Tag Archives: inspiration

Muse Hunting

3 lists you need to get creative

author with a bust of Hans Christian Anderson in Solvang

Musing… with Hans Christian Anderson

You’re supposed to be writing.

Or making art.

You’re supposed to be being productive, anyway.

What’s happened? Cat got your brain cells?

We’ve got plenty of “shoulds” in our lives. There are self-imposed shoulds, like, “I should get up earlier” (I dislike this one). There are work-
imposed shoulds, such as, “I have a deadline today at 5pm.” There are creative shoulds, similar to this one: “I haven’t made any time to shoot pictures this week. I should really do that.”

Some shoulds are more demanding than others. We could say those shoulds have PRIORITY. That doesn’t make them any easier to accomplish than the lower-priority shoulds. In fact, sometimes that makes them harder. Or it brings out our inner five-year-old, who JUST DOESN’T WANNA!

Is today such a day for you?

For those of us in chase of the muse, I have put together the following three lists of necessities for muse hunting. Fear not. They aren’t long. Just like you can’t bake a cake without flour (I’m not saying the flour has to have gluten in it), you won’t be able to get a handle on the muse without the following ingredients. Some of the items are commonplace and easy to procure. Others may be more esoteric. These lists are NOT exhaustive. How long do you want this blog post to be?

The three lists correspond to three categories: The Tangibles, The Intangibles, and The Physique. We would be wise to think in three dimensions when hunting the muse.

Here goes.


Category 1: The Tangibles
Yes, we can touch these. No hunter or gatherer (on Earth, anyway) gets dinner by sitting in a corner to meditate. Likewise, you won’t catch the muse without

  • a pen, a pencil, a piece of paper, a camera, a paintbrush, or a computer — I mean, hello!
  • a club (thank you, Jack London)
  • a better mousetrap
  • peanut butter/chocolate/wine/cheese/cookies/Chinese food or Your Consumable of Choice
  • space — to pace around in
  • a floor — to lie on when it’s just NOT WORKING
  • the ceiling — to stare at while you’re on the floor
  • curtains — so your neighbors can’t see you dancing around in your pajamas or underwear
  • pajamas and/or underwear
  • bait. With what can we tempt the muse?

Category 2: The Intangibles
We’re not going to be successful hunters without the right attitude. Haven’t you watched enough football movies? Anybody can hold a pencil or lie on the floor. To corner the muse and truly make her ours we also need

  • time — yes, precious!
  • a closed door — do not open it. It does not lead to the castle at the center of the labyrinth.
  • a deadline — an actual one. When you miss it, you experience physical consequences. Heartburn is a physical consequence.
  • a sense of humor
  • wit
  • cunning
  • recklessness — no muse ever cared for a safe harbor
  • a willingness to get dirty
  • a flair for the dramatic
  • selfishness — MY muse, MINE!

Category 3: The Physique
All winners train. The muse doesn’t walk up to slackers and tap them on the head. The muse wants your blood, sweat, and tears. Deliver by trying some of these

  • a walk or a run
  • yoga or tai chi
  • gardening
  • cleaning out the basement
  • throwing a temper tantrum
  • washing your car
  • washing your friend’s car
  • playing with the dog and/or cat
  • dancing — which you can do with the aforementioned curtains open or closed
  • yelling, singing, or caterwauling — alone or in chorus

What have I left off the lists? What unusual sources have you visited to find your muse-hunting tools? Let me know in the comments.

Happy hunting!

How not reading (and drawing, instead) helped my writing

or: Why you might not need to be a Good Reader to be a Good Writer

wall of art supplies and colored pastels

Add color to your life.
“Jacksons Drawing Supplies” CC image courtesy of Smallest Forest on Flickr.

You know what’s helped me do a lot more writing in recent weeks?


You know what else?

Not reading.

Also: going to the art supply store, visiting a photography exhibit, planning a DIY project to fix two of my chairs, and signing up for a voice and speech class.

Without planning it, I’ve begun bashing out 1,000 words or more a day — and without restricting myself to which piece I add the 1,000 words, I’ve watched at least three different projects grow. I’ve jotted a ton of creative riffs in my notebook and even… shocker… started keeping a journal again.

But this doesn’t make sense! I was contraverting one of the Golden Rules of Writing, which is: read! You can’t be a Good Writer without it, so the maxim goes. But sometimes, reading can get in the way.

It can be a crutch. We can use it as a distraction.

At least, I did.

So for a week, at the suggestion of the amazing book, The Artist’s Way, I didn’t do it. I didn’t read.

It was frustrating as all hell. I curtailed my emailing and my tweeting, and I didn’t allow myself to listen to podcasts or music when I got annoyed about something that I couldn’t read. I didn’t watch Hulu.

But what really floored me was the drawing thing.

Now, to quote Dickens: “Marley was dead as a doornail. This must be understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.”

And my inner artist was dead as a doornail.

When I was a little kid, it’s true, I loved to draw, and I was always trying to get better. I wasn’t good at it, you see; I could tell that what I was drawing didn’t match the vision in my head. Still, that didn’t stop me, for years, from making daily pilgrimages to the back of my parents’ backyard every spring, to check on the progress of the crocuses coming up… and to sketch their daily progress.

What I really wanted was to catch them at the magical moment the buds appeared… or when the petals began to open. But somehow, I always missed that moment.

I haven’t drawn for twenty years: from the point I decided I should stop wasting my time and money taking art classes, because I would never be any good.

Before I did my reading deprivation week, I went to an art supply store. It was an idea I resisted. Going felt presumptuous and scary. I went because The Artist’s Way said so, and I was desperate. I hadn’t been to an art supply store in years. Those are for artists. What would I be doing there?

Yet I found myself in front of an array of sketchbooks, itching to get one.

Within a few weeks, I was at a park… with the 14” by 17” sketchbook I had bought (classic cream), a mechanical pencil and an eraser.

I, the non-artist, the one who couldn’t draw, was drawing a landscape.

I was there for over an hour. I think. I lost track of the time. It was windy, and cloudy, and my hands were going numb by the time I left. I had to clutch the edges of the notebook in a death grip so that the pages wouldn’t go flying all over the place. (Note to self: acquire large art clip(s).) I had my hood up so my hair wouldn’t block my view. I did a LOT of erasing. The page got smudged with charcoal, creased by wind. I gnarfed at each new gust with animal obstinacy.

reflecting pool at botanic gardens

Reflecting pool © AOC. All rights reserved.

I couldn’t wait to go home and write about it. After I did a little more drawing, of course.

When I came up for air and looked at the image, whole, I caught myself thinking: Hey, that’s pretty good!

This was revolutionary.  I’d been telling myself for at least two decades how much I sucked as an artist. Now, I was plotting to get out and sketch a few days a week?

Yes, I absolutely had to get home and write about that.


== ==

Have any of you ever tried reading deprivation? What types of non-writing activities have inspired you to write?

Stop and smell the goose poop

Or, finding appreciation in unexpected places

Sometimes it’s time to stop and step in the goose poop.

That’s what I did a couple of days ago.

Canadian geese on a meadow

“Geese” CC image courtesy of Martin Weller on Flickr. Noncommercial license.

I needed to get out of the house. There comes a point every day where I go stir crazy. Not mildly stir crazy. Not something that five minutes’ stroll around the block will cure. But mountain-climbing-sweating-like-a-buffalo-running-5K-with-no-warmup crazy.

By that point in the day — and it seems to arrive about the same time every day — I’ve been working on the computer for hours. It might be for a client or it might be my own writing… or I might’ve procrastinated all day on social media, compulsively following one interesting link to the next.

The onset is usually sudden. One moment, I’m hunched over the table, nose inches from the computer monitor — atrocious posture is a good sign that things need to change — the next, I’m literally pacing my apartment, fantasizing about sprinting through the city streets.

Then it dawns on me that I could solve everything if I just Got Outside.

Thus it is I found myself Outside at Sloan Lake in Northwest Denver last week. Like most Denver city parks I’ve seen, Sloan Lake has been appropriated by hordes of Canadian geese. And they’ve left many mementos of their presence.

Many Canadian geese in winter park

“Geese” CC image courtesy of Overduebook on Flickr. Attribution license.

The last time I remember seeing this many geese in one place was at the county park in New Jersey where my high school track team trained. A paved path made up the outside perimeter of the park, shaped like a sloppy figure eight. Inside each loop was a large grassy area. The inside of the south loop was essentially one big meadow, but the north loop featured a number of sports fields: the de facto soccer pitches, a baseball diamond and field, the throwing cage and field for discus and javelin, the 400 meter track. The geese came in large numbers in the winter, and then they seemed never to leave. Long before experts decided to reclassify the Canadian goose as a non-migratory bird, those of us on the track team were well aware of their sedentary ways.

So it is at Sloan Lake.

The circuit around the lake is a paved walkway. On either side of the walkway, winter-deadened grass an indeterminate color somewhere between yellow, beige, and brown spans the grounds of the park. It is the perfect color for goose poop camouflage.

Generally, I prefer running on unpaved surfaces because it’s nicer on the joints. However, the advantage to the walkway at Sloan Lake is that it’s possible to ascertain where the goose poop is, and whether or not you are stepping in it. Usually you are… the walkway is a veritable minefield. But it’s where I started, in a vain effort to keep the bottoms of my shoes poop-free.

The area around the lake affords park visitors a clear view to the Rocky Mountains. In between dodging little green-brown-yellow minefields, I noticed that clouds were spreading in a bank above the peaks, although the rest of the sky was cloudless. The sun was low, first behind the clouds and then dipping behind the mountains, which became mere silhouettes. I kept losing my pace because I had to turn my head and look. The light was transparent and yet gold at the same time, and the frozen lake was very blue. Some geese had settled on an open stretch of water to the west, and they looked serene, even appropriate.

As I completed my circuit on the eastern shore, I looked back across the snowy landscape to the dusk coming down from the mountains. The clouds separated two identical color sequences above the tops of the highest peaks: mountains, gold, pink, blue; clouds, gold, pink, blue.

A cacophony of honking and the squeak of wings behind me heralded a flyover. I turned and ducked, afraid that at least one of them would go potty as they passed overhead. Instead, they flew past me without incident and curved out over the lake, in a long line from north to south, easily more than 50 birds together. They became a dark band against the bluing western sky as they went, an eyebrow between the lake and the clouds. The honking and creaking faded, and I was left with a feeling of joy in their passing, their being there at that moment, the way they graced the sky — truly in their element.

That was worth stepping in some goose poop.

=== ===

Do you ever feel a sudden need to change your surroundings?  What unexpected beautiful things did you discover as you went?

housing development

Why I don’t like story outlines

(or planned communities, for that matter)

I lived in Colorado Springs for a few months when I first arrived in Colorado. I didn’t know anyone when I arrived. I had orchestrated my place to live through email and Skype, and had a few names of friends of friends that I could contact. But I was On My Own.

housing development

like a giant cornfield… image courtesy of GeekPhilosopher.com

I arrived a little over two weeks prior to the Super Bowl. Despite being a total newcomer to the area, I found myself partaking in the festive American ritual of The Party, courtesy of one of these friends of friends. It was located in the far-flung northeastern corner of the Springs, north of the Air Force Base, in one of the many housing developments that characterize most of the Springs’ residential arrangement.

For those who have never been, Colorado Springs roads are characterized by quite a few large, north-south routes on either side of I-25, and only a few good connections east-west, topography creating a bit of a road building challenge which results in bottlenecks. There is a compact downtown, and a small historic district called Old Colorado City (which was once a separate town), but most of the rest of it looks like a template for Suburbia.

Heading out to the party, making my awkward west-east connections, I drove past housing developments and strip malls. These followed a steady rhythm internally as well as externally. Neighborhoods often had limited entry and exit points via main roads; the web of streets within the neighborhood featured houses that were in many ways very similar to each other; sometimes there was a walking path nearby; sometimes there was a park in the area; in order to visit this park (if applicable) or any kind of store, residents needed to get in the car and drive to a parking lot or one of the strip malls or store groupings concentrated around a big-box mega-center such as Target. Each neighborhood functioned as an entirely discrete unit, which, however, was strangely isolated from practical things like corner stores, gas stations, and parks.

My Super Bowl party hosts lived in a development situated on a bit of a rise. Coming in from the main road, I was granted a vista to the west, where the sun was slowly setting, glinting over a sea of roofs which looked, from this distance, like the interchangeable pieces of a Monopoly set. Indeed, despite the red twinkle indicating storefronts for various malls, it looked like one enormous, homogeneous neighborhood. I was reminded of the overhead shots during the opening credits of the series Weeds.

It got me thinking. About planning and an adherence to logic and order. About variations on a theme (think music, the visual arts), and what makes some variations more pleasing than others. About organic growth (not like in your garden), and checklists.

I don’t want to get into a discussion on the relative merits and drawbacks of planned living communities, since that’s not the focus of this blog, but I do see a connection between this type of reliance on planning in the physical world of infrastructure, and in fact within companies, and planned art.

Almost everyone that has set out to tell (write) a story, whether short or long, at one point probably considers the question: would it be wise/profitable/advantageous/required/etc to have an outline, a sort of blueprint, so that I have a basic idea of where I’m going and can make sense of the act of getting there?

And in fact there can be many pros. The more complex the subject is, or the greater the number of characters, or the longer the story is, the more helpful it can be to have a kind of cheat sheet for organizing our thoughts. But in my experience, the difficulty is then in keeping this cheat sheet in its proper place. Because it can become very tyrannical. No, so-and-so is supposed to be here at this particular time, and he has to feel this way about this, otherwise we’ll lose the whole plot…

And then it seems to be inevitable that just a little farther down the road, the story gets really hard. It’s like a three-year-old in the supermarket, throwing a tantrum.  It doesn’t like anything I’m suggesting, the characters are in a torpor (“Hey, you tell me where we’re going!”), and, despite the fact that there’s a Plan in place, nothing makes any sense anymore.

Know the feeling?

Every time I try to plan something, it doesn’t work out. The story withers on the vine and calcifies. I can water it as much as I want; it’s not going to bloom. But the outline was so logical! It was meant to help me out. What’s going on here?

Good stories, in my experience, have a life of their own (this is what I mean by organic). The problem with outlines is that they often act like the bait on a spring-loaded trap, which when I reach for it, drops an iron cage over the lush garden of the story with a sign mounted on it: Caution! Agenda at Work! And then I can’t get at any of the plants. I can’t prune what needs pruning, and uproot the weeds. And I sure can’t plant anything new.

I think in the Springs they were mostly overtaken by the growth in the population and the need to provide housing. I surmise there was an army of planners requiring X type of services for Y number of people, and that there was a budget. But I couldn’t help regretting the loss of an actual neighborhood. With a corner store that I can walk to, to buy a sandwich and a newspaper.

That’s the dangerous thing about having story outline, in my view. It becomes the budget; it becomes a checklist of requirements. Blueprints are great for many things. But they don’t leave a lot of room for new stuff.

An Artistic Statement for Writers Part 2

Feeding the Roots

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the absence of information I was able to find about creating artistic statements for writers. This week, I’d like to offer my own thoughts on why this might be, why I think it’s important for writers to create one anyway, and ideas for scaffolding this tool.

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Artistic statements for writers are treated differently than artistic statements for visual artists. Visual artists are advised to create their artistic statement around a body of work — if not their whole oeuvre, then a distinct, thematically-linked portion. Writers are encouraged to create an artistic statement for a small, specific purpose: a particular project, or an application for a literary grant.

I agree with the usefulness of creating a unique statement for literary grant applications, but it is not the same thing as the artistic statement is for visual arts. Visual artists create artistic statements for public purposes: gallery exhibitions, portfolio preparation. Writers, if they do create artistic statements separately from individual applications, may do so from a more private desire to conceptualize a particular writing project for themselves.

While I think that’s useful, we writers are cheating ourselves if we never create an artistic statement that addresses the totality of our relationship with our art. Writing is a process of discovery — of ourselves, as well as our characters or our topics — which can only make our future writing better. I got some fascinating insights about my vision by creating my own artistic statement — although it was never meant for public consumption.

The bonus for creating a writer’s artistic statement is that we can poach that language for many other materials: personal websites, event bios, press releases, and so on.

A writer’s artistic statement is about vision. Visual artists have to drill down with words.  Writers need to get words to coalesce into something bigger.

What about you? Have you got a vision? How do you know?

Ideas for scaffolding an artistic statement for a writer: feeding the roots

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I like Natalie Goldberg’s analogy of good writing as composting. It involves the mingling and enriching of disparate-seeming ideas over time. The first thing to do, therefore, is brainstorm.

I’ve shamelessly stolen a lot of the structure of the following from Molly Gordon. The questions about writing are my own.

Take a few minutes and think about why you write. How did you get into writing? How do you feel when work is going well? What are your favorite things about your work? Jot down short phrases that capture your thoughts. Don’t worry about making sense or connections. Use a pen. Don’t delete, cross out, or throw out that sheet of paper to start fresh (in other words: no editing!).

Next, make a list of words and phrases that communicate your feelings about your work and your values. Include words you like, words that make you feel good, words that communicate your values or fascinations. Be loose. Be happy. Be real. These are all potential compost ingredients. It’s no time to be selective.

Continue your exploration by answering these questions as simply as you can. We’re not editing yet — let it all hang out:

What is your favorite genre? Why?
Do you ever play with other genres? Why?
Do you like to begin your work from a grand idea? from a small detail? from a character/person? from place? Why?
Do you prefer to write long-hand or using a computer? Do you use a digital recorder and transcribe thoughts and notes? Why?
What do you do differently from the way you were taught? Why?
What inspires you?
What patterns emerge from your work?
What do you like best about what you do?
What do you mean when you say that a project has turned out really well?

Go back to your word list. Add new words suggested by your answers to the questions above.

Choose two key words from your list. Look them up in a dictionary. Read the definitions, and copy them, thinking about what they have in common. Look your words up in a thesaurus. Read the entries related to your words. Are there any new words that should be added to your list?

Write five sentences about your relationship to your work. Be truthful. How do you feel when your work is going well? How do you start? How do you know a piece is done?  What do you want your readers to experience?

Take as much time as you need to brainstorm. To get good dirt, you’ve got to add a lot of material and keep turning it over. If you’re patient, it’ll do all the work for you.

Can you smell it? What are some words that you love?