We are honored today to have Michael Sullivan, author of The Riyria Revelations series and all-around swell guy. (Check out his website.)
I know, the title of this sounds a bit like the name of someone’s poetry blog, or perhaps a novel about an artist obsessed with a woman he had seen briefly in a crowd. Actually, it’s the answer to a question that I’m frequently asked.
I suspect a lot of authors get this question in interviews or while at conventions and signings. It’s one that stumped me for a while—one that took far more time to figure out than I expected. It seems like a very simple inquiry, but those are often the hardest to answer. Why do people laugh? How high is up? This question follows in those traditions, but unlike ones that suggest a need for specialized education or research to attempt an answer, this question appears to be one I should know immediately. It is a question more like: what’s your favorite color? The question is deceptively complex, and I saw it as a potential trap until recently when I finally landed on a satisfactory answer. What I came up may not be the answer, it’s just mine. So what’s the question?
Where do you get your ideas from?
The tricky part is that the question isn’t where did you get this idea from, that would be hard enough, but what it’s asking is where do all your ideas stem from. The real answer is, “I don’t know. It just sort of came to me.”
I mean, why did I decide on pizza for lunch? Why did I wear the blue shirt rather than the green one today? And why is there no emote for shrug? These are impossible questions, but while no one really cares why I ate pizza, except maybe the pizzeria’s marketing department, and few are interested in my shirt color, where my ideas as an author come from are clearly a hot topic.
The answer, while mildly interesting to readers trying to get a better understand of their author, is taken more seriously by aspiring writers. They may consider this a well that they might like to find and dip their cup in, I guess. I mention this because the follow-up question is usually: how do you deal with writer’s block or a lack of ideas?
I think those asking the question make a fair number of assumptions. Romance novelists are hopeless romantics who never found true love. Science fiction authors wished they could be astronauts. One has to ask, if such a theory holds true, what would that make H.P Lovecraft or Poe? People like to get at the truth. They like to figure out the mechanics behind the magic trick. How is it done? What caused it? Can it be duplicated? My conclusion is that sometimes what appears to be magic, really is magic. Maybe one day scientists will figure out the workings of the human brain enough to explain the creation of an idea by some mathematical formula, but for now there is no explanation other than magic—or as I call it: A Frustrated Muse.
A muse is a goddess in Greek mythology who inspires creation. Daemons are similar, although less grandiose than muses. While still Greek, they are more popular in Roman culture. But both the concepts are the same—something other than the artist provides the idea, the spark, or since this is the modern era, the light bulb. In his recent book Incognito, David Eagleman suggests it’s our own sub-conscious. So whichever way you look at it, the idea appears to come out of nowhere.
I’m sure this is not the answer that people want, particularly those trying to replicate the process. So how do you find a muse or rouse your sub-conscious? As it turns out, this is easier than you might think.
You piss them off.
When I was trying to get published, I knew that the best chance I would have is if I could get my wife to help. Being a high school valedictorian with a degree in engineering, who went from a grunt programmer to president of a software company in four short years, you can see she tips the over-achiever scales and has a good mind for business. I knew if I asked her to help she might resist, or put out a half-hearted effort. After all she is a busy person and has other things to do. Knowing her as I do, I also figured that if I made an intentionally pathetic attempt she would be appalled, shove me aside, and demonstrate how to do it right. My theory worked and today I am a published author as a result.
Just imagine yourself watching someone struggle with a problem that you find simplistic or second-nature. Desires to demonstrate your skill, irritation at watching them fail, or compassion at their frustrations will eventfully motivate you to take action. I think the same principal comes into play with those muses and daemons. When you write, she is forced to sit by, looking over your shoulder, watching you screw up again and again. It’s got to be frustrating. You can almost imagine her doing repeated facepalms, shaking her head, or muttering obscenities under her breath. The words moron and hopeless may slip out. You hear them, not audibly of course but inside your mind, and it makes you want to give up. Most do. The true basket-cases ignore the insults and keep pressing keys. You keep struggling to create interesting characters, landscapes, and emotionally compelling plots…and keep failing.
Unbeknownst to you, you are also torturing your muse. Stop it! she cries, but you press on because you can’t stop. You’re a writer, even if no one cares, even if everything you put out is contrived, weak, clichéd and utterly hopeless, it’s who you are, and you can’t stop trying anymore than you can stop breathing. Try holding your breath—you’ll just pass out and start breathing again. Muses try to inspire you to use a plastic bag and a rubber band next time, only it doesn’t work. You just keep writing—badly. Copying others, imitating styles, you’re foolishly mired in being a mirror.
Then, one day the muse just can’t take it anymore. Uncle! You hear the faint whimper. She just has to make the pain stop. The endless parade of ghastly words must be fought. And if you won’t give up, then she will.
Here. An idea flares.
In mid-sentence your typing pauses, stunned. Whoa. That’s good! Fingers race. Words pour. It is as if someone is whispering in your ear. The whispering stops. You trail off, staring at the wall.
Oh for heaven sake! Really? You can’t take it from there?
More whispering and the words come again. When you’re done you’re breathless, exhausted and have no idea of the time. What just happened? How did you do that? Will you ever be able to do it again?
The next time you write the words don’t flow and you’re stuck again. Despair grips you. Eventually you just start typing miserably again. Whatever it was that you had has been lost. You’re hopeless again. The magic must have been just a fluke. But you’ve broken the will of your muse. She tries to resist, but each time you hammer away it takes less to frustrate them into helping. Her fight is gone, and they relent faster and with more frequency. The more you write, the less she resists. If you take a vacation, you let your muse rest. You give her time to recover and the next time you write she has the strength to rebel. Writer’s block can be as simple as letting a muse catch her breath.
This is why writers are encouraged to write every day. This is why even if you don’t know what to write, you just start typing until it comes to you. This is why muses and daemons hate NaNoWrMo.
Whether it is a muse, a daemon, or your sub-conscious, ideas come from frustration, from the need to do something the “right” way, or say what isn’t being said. This is the heart of passion, the drive of desire that gives birth to that spark, that light bulb—that idea that will prompt others to come to you one day and ask: where do you get your ideas from?
At this point, the weary head of the battered and beaten muse will lift with anticipation of recognition and listen carefully, and you will say…“I don’t know. It just sort of came to me.”