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The Quest for Your Muse

[1]I think my muse wants to kill me. It can’t be contained or put on a schedule. It’s often unpredictable. I know writers who get their best ideas in the shower. Not me. My muse usually shows up when I’m driving in rush hour traffic on Chicago’s Kennedy and Edens expressways. With cars squeezing into my lane and horns honking, I will inevitably think of a new story arc or scene. I know from experience that if I don’t capture the thought in the moment, it disappears. I confess that I’ve quickly typed a note on my phone while driving. Not safe at all, I know. Someone suggested the voice memo feature on my iPhone and now I record my creative ramblings.

On nights when I’m sitting safely in front of my blank computer screen prepared to write, I wait for the muse. Minutes pass. Nothing. At the one-hour mark, I panic when the words that had flowed so effortlessly the day before don’t even trickle. Fearful that my creativity has dried up, my eyes dart around the room looking for something to guide me. Then I think maybe it’s like love and so many other things people say only come to you when you’re not looking for it.

I’m still not sure if you find your muse or if it finds you. All I know is that this muse can be elusive and slippery as hell. Our fanciful, idealist writer side assumes the muse will appear when we’re holed up in some remote cabin with a bubbling brook nearby to lull us into a higher level of consciousness. The glossy ads for writing residencies and retreats reinforce those fantasies. They trick us into thinking the most idyllic locations will inspire us creatively. Maybe they do. But what about those of us who need to fire up the muse on-the-go and on the cheap?

Something as simple as gazing at a ceramic vase or watching the setting sun can inspire the magic of the mind. The problem is I’m not still long enough to let that happen. The calm and quiet of reflection feel like a luxury of privilege to me at times. In today’s America, I stay in a constant state of rage. For those who engage in a spiritual practice, you know that you often have to be still to hear the voice of God or whatever higher being you summon. Lore tells me that muses work the same way. Or do they? When the world is ablaze, can we find our creative center? Or is that too woo-woo to be real?

I remember writing my college application essays back in the day trying to summon that muse. The one image that kept coming to mind was the #3 Cottage Grove city bus and the stench there of sweat mingling with urine. Not too romantic, but it triggered an important story of place and promise and where I fit in the world. Once I had that setting, one word and one sentence led to the next. It took some time to unleash my creativity because college admissions is high stakes and the pressure was on to craft a narrative that would tell and sell my story.

Art intersects commerce for many writers and that can be stressful, too. When our art becomes a commodity bought and sold in the marketplace, the idea of a muse may feel frivolous. I wrote to eat during my 11-year career as a journalist. That was my job. While the creative side of reporting was the source of my passion, I had to wrangle the story and tell it on a daily deadline whether the muse struck or lay dormant.

Putting creativity in the context of a business model at that point in my career prepared me for my foray into fiction writing. During a writing workshop I attended years ago, crime fiction author Michael Koryta gave the most salient writing advice I’d ever heard. “Keep your butt in the chair,” he said. Since then, I’ve heard many others repeat the same mantra. That’s when I realized the stalwart sidekick of the muse was discipline. Not nearly as enchanting or delightful to look at as we chase it, yet necessary in a utilitarian way. At that same conference, Laura Lippman told me she wrote her first ten novels while working full-time as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. She got up early and wrote before work. “Pay yourself first,” she said, similar to the way a financial planner would advise us to put money aside in a 401k. All of this screams of practicality and doesn’t woo us the way muses do.

What I know for sure about myself is that I’m a dreamer and it’s easy for me to lose focus waiting for that creative spark. I need a writing discipline and I’m grateful to have an accountability partner who keeps me honest. Still, I never want to lose the creativity that inspires my love for writing. Some would say the muse is everywhere around us if we open our eyes, ears, and hearts to it.

I’ve never had much success bludgeoning the muse until she spills her wisdom. Coaxing works better for me. Before most writing sessions, I read a poem or a short passage from a novel I love. My favorite go-to book for inspiration is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. That’s my way of getting in touch with the part of myself that honors language and has an honest reckoning with truth-telling on the page.

As someone who’s had a complicated relationship with my muse, I know for certain that it finds us where we are and takes us places we’ve never been. That’s not always convenient. But if we could predict its arrival and import on our stories in advance, we would inevitably lose some of the joy in the pursuit.

Do you believe in muses? Do you find your muse or does it find you? How do you unlock its mysteries? Has that changed over the course of your writing career?

About Nancy Johnson [2]

Nancy E. Johnson [3] is a writer with an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalism background. Her stories often explore life’s complexities at the intersection of race and class. She was named runner-up for the 2018 James Jones First Novel Fellowship Award. Her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine and has received support from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, Tin House Summer Novel Workshop, and Kimbilio Fiction. Also, Nancy served an advisory board member for Author Accelerator’s diversity scholarship program. When Nancy’s not writing, you can often find her exploring bookstores, festivals, and restaurants in her hometown of Chicago. Nancy is represented by Danielle Bukowski at Sterling Lord Literistic.