Yo! Muse!

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O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
O memory that engraved the things I saw,
Here shall your worth be manifest to all!
— Dante, The Divine Comedy

By PJ Parrish

If you are like me, you take your inspiration wherever — and whenever — you can get it. Writing is not easy. (Warning: tortured metaphor ahead).

Writing is like sailing a Hobie Cat in the ocean in the middle of a squall. I know because I used to sail Hobies during my first marriage, which is probably why it didn’t last. The marriage, not the Hobie. The day is always sunny when you launch your Hobie from the beach and you’re all aglow with hardy-har-har-endorphins. So it is when you sit down and type CHAPTER ONE.

Then the storm hits and there you are, hanging onto a 16-foot piece of fiberglas and vinyl, hoping lightening doesn’t hit the mast and fry your ass. You are out there alone in the storm, out of sight of land, riding the waves and the troughs, hoping you can make it home. You might even throw up. This is usually around CHAPTER TWENTY for me.

End of metaphor.

I often wonder what keeps writers writing. Tyranny of the contract deadline? Blind faith? The idea that if you don’t you might have to do real physical labor for a living, like paint houses? All of those work for me. But sometimes, the only thing that keeps me going is a visit from my muse.

Now, let’s get one thing clear here. I don’t believe in WAITING for a muse to show up. I get really impatient with writers who claim they can’t write until they feel inspired because frankly, 90 percent of this gig is writing DESPITE the fact your brain is as dry as Waffle House toast. (or as soggy, depending on which Waffle House you frequent. The last one I was in was off the Valdosta Ga. I-95 exit in 1976 and the toast was so dry it stands today as my singular metaphor for stagnant creativity).

But I do believe that sometimes — usually when your brain is preoccupied with other stuff — something creeps into the cortex and quietly hands you a gift. And these little gifts are what get you through.

There are nine muses in mythology, who were supposed to be the origin of all artistic inspiration. They were Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polymnia, Terpsichore, Urania and Thalia. (I always thought it was cool that Dobie Gillis’s unobtainable ideal woman was named Thalia — the muse of comedy). The muses ruled over such things as dance, music, history, even astronomy. No muses for crime writers, unless you count Calliope for epic poetry but I think James Lee Burke has her on permanent retainer.

I don’t have just one muse. I’ve figured out I have a couple who specialize in particular parts of my writing. And they never come around when I am at the computer. Never get a whiff of them when I am actually in writing mode itself. They are like cats. They only come around on their own terms.

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First, there’s my dialogue muse. I call him J.J. because he sounds like Burt Lancaster’s gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker in “The Sweet Smell of Success.” Always chewing at my ear saying oily things like, “I’d hate to take a bite out of you, you’re a cookie full of arsenic.” J.J. comes to visit me only when I am jogging. Never on the threadmill, mind you, only outdoors. J.J. makes my skin crawl, but man, can this guy write dialogue.

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Then there’s my narrative muse. I call him Cat Man because he slips in on silent paws, sings in a fey whisper and only visits me just as morning has broken. He looks like Cat Stevens, but the old hot young version not the later one. Cat Man comes around about dawn, just as I am waking up as if from death itself. See, my husband’s insomnia means we sleep with blackout drapes, a white-noise machine and the A/C turned so cold the bedroom is like a crypt. So when I wake up, it is with a gauzy gray aureole rimming the drapes, icy air swirling around my nose and a soft swoooshing in my ears. And there is Cat Man, spinning a long segment of sensual exposition that salvages my stagnant plot. I have learned to lay there, very still, until he is done with his song, because if I get up and try to write it down, he vanishes. Praise for the singing, praise for the morning, praise of the springing, fresh from the word.

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And then there is my third muse. She’s my favorite. Her name is Flo because her voice sounds like that waitress who worked in Mel’s Diner on the old “Alice” sitcom. You know, like the door of a rusted Gremlin. Flo is my muse of getting real. Her Greek name is Nike (the goddess of victory) and her slogan is “Just Do It.” Because whenever those other two guys fail me, whenever they don’t show up, Flo is there. She is the muse who knows that the only way I am going to get the book finished is through plain old hard work. Like Nike, Flo has wings. They symbolize the fleeting nature of victory. Or, as Flo often tell me, “Honey, if you don’t get off your ass and just write the damn thing, you’re going to lose your contract and you’ll have to paint houses for a living.”

I’d be lost without her. Who — or what? — keeps you going?

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13 thoughts on “Yo! Muse!

  1. You, at the risk of sounding trite, and posts like this one.

    Humour is the essential part of any blog or book that keeps me reading until the end. Plus, I relate to your muses, especially Cat Man and Flo, and it’s good to know chapter 20, the muddle middle, is not my problem alone.

    ‘Like the door of a rusted Gremlin’. Brings back memories.

    • Did you have a Gremlin, Amanda? It was my college ride. It got me to Florida for my new job and I traded it for Terrance the TR6. Terrance cost me a fortune. I fell for a pretty grill.

      • LOL..a pretty grille.

        I did not have a Gremlin but the boyfriend of one of my friends had a greenish/ugly one, and beside it my ten-year-old dough-coloured Toyota Corolla looked cool.

  2. What keeps me going are the alternatives. Do I want to sit around wondering what to do all day and worrying about the aging process? Or would I rather bounce out of bed and head to my computer to begin the day with purpose? I also can’t shut off the writer in my head. It colors my perception so I’m always figuring how I can include some incident or character in a story. And then there’s the fan requests: When will your next book be available? Reader feedback keeps me going more than anything. I like to think my work helps people by providing a few hours of escape. Maybe I’ll sit back one day and manage my backlist instead of writing new books, but I doubt I will ever step away from the writing community.

    • You know, that’s a good point, Nancy, the one you make about fans. On days when I feel like chucking it in or think I don’t have anything left to say, I get an email from a reader that really makes me want to try harder, write a better book, give it another go. Knowing there are readers out there who have your back is a huge motivation. Also my critique buddies…they keep me going.

  3. Kris, wonderful post.

    “You all” here at TKZ keep me going, keep me writing. I read your posts first thing in the morning. When I’m at my daytime job, I at least read the post. Most of the time I don’t have time to reply. This morning they can just wait. This is more important.

    I appreciate the knowledge you share, your experiences, and most of all the encouragement. And by the way, I’m working my way through your back list and enjoying every one of them.

    I also want to add a “thank you” to Joe Moore. The redecorated TKZ site is great. It just keeps getting better.

    So, Kris, keep them coming. Thanks for this post. I really think Flo must sit on your shoulder, because your voice is “real.” I love it.

    • Steve,
      Don’t want to get all gooey here, but you guys help keep us going as well. When Kathryn and Joe asked me to join TKZ, I was hesitant. I blogged for three years on my own and it about killed me. But I missed the community of it, the interplay, the camaraderie, so decided to take another whack. It’s better when you have a group like this as support. And we all need someone we can lean on..so thanks to all you guys — even you lurkers out there– who keep coming back.

  4. My muse has given up on me. She said I was taking too long to polish my MS and she’s taken a vacation. I argued and pleaded (read begged on my knees while sobbing wildly) to no avail.
    Me: “But I’ve only been working on it for six years.”
    Her: “Hmmmph! It’s eight actually, but who’s counting.”
    Me: “I promise, by the end of the year it will all be done and ready for publication.”
    Her: “That’s what you said last year — AND in 2011 when it was a finalist in an unpublished MS competition.”
    Me: “But I reduced it from 128,000 words to 68,000 – doesn’t that count for something?”
    Her (as if she hadn’t heard me): “And you didn’t send it off the the publisher when your editor said it was ready.”
    Me: “But there are still inconsistencies.”
    Her: “Call me when you’re finished.”
    I would could call her, but she didn’t leave her number. Oh yes, my muse is a she. She’s really good at guilt trips and snide remarks; how could she not be a she. If anyone has a spare male muse just sitting around…

  5. Next to my writing critique group, this blog has been a great inspiration to me.
    TKZ offers practical tips, humour and how-to-get-keep-it-going hints and I look forward to reading it every day.
    My characters have become my muses as well. Nags actually. When I have neglected them because of life events, they start whispering into my ear to come back to work.
    They become more shrill until I finally listen.
    Thanks once again for inspiring me to continue.

  6. Great post, Kris. My muse lives in the shower. I have solved more plotting issues there than any other place. And I’m always squeaky clean.

  7. What keeps me writing – besides the sure knowledge that I have no other marketable skills – is my wife’s faith in me. Tori is sometimes my strictest critic, but it’s only because she believes in me, even when I’m not sure I do myself. She won’t let me be less than my best, and then she wants a little bit more. And I’d hate like hell to disappoint her.

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