Daemons, Genii, and Muses, Olé!


"The Nine Muses" by wegs of DeviantArt

As a continuation of last week’s discussion about tapping into our subconscious, I’d like to share another speech from TED. In this video, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love proposes a way of thinking about our creativity that I really like.

In her presentation, Ms. Gilbert reflects on the disturbing trend of the last five hundred years wherein our creative artists have suffered from depression, alcoholism, and too often, suicide. All of this, she posits, stems from an unbearable pressure placed upon artists to keep topping their previous works or to think of themselves as a creative wellspring or source of inspiration, a standard which no one can live up to.

However, in the ancient world, the Greeks and Romans cherished the idea of inspirational spirits apart from the artist himself. Both “daemons” and “geniuses” were thought to guide the artists’ hand in whatever endeavour he pursued, and in this way, his fragile psyche was preserved, for if the work turned out brilliant, this Muse would keep him humble and check his ego, while if the work was a “failure,” he did not shoulder all the blame.

I particularly appreciate how Gilbert affirms that her creative process is nothing like the incredible description she received from the American poet, Ruth Stone. I suspect that for most of us, the creative process is rather mundane, and downright tedious at times, though I myself can attest to that “transcendent” experience Gilbert mentions. There are simply those occasions when a problem I’ve been butting my head against for what seems like forever suddenly clicks and the story seems to fall together as if someone else were telling it to me and I merely transcribing. Of course, they don’t come often, and they certainly don’t come regularly, but I have found that if I “show up for work,” as Gilbert puts it, this extraordinary experience is more likely to happen.

Perhaps it’s the romantic in me, but I’ve always rather liked the idea of having a personal Muse. Not even for the reasons Gilbert outlines, but more for the sense of camaraderie it brings me during the often solitary slogs that make up my creative process. Call me crazy, but I’ve actually had “conversations” with my Muse where I ask her (I invariably switch genders when referring to my Muse, though I often use the feminine pronoun) questions about my current work in progress, and even more bizarre… I’ve gotten some pretty good answers.

And I think that gets back to the heart of art that I mentioned last week: It is a communal activity in which we find a way to share a link between our souls and those of our audience in our quest for a meaning to our existence. It’s the reassurance that we are not alone. It’s that spark of magic where you say, “Yes! This is Beauty! This is Truth! This is what it means to be human!” It’s those times that make you say “Olé!

Daemons, genii, muses, whatever you want to call them, what are your thoughts on the matter? What kind of relationship do you have with your Muse (if you have a Muse at all)?

Listen to “Dancing with the Muse” by Christopher Spheeris while the two of you are mulling it over 😉

Farewell to Brian Jacques

Brian Jacques

This week, I am going to switch Fantasy Friday and Writing Wednesday due to the heartbreaking news I received this morning. On February 5, Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall series, passed away from a heart attack.

His death touches me deeply, as it was Mr. Jacques who inspired my love for reading in elementary school. I have been reading for almost as long as I could talk, but it was the discovery of his books in third grade that really ignited my passion for literature and writing.

Now, I know that Mr. Jacques himself did not like Redwall to be labeled as “fantasy.” According to him, “It smacks of swords and sorcery and dungeons and dragons, and this is not at all the feeling of my books. I like to think of [them] as old-fashioned adventures that happened ‘once upon a time, long ago and far away’; in fact, good yarns is how I describe them.”

And rollicking good yarns they were, though my definition of fantasy is a bit broader than that. Although there was no magic in his plots, his stories touched me with the magic of falling in love with a new world and one of the most lovable casts of characters I’ve ever known.

And so, it is with a heavy heart that I bid farewell to one of my earliest inspirations. His passing is truly a loss to children’s literature, though his legacy is sure to inspire new generations of readers.

One of my favorite things about the Redwall series was that warm, homey glow I got when I would read the last few sentences of the epilogue. As Mr. Jacques would always say, “Remember that the gates of Redwall are always open to friendly strangers passing by.”

I hope you found your welcome there, sir.


We salute you, Mr. Jacques

Halfway Through Revision

Welcome to a new week!

I’ve got some really good news today. This past weekend ended up being three days for me thanks to Texans’ inability to handle sub-freezing temperatures, especially when ANY sort of precipitation is involved. Classes were cancelled on Friday, so I made the most of my weekend by steaming ahead on a few more lessons in the How to Revise Your Novel course I’ve been working on.

I devised a much more expanded magic system for my world, as well as some much deeper themes. Something I love about Holly’s approach to writing is her visionary spirit and her insistence on writing with a purpose. I realised that I had begun writing my first NaNo manuscript with a vague sense of what I wanted to say in mind, but I had never sat down and seriously asked the all important question of WHY I was writing the book in the first place and what I wanted my readers to take away from it. It turned out to be quite an emotional exercise, but I feel much more confident about the direction it’s heading now.

I’ve come to the end of the “triage” part of the course, in which I learned how to analyse everything that went horribly amok, and now I’m bracing myself to begin learning the process of what Holly– an ex-nurse– calls “manuscript surgery.”

I’m a little bit nervous because it looks like I’m going to have to buckle down again and really envision each scene that I want to have when I’m done, though my novel is so wrecked that I’m basically keeping the core idea that sparked the whole thing and scrapping almost everything else.

It’s kind of the equivalent of the pain in the ass construction we’re always dealing with on my campus; one of our major buildings has been gutted, leaving hardly anything but the original skeleton while receiving a major face-lift to bring it into the 21st century. While this is a daunting task, I’m excited to say what I really meant to say, but missed, the first time through, and my Muse is happy to have me back now. I can hear her muttering suggestions as she sorts through the new material I’ve come up with this past week.

Now, I am going to listen to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” and get back to revising!

Enough about me though! What about you? Have you made any important progress on your own projects? Hope to see you next Monday with many more words!

Submitting to the Subconscious

How many times have we sat down in front of a blank page and tried, to no avail, to force the words to come? On the other hand, how many times have we felt that “click” where we just sort of let go and the words seem to spring unbidden from somewhere beyond our consciousness, almost as if it were someone else writing the words on the page?

Recently, I came across this video of Professor Charles Limb’s TED speech about how the brain functions during activities of improvisation. In his study, Dr. Limb observed the brain activity of jazz pianists and rappers as they played or spoke memorised music versus their brain activity during pure improvisation. What he found is that the part of the brain that handles personal identity and self-awareness received more blood flow during recitals of memorised pieces, but during improvisation, the flow of blood was redirected towards the “autobiographical” or “self-expressive” sections of the brain. While his study focused more on musicians’ improvisation, I found several of his results applicable to the writing process as well.

Pay particular attention to 8:40-9:05

In my personal experience, facing a blank page can be a pretty daunting prospect the majority of the time. If I don’t have any sort of plan of action, it is extremely difficult to essentially pull words out of my mind and put them on the page in any sort of meaningful fashion. However, there are some times, usually when I’m feeling relaxed or in a creative mood, where I don’t think about what I’m writing, and instead, once I get going, my subconscious– that ethereal sense of “other” we artists like to call our Muse– takes over.

Don't listen to the Inner Editor

Veterans of NaNoWriMo will often speak about silencing a demon affectionately called “the inner editor.” As writers, we write to communicate and somehow “get inside” the minds of our readers through our words. However, this intimacy between our minds– and souls– and those of our readers, can often spook us into paralysis:

“What if people don’t like what I’ve written?”

“What if they misunderstand what I’m saying?”

“This stuff SUCKS! Who do you think you’re trying to fool?”

“It has to be perfect before I’ll let anyone see this!”

All of this is the self-conscious part of our minds trying to protect us from a very harsh and unforgiving world. However, like we celebrated on Monday, it is a wonderful world, too, and even though there will always be naysayers, nothing extraordinary or paradigm-shifting was ever accomplished by those too afraid to risk failure. If we all huddled in the safety of our own existences without ever stretching beyond to that “other,” it would be a very depressing world indeed! In fact, I believe it is our vulnerability that gives us artists the power to touch others and share with them the wonder of our own experiences. In this way, we show them how wonderful the world is, but also how much more wonderful it could be.

The question is, then: How to “turn off” that nagging, self-critical part and open up to the disassociated subconscious part of ourselves? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question, and it’s something I struggle with all the time. On the upside, because there is no “right” answer, this just means that there are as many ways as there are artists!

Personally, I find it helpful to play music that suits my mood or the tone of the writing I’m working on at that point. This gives me the sense of being a spectator watching an epic movie unfolding on the screen as I, the writer, am creating it. Another thing I do sometimes is to take just a few moments before working on a particular piece and close my eyes to clear my mind. Then, I try to assume the perspective of one of the characters in the scene, in a sense becoming that person for the time being. This way, as I am writing, it feels more like the character is the one shaping his own destiny by acting out his own choices instead of “me” randomly making it up as I go along.

Surrendering to our subconscious is no easy task, but it is essential for producing natural, powerful writing. I think with practice, it becomes easier, though like any skill, it must be learned and developed.

Next week, we’ll talk more about this idea of “the Muse” and our subconscious, and how this ability to disassociate ourselves from our writing is helpful. How do you get into “the zone?” What are some of the things that cause your brain to shift into creative mode?