Tag Archives: feeding the muse

Creating

In our quest to be better writers, dedicated writers, and productive writers, we can sometimes forget that not only do we have to feed the muse but we should also take care to refresh our imagination.

From time to time, it’s helpful to move away from the keyboard and indulge in other types of creativity. Some writers craft mixed-media collages. Others play music. Still others garden or design landscapes. We all have hobbies and activities that give us joy and rejuvenation. The question then becomes, have we brushed those fun, creative pastimes aside? Are we too busy to be creative?

For the past five years, I have been in a whirlwind of responsibilities, work, writing, and errands. At times the whirl is so intense that I feel overwhelmed and overburdened. Neither of those feelings is conducive to writing. A crowded, over-scheduled mind is one that never finds time to process, invert, or synthesize–and without that mental process writing quickly stalls.

Therefore, as much as possible, I am trying to fend off the stress by resurrecting old hobbies and making time for them. Because somewhere along the way, the responsibilities have swarmed me like Bermuda-grass runners overtaking a flowerbed, and restorative hobbies have been crowded out by the weeds of life.

For example, a decade ago, I took up the hobby of quilting–or at least quilt-piecing. I found that when I came home from my day job, I could sew a few bits of fabric together while supper cooked, and my pent-up stress melted away. Two decades ago, I alleviated stress by tending my rose garden. Just walking among the fragrant bushes with pruners in hand, deadheading the plants of their spent blooms, was incredibly restorative. And long before I purchased a house and had a yard for roses, I took up needlework. Before that, I collected rocks gleaned from the New Mexico desert. And before that, I tended horses that I thought I couldn’t live without.

Well, my beloved horse from my teen years has long gone to his rest. I no longer have access to my beloved corner of the desert and must content myself with the rocks I found so long ago. In recent years, vision problems have made needlework more challenging. The horrid rose virus, my mold allergy, and a doctor’s ban against digging holes have pretty much ended my rose garden. I am down to a few scraggly specimens that do not inspire. And when I moved to my present home, I lost my sewing space and put all my piecing projects away.

Small wonder the weeds crept in and took over.

But writers are not like other people. We cannot trudge along in the drudgery of errands and mundane chores of everyday life without relief. We are not made that way. Mopping the floor becomes an outlet for the imagination to plot how our beleaguered heroine will escape the wizard’s citadel. We burn dinner and run four-way-stop intersections while we’re mulling over which viewpoint to use next. And if too many interruptions thwart us from working on our stories, we grow sour and bitter.

And yet, we cannot spend all our time writing either. Writing the well dry without replenishing it is dangerous to creative productivity.

So this summer, to fuel my writing and fend off the weeds, I have taken up a new activity in painting. Choosing a new color is tremendously exciting. Burnt Umber versus Amsterdam Green. Greek Blue versus Raindrop. The names alone conjure up old Venetian houses, mysterious shadows, and all sorts of dreamscapes.  I have become like an eight-year-old stalled in front of a candy display, unable sometimes to choose because it’s all so tempting. Besides color, there are the tools:  who knew buying a new brush could open a door to so many brush shapes and specialties? Rounded bristles, pointed, narrow, wide, taklon, nylon, natural boar, etc. How many can I have, please, please, please?

But I am no minimalist. In my worldview, more is more. One hobby is not enough.

As a result, today I happened to be driving near a large quilt fabric store on a different errand altogether. Although the weeds’ voices were saying, “No, no, no; you don’t have time; you’ll spend money you shouldn’t,” my hungry imagination rebelled. It was shouting, “Go for it! Let’s play!”

I told the weeds to shut up, and I pulled into the parking lot. Inside the store, I found visual delight in all directions. Colors, patterns, fine cottons plus woolens to make little projects like pumpkins and squirrel-shaped pin cushions, quilts hanging from the ceiling, cute displays, adorable baby toys, small projects and large, wonders on all sides.

The weeds whispered, “You can only look for twenty minutes tops. Hurry! Then you must leave.” I ignored them and roamed from one display to the next. The potential to create, to choose and mix, to even contemplate sampling this feast was beyond delicious. Best of all, the checkout line was long and slow.

Clutching a quilt-themed birthday card for a friend, I got in line. But as I stood waiting, I spotted yet another feature I had to explore–and touch. Out of line I dropped, to wander here and there. I picked up another item that stayed in my hand. Back in line, only to notice something else I’d passed by. More wandering. More thinking. More temptations reaching out, calling my name on all sides.

Should I make another flannel throw like the one I sewed for my mother several years ago? What about these darling baby fabrics? Do I know anyone expecting a child? No, perhaps not. Oh, here are the Halloween designs, and do I like the Edgar Allen Poe quotes swirling around skulls and ravens better than the gray little ghosts that are almost mid-century abstracts? But here are the Christmas bolts of soft, dreamy colors, or trendy gray and red patterns, or traditional reds and greens. Look! That woman is buying yards and yards of buffalo-check red and black while chattering about her Harley-loving nephew. But wait … I’ve found the Civil War-era reproduction fabrics–all so Victorian from their deep jewel tones to the pale shirtings for contrast. And hurray! Here are the 1930s and 1940s retro fabrics in bright pastels and cheerful little prints that I love so much. Can I resist the tiny Scotties wearing Santa hats–available in either a green background colorway or a red one? No I cannot resist, and thus find myself requesting yardage for a project that doesn’t exist. I’ll figure something out for it, I assure myself. See the dinosaur toy! Isn’t it precious? Didn’t I just walk past a bolt of orange in a tiny rectangular print that could imply scales? Would a dinosaur look cuter in orange fabric or green? Did dinosaurs have scales? Probably not, but don’t I have a dragon-toy pattern stashed somewhere? Forget dragons; focus on dinosaurs right now. Oh, phooey, the store is out of the dinosaur pattern. Get back in the checkout line and stay there.

Eventually it came my turn at checkout. As I was handing over my credit card, a weed sprouted–all nasty and spiky, covered in burrs, and stinky with disapproval. “What’s wrong with you? When will you have time to make these projects? You don’t even have a corner to set up your sewing machine. Why are you doing this?”

But my imagination was happy and shining from all the eye candy. It sliced off the weed, and I contentedly brought my purchases home.

Today’s feast was more than worth the expense. As for time, could I afford to spend over an hour in that store? No I couldn’t.

Do I begrudge it? Certainly not. My writing will be better tomorrow because of having played with fabric today, and that is priceless.

Whether I sew anything from this outing doesn’t matter. My imagination has dined well on joy.

 

 

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Visited Any Mummies Lately?

A cool way to feed the muse is to wander through museums.  Now, maybe you don’t care for them or you aren’t interested in history or there aren’t any in your immediate vicinity or you’re leery of buying tickets to see some weird exhibit.

How many other excuses can you think up?

Museums exist in just about every community.  They may be public or private.  They may be art museums with big budgets and society patrons, or they may be bizarre little collections that Joe Strange has put together for his own amusement.  Sometimes, they’re as modest as an old house the local historical society has restored and filled with artifacts germane to the community.

I adore museums, but then I’m a writer–easily intrigued by collections, always eager to learn something new about the past, receptive to where serendipity might lead me.

For example, in Deming, New Mexico–a sleepy town maybe 30 miles north of the US-Mexican border–the museum is housed in the old armory and is much bigger than you might expect, given the size of the community.  But what it lacks in population, Deming makes up for in its history.  The museum’s collections include Native American artifacts, cowboy and ranching gear, WWI items from when General Pershing’s troops drilled outside the city, grainy old photos showing the devastation following Pancho Villa’s notorious raid on Columbus, NM, a few short miles away, Victorian furniture donated by pioneer families, and numerous other items pertaining to local heritage.  There’s also the goofy section containing everything anyone has ever wanted to donate to the museum, including old hats and a whiskey-bottle collection.

Across the street is the fascinating old Customs House, its thick adobe walls cool against the desert heat.  This is where goods hauled by wagon came out of Mexico up the trail to Santa Fe, and stopped in Deming for the customs inspector to levy his tariff.  And there’s a trap door leading down into the tunnels built beneath the streets, where Chinese workers used to hide on Saturday night from the rowdy cowboys that came in to shoot up the town.

Okay, so perhaps western history isn’t your cup of tea.  How about the Action Figure Museum in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma?

Too . . . plastic?  Okay, try the British Museum in London.  Once you get past security and prove to the guards that you are NOT carrying anything remotely resembling a bomb, you ascend a staircase leading to the enormous stone head of an Egyptian pharoah, smiling at you with the serenity of thousands of years.  This is the epitome of museums, with its vast collections of incredible art, rows of Egpytian mummies and sarcophagi, and oh yes, that hangar-like space with a few scattered statues lying at one end.  Can anyone say, Lord Elgin’s marbles?

Or what about the carriage museum in Bath, England?  Do you love reading Georgette Heyer’s sparkling Regency romances?  Well, here you can see exactly what a perch-phaeton looked like, or a racing curricle, or a brougham with a top that could be lowered if the weather were fine enough.

Sorry for the bad picture! This is an old English stagecoach, circa 1810.

Even worse picture quality! Age and acidity are taking their toll. This is a red Royal Mail coach, in England, circa 1800-1820.

Isn't the condition of this beautiful Regency dress amazing? Circa 1815.

Maybe you’d rather commune with the Charioteer in Delphi, Greece.  There he stands, looking calm, while hordes of tourists press as close as the barricades and sandbags allow.  (Why sandbags, you ask?  To catch him if an earthquake knocks him over, of course!)  And you can see that there’s something odd about the old boy.  He’s extremely long-legged, out of proportion to his torso.  What’s wrong with the ancient Greeks?  Didn’t they understand anatomy?

Sure they did.  And more importantly, they understood perspective.  So the Charioteer was sculpted to be viewed from inside a chariot, at a distance.  His legs were made extra long to allow for perspective and viewing angle.

The famous Charioteer at Delphi. He looks red, due to the acidity eating away my old photograph, but in reality he's green-patinated bronze.

But there are other things to see and study at museums besides old dinosaur skeletons and locomative prototypes and a cannon recyled from Napoleon’s army to the Texas Republic.  Museums, especially the big famous ones, attract people.  And we writers love to watch people, don’t we?

Consider a busy museum in Athens.  A crowd gathers around some famous statue of Heracles, jammed so tightly that there’s no opportunity for meek Americans to take pictures.

Enter a Frenchman with an expensive camera slung around his neck.  His stride is sure.  His voice is loud as he commands the crowd to step aside, s’il vous plait!  People obey, parting like the sea, allowing him to take his picture.  Clever American tourists learn to follow Monsieur through the museum, standing behind him to take pictures of all the important statues while he exercises superb crowd control.

Or consider the frail elderly lady being slowly conducted around a musty old house museum to see how her donated items have been labeled and put on display.  Listen to her quavery voice reminiscing about her grandfather coming home from the state senate to put in a cotton crop.

Look at the rapt face of a three-year-old, staring at a costumed docent working an 18th century spinning wheel, while mama whispers to her, “And see the spindle where Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger?”

I haven’t been to Venice, but I’ve seen the fantastic bronze horses of San Marcos because they traveled to the States on loan to the New York Metropolitan Museum.

I’ve walked through Mark Twain’s boyhood house in Missouri, seen Andrew Jackson’s hatbox in his Tennessee bedroom, and marveled at Thomas Jefferson’s inventions, contraptions, and gardens at Monticello.

I’ve been gypped in tacky little Arizona trading posts offering glimpses of a South American mummy–poor thing–and yawned my way through poorly conducted tours of dingy little rooms containing dingy old photos of some dingy little blip of American history.  I’ve gazed at the skeleton of a T. Rex, watched videos of how to nap flint with a deer antler, stood atop a mound made by the ancient peoples of the Mississippi valley, climbed a marble pathway to the glorious Parthenon, had my photo taken on the ramparts of a Frankish crusader’s castle, and marveled at the crown jewels of England.  I’ve gawked at the site where Anne Bolelyn was beheaded, inhaled the amazing fragrance of a field of orange trees in bloom while creeping about the ruins of a place called Tiryns–perhaps Odysseus’s palace–and gazed at the plains of Sparta.  I’ve strolled the gardens in Colonial Williamsburg, laughed through Restoration plays, and–perhaps most awe-inspiring of all–sat in Thomas Jefferson’s seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses.

I’ve surveyed Edgar Allen Poe’s college dorm room, peered at a letter written by Queen Elizabeth I–what penmanship!–in the private collection of the Duke of Devonshire, and been nearly blinded by the garish gold and red decor in the Duke of Wellington’s house.  There’s also a nine-foot-tall nude marble statue of Napoleon in the foyer.  It’s a stunner, and not in a positive sense.  (I’m told that it was donated to Wellington, and he hated it.  He used to hang his hat on Napoleon’s head every evening as he went up the stairs.)

Thanks to the behind-the-scenes tour at Biltmore House, I know how the Vanderbilts air-conditioned their summer cottage in North Carolina. 

I think by now it’s evident that history of all kinds inspires me.  What inspires you?

I’ll bet there’s a museum somewhere devoted to it.

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Little Chats

What?  Talking to people?  Talking to strangers?  Leaving the safety of my keyboard and monitor and actually going outside to approach a flesh-and-blood human being?  No way!

There was a time when the prospect of my doing exactly that gave me chills.  As long as my wellspring of imagination was flowing freely, I believed I could dodge talking to others.  Now I know better.  There is value in staying connected with people of all types, of seeing real human nature and not just what other fiction writers present as human nature.

Not all writers are introverts, but I suppose a hefty percentage of them fall into that group.  I’m introverted with a capital I.  It took me a number of years and a lot of practice to get used to chatting with people, especially strangers.  I had the notion–as hard to eradicate as crab grass–that as a writer I should remain detached from other people and just observe them.

Phooey!

Sure, you’re observing all the time, but you need to get acquainted with all sorts of people, from a variety of backgrounds, and different ages.

Do you only hang out with other writers?  Other writers your age?

What are you going to learn from them?  (Okay, maybe they give you honest feedback when you read a scene aloud for critiquing, but are they feeding your muse?)

Writers need a wide range of information.  We need different perspectives, different angles.  We need to see the oddities among people as well as the similarities.  Personalities, mannerisms, intensity of focus versus ditz-brain, domineering and meek–the combinations go on endlessly.

Probably the easiest gambit is to ask questions about what someone does.  Not: “Do you make a decent living?”  But: “How long have you been a parking monitor?  How many tickets a day do you write?  Does that gizmo you’re holding really run a check on a car’s license tag?”

Most folks are flattered when you start asking them questions about what they do or something they know.  If your interest is genuine, they’ll usually open right up.  Suddenly you may find yourself receiving insider perspective and your fiction will benefit from it.

So if you’re going to write about a character that’s a psychiatrist, talk to a doctor informally away from the office.  If you’re going to write about a skydiver, drive out to an airfield where people throw themselves out of airplanes for fun.  Watch what they do and talk to them about it.  Unless you’re researching for very specific information, you don’t need a list of regimented questions.  You’re just showing interest.

I find it the most fun to get to know elderly people who are still vibrant and active.  They have perspective, insight, wisdom, experience, and forceful opinions.  They may be raconteurs who tell terrific stories.  They may be still running a business with little time to spare.  But if you get to know them, you’ll come away with copious amounts of story inspiration.

For me, the most difficult people to talk to can be children.  After a while, I figured out that the key is not to ask dorky grownup questions, but instead to use patience and demonstrate real interest in whatever the kids happen to be doing.  If you don’t rush them, pretty soon they’re climbing on you, eager to tell you all kinds of things.

Even more importantly, once you have someone talking, keep your mouth shut and LISTEN.  Once people start sharing with you, it’s their show, not yours.  The better you listen, the more they’ll say.

I know this is all basic advice for good conversation of any kind, but as a writer I had to learn how vital it is to touch reality from time to time.  The more I connect with people, the more gold I have from which to spin my webs of dreams.

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Reading … What’s That?

Some of the titles currently stacked on my desk.

Next on my list of suggestions for feeding the writing muse is to read constantly.  A few years ago I wouldn’t have thought it necessary to urge writers to read.  After all, isn’t reading what brought us to the dance in the first place?

Still, I continue to be shocked, astonished, stunned, appalled, outraged, incredulous, flabbergasted, and perplexed by the wannabe writers I meet who do NOT read. 

“I used to read,” they hasten to assure me, probably because I’m staring at them dumbfounded.

But the assurance rings hollow.  Would you want to go to a dentist who used to work on teeth, but hasn’t picked up a drill in the last ten years?

Some of the books currently stacked on my desk.

Writing requires a tremendous outflow of our creative energies, emotions, insights, and sheer ability to entertain.  It’s vital that we be diligent about keeping more ideas flowing in.  To do that, we need the words of others.  Not to steal, of course!  But to be soothed by and taught.  It’s so necessary that we have storylines, settings, characters, dialogue, phrasing, and imagery pouring into our minds.

Today, I’m reading John Sandford’s latest crime thriller, BURIED PREY.  He always brings a new technique or variation to how he handles his material.  As much as I enjoy his plots and stories, I also learn a little on the technical side as well.

Biographies stacked in the living room

No matter how much we adore the written word, we can still become squeezed by deadline pressures or the crazy-busy chaos of everyday life.  Fend it off, and keep reading.  Read every day.  Read a book a week, or twice a month.  Take chances on authors you’ve never heard of.  Explore genres beyond your favorites. 

Granted, when I’m writing a book I don’t want to start imitating the style of other authors.  It’s a hazard–especially when I’m deep in the pages of someone I particularly admire.  (I pick up accents and vocabulary, too, whenever I stay more than a couple of days in a new location.  Call me a chameleon!)

But neither–in the fevered midst of creation–do I want to stop reading.  It’s like oxygen to me.

So I read in genres very different from what I happen to be writing.  For example, if I’m working on a fantasy then I’ll read mysteries and thrillers.  Once I’m done with a rough draft, then I’ll dive into whatever I’ve been stockpiling.

Reading ensures that my story sense is still running true.

Books stacked on the piano.

If you’ve gotten lax about finding time to read, then there are various ways in which to reform the habit.  Figure out what time of day works best for you, then make an appointment for yourself.  It can be helpful to form (or join) a bookclub.  You can start a book journal, where you record the titles of what you’re reading with perhaps the date you finished and a sentence-long synopsis of the plot.  You can read aloud daily to your children, if they’re of an age to appreciate books you can all enjoy–or encourage them to read aloud to you.  You can set a stack of books on your desk and assign starting dates to them.  Research and collect the works of a chosen author and read them in publication order.  Or maybe just save up some splurge money and then fill a shopping basket with wild abandon at the bookstore.

Above all, keep reading fun.  Don’t wade through dreary books that bore you just because they’re something you think you should be reading.  Don’t keep yourself from reading books that are as light and insubstantial as popcorn just because you think you should spend your time on more important tomes.  And if you want to read all the works of Charles Dickens, then do it!

On my office wall at campus there hangs a poster produced by the American Library Association several years ago.  It’s a picture of Yoda, holding a book, and it says, “Read and the Force is with you.”

Kind of true, don’t you think?

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Seen a Good Movie Lately?

One of my favorite ways to replenish my creative well is by watching films that move my emotions deeply.

That doesn’t mean I always want a tear-jerker.  Sometimes I’d rather laugh or I prefer to tense up through a thriller.  Sometimes I want to languish in a gorgeous setting.  Or I may simply enjoy the sheer brilliance of the writing or a fine acting performance.

We all have our lists of favorite films, movies we can watch over and over.  Have you viewed any of them recently?  If not, perhaps it’s time to revisit those stories and characters.

There are times and reasons when we should analyze why a particular movie touches our hearts.  This is not one of them.  Instead, simply let the motion picture lift you into another time and place.  Rewatch the film as long as it continues to move you.  Later, you can search out why.

I happen to adore old movies, especially the black-and-white ones made in the 1930s and ’40s.  My imagination is engaged more when the film’s not in color, and the sets and writing are very much to my personal taste.  You, however, may prefer to focus more on recent movies, such as THE KING’S SPEECH or the newest PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN offering.  It doesn’t matter.  Just be sure that you’re not confining yourself to movies that offer frenetic movement instead of plotted conflict, or special effects instead of a developed story arc.  Such lightweight films have their place, of course.  They may entertain us, but they don’t necessarily feed the muse.

Learn how to tell the difference.  Then give your imagination a really good meal.

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