My muse stalks me. She is always dropping ideas, concepts, and images into my brain. More often than not, I don’t pay attention. At times, I say “aha!” but I fail to capture the bits that give me goose bumps. But as I’ve grown as a writer, with a particular eye to being more productive, I’ve gotten better at claiming these gifts.
They can come to me at any time, but they typically arrive in dreams (rich in images), good conversations (which generate unexpected ideas), disorienting experiences, and disasters that force me to improvise (both of which challenge my perspective, often in wrenching ways).
Here are my guiding principles:
· At ease – I give myself permission to be in the moment, especially when I am in distinct situations that are not likely to be repeated. When I visit a strange place. When I get into a conversation with or see the actions of someone who is eccentric or strong-willed. When I have one of those moments in a relationship when there is a surprise or a big decision is made.
· On notice – I usually pick up the narrative of my life. I can tell you what happened and why it interested me. But I often have to remind myself to pay attention to the five senses and my emotional state. Not only are these valuable additions to any story, but they also help put me back into the moment, deepening my recall of the experience.
· In words – I write down my observations in complete sentences (a tip found in Ray Bradbury’s advice to writers). This is wonderfully helpful in saving the time lost in trying to figure out what I meant when I jotted down single words.
· In time – Getting things down why they are still fresh is essential. Much of the best the muse offers comes as smoke that is carried away by the slightest breeze. So getting to work without excuses (of course I’ll remember later) is an essential discipline. (Applying the experience immediately is usually a bad idea. Bad experiences, in particular, need to age and change shape over weeks, months, and even years.)
Most writers are obsessive about gathering notes. Some transcribe overheard conversations. Some keep journals. Some are obsessive picture-takers. When these gifts of the muse are regularly gathered, put into shape, and filed in a retrievable fashion, you have a resource to draw upon whenever there is a dry spell or a hole in a story that needs to be filled. Best of all, the habits of effective observation build over time, making it possible for you to see things other people can’t and to make connections that add spark to your work.