I try not to be a contrarian, but sometimes it can’t be helped.
Lots of romance writers talk about “the Girls in the Basement,” (thank you, Barbara Samuel!) as a reference for pure inspiration. The inspiration can come in a lot of forms, such as for a story idea, a word choice, an image, or just the desire to park your bum in the chair and get writing. We usually equate this inspiration with the idea of the Muses from the Greek myths and as invoked by the great historian poets, such as Homer.
The Muses (sometimes 3, sometimes 9) were considered the keepers of knowledge. This knowledge was of science, literature, art, history, etc. The word “muse” comes from the Greek, mousai, and may have its origins in the word meaning “to think.” (When we muse about the Muses, we’re using our thinking to think about the thinkers.)
But for me, the “Girls in the Basement” are not Muses. They aren’t Greek, they aren’t mystical, I’m not sure they’re female or even a “they.” But for shorthand’s sake, I call the inner creative font “the Girls” because that’s comfortable for me.
Let me explain more fully what I mean by the Girls, and then feel free to pick whatever term works for you.
Where do books come from?
Years ago, when I first determined to write professionally, I attended a three-hour workshop called How To Write a Book in Six Weeks or Less. The workshop speaker* made one of those life-changing statements you hear from time to time.
If you want to write a book, you’ve already written it. You just have to get it onto the page.
This was one of the most liberating statements about writing I’d ever heard. It changed overnight how I perceived the creative process, and has continued to reverberate in my thinking ever since.
What this statement really says is three-fold:
- The book you want to write already exists inside you in all its fullness and glory.
- Your desire to write the book means the creative space within is ready to let the story emerge into the world.
- Figure out what the hell gets in the way of that emergence, then remove the obstacle.
The fun and empowering parts? Numbers 1 and 2 above.
The part where we get hung up on self-sabotage? Number 3.
But if we think about the creative process in terms of removing obstacles rather than adding on motivation or willpower or self-discipline, suddenly we’re playing in a whole new ballgame. We’re starting from a place of empowerment rather than a place of lack.
Another important point is that it doesn’t matter “where the book comes from” — only that it is here, ready to emerge. The end. It requires no justification or motivation (though we often try to justify ourselves when confronted with skeptics and naysayers), but simply is.
How my Girls work
Everyone’s inner creative font works differently, but I think there are some broad similarities we can suss out.
The Girls speak softly and carry a big stick. Since they already know the story, they like to nudge us in the right direction. Sometimes they nudge a lot, and sometimes a little, but they’re more like guard rails on the highway than the lines on the road. We can drive all over the road, change lanes, and even drift onto the shoulder, and they’ll just squeak at us and give us the odd sense that something’s not quite right with the scene.
But try to drive off into the woods, and the Girls will kick up a fuss by shutting down our “inspiration” to write or stirring up a strong sense of wrong around a particular scene or character development. This usually results in either rewriting or chucking scenes, chapters, or even entire novels.
The Girls work at the micro and the macro level, often simultaneously. I’ve learned to pay attention to those writing moments when a tiny detail pops out whose origins and rationale I’m not sure of. In the Promise House book, Ruth, the main character gives one of her housemates a warning in the first chapter (“You may end up seeing something you wish you hadn’t,” she says) that just came out as I was writing. I had no idea at the time what Evelyn’s story would be, but it turns out the conflict in Evie’s book (in progress now) is very much about her discovery she’s in the middle of something she’d rather not be a part of.
You can see how a minuscule detail can illuminate a much larger concept, theme, or character journey. If we’re able to pay attention to those nudges and hints as we pound away at the keyboard, we can take advantage of the gems the Girls have for us. There is always a gem.
The Girls enjoy delighting us with surprises. I don’t particularly mind if I don’t know every last detail about my characters when I start a new project. Part of the fun of leaving the minutiae unknown is the discovery! The Girls seem to delight in that as well, and will suddenly wake us up in the middle of the night with a stray thought, an insight, or a solution that is both inspiring and energizing.
If I had more time…
…I could talk all day about removing obstacles, maintaining one’s close relationship with the Girls, and embracing their process. But this particular article is long enough already, so check back next month for Part 2 of We are not a-Muse-d.
* I have searched in vain for my old workshop notes and again online for the workshop speaker’s name. I’d love to give her all the credit she deserves for transforming my thinking about writing. If you happen to read this, Dear Workshop Presenter, you have my profound gratitude.
Sandra K. Moore has been writing one thing or another since she could scribble on a Big Chief tablet. A former Silhouette Bombshell author, Sandra has given up (temporarily) the kickass heroine and is now writing from her softer side for the self-published Promise House series. This novella quartet explores the journeys of four young women finding their way — and remaining true to themselves — through the social expectations and turmoil of 1950’s Houston.