April 9, 2007

Wrestling the Muse

I woke up early one morning, this past week. I'm not sure if it had to do with whatever dreams were still loitering around, but a memory from childhood crashed into my brain and refused to move on. It wasn't even a memory, really, more a fragmented image, something stark, once forgotten, but now brought to the surface the way the ocean deposits strange and wonderful things on the beach during the night. I lay there, trying not to disturb my pregnant, lightly snoring wife, but I couldn't for the life of me shake the image. Nor could I return to sleep. So, I got up, put my robe on, went downstairs and brewed some green tea. Hot mug in hand, I sat down at my laptop and began to write.

The image itself is personal in many ways, a reference to those strange circumstances that neighbourhood boys find themselves in when no one is looking, innocent enough at first, but always hinting at something more, a self-awareness and awakening. From that image, and whatever fleeting associations I could still make with it, a fictional tale begin to emerge, something honest in its sentiment (at least when referring to the original memory) but well removed from what and how I usually write.

I vaguely remember my wife kissing my cheek as she went out the door to work, and the next time I looked up at the clock it was noon, more than five hours later. Sitting in front of me on my computer screen was the first draft of a short story, and a damn good one at that.

Later on, when I was out in the front garden planting bulbs, I thought about what would have happened if I had ignored the image and just forced myself to go back to sleep. What would I have missed? Would the story have returned at a later time? I doubt it. There have been other occasions where I've felt the muse nudging me in the ribs, waving an image or idea in front of my eyes. On those occasions, I ignored the thought and continued on with whatever I was doing, assuming I would remember later when I was at the computer. That never happened. In fact, I couldn't even conjure up the sentiment associated with the image. Not to say that each of those instances would have resulted in something profound, but there is something to be said for the notion of wasted potential.

Stephen King, whose short stories are often wonderful, mentioned in his book On Writing how he brings a notepad with him wherever he goes, precisely for this reason. You can refer to something you've jotted down and decide it's garbage at a later time, but you cannot revisit an image, thought, or idea that you've allowed to escape your grasp.

I'm not sure if I'm referring to the textbook definition of "muse" here. But, these moments are my muses. They scratch at me when I hear a certain phrase or sentence, witness people interacting in fascinating ways, or not interacting at all. All of it is empirical and I doubt I'm alone with this. Our senses constantly refer back to the archives in our minds, reminding us of things we thought forgotten, certain smells or sounds, words, touches. Most people take them for the nostalgic references they are, enjoying the quick memory but letting it fall away afterwards. For the writer, these moments are much more important. They are intimate glimpses of knowledge, catalysts for future stories and characters.

A part of it is discipline, making yourself take note of those musings that seem important, or at least potentially so. Another part of it is just being willing to listen when the whispers in your ear begin, those images that keep you awake or haunt your thoughts for periods of time. All this has made me wonder whether writer's block really exists, or if it is more a matter of being too distracted to listen. I suppose there are times when the call is too quiet, or infrequent. But we should at the very least be listening for it as often as we can.

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