surprised as I write to feel my way into a wholeness, finding connections that are created as I write, stumbling across insights that remind me of what matters and allow me to simply be with what is. The Danish writer, Isak Dinesen wrote, “All suffering is bearable if it is seen as part of a story.” Stories, songs, images help us be with what is.
I am reminded, through her words, why it is important to keep starting, to keep starting over if necessary, but just to start, each day, by paying attention:
We create as a way to be with what is hard and beautiful and unexpected without closing our hearts or pretending something else is true…And as we create we make it all – the sorrow and the joy, the failed efforts and the places of ease – count. Our stories and images and sounds create, explicate, or point to a deeper meaning that helps us receive, celebrate, and be fed by beauty and bear what is hard.
A friend in my writing groups said last week: “So much cannot be known, as Story is creating itself.” And I understood too that we are meaning, being made, as much as we are trying to find the meaning.
In the process of working on the G.O.T.S. project (which I am, though it didn’t manifest during NaNo), I’ve been aware of how the writing demands something of me, requires that I be open to the ways it can shape me, even as I try to understand the ways it wants to be shaped.
George recently shared an excerpt from Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner and this sentiment is relevant here. He’s writing about literature in this sentence, but the excerpt opens up to include all art. Buechner writes:
From the simplest lyric to the most complex novel and densest drama, literature is asking us to pay attention….In sum, pay attention to the world and all that dwells therein and thereby learn at last to pay attention to yourself and all that dwells therein.
So in spite of some stray thoughts that would like to demand that my writing fulfill certain objectives (all related to utilitarian things), that I remember to “be productive” and try to be “successful,” I’m finding there’s a rich undercurrent that is impervious, disconnected from all that and that it’s this undercurrent that makes writing and creative work the absolutely necessary thing it is.
G.O.T.S. progresses slowly becauseof its progress. In some ways it is itself because of the inner work I’ve done in the past year. And the inner work, bolstered by readings, by exploratory writing, with feeling my way along a heart-centered path, is what will allow the project to take the form it needs in the time it needs. It is made of little beginnings and each next step and the next one after that, every whole joining others, forming a connected, beginingless whole.
>We left off in the first post with having recognized that ideas are everywhere, that they’re obviously a product of your mind – but that they’re elusive and for some of us, hard to capture. Obviously some people have an easier time of it (see #2, below) and so today we’ll start there.
Like everyone else on the planet, I’m full of “electrical impulses in my brain-meats,” (#1 in the previous post and #3, below) some of which are more worthy of notice than others. I’m also firmly in the school of thought that says, “no matter how much you protest that you’ve not got a creative bone in your body, that’s completely impossible unless you’re in a deep vegetative state. If you’ve got a functioning brain, or even just consciousness, you’ve got a chance at being creative.” (I’m not going to deny creativity to the myriad life forms who don’t happen to be graced with brains, it’s not my place to say slime molds and spider plants don’t have some form of creativity even if “we” don’t currently recognize it!). That being said, though, it comes down to what you do with what you’ve got.
Maybe that’s what has frustrated so many writers and artists, that ideas are everywhere available to everyone, but the challenge is to see them. Yet there are many, many methods out there that suggest ways the hopeful can welcome more ideas into their lives. With their flighty, changeable nature, ideas are sometimes resistant to being caught but there are ways to become more aware of them and work with them.
Ideas might be related to but are structurally different from discursive thought. If you’re at all aware of how your mind works, you know that thoughts come and go constantly. Discursive thought is something like this: “My bedroom is such a mess, I guess I’ll go clean it up, why am I always doing housework, gee the weather’s nice, I hope the seedlings didn’t get dried out, I should go check them.” Images, on the other hand, are much more elemental – they flash on the scene, bare bones ready to be fleshed out with a little help. I saw the books on my floor and before I was consciously aware of where this could go, I had the sense of the image-inary aspect of the stack that turned into this: “There’s a stack of books on the floor near the bed, piled as high as the bedside table on which are piled another six or eight; as a woman goes to sort and re-shelve them she finds four copies of the same book within the pile, which is puzzling because she’s certain she has only one copy, the one give to her by her ex-boyfriend a week before he was killed in a robbery.” Both types of thought started out the same – I had a pile of books on the floor – but I went with the image of the pile and maintained it until I saw something in that image and allowed it to move beyond the discourse.
So that’s a story idea that could be worked into something and it all started with an image. Ideas are fundamentally images and the expansion of images. By images I don’t mean only the visual – all senses are involved and so you have to learn to pay attention to your senses in your regular life – that’s part of the training to allow the images to take form into ideas that resonate with real life.
Ultimately what’s known about how the mind works, about how it’s possible that we are creative to begin with, is that we have better luck when we consciously choose to access the unconscious, which is the source of the image and its expansion.
I got this far through this post and then I hit a bit of a stuck spot. So I pulled out a notebook and wrote:
“I’m at a stuck place in what I want to say about generating ideas. So I have to talk it out in writing, which, after all, is the point of what I’m trying to say – the conscious mind wants control, wants its demands met in a a way it recognizes, wants everything neat and tidy and easy to understand immediately and so it acts as a kind of lid to everything percolating underneath, a filter – only letting a few things, pre-approved, slip out.
“I suppose everyone has to work it out for themselves – you have to find the methods you can rely on to slip past the control-freak mind and stick a hand down in the water. You have to constantly be brave enough to want to do this without really knowing what exactly is swimming down there, without a guarantee of its suitability for being pulled out into the company of others.”
For me, my most reliable tool is freewriting. It masquerades as journal work and so in the past my creative writing has been creative non-fiction and personal essays mixed with poetry. Now that I’m dabbling in the water of fiction, I’m beginning to see that I’ll likely need new tools (and I have been introduced to a few, including the Sweet Spot Map from Holly Lisle as well as the usefulness of the question, and Active Imagination, all of which I’ll explain later). Though I definitely write a lot of real life into my fiction, there’s a difference between autobiography or journal explorations and spicing a story up with experience.”
What’s involved is a commitment to write for 10 minute increments – then writing whatever comes to mind, without judgment or hesitation – not stopping, not correcting, just allowing the writing to come as it does. When I did that, as in this case, the stuck spot broke free and my idea continued along its intended path.
What freewriting does is allow the ideas that are housed in the unconscious to break through the grip of the conscious mind and come spilling out. Not stopping to reread or even really notice what you’ve written gives the unconscious permission to come up with what it wants. It’s often suggested that you don’t go back and reread for a few weeks even.
Brenda Ueland, in If You Want to Write talks about the importance of daydreaming or “moodling” – just letting your mind wander and paying light but persistent attention to what shows up. Maybe this is why so many of us stall at the idea stage – we’re supposed to live up to an ideal productivity and moodling doesn’t look productive. Neil Gaiman, too, says, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”
So, pay attention.
Another method I’ve come across lately is termed Active Imagination. Jung utilized this technique and the results are collected in the recently released Red Book. This is a much trickier endeavor, it seems, as Jung and others consistently press upon their readers that it’s best to undertake Active Imagination in a supervised or supported setting. Jung apparently went through a phase where he figured he had become insane through his insistence to see Active Imagination through, deeper and deeper. James Hillman, in Healing Fiction, writes,
This method of active imagination which Jung inaugurated in modern psychology is an answer to the classical question of introspection at such a profound level that it changes the image of human being, of the psyche, and what Know Thyself essentially means.”
In active imagination, the images are granted the right to have their own being – they are not merely figments of the imagination, they are archetypal images with their own existence. As I have no experience with this, I can only refer you to other resources (online, in particular, The Iris of Time is a fascinating, touching, look at one writer’s experience with the process), but my sense is that when the unconscious mind recognizes that it has “permission” to be itself, it can step in, revealed as the source and reveling in its purpose.
Ultimately the cultivation of ideas comes down to paying attention to and then accepting what is given, initially without paralyzing the unconscious mind with censorship. Later, having prepared the soil, it’s possible to know which seeds of ideas are likely to germinate and produce something nourishing and thus you can be selective about which ideas are kept and which are not. That will be the eventual (and hopefully brief) third installment in this “series.”
#2: This author says, “The problem isn’t a shortage of ideas; it’s choosing which ones to use.”
#3: When he’s asked, Neil Gaiman says: “‘I make them up,’ I tell them. ‘Out of my head.’
People don’t like this answer. I don’t know why not. They look unhappy, as if I’m trying to slip a fast one past them. As if there’s a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I’m not telling them how it’s done.”
Again, the paintings are by John William Waterhouse (link to a different site than in the first post)
>I do hate to open with a caveat and a disclaimer, but as I write this it just becomes more obvious to me that I don’t have a tidy thesis to wrap the topic up in. So, the caveat: if you’re looking for an absolute answer to this question, I don’t know if I actually get there. Perhaps this is just a case of needing to think out loud so I could figure some of these things out for myself as well. I’m happy to have you along for the journey if it’s of interest to you.
A friend recently asked, “How do YOU think of stories? Whenever I try, I either can’t think of anything, or I think of stories from my favorite books and movies. It’s very daunting to me to create a plot!”
Before I begin, let me offer my disclaimer – having me answer this question is at best counter-intuitive (I’m not that productive) and at worst, a case of me talking about something I’m still not very good at. The internet has many many resources, some free, some not, from others who are probably more qualified than I to write about this (I’ll list several at the end). But I’m going to continue anyway, because I LIKE being creative and maybe my experience – just being a regular person who’s figured some of this out – will help you along as well. I wrote poetry and doodled little water color drawings and thought of nifty things to build and decorate with during my last year or two of high school and for a few years after. I worried constantly about why my attempts to activate my creativity were so unreliable but still managed to hobble along through college and for a few years after. Then I got married, got a job, had kids and literally, within six or seven months of having my second child I pretty much stopped writing except for periodic, panicked passages in my journals about how I wished I could write, how I feared I didn’t qualify as a poet any more (damn T.S. Eliot anyway) and how I just didn’t know what to do with myself.
Yet I enjoy thinking about how we think, though it tends to be a slippery subject – and I’m admittedly involved in a regular life that has only a little room for dreamy gazing and contemplation of the intersections of epistemology, psychology, and creativity – so it’s taken me a while to be able to see what appears like fish, something just under the surface, and to be able to describe, based on fleeting glimpses, flashes of tails and scales and all. But I’ve been, if not sidetracked (from the work of creating), at least educationally mesmerized by the topic of creativity and how to accept its demands and enhance its undertakings. I’ve found that a lot of other people are fishing as well. Being a process-oriented person, this has been a fascinating line of enquiry both for the pleasure at uncovering the diversity of materials and explanations on this topic and for the processes that exist for cultivating creativity (some of which I’ve been playing with). So, having established my reasons for undertaking this topic, let’s get down to business.
From my friend’s question I found actually two questions – one is her direct request, how do you create something big, like a book, like an entire plot? The other is more subtle, is the same question, but at a more nuanced level – where do ideas come from? It’s this second one that I’m going to look at first.
Where do ideas come from?
I wonder how many worried people have asked this question of how many prolific others. Even me, I’ve thought it, even if I haven’t asked it. A lot of artists and writers have answered this question impatiently (see below, #1) – like they’re sick of it, like it’s a stupid question. But it’s not a stupid question because it indicates something about how we order or train our natural selves in order to fit, “normally” into a society which looks askance at creativity unless it is conventionally productive, unless it maintains a form that doesn’t shake things up too much or manages to meet a certain radical-yet-acceptable norm.
But first, the “back of my mind,” (aka my unconscious, my Muse-mind, my inner paint-smeared child) is jumping up and down, shrieking, “I know! I know where they come from! Ooo! Ooo! I know!”
And so I have to go here first. “They’re dropped on the road by ravens, they hide under big floppy green leaves, get kicked up by car tires, hide between notes of music, show up at the curbs of city sidewalks, skulk behind doors, drift with memories like dandelion puffs and are mistakenly stirred into soup. They trip you on the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night, sit in the passenger seat of your car until the city finally drops away and the silent road curves and winds and they loosen from their seat belts and tumble into your lap, they stretch on spiders webs across your doorway and get caught in your hair where you absentmindedly brush them off. They get carried in on the soles of your friends’ shoes and perch, poised on the season’s first berries, waiting for you to be ready to taste. They’re everywhere.”
Now at this point, the reasonable and the reasonably intimidated person stops and thinks, “Well, if they’re everywhere, why aren’t I finding them? How is it that I’m deficient?” and to answer that we have to probe a little deeper.
If they’re everywhere, but they’re too elusive and hard to spot, maybe the more appropriate questions are, “How do you recognize ideas? How do you relate to them? How do you cultivate them?”
… I’ll continue with these questions in the next “installment” – hopefully within a day or two.
#1: I’m a fan of Catherynne M. Valente’s writing (I really like the very adult but dreamy and poetic and rich Palimpsest, as well as a number of her essays) but here’s what she says, when asked “Where do your ideas come from?” “Seriously? It takes some balls to ask that question since every writer in history in on record saying “Shut up.” They come from electrical impulses in my brain-meats.” Ok, I admit, I’m going to rain on the snark in that answer, with the hope that my lengthy answer in this and related posts doesn’t make anyone feel stupid for wondering where ideas come from.
* both paintings are by John William Waterhouse.