Practice, Memory, and Song: Invoking the Muses

I’m always curious how the creative process unfolds for other writers. For me it goes like this, and I’m speaking now of when inspiration moves over me, not when I’m staring at a blinking cursor.

Though it doesn’t happen often enough, there are times when I think I’ll come out of my skin if I don’t get the thing that begins to well up inside of me out and onto the page. I am a slow writer, and I think it’s because I rely too heavily on this feeling, this welling up process that happens, not entirely of its own accord–I can and do feed it–but it certainly arrives in its own sweet time.

Something will happen in the world around me that gets my attention. I’ll have a jarring dream or I’ll be talking to a cousin or remember an earlier time in my life or see something out the car window or smell something I haven’t smelled in ages or hear a song on the radio or read an article or someone else’s short story. It could be anything, come from anywhere. But up it comes, suddenly, violently almost. I can’t help but notice. In fact, I can’t do anything but notice. My brain locks in on whatever it is and I obsess over this tiniest of fine story-making particles until it begins to grow.

From whence do these visitations come?

The Greeks liked to assign gods to curious experiences like these, and they referred to this particular strange phenomenon as invoking the Muses. Some sources say there are nine sister Muses, but orignially there were only three. Their names were Melete (Practice), Mneme (Memory), and Aoede (Song). The Muses, being goddesses, could be generous or spiteful to mortals, bestowing knowledge and inspiration or punishing those who questioned their divine authority. The three Muses are tied to the senses. Melete is associated with water, something we can feel and see and manipulate. Mneme is associated with wind, which we can feel and harness. And Aoede is associated, obviously, with sound.

People often ask if a story is true. Yes, always, though it may not be fact. Lately, I’ve been puzzling over an idea, a memory. A collection of memories actually. An experience. I’m not sure this thing, whatever it is, will in fact become a short story–I am never quite sure–though I am looking at it from all angles. To become a short story, I’ll have to transform it completely. This takes some doing. When it’s done, if I’m successful, it won’t look at all like the experience. No one will recognize it except me. In my mind, the two will become one.

I used to think my stories sprang up from character or voice, but lately I’m coming to think that’s not quite right. It’s this welling up of emotion. I think that’s more accurate because emotion is tied to meaning, and stories must hold meaning.

In order to name whatever big emotion it is I’m trying to wrangle, I have to chase it. This is where the Muses come in. I was glad to learn that the names of the Muses were Practice, Memory, and Song because that’s exactly how they assist me in writing a story.

I think of Practice as the goddess of reason and repetition. Habit, you might call her. Practice compels us to learn our craft, to reflect upon our own natures and methods as I’m doing here. To ponder and plot and plan. To sit and try. To toss out and try again. To perfect what can be perfected, to learn to live with what shouldn’t be mussed over. When I’m chasing the big feeling, Practice has me trying to isolate it, name it, break it down.

That’s where Memory steps in, making associations. Nearly every story I write taps into some memory stored away in the tiny lunch boxes of my mind, little meals to be consumed for as long as I’m able to recall them. Or rather, more accurately, I think, Memory is a fuse box containing the live wires of our former lives, lives we can splice into again and draw upon the charges of our former feelings. But stories are not memories dolled up in new Easter outfits. Memory is simply a battery used to boost the imagination. As I’m always reminding my students, literal memory is the enemy of fiction, if you believe what Robert Olen Butler says. And I do. Still, memory is crucial for inducing the writer’s trance, which will faithfully lead to our associative mind and then our imagination if we are patient and trusting enough.

Song is our deepest intuition, that place that thrums when the critical mind is silenced and a story comes pouring onto the page. As with music, we are transported, carried away. We find our rhythm and we sing along. We know all the words, though we’re not sure why. We don’t even think about it. We simply hear the song and write it down just as we hear it.

The longer I practice writing, the more firmly I’m convinced that intuition is a writer’s greatest faculty. I’m learning too that it’s as faithful to us as we are to it. Call it whatever you like, but I think Practice, Memory, and Song has a nice ring to it.

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