On inspiration, and what I’m doing while the muses are talking to other people
You know those writers who talk about how their characters just speak to them and tell them the story? How they’re not in charge, they’re really just taking dictation? These people make me nervous. (When it comes to writing, many things make me nervous. The copious quantities of time I always manage to spend not writing. The copious clumsiness of so many of the things I produce when I do. Reading certain passages in wonderful books, which make me think both I am so overjoyed that someone did that and why do I even bother?) Listening to the dictation-takers’ dreamy-eyed accounts, my nervousness is mixed with envy. The experience they are describing just sounds so much easier than the way I go about things. My characters are, apparently, lacking in initiative. They usually just kind of sit there until I make them say and do things, and often it takes me a very long time to figure out what those things should be. If there are muses, they have chosen other people to talk to. I have been repeatedly stood up.
That being said, I’ve discovered something. It is a very good idea for me to leave a pen and some paper by the bed when I am falling asleep.
I don’t write on this paper very often. When I’m falling asleep, I’m usually not thinking up story ideas. I’m thinking about what I need to photocopy before I teach in the morning, or about how my ninth-graders may very well forget what they wrote their essays about by the time I actually manage to get them back, or about how tomorrow is trash day and we forgot to carry the recycling out again, or about how it’s probably pretty awful to need to be reminded about your mother’s birthday two years in a row. Or the falling-asleep process gives way quickly to, well, sleep.
But every so often, while I’m in that half-dreaming state where nothing makes much sense, I will reach for the paper and I will write something down. I don’t turn on the light to do this. Unsurprisingly, in the morning, this thing usually turns out to be totally incomprehensible. Sometimes I can’t even read the handwriting, which—done in the dark—never looks much like mine. Other times, the words are legible but might as well not be. “The itch began at the top of my head,” I will find. Or “peach suit.”
A couple of times, though, waiting for me there in the morning, in that not-so-recognizable handwriting, I’ve found a beginning. Or maybe just the beginning of a beginning. A word, a phrase, that makes me want to try to write another one. “We Show What We Have Learned” began that way.
When I think about it rationally, I know that these falling-asleep ideas aren’t much different from ideas I could have at any other time. The only difference, I think, is a certain voice that’s very loud in my wakeful life—the one that chimes in one short beat after the first glimmer of an idea to say Well that’s stupid or I’ll never be able to pull off—must go to sleep first, because it isn’t alert enough to prevent my hand from reaching for the pen. And though the better of these ideas can feel like unexpected gifts, they come with serious strings attached. The first seed may be planted without too much conscious effort on my part, but the story is no more likely to grow on its own than usual. If I want it to become anything, I have to do the work of hauling it out of the ground myself, and I inevitably blister my hands and crumple some leaves and come to doubt the value of the whole enterprise in the process, since the shape of the thing is never quite what I’d envisioned. My paper by the bed is no pipeline to the muses, in other words. I’m still not convinced the muses really exist, at least for me. My characters do not arrive and declaim their histories and set forth the plots of their stories in the dark. Those are still things I have to try to do for them when it’s light out again.
Even the less rational part of me nods its head in agreement with all of this. It can’t really argue with something so true. So it nods, and smiles, and then makes sure the paper by the bed is still in place.
Clare Beams was born in 1982 and earned her MFA from Columbia in 2006. Her fiction has appeared in Word Riot and Inkwell, where it was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and is forthcoming from The Ledge, where it was a finalist for the 2009 Fiction Prize. She lives in Norwell, Massachusetts with her husband and is currently working on a novel and teaching 9th-grade English and Creative Writing on Cape Cod. She promises that “We Show What We Have Learned” does not reflect her non-fictional experiences with teaching, which she deeply loves. Her story, "We Show What We Have Learned," is forthcoming in HFR #46.