Author Archives: Mary Gillgannon

About Mary Gillgannon

Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library. She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course!

Another Reason To Write

By Mary Gillgannon

In recent months I have read about several studies showing that people who use their brains in their jobs and in their pastimes age better and retain more mental acuity. Many of articles quote the old cliché “use it or lose it”. Certainly dementia, Alzheimer’s and declining mental capacity are serious concerns as we get older. A lot of our risk factors we can’t do anything about, like genetic predispositions and our previous exposure to toxins in the environment (which I personally believe is a causative factor in the high levels of dementia these days). But there are lifestyle changes we can make to slow down the process, and one of these is keeping active mentally and challenging our brains with new tasks and experiences.

I figure as writers, we’re way ahead of the game on that. Writing itself is a complex mental process and the demands of the current market often push us to explore new genres and techniques. We’re always learning and trying new ways of doing things. If we don’t, we’ll be left behind and see our writing careers stagnate.

That was really brought home to me in the last few weeks. I’m having my website redesigned, and my web designer is pushing me to have a newsletter and oh, am I on Pinterest yet? I figure I was doing good to get my blog going again! I opt out of a lot of the new marketing techniques, figuring I don’t have enough time to do everything. But I am gradually adding things as well. I figure I have to, or there is no way I can keep up. And everything I add means learning new systems and techniques to utilize those systems.

And there is the writing process itself. I’m working on my second reincarnation/time travel story, which is mostly set in the present, and once again I’m finding it very different than writing historical novels. There is research. But not the kind you can find in books, like I did in the old days, or even on the internet. To make my twenty-something heroine realistic, I have to figure out how she would talk, what slang she would use, and how she views the world. It helps that I have a daughter that age. But it helps even more that I work with the public in my job and get to observe people of all ages and backgrounds. And that I travel and spend significant time in airports, hotels and other public places.

Still, it’s a difficult kind of research for someone like me, who tends to get caught up in my current task or be occupied with my own thoughts. I have to learn to pay attention to people in my environment. To immerse myself in the modern world. It’s not something I would probably do if I was a normal person and didn’t write books. For that matter, I suspect I probably wouldn’t even be writing a book that demands this kind of research if the writing market hadn’t become so difficult. I would probably still be writing historical novels and not branching out with contemporary ones.

A part of me longs for the old days, when writers got to hide away in their offices or writing nooks and write the books that came to them easily. When they didn’t have to learn more and more technology and keep up with everything new. When they didn’t necessarily have to grow and change and stretch and take risks to have any hope of keeping their career going. But it’s probably a lot better for me this way. I’ll not only (hopefully) keep selling books, but I’ll age better, too. All of us writers will.

The Perils of Being a Woman Writer and First Things First

By Mary Gillgannon

It’s not easy being female and a writer. As a woman, you’re less likely to be taken seriously or to gain the respect of the public and your peers. If you write romance, as I do, the trials are even greater. The implication is always there that anyone can write “one of those trashy little books.”

I’m used to that kind of attitude and mostly shrug it off. But I’ve recently become aware of another burden of being a woman who writes fiction. Females are trained from early childhood to be empathetic, social and “helper bees.” We learn to support other people, to encourage and commiserate and be there for them. In many, many ways this is a very good thing. Civilization and probably humanity itself would not have survived without female social skills. But sometimes we take things too far, to our own detriment.

Last spring, I signed a contract with a small press. In my welcome letter, I was told I needed to join the loop for the publishing house’s authors and also a loop where those authors share promotional ideas. Dutifully, I did so.

The number of emails I get daily has been creeping up for years. It includes advertising emails as well as the RMFW loops and an on-line loop for writers of Celtic romance. Sometimes things get pretty active on these loops. I’m used to getting up to 100 emails a day.

But suddenly, with the new loops, my emails doubled. My publisher’s writers are a very enthusiastic, active bunch. Many of them have regular blogs, run contests and other promotions and on-line activities. And they like to celebrate anything good and, occasionally, commiserate over bad things. New covers, new releases, contest wins, great reviews, terrible reviews, all those things result in a flurry of emails expressing congratulations and support. It gets almost ridiculous sometimes, with people thanking people for posting a comment thanking them for a blog post, etc.

But even though they sometimes take it overboard, I will admit the loop members are truly wonderful about promoting their fellow authors. They tweet and share on Facebook. They offer blog opportunities and sign up to take part in on-line parties and special promotional events. With a new book coming out at the end of the year, I need to do some of these things. And I can hardly ask the members of these loops to promote my release or my blog or whatever, if I don’t do some of the same things for them.

But all of this patting each other on the back and even the genuine promotion of reciprocal tweets and shares, comes at a price. Time.

I used to be able to get through my emails in half an hour or so each morning. Delete the ads, except for those I want to check out later (I have a bad shopping addiction.), respond to those celebrating a special event or success, and keep in touch with friends and family (mostly done on weekends, when I have more time). But recently I realized I was spending over an hour each morning dealing with email. And another hour or more if I take time to post on Facebook, write for my sadly-neglected blog, or do other writing business.

And I can’t afford to lose that time, because mornings are my best writing time. Every extra minute I spend on email is a minute I’m not writing. Which leads me to the second thing addressed in this blog: My decision to make writing my book the first thing I do when I sit down at the computer each morning.

Two other writers and I recently did a six-week writing program at the library where I work. When we got to the class on promotion, each of us mentioned the axiom we’ve heard for years: “The best thing you can do for your career is write the best book you can.”

Whether that’s true or not, I do know that one of the best things you can do for your career is have another book published. Because the way it works is that sales lead to more sales, especially in a series. And I’m not going to have another book in this series I just started unless I make writing it a priority.

At the same time, I worry that I’m being a bad “loop-member.” That I’m being selfish and unfair if I don’t show support to my fellow authors but expect them to help me when my book comes out. The guilt, oh, the guilt! But I guess I’ll just have to live with it. The reality is, writers write. And all the rest of it has to be lower priority.

A Writer’s Destiny

By Mary Gillgannon

When people find out I’m a writer, they often ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” The implication is that it must be a struggle to come up with things to write about. Frankly, that’s never been my problem. My problem is finding the hours and days and weeks and months (and sometimes years) it takes to transform my story ideas into books.

Even without considering my latest project, I have at least ten books waiting for me to finish them. Some are hard copies sitting in a closet in our family room. Others are gathering dust on floppy discs. A few are saved on jump drives. (Technology marches on.) And that still doesn’t count two completed manuscripts that I haven’t figured out what to do with.

Just to finish all of those books would keep me busy for the next ten years. And that’s if I didn’t get any new story ideas, which is unlikely.

My challenge has always been “what to write?” Throughout my career, I’ve vacillated between writing what I thought I should write and the books that really called to me. Right now I’m in a dutiful phase.

Last spring I sold a reincarnation romance. I pitched it as a series, so as soon as I sold it, I felt obligated to drop the story I was working on and write the second book in the series. But it’s gone very slowly. So slowly that recently I began to wonder if maybe this just wasn’t the right time to write this book. Was it really normal to spend so much time staring at the blank computer screen? Was this a sign I should be working on something else?

But then I reminded myself that ideas and the beginnings of books always come easy to me. It’s the middle part that is a challenge. And while this book may take longer than I’d like, in the end, finishing it will mostly be a matter of persistence and hard work.

And patience. I have to accept that I’m notorious for coming up with story ideas that take me into realms I don’t have any experience in. I’ve been known to flounder for years. With the result that the book I’m most proud of took me nearly ten years to finish to my satisfaction. Not to mention I ended up writing about twice as many words as the final manuscript.

I guess this is just the way I have to do things. People talk about “plotters” and “pantzers”. Well, I’m a plodder. Which means that every book takes as long as it takes. It’s a nightmare career-wise. But I doubt there’s anything I can do to change it. I just have to hope that some day I’ll finish a book at the right time and all the stars will line up and I’ll finally find writing success.

And if that doesn’t happen? I’ll just keep plodding along, following my destiny, one book at a time.

Twenty Years of Sharing the Dream

By Mary Gillgannon

Many RMFW members are attending the Colorado Gold conference this weekend. I, unfortunately, have to miss it due to a trip with my daughter later this month. But I’ll be waxing nostalgic the whole time. I went to my first conference over twenty years ago, and I can still remember what a magical experience it was.

I started writing fiction about two years before that, and had a completed historical romance and a second one started. I was actively marketing the first one with no success. Back then, I worked in a public library (where I’m still employed). It’s an ideal job for a writer because everyone, co-workers and patrons alike, love books and are incredibly supportive. So, of course, when my co-workers found out I was going to a writers’ conference, they were all convinced I was on the verge of my “big break”.

I was more skeptical. I’d heard all my life how hard it is to get published. But that didn’t stop me from lying awake most of the night before my pitch sessions. On some deep level, I was convinced that this was my chance and I was terrified I’d blow it.

The actual appointments with an editor and agent were kind of a let-down. The editor, who’d heard me read my manuscript opening in the previous day’s critique session, listened rather impatiently to my pitch and then said, “Send it to me.” I asked, “All of it?” and she said “yes.” The agent interview was even terser. She asked me if I saw this book as a series and I said “yes”. She nodded her head and told me to send her the first three chapters and a synopsis. Of course, she didn’t offer to waive the agency’s $50 reading fee, which meant that it would take me months before I felt flush enough to send it to her.

But it wasn’t really those encounters that were memorable about the conference. It was the exhilarating experience of knowing, for the first time in my life, I was with people who understood and shared my dream. It was that sense of camaraderie and the excitement of feeling that anything could happen for any of us, that I remember the most. Quite a number of the people I met at that conference are still involved with RMFW. Two of them have become my dearest friends.

The other memory I have is of rushing back to my room on the second night, getting out my notebook and immediately starting to revise the beginning of my book. After nearly a year and a half of writing and revising, and revising again, I had, deep down, sensed that the book wasn’t quite “ready”. But after attending several Colorado Gold workshops, the light bulb went on. I finally knew what was wrong and how to fix it.

And the real magic did happen. Nearly six months later, I got a letter from an editor who worked at the same publishing house as the editor who’d asked me to send her my manuscript. This second editor wrote that she “loved it” and wanted to buy it. Thus began the most exciting time of my life.

A lot has changed in twenty years. Nobody writes on a typewriter anymore (like I did with my first draft). It’s all about web presence now, and tweets and likes and blog hops and a dozen other things that didn’t exist back then. But some things never change. Like the joy of being part of an organization that’s all about sharing dreams, and the thrill of knowing you’re setting off on the great adventure of being a novelist with a couple hundred compatriots by your side.

Colorado Gold rocks!

Why I Write

By Mary Gillgannon

When people ask me why I write, I have some pat answers:  The stories just come to me and I have to write them down. I enjoy living vicariously through my characters. I feel like I was born in the wrong time period, so I write about the past.

But none of those things represent the real reason. Which is that it’s an addiction. I crave writing the way some people do a drug. Without it I go into withdrawal and get cranky and anxious and depressed.

My addiction used to be much worse. If I went a day without writing, I would almost immediately feel my stress levels rising. But the last few years, I’ve had enough money that I’ve been able to replace my writing addiction (which is relatively inexpensive) with other methods of boosting my mood. Gardening and doing creative things like planning a remodeling project seem to do some of the same soothing things to my brain. Travel, or even planning a trip, has a similar effect. And shopping also fills the void and provides a sense of gratification. These replacement vices work so well, I almost think if I had enough money (and lived in a place where gardening was a year-round activity instead of the five months, if I’m lucky, I can do it in Wyoming.) I might be able to survive without writing.

What all these activities have in common is a kind of hyper-focus. My brain is engaged in a way that concentrates my naturally intense intellectual and emotional energy on a specific project or goal. So instead of all that seething yearning and need looping endlessly around in my brain and making me crazy, as it did for much of my life, it gets utilized in a satisfying way. These activities provide a channel to direct that energy, a creative outlet to free me from the destructive force of my restless and passionate nature.

But like most vices, all these activities are only satisfying while I’m doing them. So if I have a week, or several, where I don’t have time to indulge in any of these things, including writing, the emotional energy builds up and up, until I start each day with a vague sense of doom hanging over me. Now that I’m older, it doesn’t take too much to get me out of a funk. A little sunshine, some social contact, the comforting rituals of life, something that makes me laugh, any of those things can put me back on the right path, as long as my life is essentially all right.

But let things get genuinely stressful and my carefully constructed optimistic persona starts to get more and more cracks, and it take a lot more positive things to get me back to that baseline of relative happiness. Until one day I realize I’ve regressed to that person I used to be, the one who barely survived adolescence and walked around under a cloud of anxiety and subtle dread for much of their early adulthood. Nowadays, if I consistently suffered from those mood issues, I’d probably be on antidepressant drugs. But drugs have side effects and often cause other issues. And finding just the right balance is very tricky.

Which takes me back to my original “drug of choice”: writing. Because writing does more than just provide a creative outlet and a focus. I’m convinced that the act of writing actually changes my brain. Maybe it supplies it with endorphins or boosts the serotonin levels, similar to what mood-altering drugs are supposed to do. But it is more long-lasting than a drug. And doesn’t wear off as quickly.

And by writing, I mean fiction. Not a blog or an email or something like that. That sort of writing helps, but it doesn’t work the magic that writing fiction does. Because nothing quite beats the incredible moment of having your characters come to life and the world they live in becoming utterly real. It’s a high, as intense and vivid as any drug can offer. (Although, admittedly, I haven’t tried any of the really powerful euphoria-producing ones.)

So I’m going back to my original addiction. I’m going to let the emails pile up in my inbox until I have to delete most of them unread. I’m going to shun my internet shopping sites, and neglect my garden and my house. And probably my family, to hear them tell it. And continue to truly suck at promoting my already-published books. But I need my drug. I can’t live without writing fiction anymore.

So, that’s why I write. Because I have to.

Better All The Time?

By Mary Gillgannon

Some of my writer friends enjoy revising. They’re excited to have the first draft done and begin polishing the story. I, on the other hand, dread that part of the process. I much prefer the thrill of having the story unfold in front of me. The adrenaline rush of having my characters come to life and make things happen. That’s what keeps me writing.

Of course, it’s not always like that in the first draft. Sometimes my characters refuse to tell me what the story is. Or they take me off on a wild goose chase and I end up re-writing half of the book. But still the initial process is very often exhilarating.

And yet, I eventually get to the end and have to begin the important work of cleaning up the mess that is my story. It’s a seriously cringe-worthy process: Oh, my God, I didn’t really write that! No! I didn’t really use the word “really” about a hundred times. Not to mention “pretty” and “that’ and a dozen other bad habits. And then there are the doubled words (which Word never seems to catch) and the missing words. The logic problems. The occasional “homophone”; I didn’t mean “there”, but “they’re”!

And of course there’s the process of “quieting the ripples”. Because when you realize the middle part of the book is crap and try to fix it, you inevitably affect plot points throughout the story and have to fix them, too! And my beginning sucks! And why didn’t I think about that earlier in the book?

I always get through it. But it’s not fun. And I especially get discouraged because I’ve been writing for so long. I think: Why isn’t easier? Why aren’t I a better writer after 20 books?

Well, according to a research study, I am better. A scientist studied the creative process by tracking brain activity with MRI’s. His research subjects included both novice adult writers and “expert” writers (they were enrolled in a MFA program). To separate out the creative part of writing, he had them first copy something already written to get a baseline for the actual writing process. Then he did MRI’s as they brain-stormed an original story and wrote it.

He found that novice writers used different parts of their brain even while brainstorming. The novice writers had more activity in the visual center of the brain while the expert ones had activity in regions involved with speech. When the two groups began writing, there were other differences. In the expert writers a region in the brain called the caudate nucleus became active, while in the novice writers it was quiet.

The caudate nucleus is involved in skills that are learned through practice, such as piano playing, basketball or even board games. When a person begins learning these skills, they have to consciously think about what they are doing. But as they become more expert, the caudate nucleus takes over and coordinates these complex skills.

There has been a lot criticism of this study by other scientists, who are skeptical that it really shows where the creative process takes place in the brain. But I found the results encouraging. It suggests that as writers we do become better and more efficient in the writing process. We start using parts of the brain that are involved in more complex functions.

Maybe the problem for me is that as I get better, I also raise my expectations and become more critical. I have to tell myself that even though I still find stupid mistakes when I revise, at least I know they are mistakes and can recognize what needs fixing. So all the years of doing this have paid off and I really am becoming better at this.

At least I’ll believe that until I have to revise the next book!

You can read more about this study on the creative process in this New York Times article.

Interview with Raelene Gorlinsky, Publisher, Ellora’s Cave

raelenegorlinskyRaelene Gorlinsky, Publisher of Ellora’s Cave, will be presenting at the Colorado Gold Conference and taking pitch appointments.  Here’s a sneak peek at what she’s looking for and some great advice on writing and submitting:

1. What genres does Ellora’s Cave publish and how many books per year in each genre?

EC publishes erotic romance, erotica fiction, and romance (about 10% overall are the non-erotic romances). We publish 500 ebooks a year, of length from 7000 to 125,000 words. (About 250 to 300 stories go into print each year.) We do all genres within romance – paranormal, futuristic/scifi, fantasy and urban fantasy, BDSM, contemporary, historical, Western…

2. As an acquiring editor, what plot and/or character do you never want to see again? What would you love to see in the next manuscript you read?

ABSOLUTELY NO:
~ Billionaires. There are only 104 billionaires in the U.K., the country with one of the highest percentages of people at that wealth level — and I bet 103 of the 104 are *not* young, handsome and single.
~ Clones of the plots or characters of Fifty Shades, Twilight or Hunger Games. It’s been done, people; come up with your own blockbuster.
~ TSTL heroines, or weak heroines who let the hero or events control them rather than developing their own strength and taking charge of their own life.
~ Secret babies or amnesia plots, or anything else that’s a decades-old Harlequin cliche.
~ Bad or nonexistent research: I can’t stand stories that show the writer just followed cliches or what she’d read in other books, rather than do thorough research and fact-checking herself.
~ If you write erotica, no stories that tell me the hero’s penis size in inches, especially male-ego inches (It’s the swing of the stick, not the size of the bat, that makes the game exciting. Fact: the average size of an erect penis is around six inches.) or that misplace the heroine’s hymen (It’s at the vaginal opening, not inches deep inside).

I WILL TOTALLY FALL FOR:
~ Great world-building – it’s the most important part of a story for me.
~ Intelligent, realistic and emotional characters I can believe in.
~ I love urban fantasy romance. I personally have a thing for fantasy wings – dragons, angels, pegasuses, any paranormal/fantasy creature that flies.

3. As a professional editor, what’s the best advice you can give to writers submitting their first novels.

Have every submission brutally critiqued by experienced authors, and then proofread by several skilled proofreaders. If you don’t respect your work enough to make it as perfect as you can, why should an editor respect you or your story?

Writing for publication is a skilled trade, treat it as such and be a professional in your field. Learn about the publishing industry, read the industry news. Join writing organizations. Take classes to develop your skills. Attend conferences to network with other professionals in the field. Learn the promotion and marketing element of the business.

4. Do you recommend that authors have their manuscripts professionally edited before submitting, or is content and copy editing part of your normal process?

All accepted books go through our full editing process. But the better and cleaner a submission is, the more likely it will be accepted and the quicker it will get through edits.

5. What gets you excited in a query letter? What makes you hit the delete button?

I love a great, grabbing – and brief – blurb about the book. That’s what makes me eager to look at the manuscript.

Delete – Personal info about the author, babbling about why they write, things that indicate they know nothing about the publishing industry or the profession of writing. The things that matter are that the story is great and the author behaves professionally.

6. Tell us about your typical work day (and especially how many manuscripts you usually have waiting in your e-mail Inbox).

All submissions from authors not already contracted to EC go to our Submissions email address, not to individual editors. They get a pre-review to determine whether they may be of interest to us and fit our guidelines. If so, they go in the queue for editors who are acquiring. We get about 800 external submissions a year; our acceptance rate is around 4 to 5%.

My day? My “day” job is publisher – I deal with contracts and rights, vendors, sub rights deals (translation, audio, etc), plan ebook sales and promotions, plan our print books, supervise the cover art department and our ebook production department, provide guidance to the editorial department…

I edit on weekends – because I started as an editor, love editing and don’t want to ever stop doing it. I edit about 30-ish stories a year.

7. Writers are often advised to have a web presence before even selling their first manuscript. Of the following web and social media opportunities, which do you consider most important for the debut author: a website, a blog, Twitter, Facebook, or Goodreads? Are there any others you recommend to your authors?

Website and/or blog. The aspiring author should certainly be on Goodreads as a READER, posting comments and participating in discussions, building contacts toward the day when she will be published.

8. What do you do for fun when you’re not working? Any unusual hobbies?

Hmm. I read, read, read. I love to discuss books and the publishing industry. I have two adored and adorable Pembroke Welsh Corgis that add love and liveliness to every day. I collect Tarot decks and children’s picture books with lovely art. I aspire to being an author of children’s picture books. I love hats and pearls. I really, really wish I could afford a Can-Am Spyder RT motorcycle.

9. How have changes in the world of publishing impacted your job (or company name) in the last year?

Every week is a new challenge (either opportunity or crisis, depending on how one views it). The industry is changing so rapidly that it’s a constant effort to keep up with what’s going on with sales channels, digital formats, changing international opportunities.

10. What advice would you like to give authors who plan to pitch their novel to you at Colorado Gold?

Make sure your story fits what EC publishes. And that your pitch starts off with a bang! Be able to tell me genre, length, and what makes your story special and “different”. If I have time, I’m happy to listen to “practice pitches” from nervous aspiring authors.

THE SALE: Then and Now

By Mary Gillgannon

I just contracted for the sale of my twelfth book. (I’ve published three independently.) The experience was very different from when I sold my first book over twenty years ago. Including the “signing”, which consisted of creating an electronic signature with a password.

How have things changed?

Submission: Back then, I didn’t yet have a computer, so when an editor at the Colorado Gold (yay, RMFW) asked me to send her “the whole manuscript”, I had to print it out, which involved inserting 400+ individual sheets of paper in my word processor, basically a typewriter with a memory, and then patiently waiting as the machine typed it out page by page. I then boxed it up, took it to the post office and paid a substantial chunk to mail it.

This time I sent my manuscript as an email attachment, not quite a one-click process but pretty close.

Response: Back then, I got a letter with an offer in six months. That actually wasn’t an atypical response time. I once got a rejection letter for a manuscript I’d submitted eighteen months earlier.

This time, an editor responded to my query within a week, and two weeks later I got the offer.

The money: When I sold my first book, my editor had just started acquiring for a new line and I had a tough, hard-nosed agent who knew how to negotiate. She managed to get me an advance just barely in the five figures. Given that the first offer was for $2,500, I was over the moon.

This time the advance is… nothing. These days, lots of small publishers don’t offer advances. Instead, I get 40% of the download price of ebooks and 7% of print. So, unless I’m very lucky (and suspect I used up all my luck on my first sale), it will take me years (or never) to make as much on this book as I did twenty-some years ago.

Distribution: My publisher back then printed about 70,000 copies. That sounds very impressive, but be aware that my book was only readily available in stores for about five weeks (“The shelf-life of a banana,” my editor used to say.) For another year or so it was available to order, but after that the only copies anyone can buy are used copies, for which I get no royalties.

Today, my book will be available until… who knows. Unless there’s some internet catastrophe and/or the world ends, my story will be out there indefinitely. On the other hand, every ebook is like that, so in a few years, there will be millions and millions of them available. How do you stand out or get noticed in those circumstances?

Sales: I sold about half of my print-run back then. Not enough to earn out my advance, which did not endear me to my publisher.

This time, I can keep earning money for years and years. Even so, unless the book really catches on, it will take me a long while to earn as much as I did with my first book twenty years ago.

Marketing: My first publisher didn’t do a lot of marketing and promotion for new authors, other than sending out ARC’s to the two romance magazines around at the time. But they did give me great covers, and because they had good relationships with dozens of small distributors all over the country, my books were available at supermarkets and discounts stores as well as most bookstores.

Today, most smaller publishers expect authors to do much of their own marketing. Since I suck at social media, my only hope is that because I have thirteen other ebooks available, all under the same name, some readers will stumble onto this one. Sheer quantity does seem to help sales.

The joy: Back then, I really thought I’d made it. Now I know that unless you’re a top bestseller, there’s no way you can ever feel secure about your career. Fads and trends move quickly and what’s popular one month may not be the next. But after twenty-plus years, I appreciate more than ever how fortunate I am to make money doing something I love and having my stories read by readers.

A Muse By Any Other Name

By Mary Gillgannon

In a post a couple of months ago, I was discussing the creative process and mentioned my muse “not speaking to me”. Afterwards, I began to think about the concept of a muse, what it means to me and why I think of mine as female.

The word probably originates from the Greek word mosis, referring to desire or wish. In Greek mythology, the muses were nine goddesses, all daughters of Zeus, who were said to have power over inspiration. The term has come to mean someone who has a deep influence on another person’s creative work. Historically, it was most often used by male artists to describe women they loved and made the subject of their work. But nowadays, the term doesn’t necessarily refer to a relationship, person or even an entity. The word can be used simply to describe your own inner source of creativity and inspiration. It’s a tangible term for an intangible process. A way of personalizing and making real something that no one really understands:  how the creative process works.

Being writers, we want to assign words to the process, to find a way to describe it. Over the years, I’ve encountered a variety of metaphorical descriptions. People talk of “dipping into the creative well”, as if there was some sort of subterranean pool in our subconscious that we could drink from. James Joyce wrote that all the real creative work was done by “the nigger in the basement”. A more politically-correct writer, Barbara Samuels/Barbara O’Neal, uses the term “the girls in the basement”, to describe the source of her creative ideas. Another writer friend once described it to me by saying there was a wall separating her from all these wonderful, magical ideas and that once in awhile, she felt she could reach under that wall and pull things out and use them in her writing.

I suppose I see my “muse” or the source of my inspiration and ideas, as being a remnant of my childhood self, the little girl I was before I learned to focus on what I was supposed to focus on, rather than letting my thoughts roam free. That’s probably why I think of my muse as female, because she represents the fanciful, imaginative child I once was, who sang and told herself stories for hours and hours.

I think almost all children are naturally creative. Daydreaming and making up stories is a huge part of how they learn and interact with the world. But the ability to tap into that fluid “anything is possible” outlook gets damaged over time. When a child is chided for daydreaming or simply told to “pay attention” in school or when doing chores, they start forming the habit of focusing on the “real” world, the things they can directly perceive through their senses and through reasoning. Their connection with that fertile, free-flowing part of themselves gets cut off, and gradually what was once a constant rich flow of creative ideas slows to a mere trickle.

Years later, when we decide to take up a creative pursuit, we may find it difficult to access what was once the very essence of our world. Instead of having all sorts of fantastical ideas swirling in our heads, we get trapped in our mundane reality. We suffer from writers’ block. We get stuck and the words won’t come. The well hasn’t run dry, but we no longer have access to it. Instead of a river right beside us, our creativity hides in a deep dark reservoir, buried far below all the layers of the responsibilities, demands and distractions of our lives.

Over and over, I find myself using water metaphors to describe creativity. Perhaps that’s because, like water, creativity and inspiration aren’t something you can grab onto or really contain. It keeps moving and changing, like the process that defines it. My muse is a water sprite, skipping over the waves, glimmering in the sunlight. Sometimes I catch sight of her for long enough to capture a bit of her magic and use it in my work. I wish she wasn’t so elusive and that I was better at creeping up on her so I would have time to really study her. But like a lot of enchanted beings, she remains always on the move and a little out of focus, lost to the all-too-sensible and realistic lens through which my adult self views the world.