The Writing Muse: Patience

This is the fourth post in a series I started back in January 2012. You can read the first three by following these links: Pain and Illness, Dreams and Fear.

When you think about writers coming up with ideas for stories, you might think that the muse strikes like a bolt of lightning—out of a blue sky, with no forewarning. Sometimes it does. Your brain just pulls it out of the ether, absorbs the shock, and orders you to sit down and write this idea out before it gets away. Those are good days.

But sometimes the muse requires a great deal of patience. Something in the back of your mind squeaks like a mouse inside a wall, and the harder you try to find it, the deeper it crawls. After a day or two, or maybe a month, it pops its head back out, and you can finally see a scene—perhaps the porch of a small cottage. A few days later, a character walks into the foreground, and stands there, waiting for… what? A few days or weeks go by, and you realize that the character now has clothes on, from the 19th century. You never noticed they were naked before, and they probably weren’t, but you hadn’t noticed what they were wearing. But now, in that outfit, they look more complete. They have a context. They’re part of something bigger.

And then, one day, you see something on their shirt. Is that blood? Where did that come from? Is it new? It looks rather red, not dark and dried like an old wound. Is it a bullet hole? A stab wound? Is it even theirs?

The story evolves slowly in your head, and the things that once were not even in the picture, become accepted as fact as the rest of the image—and the rest of the story evolve. There had been no story when you started… just that single image. Patience filled in the details, and wove the threads that could not have been forced by any other loom.

I’ve written stories that started out from a single image. I often dove right into writing them, thinking they were more than they were. After a few paragraphs, or a few pages, I discovered that the image wasn’t enough to sustain the flow. I needed to give the muse time to works its magic. Patience, powered the muse—became the muse.

Sometimes a writer wants to sit down and write so badly because that’s what they should be doing, day after day. Someone, somewhere along the way, told them to write every day, and if they don’t, they’ll lose the ability to spell or to form full sentences. I think the opposite is true at times. Sitting down before the story is ready to be told can be as counterproductive as not writing for an extended period of time. It’s easy to grow frustrated with the scene or the setting or the character, and lose the drive to write from trying to push a square peg into a round hole. For me, the frustration of trying to force a story that is not ready is so much worse than not writing at all.

I keep a Microsoft OneNote file of every story / scene idea I ever think of, even if they are horrible, just to make sure I don’t somehow forget about them. Periodically, I glance back at them to see if they still resonate. Sometimes they do, and it’s time to add more details. Other times, they just need a little longer to sit. Some will rise and become stories. Others will sit forever. I’m okay with that.

When I’ve gone a while without the muse striking me with one of those sudden jolts, I just remember that the patient muse is always working in the background, and sooner or later, it’ll tell me it’s time to get back to work.

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