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5 Fool-Proof Ways to Put your Muse to Work

July 14th, 2012 Matt Leave a comment Go to comments
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Are you at the mercy of your Muse? Do you wake at night drenched in sweat, the icy fingers of a nightmare still clinging to your heart? A nightmare where you’re alone in a cold desert, digging in the dirt for just one idea (and you have no pants on)? Fear not, the Muse can be tamed! This is your oasis!

But first, as we’ll be speaking about inspiration, the inspiration for this post comes from an episode of The Creative Penn. Joanna Penn was talking to creative genius Phil South about creativity, and it made me consider what I’ve learned about fostering creativity since I started this blog. Go check out the podcast, because there’s a lot of great, specific advice there!

Once upon a time, I was one of those awful teenager things, and wasted my time even more than I do now. During that time, I fancied myself as something of a creative genius – I always seemed to be coming up with new ideas. My Muse was there with me, sitting on my shoulder and whispering things in my ear.

By the time I decided to take writing more seriously (many years later), that fickle fairy had up and left, returning only very occasionally. Maybe he’d decided if I wasn’t going to do anything with these flashes of inspiration, he’d go somewhere else? Down the pub perhaps.

It might be that the teenage mind has better access to the Muse phone line (for some reason I’m imagining a purple version of the Batphone in Commissioner Gordon’s office); it might be that my head had more space, more freedom to create (more on that later).

bat phone

"You're right, Chief O'Hara. Once again we haven't the wit nor ideas to see this case through. Muse, we need you!"

Whatever the reason, I have to try harder to coax the Muse back from the Queen’s Head so we can sit and have a chat, but it can be done! Here’s how…

For a Start, Write Stuff Down

It’s just common courtesy isn’t it? If you get a bit of inspiration, jot it down somewhere.

My memory is bloody awful, and I know it. But frankly, no matter how good you think your memory is, you don’t know how many ideas you’re getting if you’re not recording them somehow. Who knows, maybe you are still that creative genius you were when you were younger, you just don’t know it.

And even if you’re not prolific at all, better to capture as many as you can. In fact, it makes it even more important! Each idea is that much more precious because it’s rare. If you’re worried your idea pool is going to run out, better to have a list of ideas you can go to in a time of drought, no?

I have a notebook that’s just for ideas. One page per idea. I also save the back few pages for a list of quick “what ifs”, which is great fun and highly recommended. I started the journal in February 2011 and there are 29 ideas in there. Some of them are even good. Now that’s not an astronomical number by anyone’s standards, and I’m sure I missed some because I didn’t have my notebook on me at the time or whatever. But I’m positive about half of these ideas would have disappeared into the ether without it.

Serve Your Muse Inspiration, Education, and Cakes

Basically, fill your brain up with as much stuff that interests you as possible. You can even try stuff that doesn’t interest you – it doesn’t hurt to try, and you may find something new to geek out over, or an unusual angle on a story.

I listen to podcasts every day on my walk to work. There’s a list of writing-specific ones in the sidebar, but I also listen to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Astronomy Cast, The Infinite Monkey Cage, The Guardian’s Music Weekly, For Good Reason and Science Talk. You may notice a leaning towards science there. You may also wonder how I keep up with them all. Answer: I don’t.

I also read articles on the interwebs, normally because they have found me on Twitter. Social networks are a great way of sharing and receiving information that interests you, and that is peppered with topics and articles you would not have thought to read otherwise.

In fact the web has completely transformed the way we consume information and what’s available to us. Check out documentaries on the various TV catch up services like BBC iPlayer; find fascinating videos on youtube (it’s not all lolcats and Call of Duty you know); research very specific topics on Wikipedia… the list is endless.

You could even go on a course – get a degree from a learn at home service like [The Open University].

Then there’s you know, reading books. Or watching movies.

Your excuse can never be, “I can’t find anything”. The real problem is there are too many wonderful sources of inspiration out there! If only we didn’t have to waste time sleeping!

Your Muse loves space/downtime

After all those lovely cakes your Muse likes some downtime to digest everything. This was talked about in the podcast I mentioned earlier. Exercise was discussed and is advocated by many as a great time to blot out the world and let your mind wander, lulled into inspiration digestion by the pounding rhythm of your feet.

So yes, a run, or a walk, or some other relaxing activity. A long bath might be good. Hell, vegging on the sofa and staring into space is good too, just make sure the TV is off (side note: Joanna Penn has even got rid of her TV(!), but I would not go that far – there’re too many great shows at the moment and I feel like it would be cutting me off from a genuine source of inspiration. Then again, there’s so much about from other sources, it’s worth considering).

dirty trainers

A good run. Image courtesy of Phil and Pam on Flickr.

I haven’t got down time sorted yet. If I find myself with a spare minute, I am usually reading on my iPod or listening to a podcast. It frustrates my wife sometimes to see me scrolling through an article when she’s watching some trash on the TV. “You always have to be doing something.” Yes, and I plan to fix it. Maybe with an early morning run. It won’t be every day, but it’s better than nothing.

Your Muse loves Work

Contradictory? Not at all as it turns out.

Phil South talks about creativity requiring “grit”; how any ideas you have require hard work and dedication to bring them to fruition. That’s true of course, but I want to talk about how the act of putting pen to paper fosters creativity.

We have all been in the situation where we are not exactly clear what we are going to write… until we do. Sometimes it takes time out to put the pieces together as above, but other times it takes work. Write, and new ideas spring forth, connections are made, and problems solve themselves.

The purest form of this kind of work is free writing – simply sitting down and writing whatever comes into your head. Pure creativity.

Moreover, write regularly, and you are training your brain to be creative. You will find that the more you write, the more capable you are of writing, and the more easily those small ideas (quirks of a character; descriptions of places; subtle connections) come to you during the act of writing. At least, that’s been my experience so far.

Some people say that if you’re “not in the mood” you shouldn’t write. That sounds to me like a very good way of getting out of the habit of writing. Find what works best for you of course, but if you want my advice, write anyway and you might be surprised to discover that the act of writing puts you in the mood.

Get a disciplined routine

This, I guess is where that grit comes back into play. Your routine is your structure around creativity. Counter-intuitive? Perhaps. Most people think of creativity being only a spontaneous thing, not something you can structure or foster. Maybe a trip to India would help, combined with mind altering drugs, man, but surely not something as pedestrian and dull as a routine?

Consider this: your Muse is like your average Springer Spaniel. The dog comes bounding up to you, tail and tongue wagging, a flurry of boundless energy; a free-spirit; a happy-go-lucky ball-fetcher who lives for the moment.

jumping dog

Officially the best picture of a dog on the internet, because I say so. Image courtesy of TheGiantVermin

But like any dog, a Springer Spaniel benefits massively from a routine. Meals at set times, at least one walk every day; rules, restrictions. A happy dog knows his/her place, knows when and where its next meal is coming from. Your Muse is the same, and will visit you regularly if you can build all of the above into a maintainable routine.

Make sure that you do write every day, that you do give yourself some downtime, or exercise, and that your Muse knows when and where the next biscuit of inspiration is coming from. You’ll soon generate a pavlovian response that gets your Muse drooling, ready to slobber creative genius all over your manuscript.

Over to you:
Are there any other ways you foster creativity? What about sources of inspiration that you’ve found particularly useful? Maybe you work for a phone manufacturer and you want to make a purple Musephone. Put it all in the bucket o’ comments below.