Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Getting Smart about the Muse

By Shannon Baker


I’ve seen lots of references to the muse lately. Writers talk about this tricky, willful and fickle instrument of inspiration who flits in and out of our minds as if he/she is the reason we create beautiful words or twisting plots. I’m often jabbed by an idea that seems to come out of nowhere and all I can do is shiver a little that some other-worldly creature took pity on my feeble wordly wranglings and threw me a bone.

“Some ditzy woman named Bambi just inserted herself into my book, "The Llama of Death." Now I've got to find out what the heck she's doing in there. Writing is so mysterious -- even to the author.”


This was a status update on Facebook from mystery writer, Betty Webb. No doubt Bambi will become a necessary component to the plot, even if Betty hasn’t figured it out, yet. Her comment let me know I’m not alone in these strange bursts of detail.

I had no idea why I added that tiny apartment with the closet under the stairs in the third chapter…until late in the book when I needed to hide a clue there. What about the certainty that the car burned too much oil and smelled bad, only to need the sense of smell later on?
Since I’m such a dogged plotter I used to resist these surprises but have learned to trust the weirdness and let them stay. They usually end up being essential. But how do I know this without knowing? Do I have a muse trying to help me out? Is it magic? For a long time I didn’t question it too much, just accepted that the Universe knew better than me.

Then I picked up Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. With my apologies to Mr. Gladwell, I believe he explained exactly why we unconsciously come up with these gems that seem like gifts from the Writing Gods. I say apologize, because this may not be the point he was trying to get to at all.

What I got out of the book is this: We all have a part of the brain that is hidden from our conscious, everyday existence. It stores all this experience and information behind a series of locked doors like the vault where Maxwell Smart’s headquarters at CONTROL are located. We can’t access it consciously. But this part of our brain works rapidly, sort of like the processer on my work computer doesn’t. We actually know a lot more than we know we know.

This super part of our brain is responsible for those instant decisions we make that seem so right. It’s the intuition part of us (though Gladwell hates the word intuition) that tells us immediately if we can trust someone, if that job is the right one, if the move to Colorado is a good decision. Within two minutes, our brain sorts through everything it knows and spits out the answer—maybe it sends out our own private Maxwell Smart to pass it along. I’m sure your messenger is more like Agent 99 than Max, but from the evidence of some of my decisions I’m pretty sure my contact at CONTROL is Agent 86. Either that, or I have an overactive KAOS factor in my life.

Galdwell doesn’t extrapolate to writing mysteries but I have no problem making that jump. I think this hidden brain knows way more about our stories than we do. Every now and then, it has to give us a little help and sends that perfect detail we don’t know we need until we need it. Good job, Max.

I don’t know about you, but I’m way more comfortable believing I hold all the answers in my secret vault than I am wishing and hoping the muse feels amiable toward me on any given day. Even if some days it feels like all the good ideas are locked in the Cone of Silence.

What's one of those nuggets you included in a story that you didn't know you'd need until later?

6 comments:

Tory Michaels said...

One such nugget I have in my first book, Blood Rage, is that the heroine has a very high tolerance for pain. It was a remnant from an earlier version of the story, but when plotting out the rest of the series, I discovered that her reason (which she doesn't know) was much more important than I thought and played perfectly into the over-arching Dream-Walker War plot.

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Great post, Shannon. As a long time nonfiction writer, those little needles to the brain really startled me when I dove into fiction. Now I'm thrilled when I feel one wriggling its way out, which happens a lot more than I ever thought possible. I just had one over the weekend while working on my thriller, Rattlesnake Mountain. A character was walking home and suddenly a harrier (hawk) chased a pigeon almost into her; she herself is attacked soon after. I could see a lit teacher talking about the clever (I hope!) foreshadowing, but in truth, I didn't know those birds were there until they swooped at me and my character. Our minds are just so much fun, aren't they? Love the pics in this, too ;-)

Robin Allen said...

Like you, I used to resist any unplanned characters or plot twists, but now I smile when they come along and wonder where they're going to lead. In the third book I'm finishing up now, a minor character tells Poppy something about a restaurant, and it turns out to be a reason for her to talk to that character again who ends up giving her a clue about the murder.

Beth Groundwater said...

The muse from our subconscious is the main reason why I say sleep is essential for a creative person. It's while we're sleeping that our subconscious works on problems in our manuscript, sculpture, painting, or whatever. That's why we often have those aha moments in the middle of the night or upon waking.

Shannon Baker said...

Thanks for commenting! I love to hear stories of our tricky minds.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Interesting post! I don't pretend to understand how the process works, but it's fun to contemplate.