“…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 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:
“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 explain.
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.
Kayt is the author of THE ART OF RISK.
by Kim Hooper
In writing, there is much discussion of “the muse.” Who is it? Do we wait for him/her/it to appear, or go to work anyway? Does the fact that we talk to this muse make us schizophrenic?
When I think of my muse, I think of a very lazy queen, sitting atop her canopy bed, in satin pajamas. She smokes those long, skinny cigarettes and sips champagne at all hours of the day. She is snotty and judgmental. She has ideas, see, and she is not happy unless they are brought to life in the way she envisions. She doesn’t help with much of this bringing-to-life business. If anything, she gives me one line, usually at an inopportune time, like in the shower, or on a walk when I am without a pen, or in the middle of the night. How many times have I patted around my nightstand at 2AM in search of paper and a pen to please this demanding bitch?
The thing with muses is that, despite their demands, they are passive, not active. Mine is immortal, like a vampire (and judging by her preference for middle-of-the-night visits and the way I feel she sometimes sucks the creative life out of me, maybe she really is a vampire). She has all the time in the world. She teases me with ideas and just waits. She is happy if I finish that short story or novel, but I think she is also happy just sipping champagne and smoking long, skinny cigarettes.
It is my job, as the writer, to be active. It is my job to take what she gives me—inspiration from that news article I read, that tidbit from the family holiday gathering, a thud on the head with that same novel idea I’ve been mulling for months—and make it into something. If I take the initial first line she gives me and go with it, she’ll give me more. When I open a new Word document, she’s thrilled (or, actually, I think she’s the type to be “titillated”). If I set the table, in essence, she’ll continue to feed me.
Some days, I don’t have mental energy, and I may wait for that to return before I embark on a project, but I don’t really wait for the muse. To me, this phrase doesn’t even make sense. The muse is always there, waiting to be beckoned from her canopy bed. She might not come right away when I call her (she may be giving herself a pedicure), but she will come. She’ll hear the whir of the computer, or my pen scrawling across the paper, and she’ll come.
Kim is the author of People Who Knew Me.
Today I dedicate myself to the story. It is not enough to write well. It is not enough to be called a good writer.
Today I dedicate myself to: My writing serves the story. To finding the story. To understanding the difference between writing and writing a story.
Today my writing serves the story.
People often ask if I teach essay writing. The answer is: sort of. I’m better one-on-one and in small in-person groups (a holdover from being a therapist, perhaps?) and, so, consult accordingly.
I was recently asked 5 questions about essay writing (see below) for a class. These questions and answers will hopefully get you thinking about your own work.
Tell me about the first essay you sold.
Me[redith]: The first essay I sold was more of an essay/advice piece, and it was to Bride’s. My father had passed away before my wedding and I wanted to write something that shared both my personal story but that included information that might also help someone else in a similar situation.
Can you tell me a little bit about your process? How do you go about writing an essay?
Me[redith]: Sometimes it turns out that there is a specific topic I want to write about, and so I just write and write and write until I have a vague idea of where it’s going beyond the “idea.” I do this because, as a writer and a reader, I’m most interested in connections that “make themselves” rather than me trying to seek them out. Once those connections present themselves, and I have enough of them, the “writing” becomes more about shaping and editing and refining.
Where/how do you find ideas?
Me[redith]: I don’t go looking because I’ve found that the approach of looking and seeking doesn’t work for me. Having said that, while I don’t go looking, per se, I’m receptive to my environment and also to what’s going on internally. From there, I am always writing down sentences on scraps of paper or typing them into my phone. I’m also lucky to have three separate writing partners who I trust and with whom I feel safe so when we write together, and ideas come, I can let them flow onto the page.
What do you find to be the most challenging part of essay writing? How do you overcome those challenges?
Me[redith]: The most challenging part is when there is a gap between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page. This often becomes evident when I’ve let someone read the piece and they “want” it to be something it is not ever going to be. I’ve learned to realize this is likely because the piece is not done yet. This brings me back to that gap, the one between what I’m trying to say and what is actually on the page.
What advice do you have for aspiring essayists?
Me[redith]: Concern yourself with the quality of what you publish rather than the quantity. That also goes for where you publish – quality first.
When we moved my sister, who is an interior decorator, helped me set up our house. Set up as in decorate.
I, alone, can tell you when a finished room looks good, but I can’t begin to tell you how to put it together. My spatial skills are barely adequate. She, on the other hand, can eyeball a room, go to the store and tell you what will fit where, and what will go with it. When you get the furniture home, it works.
The problem with how I “decorate” is that I tend to make everything the same – even if each piece is utterly unique. Too much color, too much busy, too much monochromatic – fill in your own “too much.” I do mosaics, and I love them, and I’d decorate my entire house with them – which I kind of did in our last place. But even I noticed, before we moved, it was getting difficult to “see” them as individuals, and worse, they started competing with each other for attention. Instead of my eye glancing around the room, it was more like a ping pong ball (pardon the cliche). Not a federal offense, but not great, either.
“It’s hard to know what’s important to look at in the room when everything is in it is the same,” my sister told me. “Then nothing is important, and it defeats the purpose for having an important piece.”
As I get inside long-form writing, I need different ways of looking at the different elements that are essential to writing well. Basically, I’m willful, and I want to write what I want to write, and I want people to like it. But it doesn’t work that way, just like it doesn’t work when you’re decorating your home. People will come over and tell you they love your mosaic table, or your this or that – individual things…but what you (I) really want is for the visitor to tell me they love my house, that it’s a place they want to stay, to relax in, to spend time. I want people to say this about my book/manuscript. More than telling me they love my writing (though who doesn’t love that?), I want them to love the story I’m writing, to want to read it, to say it moved them, that it was unforgettable in the best possible way. Don’t you?
Since my sister started to help me decorate I’ve been thinking about “show, don’t tell” differently. When I go into the manuscript, I try to see where the expository parts include information that is essential to the reader knowing the character and to moving the story along. Some exposition is appropriate to inform, info that’s not going to be shown in a scene because it’s not happening in the real time of the manuscript. I do this when I’m editing, not when I’ve writing. To use the decorating analogy, I bring the chair home and see how it looks next to the window, or I move it to the bedroom. Sometimes I return it, and buy something else. The goal is for it to fit, to look great in its place. If it is meant to be the focal point, that it should do that very, very well.
If the decorating analogy doesn’t strike a chord, maybe my “getting-dressed” one will. Exposition can be like buttons and button holes – they help close the garment in order for it to be wearable. The buttons should be attractive, too, but they don’t need to be the entire length of material that makes the shirt. They simply close gaps. However, if the focal point of the story is the garment being torn off, those buttons better pop in the most spectacular way.
How do you think about the elements of writing to support your storytelling?
Before I began writing professionally (and for a long time while I was), I was a therapist. Therapists are dedicated to confidentiality and bound to it by law, except in very specific cases. As a writer, how do I reconcile writing essays that include other people while writing a really good essay as well?
It’s difficult and sometimes takes a really long time.
I want to acknowledge that I’ve come across writers who feel that their story, their truth and how they want to say it, has a right to its voice. On the page. In public. I totally get that. The once-massive publishing empires (and the smaller ones, too) who have had to re-find their audiences online as print takes a backseat seem to get that, too. It seems like the internet is full of those stories, over-shared essays (though fashioned with lovely essay techniques like imagery and voice) that have been written a few beats before the author had enough insight to write about them. Many of these essays are longer than they need to be and include minutely crafted details that are very well written but skate the line of self-revelation and veer into something else entirely.
That something else is what keeps me up at night when I’m working on an essay.
In relationships, in therapy, the point is to be open and real, to dig more deeply and release resentment. To me, essays are about relationships and so similar guidelines apply. In relationships there are hurts and betrayals and fears and joys, but not all of those things are for public consumption–and really, should they be? A good essay, for example, will show how the resentment started and hopefully how shift in the author’s perception occurred, a perception that allowed the author to release the resentment and then write about it. These essays stay with us and as writers we’re proud of them, not because of the clicks and the compliments, but because of the changes we actually made inside and, secondly, our ability to document that shift in essay format.
What if “my truth” ends up not being “the truth” and someone else–not me as the writer–suffers? The fact is, I’ll suffer as well. The thing with some personal topics is that, because we ourselves are so inside the story, we have blind spots to it and to ourselves. When criticism comes (and it often does) we are thrown and hurt. We regret having gone public. With the internet, everything lives on. One way to look at the “why” of the personal essay is as a vehicle to understand our way out of the old stories we tell ourselves, and give them a richer, more universally personal meaning…on the page. That takes time because insight takes time to develop.
Certain stories need not be told. Others must be told. The question is, how to tell them. When it comes to personal essays, who is the story really about? The story, the essay, is always about the writer.
So, how can I reasonably maintain another’s privacy as I write about finding my own truth and a larger universal truth, especially when those people I mention in the essay helped me—knowingly or not—find it (perhaps the hard way, but still)?
Here are some ideas, some general guidelines I use for myself, and suggest my writing clients consider:
Keep the focus on myself. I focus on myself, on the lessons I learned—about me. Having this ground rule requires discipline, but it has helped me create works that go deeper and wider than I ever could have imagined.
Grasp the deeper meaning and higher purpose of “The Essay.” The personal essay is a true story that utilizes select personal details from my life, to reveal a lesson I learned that deepened my understanding of myself, that proceeds to reveal a greater, wider universal truth beyond me. So, it’s about me, but it’s also not about me (that’s the universal truth part).
No gossip. Don’t “write” behind someone’s back. I might not have learned a lesson or reality about myself had this person not been in my life.
The relationship comes first. I place the relationship, rather than the story of the relationship, as the priority.
The discomfort test. If a person mentioned in the essay reads the essay, the only reason I would want to feel true discomfort would be with what I reveal about myself.
Kids grow up and learn to read. Enough said.
Lay-my-head-on-the-pillow test. If a piece I’m writing is causing me so much anxiety and fear that I can’t sleep (yes, it’s happened), I put it aside and reevaluate later. Sometimes I’m anxious because I’m working out the meaning of a situation, other times I’m anxious because I feel/know that the piece is relying too much on the “shocking” details that might elicit page views today.
Finally, keep in mind, this is not about stifling your voice but in grounding yourself in self-discovery and documenting that with integrity.