Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Visit from the Muse

By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2003, Margaret McGaffey Fisk

riters have an indefinable ability to find stories in what they see, hear, experience and imagine.  This has historically been considered a product of some external force, as if people could not be so creative on their own.  Greek mythology includes nine muses who are responsible for all creative endeavors.  These sisters had the power both to inspire and to remove the ability for creative thought.  Many writers credit their muses with the spark that makes a creative work move beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Though I doubt that many writers still believe their inspiration is external, the term 'muse' is in common use.  I feel the muse is the part of writers that maintains an awareness of our environment beyond the level of most people.  Anything can be a source of story ideas, no matter how large or small.  It may be a fragment of a conversation, the way the light falls on a tree's leaves, how a wine tastes or the caress of a fabric on your fingers.

Writers use their senses to absorb information, both passively and actively.  You may be scooting your chair backwards just a little bit while jotting notes on the conversation behind you or you may be talking with a friend and catching occasional words from a loud gentleman behind you.  The same can happen with touch, smell, sight, taste and emotion (not quite the sixth sense but a valid source of inspiration).  Whether or not you are consciously aware, as a writer, you are taking in what happens around you.  The phrase "in one ear and out the other" does not really apply to writers.  Instead, it goes more like "in one ear and disappeared into the black hole of the mind until needed."  The information may not be used soon, or ever, but hidden beneath a writer's thoughts is a pool of images, ideas and fragments that surface when needed to form the stories that delight readers.

Inspirational sources that I have used as a writer -- often without conscious awareness -- include everything from something as simple as boredom during a long car ride to something as complex as research for a book. 

If your muse has deserted you, there are ways to encourage the muse to come back, but sometimes the best way is to put yourself in the way of ideas.  Rather than wrestling your muse to the ground and forcing inspiration to come to you, go to it.  Lay yourself across the muse train track.  Overwhelming writers with ideas is a favorite game the muses play.

Inspiration comes in various forms.  Each writer has ways to contact their muse.  People often ask about creative thought as if this is a mysterious event that waits for the stars to align.  In reality, there are many ways to receive and even seek ideas.

Reading, especially when the text is being studied, is a very good source of ideas.  Whether you want to see if you could handle an idea better than the author, or if an image or concept catches your fancy, reading can provide a bounty of ideas.  I took a course on John Milton and we read "Paradise Lost."  While others were groaning at the difficult language, I was caught by the way Satan was described.

This book was read to children instead of the Bible and yet, for the first half of the book, Satan was a victim of God who tossed him away the minute Jesus came along.  The portrayal inspired me, and Milton became my muse for a not-so-short story called "Out of Chaos" that later became a novel.

Ideas can be generated by research for school papers, another short story or novel, or for any reason.  For example, if you are researching metal working techniques for a world history paper, you may gather enough information to inspire a piece about a blacksmith.

This happened to me when researching nuclear power for "Out of Chaos."  After reading about radiation and seeing a news program about a man with more tumors than previously thought possible, I was forced out of my warm bed to spend two hours at the computer.  In a hushed voice, I spilled the story of a woman dying from tumors all over her body into my voice recognition program.

Strange connections act as sources when ideas or experiences bubble up out of that black hole of knowledge writers have deep inside them.  I went to a taicho drum concert.  The lead musician, Kitaro, had a beautiful curtain of inky black hair that added a visual effect to the concert.  A few weeks later, Kitaro's hair appeared in a novel I was writing.  One of my lead characters, Rachel, liked his long black hair so much she chased him down on the street.

The book I completed for my senior thesis was inspired by a friend's anthropology assignment to create a society where gender was defined differently.  This idea melded in my mind with a nature show that I probably saw when I was 10 or younger.  Images surfaced of insects that were born with an already fertilized egg inside them.  The combination of a different society and the insects sparked a story idea of an all-woman culture where each child is born pregnant, except for my main character.

Your family also can be sources of both story ideas and the details necessary to make another time come alive to your readers.  I grew up on my father's tales of a dragon named Cream Puff.  When it became my turn, I invented the tales of Darbo and Henrietta, two young dragons with growing pains.

Muse generators are another source.  I had always considered them artificial and not something that would work for me.  That impression changed when I decided to push myself and joined a challenge on the Forward Motion site.  Using the first generator listed below, I managed to write 20 short stories in a month, more than I had in the previous ten.  The assistance they offer is to spark an idea that may or may not reflect the information from the generator.  By providing critical elements, they force you to drag thoughts and images from your own muse generator that is locked in your mind.

The generators listed below are ones I found on a simple Web search.  I have not used them all, but they provide different approaches to the same concept: given enough interesting elements, a writer will find a story.

While dreams can be inspiring, they are often not the sources of the ideas. While you are sleeping, your mind is working hard to understand and categorize what you have experienced during the day.  Therefore, dreams are processing the true sources, whether or not you are ever able to connect the dream to the original stimulus.

Dreams of walking naked into your final exam have obvious roots in your exam stress and are so common they don't often provide fodder for unique short stories or novels.  However, the more complex the dream, the more likely it is to find a good idea hiding out.  I have a novel planned that retells a nightmare I had.  Before I could force myself to wake up, I had reached the end.  I came out of it with the characters, the confrontation and resulting conflict and even an ending right out of the first Alien movie.  It's not high on my list since I don't tend to write horror, but I got enough world building to make it viable.

There are many more sources for inspiration than I've listed here, but if you are looking for some ways to find ideas, these should help get you started.  However, ideas are a dime a dozen and cannot, in themselves, move you forward as a writer.

To become a writer, or break through writer's block, you must take the next steps: set some goals, challenge yourself, and even join a writers' group.  There are many resources available to teach writing but the basic requirement is to write.  The next time an idea grabs you or your mind links two different things, take up a pen and paper; your muse has something it wants to tell the world.

Milton: Paradise Lost (2nd Edition)

By John Milton, Alastair Fowler

Publisher: Addison-Wesley Pub Co; 2nd edition

ISBN: 0582215188