Sunday, August 15, 2010

Keeping the muse guessing

I'm someone who prepares to be motivated. I compile notes. I read weird, hopefully illuminating books, and when I go strange places I make myself stay up late/wake up early to write poem after poem. This is a lucrative process, and I often come back from trips/vacations with four or five newly-written pieces that are better than the twenty or thirty I wrote in the months before I left. Admittedly, I probably pillaged an old draft or two, but these are often substantively new works in their finished states.

I don't think this is uncommon--most people seem to be inspired by new stimuli/information/etc. If you've had this invigorating experience, you probably also know the desperate after-effects, when you come back: there are still more poems that you are inspired to write, but you never know when this special energy is going to run out. You might even try to fake it with similar subject matter or syntax or whatever your trick is, but at some point you just can't fool the muse.

So here's what I'm wondering: how do you keep the muse going longer than it should? Any particularly effective tricks? Or is it blasphemy to even try to inspire yourself, having been so inspired?


  1. I like how you fram this Josh, as if the muse is a kind of instinctual trigger that you can deceive in much the same way Pavlov trained his dogs. Not that this has anything to do with that unless you too use a bell to signal Calliope...

    At any rate, I think training the muse is really important if you want to have power over your process. Of course, you need to concede some amount of inspiration and composition to the happenstance nature of creating art, but that is given. The trick is seeing how much you can consciously train yourself to do an activity which originates in the unconscious mind.

    It sounds like you have more control over your process than I over mine. I think I do a lot of the same things actually: I love to travel and find it inspirational, and I do pursue other material in book and (increasingly) in film to push me to write. For me, though it is a delayed process...I need to digest it longer, like a crocodile.

    Interesting stuff, I hope more people enter into the discussion!

  2. I don't think what you are talking about has ever happened to me. I just don't have bursts of creative energy like that. My process is slow and plodding.

    I work every day for one and a half to two hours, starting around 5:30 in the morning. Sometimes I get a couple of pages, sometimes I only get a paragraph. I do work for hours outside of this timeframe if I'm desperate in some way (like if a story is due for class), but it is always very difficult for me to do that.

    I would love to experience the kind of inspiration you are talking about, but it just really isn't part of my process.

  3. Tory, there's a title in that (ringing the bell for Calliope!), and I thank you for suggesting it.

    I wouldn't say I have much control--I feel more like a prisoner who gets hungry right before he'd fed, at the same time every day. And thinks that's a kind of liberty. Only instead of every day it's on those rare occasions when I can get a new perspective on the world.

    I think that sentence nails it, though: "train yourself to do an activity which originates in the unconscious mind."

    Jennifer, that work ethic is admirable. I've tried it, and I just don't have the patience with myself (maybe if the writing was better, on average, instead of so hit or miss).

    I wonder if it's really a major divide between poets and fiction writers, in terms of bursts of spontaneous creation, or if there's really little difference on the whole (just people on both sides).

    And yeah, I think it has to be part of the process to begin with, to end up part of the process (it's how I first wrote good poems, I mean, that I write the good ones that way now.)

  4. I'm the complete opposite if this. I rarely write about vacation locales until years after when I have processed it. For me the moment of inspiration is rare and usually so fleeting that I only receive an image which I then write down to work in later after I've had time to ruminate on it :)

  5. The closest experience I've had to what you are describing Josh is when I came back from the week-long Cave Canem Poetry retreat this summer. While there I was responsible for churning out a new poem every 24 hours for workshop. I had a hard time with that. I can write every day but not write for other people's eyes every day! The crazy thing was on my 5 hour drive home alone, new poems were literally pouring out of me. I had to record them on my cell phone while I drove. When I got home I was afraid for the feeling to go away. I shut of my cell phone, didn't turn on the internet and I wrote for 6 hours while the inspiration was still brewing. I think I wrote 5 poems in that time. Mostly about my experiences over that week. It was amazing! For me to keep the inspiration going, I had to cut off communication with the outside world and just stay in it, I think. I pretended I wasn't home yet and didn't consider myself home until I got all of those poems out.

  6. I've had experiences like Josh and JayTee mentioned, generally related to traveling or a particularly interesting conversation, times when I'll end up with three or four complete poems in rapid succession. In terms of tricking or training the muse, the best I can do is know what inspires me and seek it out as much as possible.

    I've never been able to write on a schedule, either poetry or nonfiction. I do know poets who write every day though, so I'm not sure it's a genre difference, though to me it seems like it might be a more likely tactic for people whose projects tend to be longer (i.e. if you're writing a novel or a full-length memoir, it might be easier to work on the same thing every day, whereas poems often seem so separate, and like JayTee said, difficult to come up with something new and good every single day).


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