You Must Feed The Owlets Of Inspiration
I can’t stop watching this goddamn owl.
Er, not that owl.
Yesterday on the Twittertubes, Fred Hicks said something about an owl with its owl-babies, and I was like, “Wuzza? Owl? Aroo? The fuck?” and then I made with the clicky-clicky and — whammo! The Owl Box. Which, at last check, was being visited by 16,000 viewers at that moment. All checking out a barn owl and its barn owlets.
Cute. Strange. Compelling.
Only half the point, though.
Point is, I sat there watching this owl (I seriously lost an immediate 15 minute period the first time I opened it — no fireworks, no transforming robots, no celebrity porn, just an owl and its freshly-hatched baby nestlings in a wooden box, and there I am glued to the screen as she feeds them rabbity bits and micey bits and they screech and she chirrups), and I’m thinking, “Hot damn, I’d love to include an owl in a book.”
And next thing I know I start thinking back to when I was a wee tot and how everything in the world scared the Pee Diddy right outta me — seriously, I’d see shadows outside and see a witch’s hands, I’d hear crickets and wonder if they were going to eat me, I’d look to the door of my bedroom and imagine that a serial killer was going to chop me into little bits. (No idea why at that age I had any idea what a serial killer was, but — hey! I did. Too bad.) Except, one thing comforted me: a hoot owl nestled in the knot of a tree sitting directly across from my bedroom window. The owl would poke his head out, and all you could see was his face, even at night, and he’d just… fucking hoot. Probably annoying, but I loved it. I don’t know why. My child brain invented this protective quality to owls in general, and to this one in particular. Nothing could hurt me as long as the owl was present. And that owl was present for years. Seriously. It was like being guarded over by a vigilant totem spirit.
Did you know that some owls can live for 50 years or more? Truth.
Also, the barn owl is something referred to as a “ghost owl” or a “demon owl.”
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “What the fuck is this guy talking about? I hoped he’d be talking about inspiration, and yet here we are getting all moist over owls. Did I miss something?”
You did. But that’s not your fault.
I follow a link, I see an owl, and suddenly my mind is bursting with ideas.
That’s inspiration. It’s an important tool in the writer’s kit. So let’s talk about it.
You May Think Me A Grumpy Hardass…
…prooooobably because I am. I shake my fist at words like “muse” and “inspiration” because those things are often used as excuses. You can Wait For Godot all you want, but that fucker isn’t going to show up, and he damn sure isn’t coming with a box of donuts and the motivation to work on your latest project (but you will be left with the rope you can use to hang yourself). Not only are these elements an excuse to keep you from working on your latest manuscript, but they’re also the excuses that writers use to hop from one manuscript to another.
This is stuff I’ve talked about again and again.
And so, it likely seems I am anti-muse and angry at inspiration.
At SimCon, during my “writing for the game industry” talk, someone asked me about what inspires me, what about my muse, etc.
I remain anti-muse. The muse is a paper succubus; she’s just a ghost. You rely on something so arty and ephemeral as a muse, and you might as well try to subsist on handfuls of dirt while pretending they’re life-giving cupcakes.
Inspiration, though? That I believe in. I’m not anti-inspiration. That’s like being anti-puppy or getting angry at ice cream.
What’s my deal, then?
The Stink Of Your Own Slothfulness
They rely on it.
Which is the same thing as waiting for someone to come change your diaper. Sure, it’d be nice if someone would do that for you. But you’re asking a lot of the world, aren’t you? Your pants are heavy with your own waste. Change them. Be proactive.
Waiting for inspiration is a “best case scenario,” and it is unwise to rely on best case scenarios. It’s setting a condition that is unlikely to occur.
Further, if you accept inspiration as a force outside yourself, you are subject to its whims. To go back to the stenchworthy metaphor, if you wait around for someone to come change your diaper, you are now subject to that person’s diaper-changing technique. It might be a big sweaty guy with rough, callused hands. Maybe he just ate a hoagie, and now he stinks of vinegar and garlic. Maybe he’ll take off the dirty diaper but he replaces it with, say, a burlap sack, or a live badger. Waiting for someone to perform that task for you, you are now given over to external forces.
Same goes with inspiration. You give yourself to it, and inspiration becomes your master.
You become its bitch.
Be A Clever Monkey — Own Your Inspiration
Move inspiration from being an external force to an internal one.
Get grabby with it. Hands-on. Molest your inspiration into the shape you desire and demand.
That’s not really helpful, is it? Too abstract? Oblique? Obtuse?
Let’s say you go to the eye doctor. He does that thing where he slams the giant steampunk eye machine up to your face and he flips lens after lens to help you determine the best clarity: “This one? Or this one? This one? Or this one? Clear? Not clear? Read the chart. This one? Or this one?” And on and on.
You need to be open to inspiration.
But you also need to measure that inspiration against everything else. You need to go through that eye doctor bullshit where you hold the inspiration up against your current work and say, “This one? Or this one? Does this fit? Does this not fit? Does this help me read the fucking chart, or is everything blurry?”
See, because what happens is, we step into the stream sometimes and we’re washed away by it. You can’t be washed away. You must stand firm.
You must control the flow.
You must measure it.
You must examine the inspiration and say, “Is this bauble useful to me? Can I incorporate it?” Because if you can’t? Fuck it. Throw it in a drawer for later. You’ll find use for it. Write a note. Make a journal entry. Pop it into Evernote or Dropbox or as a margin scrawl in your favorite notebook.
Be awash in the magic and mystery of inspiration, but then drag that magical fairy back to the world in which you live and hold her feet to the irons.
That little twat works for you. You don’t work for her.
Advanced Technique: Happy Inspiration Ninja!
The world is like a giant Magic Eye painting. You adjust your perception just right, and suddenly the image comes into view — it’s Rambo riding a dolphin! It’s a unicorn on a surfboard! It’s Dogs Playing D&D! (Please, someone paint that for me. I’ll pay you. I mean, not a lot. But it’ll be money in some culture. You like wampum, right? Beads and shells, bitches. Yeah.)
You can adjust your perceptions and train your brain so that the inspiration you receive is closer to the inspiration you need.
It’s some crazy Zen shit, but it works.
Your subconscious mind is all yours. So force it to dance. Shoot at its feet. Ring a bell every time you put out food and watch that sumbitch drool.
If you have a WIP (work-in-progress) that’s… erm, in-progress, then when you’re done your writing for the day, literally ask yourself questions about it. Or, just think real hard about your manuscript. Noodle that shit. Get it all up in there. And then walk away. And stop thinking about it.
You’ll find that the inspiration that reaches your brain and triggers that “oh, holy shit!” response is likelier to fit into the weave and weft of your WIP rather than serving as a distraction to another project.
Me, I’ve got this new WIP I’m noodling, a YA-thingy that has this young love slash bad romance slash sci-fi slash ancient gods slash occult weirdness broth going on, and so I’m on the lookout for new ingredients to go into the soup. In my old notes regarding this work, I clearly have a thing for birds, except, I didn’t feel the notes were quite in-line with what I needed yet.
What comes along?
I didn’t realize it when I was looking at it, but as soon as my brain started running toward it, babbling and jabbering, I knew. I had something. Something I could use. I was inspired, but I was inspired in the right direction, in a way that remains currently useful. It’s like I trained my brain to go get me coffee, and it did.
I’m not saying to turn yourself off to all other inspirado. I still see things all around me that ping my radar in ways that are not immediately useful, and so I try not to get excited and I calmly place those Very Cool Things into a secondary place for later where they can serve my needs. I means I don’t have to rely on it, but when it happens, it’s distinctly in the category of “value-added.” But what I find is, if I program my brain properly, it returns far more often with actionable elements for the WIP.
That’s pretty awesome, you ask me.
You might even call it –
(wait for it)
(wait for it)