August 7, 2012

writing practice: follow the muse

I like to begin at the beginning. You might have already gathered this about me by now.

The more I seek out my creative paths, however, the less clear the concept of a "beginning" becomes. Beginnings seem to shift in quality and definition, based on my circumstances and creative flow. The beginnings I am most comfortable and familiar with are structured, organized, and deliberate: "Here is my idea, I am going to begin at its beginning." But the further I travel down my path, the more often I find this approach does not work for me. Putting such pressure on that structured approach to "beginning" usually has the opposite effect: complete paralysis and despair.

When I sat down to write today, I had trouble focusing as distractions swirled all around me, taking every shape and form possible and completely monopolizing my thoughts and senses. My usual triggers did not work, adding to the noise instead. As I agonized over my distracted state, I was overcome with a desire to listen to the "Lost in the Trees" album which has captivated me lately. (Read more about that album here.) Even though I have been completely taken with this album, I have not listened to it much, because I find that the music sweeps me up and transports my attention fully into its lyrics and melodies, to the point that it is hard to focus on anything else. I have always chosen my "writing trigger" music based on my ability to remain focused on my words flowing through my consciousness and onto the page as I listen. My first response to my desire to listen to the album was to shut it down: "Not now! That will be counter-productive!" I began to chasten and scold myself for seeking distraction and avoiding my writing. But my desire kept nagging, in the form of a few-minutes-long internal conflict that I am most likely representing as much more dramatic than it could possibly actually be. Words were most definitely not flowing, and my distractions were growing louder and louder, and I finally gave in.

As I listened to the album, I felt my jaw soften, my shoulders relax and my neck lengthen, and my breath grew deeper in my chest and began to reach all the way to my limbs. The effect of giving over to my passion was like the best moments in my experiences with yoga practice. The music did sweep me up and captivate all of my conscious attention. But as my conscious mind connected with the stream of music flowing through my earbuds, my hand did choose in moments to move across the page as I completed my morning pages. My knotted thoughts began to loosen and untangle into full sentences as my subconscious mind grew inspired, too. The sentences paraded into my conscious mind heading all directions, most of them disconnected from one another, as they simply requested that I write them down. I recorded each thought on my Post-it notepad and then let them go again, to be picked up later. And it occurred to me: I was following my muse. 
I have heard about the concept of an artist's "muse," and what immediately comes to mind is the cliche of a beautiful, charming woman who captivates an artist's consciousness and inspires his or her art. (Multiple dictionaries I checked concurred, especially when referring to Muse with a capital "M.") A bit limited, if you ask me, but obviously, I am no expert on muses. Here are a few definitions that inspired me today, as I investigated this concept of the "muse." 
muse: n. 1) somebody who is a source of inspiration for an artist, especially a poet; 2) the inspiration that supposedly visits, leaves, and suggests things to an artist, especially a poet; 3) the particular gift or talent of an artist, especially a poet. (source: Encarta World English Dictionary, St. Martin's Press, 1999)
I have long believed that if we can learn to listen, we feel strong internal connections to all forms of art around us which indicate our current passions. Some of us naturally keep these passions at our surface, while others of us have to dig a little deeper, having buried them beneath so many other competing forces in our lives. I tend to grow obsessed with a particular album or song, a work that stands out among all of my constant favorites with a special quality that I cannot adequately articulate. My desire to hear the work becomes insatiable, and I can hear it over and over and over without the music losing its power. I have felt this way about favorite books, favorite foods, favorite movies or characters, favorite objects or even people. But until today, I have never once considered these passionate connections to represent my "muses," let alone to incorporate them into my practice. In fact, I had actually separated the muse from my practice. I believed that I would be inspired in one moment, and then leave that moment in order to enter the structure of my practice, hoping to carry the inspiration along inside somehow, so that it could travel with me onto the page. What if, instead, I were to "follow my muse" as my practice?

Ryan writes this way, and while I have always noted the difference in his process, I had chalked it up to the differences in our personalities. When he freewrites, he listens to music he really loves (without the specific 'qualifiers' I tend to choose for my own writing practice), and rests his fingers on his computer keyboard until the words begin to come. Sometimes pages and pages of words will come to him - sometimes just one single phrase. Though he doesn't necessarily articulate it this way, his practice always begins with "following his muse." 

My art is different from his: when he needs to complete a song, it is his own music he must play in order to organize and accomplish his writing. When I need to organize my thoughts in my own work, I prefer music that can fade into my subconscious. But I am inspired to try something new when I am locked up and blocked, when I feel like there is no clear way to begin. I will give myself permission to listen to a song or album, or re-read a passage of a book I loved, or even watch a film. And now, I will not hesitate to call these sparks of passion my "muses," and then perhaps I will be reminded to follow them more often. I will allow my sense of "beginnings" to include a new definition: I will begin by following my muse, and see where I am led from there.

What are your current "muses?" Do you practice giving yourself over to them to see where they might lead you next? If you tend to be more strict and structured in your work, like I do, I hope you will relinquish your sense of order and control sometime soon and see how your mind might reward your indulgence in your muse.

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