I often hear of “writer’s block,” that nemesis of creativity. It’s as if the Muse stole your joy by sleeping on the job.
Instead of writing ‘sweet nothings,’ whisper to her, “Get up! I want to write!” Of course, ladies don’t like to be yelled at, so that might not work very well. At the same time, she needs to be on your schedule. (If we always wait for the Muse, it might be a very long time between epiphanies. And that would hardly be amusing.) I suppose then a gentle caress to stimulate her out of sleep might do the trick. Seduce her gently.
Okay. How do writers do that? There are two things that have worked for me (after I realized she can never be forced).
First, in the in between periods, do something, anything that is creative. The important thing here is to recharge our right-brains—our creative centers. It doesn’t matter what it is. It can be related to our writing, but it doesn’t have to be.
Begin with the arts—movies, museums, music—for entertainment and relaxation. But don’t limit yourself to these. Explore nature! Take a walk in the park, hike a trail, or sit down and observe your backyard flora and fauna. Even if these aren’t practical, drive in the country or to the mountains or seashore. Go someplace that is quiet where only thing you hear is the symphony of nature. Embellish the experience: smell her hair, the scent in the wind, the moist earth, the salt sea; taste her, the honeysuckle and wintergreen berries, the mountain stream; touch her, the velvet moss, the paper skin of fallen pin oak leaves, the wet silk of her lake. Just look and be awed. In an interview last year, I went into more detail (Liquid Imagination, August 2009). http://www.liquid-imagination.com/Interviews/Mannone.html.
It is always a good idea to have a small notebook. Record impressions and triggered memories, etc., but don’t worry about it if you don’t. Avoid being legalistic about it because it will be self-defeating to the creative process. Defeat any negative feeling for failure to write something. Relax. Don’t obsess over having to jot something. If you do, you do; if you don’t, no problem. Remember, your sub-conscience is recording things, too. You will be surprised what will wheedle them out later and what it is that is coaxed out.
Second, the prompting of the mind will awaken the Muse. What a prompt does is trigger the retrieval of memories, even the volatile ones in short-term memory. Sometimes the prompt lets you cherry pick a gem from the past from which a story or vignette will emerge. At other times, the prompt acts like how a laser works—a prompt cause a simultaneous cascade of memories stored up there concerning a specific recollection(s).
The prompt is not what you might think it is. It’s not “write about this or that” (where the “this” and “that” are very general things). How often have you heard, “write a story/poem about your childhood” or “write something about the Fall”? These might work for some who are already primed to write, but often don’t do much to “unblock” the writer’s mind. Rather, the prompt I am talking about is much more specific to guide the mind. In other words, the prompt should prod the Muse, not dictate to her. These specific things could be a group of words, images, and even sounds, textures, smells, and emotions, if additional context is provided. Soaking in all of this, the mind will have a fresh source of metaphors in the making.
For example, let’s look at something you are likely familiar with—a list of words to include in a composition. A single word may not do much for you, but a group of them might. There is a behind-the-scenes process the mind attempts—it tries to connect the words. Once a link is made, focus on that—thinking and writing develops and the genesis of the poem or story begins.
Consider, for example, an actual list of ten words (including categories) that I was challenged with in March of this year: lapse, exacerbate, clatter, muscle, glow, squander, foible, a geographic formation, an animal, the name of a punctuation mark.
Don’t obsess with having to use all the words/categories. It is legitimate to use any part of speech (glow/glowing), number (muscle/muscles), or conjugation (clatter/clattered/clattering), as well as homonyms (muscle/mussel, lapse/laps). Now you try the exercise, then read on.
Look at my poem, “Empty Shell,” appearing in The Legendary (July 2010). I didn’t use all the words, but others were used in ways that were new to me: http://www.downdirtyword.com/authors/johncmannone.html. Exactly how did this poem evolve? When I read through the list, nothing jumped out at me. But on the second pass when I read the word “muscle,” I thought of “mussel” because the category, “geographic formation,” had triggered the image of sea in my mind (because I love the sea and the mountains, they were pinged first). Immediately, I realized that the word “mussel” performs double-duty, since it is a kind of “animal,” the remaining category. So the focus was set—a mussel in the sea—and my mind combed my memory for experiences with mussels. I remembered mussel shells on the seashore, the clink they made when dropped on pebbled sand. I remembered its striking mother-of-pearl patina on the inside of the shell, this pearly sheen, of course made me think other shells, and particularly, the oyster, especially the pretty ones in the Pacific that make pearls. And some mussels make pearls, too, though not generally pretty ones. I wondered, how a pearl is made? And why? Philosophical ideas prodded more thinking and the context for the poem emerged. I let the epigraph by John Donne (a great 16th century metaphysical poet) make the important leap from what might have started as a simple poetic description of nature to a full-fledged poem with layers of meaning and depth. The literary metaphor in that epigraph enabled the novel use of the pearl as a “punctuation mark,” the final category in the list.
There are many more effective prompts, and I introduce them in a course I teach, the Anatomy of Poetry at To Write Well. But if you visit my brand new blog, The Art of Poetry, you will get the protracted version of this essay (under the Writing Prompts tab) and learn more on how to seduce your Muse— make love with creative writing, whether it is poetry or flash fiction, it doesn’t matter.
John C. Mannone is a widely published award-winning poet nominated for the 2009 Pushcart Prize in Poetry and the 2010 Rhysling Poetry Award. His poetry and short fiction appear in numerous literary and speculative fiction journals. He has been appointed the poetry editor of Silver Blade: The Quarterly Journal of Fantasy Fiction and he is on the creative writing faculty of To Write Well. John is also a nuclear consultant and physics professor in east Tennessee.