Monday, December 28, 2009

The Muse: Or, do your damn research

There is someone who I absolutely do not want to be. This person starts stories constantly, gets a few chapters or a few pages in and then loses steam, complaining that she has writer’s block. She blames this on her “muse” not cooperating. I know a lot of people like this, and it makes me a little sad and a little frustrated.
When I was teaching short story writing, we were given a textbook. While I wasn’t fond of the text itself, I did find one incredibly valuable piece of information in it: the best explanation of writer’s block I’ve ever read. “I know a newspaper editor who says that writer’s block always represents a lack of information. I thought this was inapplicable to fiction until I noticed that I was mainly frustrated when I didn’t know enough about my characters, the scene, or the action–when I had not gone to the imaginative depth where information lies” (Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, 2nd ed, p. 14). The phrase imaginative depth is particularly apt. Too many writers don’t want to bother learning about their own stories. They think, apparently, that words should flow effortlessly from mind to pen or keyboard, that images, or even entire worlds, should spring fully formed, a la Athena, from one’s head.

Writing is not easy. If it was, everyone would do it. Fiction requires research. It may be browsing through Wikipedia, or checking out books from the library, or doing a Google search, or pulling out your old sociology textbook (not that I ever keep old textbooks, or anything), or just sitting down and thinking about it. If you don’t know enough, that problem is solvable. A lot of people, though, seem to like shortcuts and avoid worldbuilding. I’ve seen it happen time and again with my own writing as well as my own: you’re trucking along, letting the scenery blur past, but then you hit some potholes and you have to slow down a little. Soon, the road gets muddy and you have to slow down even more. Then you’re stuck in the mud and in a fog because not only do you not have enough paved road to drive on, you have no idea where you are anymore.

A muse, whatever the hell that is, will not save you. I don’t believe in muses. They’re an antiquated notion that lets us think we get our inspiration and talent and ability from some external source that can turn itself on and off. It’s a cop out to make us feel better when we’re stuck. Oh, my muse just isn’t cooperating today. Maybe you’re tired, or frazzled, or maybe you haven’t done your research. Suck it up, put on your big kid pants and deal with it. Write or don’t, but don’t blame it on something other than your own human idiosyncrasies. Writing is in your control.

Of course, this is as scary a thought as it is liberating. If it’s under our control, then we are *GASP* responsible and accountable for our own productivity. I think this is why so many people prefer to cop out.  There are a million and one guides out there to help people do research and ask the right questions; writing exercises, guidebooks, questionnaires, you name it. But you have to actually think about them instead of saying, “Eh, I dunno…next one.” If you’re stumped, or if you don’t know the answer to a factual question, ask someone, but it’s your responsibility to find the information, not anybody else’s.

I repeat: writing is hard. Writing is work. Most of the time, you have to do a lot more work than what actually shows up in the finished product. Do the questionnaires. Write the character sketches. Read the books. It’s actually kind of fun to find out more about your story, and the imaginative depth makes for a better story that’s easier to write.

In short: get over yourself and do the research.

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