Your Muse? Loves Risk.

by Meredith Resnick

“…what we call the Muse is simply a form of intuition.  Intuition is a matter of successfully sync’ing your internal and external worlds so you can easily move about your environment based on your previous experience.”
—Kayt Sukel

Kayt Sukel is the author of two books including THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SEX: THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE SEARCH FOR LOVE.  After suffering a midlife crisis in reverse—and feeling like it was negatively affecting her writing—she decided to investigate the science of risk-taking behavior to invigorate her craft and her life.  The result is her new book, THE ART OF RISK: THE NEW SCIENCE OF COURAGE, CAUTION, & CHANCE.

Here, Kayt discusses why you need to be open to risk and uncertainty in order to catch the Muse.


by Kayt Sukel

There’s a quote that I love (and, admittedly, also kind of hate) in Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art.”  He writes:

sight.  When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings.  Ideas come.  Insights accrete.” “This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t.  When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us.  The Muse takes note of our dedication.  She approves.  We have earned favor in her 

Successful writers understand that creation means sitting down and doing the work.  It means getting up, no matter how busy we may be, how tired we are, or how insecure we may feel, and putting words on the page.  It’s about making time and putting aside resources.  It’s about commitment and discipline.  Creativity doesn’t happen without it.

We can’t patiently wait and hope the Muse will grace us with her presence.  You have to chase her down and fight, sometimes quite hard, to keep her nearby.  And doing so is a lot of work—diligent, painstaking work.  Working writers understand that this is the way it is.  You have to fight for your words, your voice, and your creations.  But I believe that Pressfield is missing one important thing from his list.  Earning the Muse’s favor, and concentrating all that creative power, requires more than just hard work.  It also requires taking a few risks along the way.

Let me exRISK coverplain.

We talk about the Muse as if she is a mystical being.  Well, I mean, technically she is the stuff of myth and legend—but we’ve extended the metaphor in order to easily explain how our brain works as we attempt creative projects.  Simply stated, what we call the Muse is simply a form of intuition.  Intuition is a matter of successfully sync’ing your internal and external worlds so you can easily move about your environment based on your previous experience.  That’s whether we’re walking down the street or trying to put pen to paper.  But good intuition, as it turns out, comes from working at the edge and taking a few risks.

Erik Dane, a business professor at Rice University, says that intuition is simply your brain going through a pattern matching process.  “You are essentially mapping all the experiences you’ve accrued to the situation at hand—and it’s happening at a very unconscious, automatic level,” he explained.  “Often, you aren’t even aware of why or how you started moving in a particular direction.”

Sounds a lot like when the Muse strikes, doesn’t it?  All of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, you get that “A-ha!” and are compelled to start following a particular stream of words and ideas.  But to get to the point where the brain can do effective pattern matching—helping you come up with creative, yet meaningful, sentences and story arcs—you need to do your homework.  Your brain needs you to be prepared and experienced.  And that’s where risk comes in.  Because you can’t gain good experience by playing it safe.

New research in neuroscience is showing that taking risks is a key ingredient to creativity, flow, and decision-making.  By being prepared and thoughtful, yet working at the edge of your performance ability, you allow your brain to forge new and amazing connections, to work more efficiently, to focus on the right variables, to better understand what works and doesn’t work, and to, ultimately, find success.  But you have to shake things up a little to make that happen.

Am I saying that you need to go out and start skydiving?  Not necessarily.  (Although, if your book’s protagonist is going to be experiencing some freefall, it’s not the worst idea).  But you should find ways to court more uncertainty in your craft.  Go out and experience what you’re writing about directly.  Ask questions, no matter how silly.  Talk to strangers.  Take a class (note:  it doesn’t have to be in writing)—or join an accountability group.  Try writing scenes from different angles.  Pitch your dream pubs.  If they reject you, request some feedback and pitch them again.  Make the time to work on passion projects.  Find joy.  Throw yourself into love.  Then, put the words on the page.

So, yes, do the work.  Nothing can happen until you put your butt in the chair and start writing.  But make sure to leave some time for risk-taking.  Because while you are chasing those risks, you’ll soon find that the Muse is hovering nearby.  And she’ll be so fascinated by what you’re doing that it won’t take much to catch her.

To learn more about risk-taking, creativity, and success, check out  THE ART OF RISK.

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Measuring ourselves against those we admire and aspire to be is what making good art is all about.
I reach as high as I can.
—Nora Baskin

Nora Baskin is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults. She has written more than a dozen books, most inspired by her life events growing up. Her newest book is Ruby on the Outside. Her next book, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story will be released later this year. norabaskin.comauthorphoto

Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? 

NORA: I don’t think we can get “stuck.”

Creativity can happen all the time, in every possible way. When we write, draw, dance, what we think while we walk in the woods, sing in the car, play the guitar all alone in the hallway. What does get in the way is when we try to force our creativity into a form that we think we can “sell” or will get us praise; when we worry about what someone else will think about our work.

Creativity is a natural state. It is free flowing and constant.

That is not to say there isn’t an external aesthetic by which to measure the results of our creativity. I am a believer in educated, thoughtful criticism. Society needs a measure by which to place art in time and history; to judge what is good, what is relevant, what is meaningful. (Note that sometimes it takes years for this to happen, often long after an artist is dead)

RubyOnTheOutside_1But actual creativity (not to be confused with the ART that is produced) is a constant. It’s always there. It’s a matter of separating heart and mind, those nagging voices in your head that can get in the way. It keeps us from getting out Ann LaMott’s “Shitty first draft.”

Meredith: The Talmud  (in one way or another) says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer?

NORA: As a matter of fact, I do. I tried to get published for nine full years, meaning nine years of sending out my work and often coming home to a mailbox stuffed full of self-addressed stamped envelopes with my handwriting! (From the days before email, of course.) It was hard to keep the faith, so to speak. After a few really difficult rejections and disappointments, I decided to just write the story I had always wanted to write but everyone in my life had told me “get over.” It was the story of my mother’s suicide, not exactly the stuff of a middle grade novel. But I had just read an award-winning book called “Belle Prater’s Boy,” which had a similar topic and was told in a poignant but hu
morous style. I could do that!

I didn’t care if anyone bought it or not, if anyone wanted or liked it. I wrote it for me, and I used everything I had learned over the last nine years. It sold to the very first editor who read it.nine ten rev front cvr

I dedicated the book to my mother, because it was the worst thing in my life that became the very thing that made my greatest dream come true. I’m not sure there was any angel involved, but maybe.

Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?

NORA: I am alone a lot. And I walk in the woods with my dog a lot. That helps.

I also grew up in a home of artists. Success in my family was never about money. It was always about artistic integrity. I greatly admire artists who have come from banker-type families. Their journey is harder. They have a system they have to buck. I didn’t and for that I am grateful. And poor. 🙂

Meredith: A kind of corollary to the above question: When you write, do you keep your eyes on your own paper, so to speak? In other words, have you mastered the art of non-comparison (to other writers)?

NORA: No. And I don’t think you should. Measuring ourselves against those we admire and aspire to be is what making good art is all about. I reach as high as I can. I read books I consider to be of the best literary standard, and I try to learn from them. If I get even halfway there, it’s something, right? My goal as a writer is to continue to get better and better. I set higher and higher standards. My goal is to be embarrassed to read my work from ten years ago (this I’ve certainly achieved.) Of course, what one considers good is personal and objective. There is not one single work of art that every single person agrees upon. And thank goodness for that.

Meredith: How do you know when to stop? Either when it’s complete/done or when it’s never going to be complete/done? Have you ever been sad to have moved away from a particular work?

NORA: You’re right. It’s never done but at some point it goes to print. I’ve been back and forth with my editor, copy editor, and proofreader. It’s good to have other people make that decision. I try never to read my work once it’s published. I always want to change something.

I’ve seen friends of mine who mark up, change, edit their hardcover books for readings. I get such a kick out of that because I know how they feel. I’ve had my dad come to my house and cut up his old paintings.

I guess that’s what it is to be an artist.

[Thank you, Nora!]

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