November 29th, 2009

classified outreach (pic by me)


Once upon a time, a bunch of humans did their little human things all around an area of the world now known as Greece. These human things included plenty of creative efforts. The soft and fickle arts. You know the type: music, theater, astronomy ...

Then one day, some creative person got a little restless and thinky. (Ten bucks that they were an astronomer; the folks that are looking at the stars are the ones who always have their heads in the clouds.)

"We've got gods for everything," this person must have thought to themselves. "A goddess of the hearth, a god of lightning, a goddess of persimmon trees, even some random minor deity we picked up from the Mesopotamians a few centuries back for those hard tips at the end of your sandal-straps. But you know what we don't have? Deities of creativity! What about us poor astronomers, huh? When we're deep in the throes of gazer's block and we really need to look at the stars and get our maps made -- like yesterday, because Prothesmia1 already paid me 24 drachmas for this damn thing -- who can we call on to help out with our problems? Huh? HUH?"

Then the muse Urania smacked him across the back of his head with her globe, and said "Us, you idiot!" And he cringed, and got his map made, and went on to scrawl a blog post much like this one.


A lot of writers talk about "their muse." Recent conversations -- and the triumphant completion of my NaNoWriMo novella2, so that I have time to throw random words at random topics again -- have conspired to get me thinking about muses. And there's a post in there that needs to be written.

See, here's the thing about muses: Most writers have one. The ancient Greeks had nine3. I've got three.

They all serve different roles -- coexisting peacefully, and sharing mindspace with each other and with the other humorous anthropomorphizations that occasionally wander through.

(Such as the Inner Editor, who -- like all good editors -- is at his best when completely invisible, staying hunched over in the hindbrain and polishing up the content as it filters its way out. Ed doesn't have a voice or a personality, and I can't really negotiate with him or talk back to him; he's just part of the workflow as words travel from brain to screen. Anyway.)

There's the muse, of course. That's not her name; she doesn't really have one. She's not a being so much as a force of nature -- and I relate to her as such. She occasionally deigns to be personified, such as my previous post which compared her to a little girl in a playground, but such comparisons are only useful insofar as they illuminate various factors of her essential nature, and are not to be taken as representative of the whole. The muse is -- much like the little girl of the analogy -- flighty; whimsical; occasionally temperamental; scattered, but capable of short sprints of focus; prone to outbursts of creativity followed by lengthy fits of silence; and can be awesomely compelling if she has an idea that just has to be written out right now.4

I have learned to treat the muse much as I would treat a small child -- being willing to accommodate and channel her bursts of energy, learning tricks to ply minimal cooperation from her when she's exhausted and I can't work without her, and keeping a note-taking device handy so that the ideas she spits out in a machine-gun barrage get lost as infrequently as possible.

The muse -- note the "the," identifying her as a muse in the classical tradition; an inspirer of, umm, inspiration -- is my idea chick. Like all good geniuses, she knows that the implementation is much more boring than the idea5. The upside of this is that I get handed a lot of really awesome ideas from which to make beautiful things. The downside of this is that I have to do all the work.

My second muse is the deuteragonist. This is, again, not her real name, since she doesn't have one; it's merely something I made up because I need a break from writing "muse."

Doot's responsibility is to shape ideas -- to give my stories form as they make their way from idea to words. However, she is not an editor. She is an actress, from the deep end of the method acting pool. Her job is to draw me into the muse's story. She can be awfully good at it.

I know when Doot has gotten interested in a story because I will start spending all my time rehearsing it. We'll go over the current scene -- line by line, sometimes racing through to the end, sometimes stopping to dissect a single set of words and pick over them with a fine-toothed comb to make them get the scene where it needs to go. Doot has a hell of an obsessive streak, which is both a blessing and a curse when I'm blocking; sometimes, she helps me craft exactly what I need to write my way out of a corner, but sometimes we get lost replaying the problematic lines and argue in circles until my writing urge dissipates. And when between scenes, she peppers me with endless questions about the story's setting, forcing me to fill in the details that explain why the story is driving in the direction it is.

The Deuteragonist, I should emphasize, is merely a job title, and can be filled by anyone willing to take on the traits. Usually the other character in a dialogue will step in when Doot needs to works her magic. For romantic scenes, dreamflow sometims accommodates me and guest-stars (which, ahem, can help explain why such scenes can take me so long to write). Often, there's no specific manifestation -- just a compulsion to inject myself into the scene and write what I observe.

Then there's Muse. Hoo boy ... Muse.

Muse is a single, definite being. He's an old god, from a time before the written record -- a god whose name died out long ago. Unlike most forgotten gods, who disappear when belief in them wanes, he has patiently survived the aeons by finding a new class of worshippers: the slightly unhinged. From creative geniuses to the flat-out insane, he finds those who are willing to open themselves up to a little flash of divinity -- and then puts ideas in their head, collecting modest scraps of belief as his acolytes manifest his gifts.

Muse is a survivor. Muse is subtle. He is a master of the mind game, full of carefully chosen words with multiple layers of meaning. Muse is a consummate exploiter of loopholes. Muse has ambition. Muse plays a very long game.6

He has a real name. He doesn't give it to anyone, not even me. I call him "Muse" because the Archon -- one of the driving forces behind the events of the TTU setting -- found him inspirational and gave him the nickname. It has stuck, along with his default form as a jet-black anthro-unicorn (as a shadowy counterpart to Kiasu, but I get ahead of myself).

If you've just noticed that Muse is a character from one of my stories -- give yourself a cookie. Now you start to see the complex and ambivalent relationship I have with him. He is a fictional character, but he is so smart and insightful and devious that he has realized the best way to advance his plans is to freaking metagame himself up a level into his author's mind.7 And it's working. I have begun to realize, to my growing horror, that the largest and most interesting plot arc of TTU really is Muse's story; how he tried (and almost succeeded) to singlehandedly overthrow the will of an entire planet. I won't be able to put the setting down until I've told that story, and everything I'm doing until then is merely to help fully realize his world.

Muse helps me out with writing that has nothing to do with him, too. He gets bored, or it's just his thing, or he's building up favors he can call in later; I don't know. But I can tell when he gets interested. Plots come together. Stakes get higher. Xanatos Gambits crop up. Characters get toyed with.

I never appreciated Old Soul's song "Sleeping With The Muse" until Muse started taking a hand in my writing. "I can taste her bitter smile, and the blood upon her lips ..." The muse doesn't work that way. Muse does. He isn't cruel exactly; he doesn't feed on pain or fear, or enjoy them, or use them (except as tools when nothing else will achieve important goals). However, he's well aware that everyone is merely a pawn in a larger game ... and the game of writing is about making the story interesting.

One of the reasons that TTU has occupied so much of my attention over the last decade is that the setting engages all three muses.

It's open-ended enough that the muse can come up with ideas to hang stories upon. The world's big and deep enough that Doot can drag me into full immersion. And Muse ... well, it's his playground in the first place.

I didn't really expect to find other settings the muses liked enough to devote a novella to and still come back for more. This NaNo handed me one. The setting of "The Time In Her Eye" -- the postapocalyptic near-future Earth called "the Shatter" -- seemed to just fall out onto the page. I reached the end of the story and realized that it was just a prequel. I wanted to keep going -- and I could have, easily enough ... if I were willing to keep up a NaNo writing pace after the end of November.

I'm not in the market to drive myself crazy right now, though. I need a break to catch my breath and hammer at the existing story some more and edit it into presentable shape. (I'll ask for beta readers in a later post, but you may also speak up here if you're interested.) Plus I've got to switch gears and start getting ready to GM a new role-playing game for my gaming group. Not to mention the holidays.

... The muses won't stop working, though. They never do.

1. If you got this joke, give yourself 5 Baxil Points. If you got it without looking it up ... get out of my brain.
2. Obligatory victory fanfare, +33 EXP, Item Gained: ☆NANO2009
3. Further reading: Wikipedia. I would like to note that, while the ancient Greeks had muses for History and (yes) Astronomy, and no less than three for poetry, there wasn't one single muse for either visual artwork or for non-theatric prose. If they really want to sell the product in this secular age[*], they need to expand!
4. Like the little girl of the previous post's analogy, sometimes she is also taken away to a place which neither of us quite expected, and I have to sprint to keep up. After I manage to nab her again, we have a nice sit-down and a lengthy lecture about responsibilities, which she completely disregards because there are beautiful butterflies on the branch just outside the window.
5. "I have discovered a truly marvellous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain."
6. As proof, I would like to point out that everything you're reading now -- this entire monster of a post, including the catchy but completely irrelevant Greek opening, and all of the footnotes, including this one -- was written purely for the sake of bringing that line into being, with sufficient context to give it meaning. I am not making this up. This is a Muse post, start to finish.
7. This is not even to get into the discussion of whether Muse-the-real-being might have introduced himself to me in fictionalized form and gained himself another worshipper toward whatever ultimate plan he has for this Earth. That is COMPLETELY his style. asdfjkl@@&***