Monday, January 11, 2010

Only Authors and Songsters Need Apply

by Sophie


My muses are other authors. They differ from project to project, but there are generally one or two in my mind as I write.

I know there are authors - a surprisingly high number - who do not read fiction while they are working on a book, because they are afraid that their voice will be infected or tainted. I don't see it that way. When an beloved author is in my mind, s/he is part coach, part demanding shift supervisor - but a large part just a sympathetic presence, sitting off to the side of my mind in a plain chair, "listening" as I type. I imagine this shadow author - my muse - wrinkling his brow when I'm stumped for a word, shaking his head with frustration when I delete a paragraph I've hacked to pieces, and occasionally giving me a triumphant grin when I hit a sentence out of the park.

(my imaginary muse chair looks like this)

I've recently wrapped up a project that was mostly a joy, but which gave me some fits there at the end, when a big chunk had to be rewritten several times. Various parts of the book were influenced by lots of different writers, ranging from Susan Wiggs to Dean Koontz. But at the main character's most intense moments, it was Jayne Anne Phillips who kept showing up to work a shift in the chair.

Now I love Phillips, but she is not to everyone's taste and she has been, frankly, quite freaky and occasionally scary in the decades that I've been reading her. I don't think we would be good friends. But she captures certain emotions better than anyone else I've ever read. I've never met her or heard her speak, and I don't know what she looks like, but in the unadorned imaginary chair that I keep for visiting muses in my mind, she sits slack, one black-booted foot stretched out in front of her. She's got long, long seventies hair, plain short nails, and a perpetually skeptical expression.

She's been sitting there all through these tough revisions and it's her approval I'm semi-consciously seeking, her expectations I don't wish to fail. There's a couple of scenes I got right - right enough that they really please me. I like to think they might please her too.

(OK, now I've made myself completely curious and I have to go see what she looks like. Well, what do you know.)

One more class of "muses" I must mention because they saved my ass over the weekend. I had to write a couple of synopses for the books that followed this project in the series - books I had no sense of at all. I did not know what happened to the characters. I didn't know how the series ended. I didn't understand what resolution would look like, or even what their main objectives were.

I thought I was well and truly cooked until I remembered the two songs that were in my head when I wrote page one. These songs defined the main character, in particular what was missing in her life and the thin thread by which she was hanging on. When I played them again, it became instantly clear to me what this character would do in Book Two, the desperate place that events would take her, before Book Three's story finally gave her the things that would make life rich again for her. These songs answered the questions "why are you sad" and "what would take you to the edge" and "what is your heart's true desire" - the very questions I needed to answer to complete her journey. And from there, everyone else's journey fell into place.

(the song-muses for this book were Pink and Sheryl)

Sometimes we talk about our muses going missing - a variant on writer's block, I suppose. In my experience they are never truly missing; we just need to let ourselves be aware of which one needs to be summoned in the moment.


Rachael Herron said...

Lovely. MIA muses = writer's block is an interesting idea, and summoning them back an even more interesting one. I think I need more of them.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Rachael I think the wonderful thing is that the more you bumble along, living and writing, the more they accumulate, pied-piper style...

Tom Neely said...

Hmmm... Just imagine if you could tell a songwriter about a situation or a character in a book and they could write a song about that very thing. It would be like dial-a-muse. Man, that would be one popular songster ;^)

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

I was first exposed to the term "muse" in Stephen King's "On Writing". It was a concept that I had a hard time grasping (little goblins will show up and help me write?) I did follow his advice of writing in the same quiet place whenever possible. Once I did this, the ideas started to flow. I guess my muse is my routine, and if I need motivation, I imagined S.K writing "Carrie" in run down, sweaty laundramat, or Fitzgerald holed up in his St. Paul house writing "This Side of Paradise" Like most, music sometimes provided the spark I needed for a particular scene. "Mistral Wind" by Heart is one of many that helped along the way.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Hey, I thought *I* was your muse ;-)