The Muse

So, about a year ago my muse and I had a falling out.  Harsh words were spoken, bags were hurriedly packed and then poof, she* was gone.  Oh, I figured she would return just as quick, ready to pick right back up.  I was, however, completely and utterly wrong.  The longer we were apart, the less frequently I thought of her, until, eventually I began to doubt that she had existed at all.  Discouraged, I cast the remnants that she had left behind into a drawer, ostensibly to never see the light of day again.

So, it was with some amazement that forces perhaps both natural and un-natural worked in harmony to align the planets and grant me another chance.  Out of the blue, I get a text from her, says she’s been bored without a writer to kick around.  That may sound inauspicious to you, but to me it sounded like just what I needed to hear.  So, while the separation was a bit abrupt, the return will be handled with more care.  Unpack one bag, see how it goes.

*in the classical sense, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne – I’m not trying to be sexist here

A Night at the Opera

Up until now I’ve avoided opera—not out of malice or a disdain for the music (my dad had a large collection of classical LPs he used to play when I was a kid which included a number of opera scores, and I remember enjoying them), but simply because I didn’t feel qualified to give an intelligent appraisal of the art. So when I was invited to join some friends for an operatic performance of Carmen, I thought it my duty to experience this centuries-old art form for myself.

You see, pretty much everything I know about opera I learned from Gilligan’s Island and certain Warner Brothers cartoons. (Who can forget Elmer Fudd dressed as a Valkyrie singing “Kill da Wabbit!” or Bugs Bunny performing a Barber of Seville-style haircut?) I enjoy most types of music, and as a musician, I’ve played in a variety of settings over the years, from orchestras and jazz ensembles to rock bands and Irish pub groups. But in my three decades of playing music, I had yet to see a classical opera. I must say my experience watching Carmen was certainly illuminating.

I’m a firm believer that, in the world of the arts (as in most areas of life), nothing equals the experience of being in the presence of people who are masters of their crafts. Whether it’s Yo Yo Ma coaxing notes from his cello, Paddy Maloney churning out jigs and reels on his uilleann pipes with The Chieftains, or Randy Johnson throwing a perfectly placed fastball or slider (yes, I do consider top-level athletes to be just as much artists as dancers or singers), I’ve always been enamored by people who are really good at what they do.

Without a doubt, the cast members of Carmen were indeed superb, and my hat goes off to people who dedicate their lives to such a demanding art. In addition to the singing and the dancing, these performers must be able to play their parts convincingly in a show that runs nearly three hours in length. To all of these talented individuals, I say, “Bravo!”

This is not to say that I am now an ardent devotee of the operatic arts. As in many of life’s endeavors, some tastes are acquired (like coffee or beer). For an opera novice like myself, there are several hurdles to be overcome, such as the communication gap.

For those of us plebeians in the audience whose college major was something other than Romance Languages, the company provided subtitled lyrics which were projected onto a narrow screen above the stage. While this was certainly helpful (for non-French speakers, it was essential—although even for a native Frenchman, it would have been difficult to decipher the singers’ lines through all the operatic warbling), it also created a sort of paradox; I realized as the words were flashed before me that it seemed to take an eternity for the singers to say whatever it was they were trying to communicate. There was one character in particular who spent ten minutes trying to relay four lines of dialogue to her boyfriend. (And every time she took the stage, she said the same thing: “Here’s a message from your mother.”) About two hours into the show, I started glancing down at my wristwatch, and there were a couple of moments when I would’ve sworn I saw the date change.

Of course, much of my problem with the time factor could be attributed to my own limited attention span. We moderns are used to two-hour movies and thirty-minute sitcoms. Elizabethans, by contrast, thought a preacher was just getting warmed up when his sermon reached the three-hour mark. Oh, how times have changed.

According to the historical information printed in the Carmen playbill, the 16th century composers who helped introduced the world to opera believed that the “current state of dramatic and musical expression was inadequate to convey the complexity of human emotion.” I don’t know about that. Sophocles used music and poetry to tell stories pretty effectively. And of course, there’s always Shakespeare. I think his narratives came out alright—even without the song-and-dance numbers and the ten minute arias. But hey, what do I know? I’m just an amateur who likes cartoons that feature speech-impaired hunters chasing rabbits around with spears.

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Books for the Writer

Continuing with many writers on one theme we’re each going to talk about a book that has influenced our writing.  Influence is fortunately a broad category.  It could be true inspiration such as wanting to capture the vivid savagery of R. E. Howard‘s ancient world tales or even ‘reverse’ inspiration.  Many writers can tell you the exact book that they put down and said ‘I can do better.’  It could be that how-to book that finally made sense or had the exercises you finally stuck with. 

I’m gonna split the difference with Stephen King‘s On Writing.  It’s subtitled ‘A Memoir of the Craft’ and it is that but it’s also a concise how-to.  I believe I’ve mentioned before how I had two distinct experiences reading this book.  The first time was before I started writing and it was the first half of the book (the memoir) that I focused on.  An interesting glimpse at the life of a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time.  The second half (the how-to) was quickly skimmed over.  After I had been writing for a while I picked it up again and it was exactly reversed.  I grew impatient with the anecdotes of college life and skipped to the meat of the matter–the craft of writing.  The book has three things going for it that you need in a ho- to book.  Honesty, applicability, and permission. 

Permission is what a lot of writers (especially just starting out) are looking for.  Of course you really need it from yourself but if hearing it from a successful writer helps, what’s the harm?  On Writing gives that permission to write literally and once given, treats you like a writer.  I don’t think I needed or got permission to write from the book but that tone of writer-to-writer conversation let me think of myself as a writer.  That’s not a small step and I believe it let me open up and improve. 

The importance of honesty in a writer should be self evident and King doesn’t pull any punches here.  He’s a working writer and let’s you know what that really entails and if it doesn’t sound like your bag well, now you know. 

Applicability is probably the most important or at least the most gratifying.  Here’s stuff you can actually use.  This book doesn’t come off as theoretical or philosophical (even though there’s plenty of that there).  The tone is more conversational, the master craftsman expounding to the apprentice over a couple of beers say. 

He doesn’t just say ‘avoid the passive voice’, he tells you what it is.  Gives plenty of examples, actual writing examples.  Tells you in colorful language why it’s so dreadful .  Tells you why a writer might fall into the trap and how to avoid it.  And that’s how it goes really. 

King uses the analogy of a tool-box and I love it.  It shows that this is a craft but also a job and it’s the tools you gather and learn to use that influence your style.  If you have more hammers than precision screwdrivers you’re limited in what you can do.  I’ve tried hard to increase my mastery of the tools I have and increase the range of tools available.  Of course he also talks about developing the craftsman’s skill of choosing the right tool for the job.  After all sometimes what you need is in fact a hammer. 

Working environment, idea generation, editing and revision, submission and dealing with the spouse…it’s pretty much all covered in detail.  Quite a bit of the examples are writing King did for the book and so are in King’s style but it’s not about hisstyle.  He also uses authors as diverse as Elmore Leonard and Cormac McCarthy for instruction.  In other words it’s about learning the craft of writing to find your own style.  At least that’s what I got out of it.  It’s a slim volume and a quick read and yet packed with information.  For me not just a must read but a must own.

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Sing to me, O muse…

Nine Muses dancing with Apollo, by Baldassare ...
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If people discover that you write fiction, one of their most common questions is, “Where do your ideas come from?” It’s a difficult question to answer. Unlike Milton’s image of Sin leaping fully formed out of Satan’s mind, my story ideas seldom reveal themselves with any sort of clarity. Instead, they are usually snippets of something—fragments of a scene or impressions of a character or a situation.

The ideas themselves could come from anywhere. Perhaps it was a face in photograph, some obscure detail from a book or a magazine, or an overheard comment from a stranger in the supermarket check-out lane that morphs into an imaginary conversation between some yet to be conceived characters. Somehow, almost magically, these slippery elements embed themselves in my subconscious and wait for the right moment to emerge. And then together, we slide down the rabbit hole to see where they will lead. Often these ideas hit dead ends, but if I’m persistent, they will occasionally grab me by the collar and plunge me into a creative space where I meet a host of characters I never knew existed.

For me, some of my best story ideas have come when I was not thinking about writing at all. Instead, I was doing something else, like taking a walk, mowing the grass, or some other mundane task. Perhaps the combination of doing something involving physical movement (while at the same time requiring very little mental concentration) allows my mind to wander into that zone where creative ideas emerge.

Whenever I write a short story, for example, I usually have a clear picture of the opening or closing scene, but I have no idea what the rest of the story will look like until I start writing it. The novel I am working on at the moment was inspired by a scene from a dream I had a couple of years ago. While those creative rushes are no doubt fun, it’s also important to remember that if there’s a story worth telling, it’s going to take some work to bring it to life. Eventually, you have to leave the mysticism behind and simply write the darned thing. Like Jack London said, “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

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The Great Percolator

Where do I get my ideas?  I may have to cheat a little bit here and make a distinction between getting ideas and getting the story.  The ideas are easy enough if you stay open to them.  Take a bus ride and watch everyone that gets on.  In a half hour you’ll probably see at least three people who are interesting enough (a guy with one leg, an old woman with a shaved head, a teenage girl wearing a viking helmet) to qualify as a story idea.  That’s when you play the whatif game and it should only take a couple of questions to have a basic story idea.  What now?  You could start writing in a notebook right then and there but I like to throw it in the Percolator.

 There’s a machine in my brain where I throw in any little bits and just let ’em simmer, let ’em bubble.  Keep the heat low and don’t watch the pot, just give it some nice easy stirs and see what floats to the top.  I don’t always know what’s in there, the Percolator puts in all sorts of weird stuff.  But who cares what the ingredients are if you get a yummy story out of it?  You have to be patient, especially at first.  My writing group meets every two weeks and at first I would take most of that for percolation.  But the more you use it, the more you trust it and the faster it cooks.  I’ve had some where I just fed in a word or two, perhaps a situation and had the story idea five minutes later. 

A couple key points though–don’t think and don’t talk.  You’re not thinking, you’re percolating.  The Percolator will try putting things together and sorting them out and it’ll access any memories, previously stored ideas, or any other odd bits all on its own.  If something isn’t gelling it will drop to the bottom of the pot and try a different combination.  Thinking will just open the lid and let all the story steam out.  Talking is the same.  If someone asks you how it’s going just tell ’em it’s percolating.  If they’re a writer they won’t pester you further.  If they’re not a writer and they try to pester you, tell ’em to go pound salt.  You don’t owe ’em anything.  Wankers. 

If you feel like you can’t help but look under the lid or you think nothing’s cooking in there don’t worry.  Go do something monotonous that let’s you be alone, and silent.  A walk’s good but chopping wood with an axe would be even better.  The noise and rhythm of the axe will help hypnotize you and the percolator will start up and get to bubbling.  Mowing the lawn on a rider is even better still.  The rocking motion will quiet your body, a still body will quiet your mind and the subconscious will be free to work out all the details.  Kind of like riding a train I suppose.

J. K. Rowling is richer than the Queen all because of a little orphan boy with glasses.  I doubt Ms. Rowling had any idea how popular the Harry Potter stories would be but I daresay she knew she had a good story idea on her hands.  The story about the story is that the idea came to her ‘more or less fully formed’ one day as she rode the train.  I’m paraphrasing from memory but that’s pretty close and it may have even seemed that way to her, but I don’t think that’s how it happened.  I think she had been mulling the story over for many days, more likely weeks.  Barely conscious of it, perhaps wholly unconscious of it.  I’m willing to go further and bet it was the train itself which started her mind going and became the Hogwart’s Express. 

You can picture it can’t you?  The rythmic motions of the train, maybe some rain on the windows she’s staring through, the lack of conversation.  The whole while her inner storyteller was working it out.  Where was the train going, how long was the trip, what were the passengers like.  When the Storyteller had it pretty well pieced together, out it popped where the Writer saw it fully formed.  It’s true I’m presuming much and likely projecting because that’s how I ‘get’ my ideas.  I use The Great Percolator.   The good news is the Percolator will always come up with something.  The bad news is that’s not the real work.  You still have to write it.  So as soon as the timer on the Percolator dings get to work.