Monday, September 24, 2012

Killing or Kissing the Muse -- Writers on Finding Inspiration

The muse.

As our ongoing metaphor for inspiration, she's been the subject of many songs and stories, best portrayed I think in Neil Gaiman's amazing comic Sandman. But I digress. Calliope (the muse of epic poetry) and her sisters have been made a virtue by some, a vice by others, and by others merely ignored as an urban legend for creators.

To find out how today's hard-working writers feel about the muse and finding inspiration, particularly in today's busy lifestyles where one is most likely a "writer and" -- not merely having the luxury of just being a writer -- we asked.

And here's what they had to say. Enjoy!

Do you find yourself more inspired to write during busy-ness and the rush of life or when you've had an opportunity to slow things down and focus your thoughts?

W. Peter Miller: I tend to write in the evening when there is nothing else going on and no distractions.

Nancy Hansen: Good heavens, I live in the midst of constant turmoil, so if I had to wait for the world around me to be quiet to be inspired to write I'd never get anything done. The urge to make up stories is always there for me, no matter what else is going on or whatever I'm stuck doing. I'll admit it's a heckuva lot easier to hear the whispers in my head when things are less chaotic and demanding on the outside, but I don't often have that luxury. I've learned to make use of every little moment to get something plotted out. A hundred words of a partial scene wrestled onto a page on a crazy, hectic day is better than throwing up your hands in defeat every time it gets the least bit noisy. I will tend to zone out during mundane chores, boring gatherings, dull conversations, and right before falling asleep; and I do some of my best story planning then. I get whatever I can scribbled down somewhere, or just repeat it over and over until it 'sticks', and then when I sit at the keyboard at last, I'm ready to go.

Lee Houston Jr.: Personally, I prefer things quiet so I can concentrate upon the work. During the busy times, I'm always longing to write, for writing is far better than some of the things I'm stuck doing; and when it's quiet, the thoughts just flow.

Jim Comer: "Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind." The former. 

Bobby Nash: Things slow down? In all honesty, it doesn't matter to me. Sure, it is harder to work if you're being constantly interrupted. Breaking the flow makes it sometimes all but impossible to get started again. That's a risk, but unless you lock yourself in a soundproof room with no phone or internet then distractions will happen. Deadlines make for great inspiration. Especially as they draw closer.

Krista Cagg: A little of both.  I discovered while in art school that I work really well under pressure, i.e. an approaching deadline.  However, there are times when having a moment to focus without distractions or stress is imperative.  Sometimes, producing under a hectic moment keeps me from over-thinking what I'm writing.  This can lead to some truly awesome stuff that was uninfluenced by the desire to make it perfect.  While certain details of what I'm writing are greedy little buggers that demand that I put my full attention to them so that I don't forget something. 

Joe Bonadonna: Outline and first draft: when things slow down and I can focus. After that, I can do subsequent drafts at an AC/DC concert.

Don Thomas: I have three different modes.  Writing, Editing, and managing creative projects down the pipeline towards completion.  Usually on most days I am spending time doing one of those three things.  Generally I just try grab whatever time I can for each every single day.

Charles Berton: I need to be away from the hustle and bustle of life’s stress, preferably in my own little oasis, either early in the morning or late at night when my alpha waves are closest to the sleep state, yet awake. If it’s late at night, a nice glass of wine helps. Early in the morning, coffee helps.

Josh Dahl: For me it is in the busy-ness of everyday life. A great idea recently came to me while watching the suds over-take my laundry at the laundromat. 

Elizabeth Donald: If I'm reading a good book, my ability to write fiction vanishes. Apparently my imagination is finite, and if it's too bound up in someone else's story, it bleeds into my own work. I killed some time this week with an old Arthur Hailey favorite, and suddenly I couldn't write my science fiction adventure for a few days - my brain was full of power plants and terrorism. I tried reading genres close to what I write, but it was no good - reading Mira Grant or Jonathan Maberry while working on my own zombies just makes my work read like a mash-up of Grant and Maberry, and that's an odd mix, let me tell you.

As I said before, when I'm actually writing I blank out the world with music. I have a different playlist for each book, keeping the style of the music appropriate to the story. When I'm writing nonfiction, I listen to instrumental classical music -- if it's got words, they can't be in English. I am unfortunately monolingual, so if they're singing in Latin or German, it's not going to bleed into my writing.

However, movies provide great stimulation. I can't write with a movie going, but if I watch a movie that has a tone and pace similar to what I'm writing, that mood holds when I turn on the laptop. It's not required, but it helps. Conversely, I can't watch a romantic comedy if I'm writing a zombocalypse, and I can't watch a horror movie if I'm writing a tragic love story.

In the end, though, the best inspiration comes from the people I know. I understand there are writers who live in seclusion, who see no one and speak to no one and draw their characters from the well of their minds. I don't know how they do that. To me, being among other people and observing them is the best way to develop character and voice. I think it was Stephen King who wrote that compared to the dullest human being on Earth, the most vibrant character in a book is but a bag of bones. Every human being is the hero of his own story, and has his own quirks and random thoughts and beliefs and motivations. Watching people, listening to people, that's the best inspiration I can find.

William D. Prystauk: There is no rhyme or reason. Ideas can explode in my mind at any moment and without provocation. However, it does seem that my subconscious releases them at semi-regular intervals during busy times. This may occur because I'm side-tracked and not focusing on a particular story or tale -- then, it blossoms.
Kathleen Bradean: I try to write at least four days a week. No one ever gets a perfect time to do anything. All you can do is carve out your writing time and use it no matter what is going on in your real life.

Rusty Gilligan: Animation, and for me, older comic works... when comics were really comics. I find that today's comics lack originality.

Van Allen Plexico: If there ever comes a single moment where I'm *not* inspired to write, I will let you know immediately!

Raydeen Graffam: My ideas tend to happen when i'm busy... so I have to jot them down and come back to them later. If there's a key phrase that strikes me, I try to get that down in my notes... to help trigger the 'rest of the scene/story.'

Roland Mann: Definitely slow down and focus on my thoughts. My mind doesn't stop working during the busyness, but I don't have time to actually write it down. That's what I like the slowed down pace.

Josh Aterovis: My creative process definitely works best with few distractions. I need to focus. When I had the luxury of writing full-time, I was much more productive.

Lance Stahlberg: The creative process really requires that you slow down. I would think it's the same for everyone. Inspiration could strike at any time. You could find new material to include in your story at your day job, on errands, or wherever. Jot down notes if you have to and save them for later. But the act itself of collecting all those ideas into a readable story requires a calmer, more relaxing atmosphere where you can sit, chill, and focus. If your mind isn't open and in creative mode, I find it hard to imagine that anyone could string ideas together very coherently.

Steve DeWinter: When things around me are moving fast, my imagination kicks into high gear to keep up with the flurry of sensory input. When things slow down, I can then focus those ideas into a cohesive blob.

From which wells do you find yourself drawing most of your inspiration, video stimulation like movies and TV, audio, or from reading the works of other writers?

W. Peter Miller: All those things go into the well of stuff that percolates around my brain.

Nancy Hansen: My inspiration antennae are always out. I learned a long time ago to mine the world around me, and then take whatever raw materials I find, refine them, bend them, shape them, stick them in the forge of creativity until they're red hot, pound them out, quench them, and tack them to the rest of the tale. I am primarily a visual thinker, so I see pictures and sometimes entire scenes when I am imagining a story. Even my dreams are cinematic, they have color images and a musical soundtrack. When I write, I like to have some background music on that will work with the type of mood I'm trying to get across, so I have favorite stations to listen to or make up specific playlists for a particular type of scene. The ideas will already be there, I just need get to that zone where I can string them together into a coherent whole.

I do a lot of research and browsing for pictures, and depending on what I'm working on, use them to springboard off into my own visionary world. Sometimes I will read about or witness a situation and it just resonates with me, and then months or even years later I will craft a scene with a similar concept. Same thing with characters; I have based more than one of my most beloved ones on people I know, have met, or someone who has made the news.

Talking to other writers or people interested in what I'm doing helps immensely too. I can't tell you how many story ideas came out of email or online bulletin board exchanges -- quite a few where I had to copy & paste my own ideas into a file before I hit SEND because in complaining about a troublesome scene I just worked it all out on the page! Many times the other person has offered that one little key idea that pops the entire thing open before you. The internet has been a wonderful resource for finding other frustrated writing recluses.

Lee Houston Jr.: I've never really taken a full accounting of just where all my ideas come from. I'm more happy that they arrive and give me new tangents and possibilities to be creative with. But I also don't limit my resources either. I've drawn from real life, movies, television, music, the classics, and anything else that gave me pause to think. The inspiration for the background of poor  Koh'lin, who becomes the superhero Alpha, was actually derived from a pinball game!

Jim Comer: The latter, with weird ideas sprouting almost of themselves from the leaf litter of my mind's Niggle compost. Thanks JRRT.

Bobby Nash: There's an old saying that I hate, but it fits-- "Six of one, a half dozen of the other." Inspiration is a tricky beast. It comes from nowhere and everywhere all at once. Sometimes it's something you hear or see on TV, other times reading something will spark an idea, then there are times when I can see a total stranger in a store or mall and my brain creates a character around his or her look, and let us not forget those beautiful moments when creative ideas pop into your brain unbidden and fully formed.  Is there a well of story ideas just floating around out there? Maybe. Who knows? I can't explain it, but those moments are magical.

Krista Cagg: Music.  I grew up in a very musically talented family: my father having his masters in music, my mother had been studying to be an operetta.  They raised me to appreciate all kinds of music from The Beattles/The Who to Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.  I create playlists on my iPod for the characters in role playing games.  Theme playlists named appropriately: Angry or Sad.  Sometimes an entire story will come from just one piece of instrumental music, such as my novelette: The Blackest Rose, inspired by the song titled the same by Midnight Syndicate.  Not everyone understands why I choose the music I do for my playlists.  For instance, Mika is on my playlist for The William's Hunt, my steampunk time pirates series.  They give me a queer look and ask "...Mika?"  To which I answer "Fuck yeah, Mika!"

Joe Bonadonna: Old movies, sometimes music, and reading pulp fiction from the 1920s thru 1950s.

Don Thomas: Movies, some scenes and setting that for some reason resonated with me.  That scene when Luis first appears in The Town that Demanded Recompense when he's confronted by the four bandits and executes all four with lightning quickness?  That had origins with a scene in Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, with a dash of Clint Eastwood playing Josey Wales and saying "Are you going to pull those pistols or whistle Dixie", and sprinkle of the any classic Star Wars Jedi surrounded by soon to be limbless mooks scenes.  They are all essentially the same visually powerful scene to which doesn't really need a lot of dialogue, but clearly establishes to normal folk that individual can kill so easily it could even be accomplished reflexively. (

So I look at those scenes, like the heart of what they are visually portraying and it inspires me to write my own version.  Some books I read can also can work to inspire me in different ways as well.  Especially when it comes to types of settings and genre.  While music is usually playing in the background, my own eclectic soundtrack at any given moment.  As far as television and its inspiring capabilities, perhaps to someone out there.  At this point in my life the most inspiring thing writing wise that has ever happened to me which included a television was the moment I stopped watching TV all together a handful of years ago.

Charles Berton: Inspiration, for me, seems to appear out of nowhere, but I know what I feed my mind, and, over time, it does impact what comes out later as inspiration. Although I enjoy writing fiction, I rarely enjoy reading it. For me, non-fiction is the thing that informs my fiction, as I like to bring as much realism to the table as possible. It’s self help books, science and history books, science and news shows and talk radio for me.

Josh Dahl: From reading what other people write. Also, of course, just from living life.

Elizabeth Donald: I suppose it depends on which kind of inspiration we mean. If you mean the lightning flash of a brilliant idea that will be a fantastic story, it seems those happen much more often when I am quite busy. Those little random thoughts that flit into my mind seem to come in city council meetings, at the grocery store or during church. I once scribbled a story idea on my service bulletin when I was supposed to be listening to the sermon, and lightning has yet to strike. However, the kind of inspiration that leads to long writing sessions.... that requires focus, even to the point where I must have earbuds in to listen to music that acts as white noise, drowning out the world. It seems the older I get, the more easily I am distracted by a thousand different things while writing.

Still, the best inspiration doesn't come when I'm busy or when I'm focused. The best inspiration comes in that gray twilight between awake and asleep, that moment in the silent darkness when I am drifting to sleep. It's like the synapses open up a few spare Pandora's boxes in my imagination, and random images and ideas flit across my consciousness. They're the best Wonderland I could have, and if I wake myself enough to scribble them in the notebook beside my bed, they fall apart like butterfly wings. That's the price, I suppose.

William D. Prystauk: Although I love reading fiction, much inspiration comes from reading fact based tales. Otherwise, movies provide most inspiration for a tale. I think that has to do with so many factors in a movie that can provoke an emotional response: visual atmosphere, dialogue, body language and music.

Kathleen Bradean: It's a combination of everything. You take in all this information and stimulation then pick out the parts that light up your imagination, deconstruct them, recombine them, and create something that may or may not have recognizable influences even to yourself. I've been inspired by talking to other writers, by theater, reading, TV, music, and travel.

Rusty Gilligan:
I find, for me, I write all the time regardless of the timing. Life provides me with great fodder for stories. Also, I really can't afford to wait for 'inspiration' to strike... pro jobs can't wait.

Van Allen Plexico: I think that movies and TV add lots of little bits of ideas constantly -- character ideas, types of weapons, the look of uniforms or costumes, snappy dialogue ideas, etc etc.  But there's no doubt that my "big idea" inspiration comes from books.  Sometimes it's reading a book and being just lit up by the great idea or concept or setting or story; other times it's simply seeing a well-packaged book on the bookstore shelf, with a look that's so appealing that it inspires a brand new idea whole-cloth in my mind.  I'm totally inspired by superior book design, cover art, cover copy text, and the like.

Raydeen Graffam: History books... lots and lots of history books.

Roland Mann:
Occasionally film, but mostly books. And it's either really good books or really bad books. The really good ones I want to emulate, the really bad ones, I wonder HOW the heck they got published (and then give the ever-popular "I can do better than that!)

Josh Aterovis: I think all inspiration is a combination of many factors.

Lance Stahlberg: Both. I might see the way that another writer handles a story idea, or a character archetype, or whatever, and think, “Okay yeah that's kinda cool. But what if...” Or I might draw inspiration from the way a really solid writer weaves the story, or from their style. Those times I'd think more along the lines of “I want to tell stories like this.” Not in terms of aping their plot or character ideas, but being able to tell a good story in a certain genre in as entertaining a way.

I'm a pretty visual thinker, so I've always been drawn to watching movies and TV. I tend to like stories on the small screen more, in the same way that I like an ongoing comic or book series with bigger stories to tell than you can fit in a movie. My dream gig would be writing for licensed properties, playing in their sandbox, bringing new aspects of their universe to life based off things I've seen.

Even when gaining inspiration for more original ideas, actually seeing something always helps stimulate the imagination. I'd see something in a cool scene and start to wonder how I would describe something like that, how it would fit in a different setting, or what other kind of fun I could have with it.

Steve DeWinter: Everything inspires my writing. If I am having a tough time with an action scene, I will put on an action movie on DVD and will usually be given the solution during that movie. If I feel my dialogue and descriptions are lacking, I will read my favorite authors to get my mind back into the flow of well written prose.

Do you feel that the longing for inspiration is somewhat overblown, i.e., that working writers don't really have the luxury of waiting for "the muse" and must create their own inspiration?

W. Peter Miller: I do a lot of driving during the course of my day and those half hours here and there are often rich with story ideas, fixes, characters, etc. Also, sitting down and starting to press the keys forces inspiration. The notion of a muse is false for me. I just have to start typing.

Nancy Hansen: Thomas Edison said genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration, and that I have to agree with. After you've written for enough years, you don't spend a lot of time staring at a blinking cursor wondering what to write because you know how to turn on the magick channel. I've started many a story by simply typing out a challenging sentence and then built the entire rest of it around that. Other than resolving technical issues or having to learn how to handle a new genre, I don't spend a lot of down time waiting for the muse to kick in. If the muse is that lazy, I kick that one to the curb and go find another, more ambitious muse.

And don't kid yourself that a working writer is so busy meeting deadlines, he or she can't afford to be creative. I am now a working writer too, and in my experience, the more you use the creativity muscle, the bigger and more powerful it becomes. That well is not going to go dry unless you stop hauling things from it and convince yourself you don't have anything left to give. If I'm struggling with a story (it happens) then I go look at some related pictures or set it aside and work on another one for a while. If you fall off the wagon, catch the next one going by and keep pushing for the frontier.

Lee Houston Jr.: Muses are important, and their contributions cannot be denied, for inspiration can strike at any time. That's why I always make sure that if I'm not near my computer when an idea appears, I have pen and paper handy so I can write it down.

Unfortunately muses also operate upon their own schedules, which don't always coincide with yours. So sometimes I just let my mind wander and see what it comes up with on its own. The late Gardner Fox is said to have drawn a lot of his story ideas from (day)dreams. But as long as the ideas keep coming, does it matter what the source?

Jim Comer: This is a learned skill as with any other. Look at Will Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

Bobby Nash: Waiting for inspiration to strike might work for some writers, but not for me. I've discovered that my biggest obstacle to overcome in the writing process is motivation more so than inspiration. The hardest thing for me is to sit down and get started. Once I finally put butt in chair and start writing I can generally get back into the rythym of what I'm writing fairly quickly. If I only write when inspiration strikes then I would probably still be working on my first novel instead of my 5th.

Krista Cagg: These days? Absolutely. We don't really have the luxury of lounging around a cafe in a writers' commune waiting for that inspiration to hit then spend four years chiseling out a masterpiece. I believe that we would all like to be able to do that, but we prefer to pay rent, bills and other such necessities that modern day had yoked us with.

Joe Bonadonna: I prefer to have the Muse come and inspire me. She's been a pretty faithful gal, and even when I must hunker down to create my own inspiration, she will sometimes pop in to say hello and toss me a little treat that paves the way for me. My Muse does like to be wined and dined, though. I have no problem romancing her.

Don Thomas: Writer's cannot sit around waiting to be inspired on a particular project.  The very act of working on the writing on a particular project should be enough inspiration to enable the writer to work towards said project's completing.  If you say you are going to work on a particular story, or someone hires you to work on a particular story, even if the writer is not compellingly inspired, the story still has to be written. 

The awe inspiring epiphany writing wise which comes suddenly crashing down from the heavens like a multipurpose godsend filling the writer with superhuman resolve and determination to no matter what see that project to full executed completion?  That's a myth working writers tell little baby writers right alongside the one's about Cinderella at the ball, Beauty taming the beast, and the Hooker with the heart of gold.

Charles Berton: My definition of an artist is someone who remains open to inspiration, and inspiration is no stranger to artists. Therefore, it’s nothing that needs to be fretted over. It comes when you’re driving your car, in the shower, in the middle of the night or when you’re doing mundane tasks like mowing the lawn. If inspiration does not come to you quite regularly, you’re in the wrong business if the business you’re pursuing is art, and that includes creative writing. To clarify my above answers, #1 is when I do actual writing, and #3 is when I get the biggest ideas for when I do write at a later time.

Josh Dahl: Waiting for "the muse" is the luxury of an artist. A craftsman sits down and gets to work."

Elizabeth Donald: My muse is an evil wench who has been on vacation for about a year and a half. The kiss of the muse is seductive beyond all reason; it's that moment when the story takes over and writes itself, growing and changing and you're just taking dictation from the madwoman inside your head. But we can't sit around and wait for a muse; that moment is too fickle and too rare. Oh, when the muse is singing, you better grab on and ride as long as you can. Nothing should interfere, not food or sleep or even sex. Well, maybe.

But most of the time, writing is work. Harlan Ellison tells us quite vehemently that art is supposed to be hard; if it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. Creation is an act of sheer will, but we are not ethereal gods spinning universes on a fresco; we're bricklayers, building worlds one sentence at a time. To be a writer is to be a worker bee, trundling back and forth every day and putting words on the page. It's a job, just like any other. So every day, it's butt in chair, hands on keyboard, and let's make some words.

William D. Prystauk: Definitely overblown. As a former marketer, I learned to write on demand. Yes, I can do this for storytelling as well, but I prefer to let a story unfold on its own. As for a muse, never had one. Maybe writers should just be a bit more patient and trust their subconscious to do the work.

Kathleen Bradean: I think you can set the stage for inspiration to strike by giving your brain something to work with. That means writing even when you aren't necessarily feeling it. That being said, I have moments of inspiration that seem to come out of nowhere. I love that! But sit around waiting for it? I'd never finish anything.

Rusty Gilligan: I find that artists/writers waiting for inspiration aren't very realistic. In today's market you don't have the luxury of waiting for inspiration when editors and deadlines are looming. To work 'professionally' you have to be professional and be ready to work when an editor tells you. It would be like telling the snow to stop falling because you don't want to build a snowman lol.

Van Allen Plexico: I have a backlog of probably two dozen novel/series ideas and seem to add new ones faster than I can write the existing ones.  I don't need a muse; I need three clones who can type very, very quickly.

Cindy Spencer Pape: Sometimes, the best ideas come when you barely have time to jot them down. Other times, contemplation can really spark creativity. I've learned to just run with it, whenever I can.

Roland Mann: Absolutely, yes. Writers write... it's what we must do... or have very little to show for it. I know more "writers" who claim to write but almost never put hands to the keyboard... I call them talkers!

Josh Aterovis: I think everybody has a different process. Some writers are able to push through and train their muse to show up on demand, and others may not be so lucky. Some writers are more disciplined, while other write when the muse shows up. I'm a combination of both. When I used to have a more structured writing schedule (Man, I miss those days...), I often had days where I would sit in front of the computer screen for hours with no muse in sight. Other days, my fingers couldn't feel up with the muse. I always found that on those days with no inspiration, working on something else, something less creative (editing, marketing, some other project) would suddenly facilitate some sort of breakthrough, and I'd be back to the writing board in no time.

Lance Stahlberg: For people in general who just aspire to write, it's understandable. For a professional writer, it is way overblown. If someone says anything along the lines of “longing for inspiration”, then I can't help but wonder if their goal of wanting to be a writer is realistic. I've had people ask where I get my ideas, and I really have no answer. It's just a natural occurrence.

Writers, almost by definition, are more receptive to inspiration than the average Joe. While true, muses can be fickle wenches, and inspiration may be elusive at times, if it really takes so long to come up with an idea that you long for the ability... then either you're not really a writer, or something else is going on that you have to work out to get creative again. Writer's block is very real, so long as it doesn't become a crutch.

There have been many submission calls that I've passed on because I had no clue what story I could possibly tell along the lines of what the publisher wants. But when given the opportunity to write in a setting that does interest me, it never takes all that long to come up with a story outline to build a pitch around. It can't. If it takes too long, you miss the deadlines and thus the opportunity and you end up not writing at all.

The details may take a lot longer to fall together, but the initial inspiration itself is never all that far out of reach. But even then, when you're on a deadline, you can't afford to sit around too long waiting for inspiration to strike. And if it takes so long, then yeah a writer will figure out a way to summon it. No one really “creates” inspiration so much as they become more receptive to it.

Steve DeWinter: As a working writer, I have come to recognize that the "muse" is part of the folklore and legends of how writer's write. We reference all the funny and witty anecdotes from famous authors that all point to the shenanigans of the muse. But on a day-to-day basis, the  "muse" never helped anyone complete a project. That took hard work and dedication, something the "muse" obviously fears.

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