I think most writers and artists of any creative field would agree on this one. Very often we all get stuck groping for a word, the right phrase, or maybe we’ve just come up bone dry on ideas. The more we rack our brains to find the perfect solution to express what we need, the more elusive it seems. Most often, the best thing to do is just leave it and move on to something else. Some of us even request it out loud with an, “Okay, I need a better word here—help!” When we do this we’re invoking our MUSE to “inspire” us. Usually, it only takes a minute for the answer. Who is this Muse? Could it be the spirit of a late author guiding us from the other side? Or…
Originally, the word muse was derived from Ancient Greek: (Mousai); and perhaps from the Proto-Indo-European root word meaning mental—as in think, and then later adopted in Roman times. In Greek Mythology, the Muses represented the nine inspirational goddesses of literature, science and the arts. A museum was the place where statues of the Muses were once displayed and worshipped. Later it came to refer to a place for the public display of knowledge and the arts. Even in modern English usage we still regard a Muse to be someone who inspires writers, artists and musicians. The words amuse and music also comes from this word.
For writers, the mythological Muse who was thought to sit on our shoulders whispering in our ear was called Calliope. She was not only the superior Muse among other Muses, but was said to accompany kings and princes in order to impose justice and serenity (she wears a laurel wreath on her head). Writers (at least this one) might say she is still imposing justice and serenity on us by doing justice to our prose and giving us the benefit of serenity when we get that AHA moment. Calliope was also the protector of epic poems and rhetoric art (she carries a writing tablet in one hand). In Greek mythology, Homer is said to have asked Calliope to help him write the Iliad and the Odyssey. I hope she charged him by the word.
Calliope has helped this writer more times than I can remember because I’m a real stickler for the perfect word or phrase. I am not one of those writers who just zips through the first draft without revising. I edit as I go along, and edit, and edit. Then, edit again through each draft. You may wonder why she didn’t just suggest the final word/phrase the first time to me. Well, it’s because she’s a woman, and as a woman, she can always find a way to improve anything.
She’s also very slick at overcoming writer’s constipation, otherwise known as “writer’s block.” I had gotten off to a poor start with something I was working on. It just wasn’t flowing. I kept giving it a rest, and coming back to it—nothing. Three attempts at introductions and no grand entrance. I had too much going on in my life at the same time, so I dropped it for a week. Suddenly, one morning I was rudely awakened by everything all worked out for the beginning of the plot in perfect order and making much more sense. Plus, when I started writing dialogue for one of my main characters, someone else showed up on the page. And, her personality fit the plot so much better.
Was that actually just my subconscious working on the problem as I slept? According to research, inspiration only explains the neural transmission (part of a cognitive restructuring mechanism), not the origin of creativity itself. Insight is what precedes inspiration. It leads us from a state of not knowing how to solve a problem to a state where we know how to solve it. That AHA moment, which seems to appear suddenly from beyond yourself, is actually the result of a spark of high gamma (brain waves) activity that spike one third of a second to 8 seconds before you receive the insight for the answer. These gamma waves stem from the brain’s right hemisphere (right frontal cortex) in an area that involves the executive functions needed to perform shifting mental states and handling associations by reassembling the parts of a problem. This constellation of gamma neurons (billions of them with quadtrillions of synapses) forms the network leading to the pathway that creates your solution.
The brain needs to be rested enough to perform its functions properly though. This would explain why an over-taxed brain gets blocked. When we meditate, breathe deeply, take long walks, and especially when we get enough sleep the brain is able to strengthen its neural pathways. “Sleep on it” is very good advice.
So whether it’s Calliope or my own brain that keeps on working long after I think I’ve shut it off, I don’t care. Writing is a lonely enough pursuit and I welcome the help from wherever it comes—just not that early in the morning before I have coffee.
P. J. Woods is the author of the Harper Simone Mystery Novels. You can keep up with Pat at her website: http://pjwoodsauthor.com or her professional website for editing manuscripts at: http://bonmotsandprosepublishing.com.