Michaeline: Following Your Muse

18th century cartoon of Apollo and several muses chastising a fat, half-naked Dr. Pomposo.

Follow your muses, dammit. Don’t make them come after you! (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I was catching up on some podcasts, and listened to a segment about Otis Redding on NPR. 

Otis Redding was one of those artists – he influenced his field, he hit the top and played with all the big stars, then died early. His posthumous hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, is an enduring anthem to all of us who sit spinning our wheels for some brief period.

But the thing is, Otis Redding didn’t start out as Otis Redding. In the interview above, biographer Mark Ribowsky said Redding had a rocky start.

“He was so emboldened to try to get his career started that he went to L.A. on his own and tried to make it there in 1959, and was a total bust. I dug up a few of the guys who he recorded for in L.A. — they knew he had talent, but he didn’t have the right material, because he was trying to be another Little Richard or sound like another Jackie Wilson.”

In other words, he wasn’t following his muse, yet, he was following someone else’s.

“When Otis started doing Otis is when it all started happening, and that happened when he had his audition in Memphis for Stax. He sang ‘These Arms of Mine,” and the earth moved when he did that,’ Ribowsky told NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to be said for imitation. We learn our chops by imitating great writers, and borrowing their plots and little devices. It’s only when we start recombining things in our own way that we can really be said to follow our muse.

Or maybe it’s a matter of wrestling with our muse – attacking and putting that muse in a stranglehold until we choke out her very best ideas and music.

Nobody talks about giving our muses small bites of chocolate brownies and sips of wine, and seducing her into a creative orgasm.

I digress. At any rate, success comes when we be our best selves, not someone else’s best selves. Right? Maybe. Anyway, let’s give it a shot this weekend. Let’s write as our best selves, our best muses.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Following Your Muse

  1. Michaeline, this! So much THIS! You’ve captured the essence of disparate thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for the past few weeks and are slowly coalescing into my sense of the supreme importance of individual authorial voice. I plan to write a post about it in a few weeks, when I can organize my thoughts into something coherent.

    In the meantime, I might seek out a recording of Dock of the Bay (it’s one of those perfect summer afternoon songs, isn’t it?) and feed my muse chocolate and wine (weirdly, she gets fed via my digestive tract) while communing with my 1870s heroines who have grown ovaries of steel and are out to save the world in my historical romance series.

  2. Oh my, Michaline, thank you for this! I’ve been working so hard at trying to follow the “rules” and at the same time trying to keep up with what others are doing that I almost completely lost my way. I did a word count the other day and since McD, I’ve written over 120,000 words on Cheyenne’s story (yes, you read that right). Except that most of those words are not part of the story I want to write. So for the past few weeks I’ve been weeding through the muck and shit-canning 60% of those scene because while they were fun to write, they have nothing to do with where my muse has been leading me all along.

    At some point I would imagine that Otis got tired of ignoring the music in his head (or maybe he simply couldn’t do it anymore) and said, screw it, this is me, like it or lump it.

    That’s where I’m at now, too. I’d rather dump 100,000 words then continue writing a story that pales in comparison to the one in my head. So I’m writing the story I want to write. It’s hard. It’s going to take even more time and in the end it might not be marketable. People might hate it. But screw it. This is me. Like it or lump it.

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  4. This is such a classic dilemma — if you write like everyone else, the critics yawn and say, “Ah, she’s (he’s) just like everyone else.” If you are kinda weird, people on the first read say, “Ew. Kinda weird. Not sure if I like it.” If you are totally weird, you are either shunned or lauded as a genius — it’s a total gamble.

    We might as well have fun doing it. (-: Kay has said this all along.

    • (-: Very true — I know they haven’t done any studies, but it’d be very interesting if they did. After how many hours/thousands of words does the realization that one is mimicking come in, usually? And how much further until one finds real voice?

      For me, one of the few really interesting things about Terry Pratchett’s very first novels is noting that these are not his real voice — he’s trying to “write like an SF author”, I think. Once he finds his voice, though, his ideas also shine through.

      I don’t know if that’s really about voice, per se. Perhaps some inner critic was telling him, “You can’t make Sentient Luggage into a major character.” And once he decided, “Stuff it, why not?” maybe then he was able to find the voice. Because Sentient Luggage doesn’t follow standard fantasy tropes. Perhaps voice follows the courage to talk about what you really want to talk about.

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