Therese here. Today’s guest is someone you’ll see here again. Lisa Cron has written a fantastic new craft book for writers called Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, available in July. I’ve had the chance to peruse an advance copy of Lisa’s book, and I can tell you that it’s gold. Truly. Lisa knows of what she speaks, having spent a decade in the publishing industry (W.W. Norton and John Muir Publications) before working as a story consultant and producer for TV (e.g. Showtime) and some prestigious literary agencies (e.g. William Morris Agency). Lisa has also been an instructor through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program for the last five years. Said the UCLA Film School Screenwriting Chairman, Richard Walter, of Lisa, “Lisa Cron is every serious writer’s dream: a source of caring, candid, capable, creative support. Since she is herself also a writer she brings not merely an analytical and intellectual perspective–though she provides that too–but the essential hands-on, insider’s view that belongs to practitioners alone.”
I’m thrilled she’s with us today to talk about the most mercurial of all writerly imaginings: the muse itself. Enjoy!
Unmasking the Muse
Writers are often led to believe that the muse is responsible for unleashing, not to mention guiding, their creativity. They’re told to tap into the force, write down to the bone, court the muse for all they’re worth, and if they’re lucky, the notoriously capricious muse will speak through them and bring their prose to life. I call it The Myth of the Muse. Because it’s flat-out wrong, and undermines writers at every turn.
We’re all well aware of the myth of the muse. It holds that writing is the prevue of unbridled, unquestioned creativity, and that inspiration comes from some mysterious, external source over which we have no real control. It’s no surprise that inspiration literally means “breathed upon.” Thus the gift of the muse, often vaguely defined as “having a way with words,” is something one receives rather than what one strives for. It’s the muse who magically spins straw into gold, who by breathing on the writer’s prose, brings it to life, as a story. And if a writer loses touch with her muse? Too bad, so sad.
In other words, the myth of the muse encourages writers to fly blind. To write whatever is in their heart, and somehow the muse will transform it into a story. As someone who spent the latter part of her career reading the novels and screenplays that such advice has yielded, I can tell you that it’s not only bad advice, it’s heartbreaking. Because it not only produces monumentally unreadable narratives, it often instills in the writer one of two things:
- A sense of entitlement that translates to blaming the reader for “not getting” it.
- A sense of inferiority that translates to blaming oneself for not having the imagination to create a compelling story.
Both these things lead directly to writers’ block. So, how do you escape this terrible fate? How do you outwit the muse? Unmask her.
Start by understanding that waiting for the muse never works. Ever. You might as well be waiting for Godot.
Why? Because there is no such thing as the muse. The muse, as it turns out, is nothing more than an appealing metaphor meant to explain what, until now, has been viewed as inherently impenetrable, mystical even: the moment that seemingly out-of-the-blue surge of inspiration strikes and suddenly the words seem to flow of their own accord.
So what’s actually happening when you feel like you’ve been struck by lightning? Turns out, it’s not otherworldly magic at all. Like most illusions, there’s a slight of hand. Or make that, a slight of brain. Creativity and inspiration don’t come from some place outside of you, and they aren’t really “out-of-the-blue.” They’re the result of years of hard work, of having the grit and determination to stick to your craft, of hard-won lessons about the way story works.
Nobel laureate Herbert Simon estimates it takes about a decade to really master a subject or craft. By then we’ve gathered upward of fifty thousand “chunks” of knowledge, which the brain has deftly indexed so our cognitive unconscious can access each chunk on its own whenever necessary, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. That’s why, when you’re in the shower and a brilliant idea pops into your head, it feels like magic.
Simon goes on to explain that this is “why experts can respond to many situations ‘intuitively’—that is, very rapidly, and often without being able to specify the process they have used to reach their answers. Intuition is no longer a mystery.”
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio agrees: “Outsourcing expertise to the unconscious space is what we do when we hone a skill so finely that we are no longer aware of the technical steps needed to be skillful. We develop skills in the clear light of consciousness, but then we let them go underground, into the roomy basement of our minds.”
The muse in the basement is you. And that inspired creativity? That’s you, too. You are, as the erstwhile Wizard confessed to Dorothy, the man behind the curtain.
The final, and most important, step in unmasking the false muse? Realizing that “having a way with words” isn’t the same as telling a story – it never was. Sure, creating great characters, good dialogue, conflict, vivid scenery, sensory details and artful sentences matter. But what matters most is stepping in and consciously focusing on what we’ve been taught to blindly to trust to the muse: the story itself — the very thing that all those elements are meant to serve.
Take the time to ask “why” of everything in your story. Then ruthlessly edit it. Don’t polish. Don’t prettify sentences. Forget about the sound of the words, concentrate on their meaning. Make sure that everything in your story is there for a story reason. Repeat, again and again, draft after draft. That’s the only way to earn the very last step in the writing process — polishing what has survived the knife.
Real magic only comes from having the grit to dig deep and work hard. That’s how you become your own damn muse. Here’s to unmasking the imposter and kicking her to the curb.
Have you had success becoming your own damn muse? Share your thoughts in comments. And learn more about Lisa and her upcoming craft book, Wired for Story, on her website, and by following her on Twitter and Facebook. Write on!
Photo courtesy fiddle oak