Never trust a muse; they are more like drug pushers than art mentors. They will lay on irresistible charm to woo and addict you; then they will stand you up at coffee shops. They will disappear when you need them most and they will return when you least expect it. They will kick off their flip flops as if they never left, drink up all the milk in the refrigerator, and play loud music at 3:00 a.m. I prefer mind maps to muses. Mind maps keep their appointments. They wear shoes. They let me sleep. That is why I fired all my muses and hired mind maps.
But I must confess: Sometimes I miss the muses; they flatter you as no one else can. There is something compelling about the feeling they give you, that you are experiencing a mysterious part of yourself normally beyond your grasp, that some electrifying creative connection is happening spontaneously. Somehow not having to work for a story or poem makes it seem magical — special. It is a gift; therefore, you must be “gifted.”
But a gifted self that depends upon the whims of a “muse” is unstable. Depending upon its uncontrollable magic means that sometimes the writer is gifted and sometimes not, yet artists yearn to define themselves by their most inspired moments, not the times that their muse stood them up to go asteroid surfing.
As much as I try to fight my urge to define myself by my wild bursts of creativity that come seemingly from nowhere, I find myself doing it sometimes anyway. And maybe it explains an irrational tendency, which has plagued me for much of my life, to envy former versions of myself.
I sometimes become unbearably jealous of “Yester-me.” I have envied other people, too, but the feeling is nowhere close to my raging, smoldering, all-devouring envy of Yester-me — a past self that, according to my stubbornly flawed memory, had it “all together.”
My retro-envy usually happens when I am having a bad day. Maybe I am out of coffee creamer. Or I have just reread a story I wrote and loved the day before, only to discover that I have vastly overestimated its suitability for the Nobel Prize. To escape the unbearable, I romanticize some part of my life that seemed to scintillate with hope, a time when not only did I know my most ardent dreams were coming true; they were inevitable, destined, etched into the cosmic blueprints of fate. No matter if I was manic at the time and possibly grandiose. This memory of my Other Self becomes my ideal. My Holy Grail. My apotheosis. I long to go back in time to recapture whatever it is I have lost in defiance of whatever has returned me to the sober prison of my ordinariness.
I am particularly susceptible on the days when my writing seems to plod. Usually my writing plods on windless rainy days when I have a dull headache, a day when not even my pain bothers to be dramatic. “This is my life now,” I think as I stare at raindrops slinking down the double glass doors. “I remember a time when everything was better. A time when I felt consistently awesome. How can I go back to that? How can I go back to being Old Me? How can I feel creatively euphoric all the time the way I used to?”
All it takes is a look at old journal entries to realize that there was never a time when I felt consistently awesome or “creatively euphoric all the time.” Memories lie.
However, there have been shining moments, so I will sometimes fixate on some past story I wrote and loved. I will strive to recall exactly how I felt while writing it. I will try to remember my maelstrom of inspiration; to recapture the winds of imagination and emotion; to recreate the way they converged into a single, irresistible storm of creative bliss. I will drive myself mad thinking of ways to replicate the exact conditions that led to “the Singularity,” the electricity, the thrill, and the magic.
I will try to remember the Secret. I will think, Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe I was actually miserable at the time of writing the story; maybe I need to look for ways to be more miserable! Luckily there are always things to be miserable about: global warming, the threat of killer robots, democratic world leaders who have decided not to “do democracy” anymore. Misery accomplished! But surely more than misery is required. Otherwise everyone would be Sylvia Plath. I ask more questions. Did it seem like I was writing in my head a lot during my inspired period? Everyone knows that the writing you do in your head bears the unassailable stamp of creative authenticity; in-your-head writing is compellingly honest; it wants to be written so badly it cannot even wait for writing implements!
I find myself working on the problem, “How can I write in my head more?”
I should know better. I have been down this path before. Envying Yester-me is a futile, soul-draining exercise that strips power from the present moment; it is a trap based on a lie. It pretends that Yester-me is an entirely different entity that has nothing to do with Present Me at all. It assumes that my best stories and best novels lie irretrievably in the past. But if I am writing every day and if I am fully engaged in what I am doing, why would I automatically assume I am getting worse instead of better?
And why do I assume that “writing in my head” is somehow superior to actual writing? There is another phrase for saying “writing in my head.” It is, “having thoughts.”
Although I like to think of myself as rational, commonplace yet distorted ways of thinking about writing have burrowed into the places where my deepest fears reside. And maybe fear is the real key to why I sometimes envy Yester-me. The past is known. All my frames of references come from there. But the future is a dark, freezing void of uncertainty. I always feel safer looking back than moving forward, yet every day, at every moment, time pushes me off the edge of the present and into the abyss of the unpredictable. To move forward in a meaningful way, I have to create a model in my head based on what I already know for a vision of the future that will move me toward my goals.
The good news is that, even though I can never become “Yester-me” again, I can still draw on past experiences for guidance.
Once, when I felt hopelessly blocked, I reached into the toy box of my childhood memories and retrieved something shiny that I could use. What I found was a lot of stories on wrinkly notebook paper penned by an exuberant ten-year-old, unselfconscious stories written from the points of view of dogs, fleas, and spiders; I remembered also writing vampire stories, ghost stories, and breathless suspense scenes, usually of girls a lot like me fleeing through woods at night from unimaginable horrors. The stories were colorful, humorous, and sometimes silly. They were where I had learned to love writing.
I realized that I had become so obsessed with doing everything right, with pleasing, that I had stopped having fun. I decided to start writing as an adult the way I had written as a child, for the fun of it, without fear of criticism, even if I never got published. I would let my inner ten year old out of her cage. The flow of ideas returned and I began to enjoy writing again. But something had changed since childhood: I understood a lot more about the writing craft than I had back then. I had read a lot of books about writing fiction over the years. I had practiced. That meant I was able to revise the work of my “inner ten year old” in a way “she” would have envied.
I did not have to actually become the ten-year-old I had once been, yet I was able to find my way to a new and unfamiliar place. Combining my childhood memories of lawless creative play with my knowledge of the craft made it possible. The way to avoid envying Yester-me is to move forward using the lessons of the past, rather than trying to return to it.
My fear of becoming a “worse” writer over time is really just another way of fearing the unpredictable. It assumes that I am helpless before the uncontrollable tidal waves of change the future is pushing my way.
But I have a choice. I can improve the quality of my work if I constantly challenge myself. I can write a flash fiction story entirely in the second person. I can write in a genre I usually avoid. I can write a story from the point of view of a politician I hate. If I challenge myself in a new way every day, I will certainly move forward, not backward.
The Muse Theory takes away my sense of control. The very idea of it assumes that fickle forces govern the abilities of an artist. And I must admit I have had the experience of feeling inspired suddenly, for no apparent reason, and it is always tempting to reach for that word, “muse” to describe the phenomenon. However, such spontaneous creative bursts are too unreliable to accommodate a daily writing schedule. That is why I fired all my muses. Muses miss too many days of work, whereas mind maps never fail to show. That is, drawing mind maps is a concrete action I can take to create the right conditions for inspiration rather than having to wait for it.
I do not need flaky divinities roller skating up my walls, nor do I need to become a previous and more naive version of myself. I need curiosity, a love for what I write, and courage. As long as I am actively learning and pushing myself beyond what I think I can do, I will never have a reason to envy “Yester-me.” Instead, I can make her my friend; instead of mourning my lost twin, I can hold her hand tight as I drop, at every moment, off the steep edge of the present and into the unexplored depths of the future.