On Muses: The Process of Learning by Writing
It amazes me what you can learn by starting to write something. While I’m trying to very hard to plot carefully, and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about big plot elements and moving things around and being as clear as I can be with myself about everyone’s motives, still the discovery method rears its random head when I actually sit down to write.
I’m not a fan of the concept of the muse. My characters are my own, I invented them, they can’t do or say anything that I don’t imagine them saying (at least, so far, since I have not spawned any fanfiction universes). I get a bit bored when people talk as if their characters lead different lives outside of the writing, or are talking to them personally, or need to be cajoled or prodded into action, so on and so forth. And yet.
I find that I learn so much about a character once I start actually writing them. I can plan them out all I want, but writing seems like actually becoming them, or thinking like them, really getting into their psyche in a way that isn’t as precise in the planning stages. Because once I start writing a character I sometimes get completely new vibes off them. Rather than attributing this to a muse, or to some disembodied version of the character who knows me and can chat with me (I don’t know how people manage this; if my character knows I exist, the plot falls apart because then they know they’re fictional, and it’s a paradox, and argh), I’m attributing it to learning from writing.
I have two examples of this. I have a character who is bisexual. I have always known this about him, and there has never been a moment where I have strayed from that early conviction about his character. But one of the things I never wanted to write about was him telling his parents. I didn’t want to write a coming out story, it’s not the focus of this plot, and just the idea of that conversation made me tired. I just felt there would be drama and there’s enough drama in the book without that sort of thing. I’d rather have his parents die off before he felt any need to mention it. His parents are so committed to a very traditional way of life, I just didn’t see them ever accepting anything so non-traditional.
But then I started writing his dad. Nothing terribly dramatic, just a brief but serious conversation which has already been edited out. But in writing a simple bit of dialogue I just got that this bisexuality revelation wouldn’t break him or throw him into a frenzy. It just wouldn’t, he would just be happy that everyone was healthy and alive and at peace with the world, nothing else would matter. It was just startlingly clear to me. And what a shock, after all my planning told me not to broach this subject between these characters. Now, I haven’t tried this trick with his mom yet. But his dad at least would be on his side in a heartbeat. I’m not even sure they’ll have this conversation. I’m not sure his parents will ever know. But I learned something important about this character I just would not have known until I got inside his head by writing him.
The other thing I’ve been doing, here and there, is writing short scenes in first person present tense. I have such a love/hate relationship with it. In general I don’t like the first person OR the present tense. I feel like if you’re going to go first person present tense you have to write very conversationally, because it’s got to be 100% dialogue. Even when it’s not dialogue, first person is your character talking, even in her/his head. And generally speaking people don’t talk description. People don’t sit there and muse about things with adverbs and adjectives. They think conversationally, actions and people. So if I’m going to write first person present tense, I’m going to do it like a monologue.
But I’ve been writing short scenes to answer my own questions. Things happen in the story and I ask myself, how new is this or that? What’s so-and-so’s experience with X or Y? And these questions spawn these little monologues in the first person, between one character and another. (Not me. No no not ever to me! It’s my question but I guess I put it in the mouth of a character he would feel comfortable with, comfortable telling, and work from there.)
It’s weird to go from writing third person past tense to first person present. Suddenly you have this voice to deal with and that’s really quite interesting. I guess it’s like writing extended dialogue, but I find myself really learning about a character by doing this. What words would he use? How would he structure this story that he’s telling? Is he entirely factual? Does he go back and add his later interpretations of things, and does he recognize that he’s doing that? Does he gloss over things? And I guess the odd part about it is that I don’t seem to consciously ask those questions. I just try it, and do it. Learning as I go.
It’s amazing, really, how much you know about a story that never shows up in the story itself.
I’m not going to say I work with muses. But I can see where the idea comes from.
0 thoughts on “On Muses: The Process of Learning by Writing”
I’m having the opposite experience, though I’m not really doing anything serious, just NaNoWriMo. That is: it seems like my subconscious is a much better writer and storyteller than I can ever manage to be consciously. So I’m writing absolutely blind, and I have no clue what’s going to come out each time I sit down to write. More boring details on my blog.