“We and all the Muses are things of no account”
— W.B. Yeats, “The Curse of Cromwell“
Inspiration gushes from the strangest of wellsprings. If a reader asks the eternal question: Where do your ideas come from then inevitably the artist responds hard to say and then the circle closes and the ritual is complete.
The truth: Often we do know where our ideas come from, and what inspires us. To deny that we have some inkling of knowledge smacks of hackery; only the most cynical can write something worth reading or hearing or seeing without dipping into that well.
But unless you are both willing to listen to an artist for an indeterminate period of time and are someone we love and trust, you won’t get a good answer. (Depending on the vintage, however, a little drink could get you a great answer.) That’s because the ideas don’t appear fully formed and say “write me in this exact pose.” They show up like milkweed strewn on the wind, a seed here, a fluff there, a pod casing left behind. We pick and we choose from what lights up the synapses again and again, what makes us what to piece together story and sound and rhythm and rhyme and then – then we sit down to the actual work of making it all fit together properly.
We have to be inspired. We have to sip from that well. If not, we’re never going to get the damn thing done, not past the first “the end” through the third, fourth, fifth revision, beyond the critical eyes of others and the business eyes of still more. We have to be inspired, or we’d never get the first word on the page.
But that explanation doesn’t create a quick, easy cocktail event story. So much easier to say that you had a dream one night and you wrote it all down, or it’s based entirely on an incident in your childhood, or that a single person did something so wonderful it had to be told. Truth. And partial truth. And lie. It all rolls up into one.
Muses change their outfits every day. You have to look to chase yours down, and you have to know when to veer to one side and start drawing the version you want to live with, on your shoulder, in your book, for the next months and years. So when you hear that a character is based on someone who was once real, that’s likely true. It may have started as tribute, but like the Velveteen Rabbit, by the time it makes it to the finished page that muse is a whole other kind of Real. They have on a very different outfit than the one they wore when you met them all those months and years ago.
Hearing that Prince died last week knocked me to one side. I’m no expert in his work: I loved quite a lot of it, paid no attention to even more of it. He was without question one of the rare unique birds this world fails to fully appreciate until they are gone, though even while he was here Prince was a spectacle well-beheld. One of the best things that can be said about any artist is that they created on their own terms, and there was no question that Prince did that. He took a gallon jug to that well of inspiration, and filled it up again and again.
I read Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks years ago, after I’d written my own first draft of what I ultimately learned was called urban fantasy. She brought fae into the modern world and mixed them up with a band, which is exactly what I was doing, and I was envious: She got there early (1987) and did it so well and there I was with my lonely manuscript in 1995 that had no one to love it but me. I put mine away. Oaks came back into discussion among my social media crowd after Prince’s death; the Minneapolis-based Bull (who knows a few things about being in a band) not only referred to him in her book (“Nobody’s cuter than Prince” goes one line) but reportedly was inspired by the musician when writing about the trickster phouka.
Bull isn’t alone in finding inspiration in the musicians among us – Neil Gaiman is undoubtedly the king of such borrowing, having woven musicians from Annie Lennox to Tori Amos to Alice Cooper into his Sandman stories. Then there’s his self-admitted “fan fiction” of David Bowie in the shot story, “The Return of the Thin White Duke.” Sting, Amy Grant, the Winter brothers have all turned up as comic inspirations by other writers, and that’s before we even start discussing rock fan fiction.
Music and musicians exert a pull over the subconscious like few others in our world. We make them mysterious, enigmatic and larger than life – and that suits our fictional purposes. It reads well, and it looks good on camera. The ability to disappear into the moment of creation with a writer is soporific; that same blending/vanishing act, when performed on stage to a thumping beat and a heart-soaring melody, can be breathtaking. It is the closest thing we have to real magic in the world, watching the way a well-played song reaches out for our souls and plucks just a tiny bit before returning to its master. And we give, and give.
I was writing about musicians when I was still in middle school. You have a favorite band, you listen to a lot of songs, and if you’re me you make up music videos in your head. Those become stories and those stories then start knocking to be let out, put on paper, made real. When they do, you reach for the first characters you ever “invented,” the ones who inspired you in the first place: the music makers.
That middle school book was improbable, but it came quickly and I passed chapters around to friends or read them aloud on the phone to others. It was fan fiction on one level, and delightfully silly stuff, but the roots have stuck with me and may have a place in the future of what I’m writing. OK, no maybes; I’m picking that set-aside story again and it looks very little like the original.
When I fell into modern Irish music I was in my twenties, and my interest led me to take down a book of fairy and folktales collected by William Butler Yeats. His scholarly approach to the task, married with the tales themselves – in which good was not always rewarded and evil not always punished – was refreshing and put me on alert. I went to see a new favorite band play one night and the electricity of the evening, a show that went on for what felt like hours, with more energy than I’d ever seen poured out on stage before, was so life-altering that it still rings in my ears all these years later. And so I figured out my story, went home and dipped into the well and came up with characters I knew – and did not know at all. When I think of the characters I’ve created in my book, I think of my creations first – but I also feel the echo of their origins simultaneously, like the hall of mirrors at Versailles, endlessly reflecting back upon itself.
One of my favorite scenes in a movie is the moment in Working Girl where Tess is asked to explain how she got the idea for the merger she’s now being accused of having lifted from her boss. She pulls out a file folder of clippings that only make sense to her way of thinking and explains how it all came together to the big boss in what is literally an elevator pitch that ends when they reach her floor. I love this because while it is business related, it is how I think of how the ideas and the inspiration and the muses all come together: with a bunch of clippings from life that only make sense to you and would never translate to another. Tess is protected from a false claim of theft because only she can lead Thesus through the maze to reach the Minotaur.
I never wrote about Prince, unless you want to count the last few days of freelance stories. Fiction wise, never: It seems hard to imagine writing in any literal fashion about someone who was so sui generis. But it delights me to no end that someone else was, at least, inspired by his nature – and disguised it well. Prince was someone who made the earth move, who shifted your perspective while scandalizing your mind and making your feet move to his rhythm, to his rhyme.
And if that isn’t magic, I can’t imagine what is.
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word, “Life”
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
The after world
— Prince, “Let’s Go Crazy”
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