QUESTION OF THE MONTH

What can I do with my fickle muse?

Over the years I have developed a number of activities to get writing again when inspiration has fled. Automatic writing — writing down anything and everything that comes into my thoughts — sometimes works. Listening to classical music or jazz while reading inspirational poetry often sparks my imagination. I’ve watched a fire burn, a stream flow, taken a walk in the desert or forest, laid down on the grass and studied shapes of clouds on a warm summer afternoon, and stargazed at night. I’ve left a story completely and came back later. All of these strategies helped get pen to paper once again.

However, I recently experienced a twist of the capricious nature of my muse. I was working on a novel that has been rattling around in my intentions for many many years but the plot never wanted to come together, was never quite right. The story line kept changing. I’d started on it several times over the years only to abandon it after many pages when the idea turned stupid. This past fall my muse insisted that I start writing on the novel again. She reminded me “You are not getting any younger and you need to tell this story.” So I got busy on the plot and chapter outline. I had three great characters in mind and was introducing and developing their personalities one at a time while introducing symbolic threads I could later pull through the events I had planned for my story. I was in the middle of chapter three, maybe on page thirty-five or forty of the novel, when the muse turned perverse. She changed her mind. Another story started tumbling out of my imagination.

The second story is related to the novel in a round-about way but is more personal, a memoir. The main focus of the memoir makes the novel seem trivial, almost ridiculous by comparison and demands to be written first. So I set the novel aside and started working on the memoir. It has been building steadily since. I’m averaging about a page a day, which is great for me, I don’t normally produce that much. I have nearly one hundred pages of memoir and haven’t even gotten to developing an outline or chapter breakdown yet. The story is raw material running steadily from my mind to my fingertips to my word processor.

Some writers say, “I am going to write a story and A, B, and C is going to happen.” I can’t do that. I don’t know what is going to occur in a story until I write it. At this point I’m not sure if, when I finish the memoir, I will return to the novel or not. Maybe I had to write that novel outline and three chapters to reach the point where I need to be mentally to write the memoir. Or maybe the memoir will turn out to be personal baggage related to the subject of the novel that I have to work through in order to write the novel with a clear focus. Maybe the memoir is going to integrate itself into the novel, somehow. I do not know. I’ll figure that out when I get to the other end of these narratives.

Right now I have two stories in progress. And although my muse is fickle, as long as she is talking to me I am taking dictation.

Dixie Thomas Reale

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