On the Page: Thoughts on Writer Responsibility and Maintaining Relationships With Those Who Inspire Us

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From Atop Temple IV in Tikal, Guatemala. Or The Rebel Base from Star Wars. By Erin Sandlin

As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, I think it’s important to devote a little time to considering how we source our inspiration and the obligation of realism when it comes to those who inspire us.  I also look at this segment as advice for those who find they’ve been made a muse of mine.  There are some important rules I’ve come up with for how and what I utilize, and the form it will take.  I don’t break these, because they arose from a need to define the worlds of my creativity as separate from objective, shared reality.

Welcome to Write Club

“If this is your first time here, you will be used as a character.”

I think sometimes, new muses may be a bit uncomfortable because they feel singled out.  What’s important for them to understand is that they are one of a select group.  Not just anyone can get into the club, but I also don’t feel right about keeping their status from them.  Sooner or later, they’re bound to discover themselves staring back from a printed page, and I don’t want to have to have an after-the-fact conversation about how the character isn’t them, but a refracted, reflected version.

Sometimes, things they say will come out of the  mouths of completely different characters, and that’s another aspect of musehood I don’t want to have to play catchup about. This handful of people are my muses because they inspire me to create.  That doesn’t mean I copy them and put them in stories.  It means I value them above all else.  Full disclosure also offers them a chance to object.  Some people are extraordinarily private, and they may feel that even indirect use of their personalities is a violation of their privacy.  It’s important to me, as a writer, that I respect that, even if it means going back to the drawing board.

I would feel the same about using a source or research conducted by someone else and not citing them in a non-fiction piece.  Because consent is so important to me on a personal level, if I have any intent of taking work beyond the pages of my journal, I feel I need the consent of those who inspire those words, if they are anything more than metaphorical and artistic interpretations of my own thoughts.  If their influence is so obscured, so filtered by and through my own perspective, then that is a different matter.  It’s the direct representation that I think needs to be addressed.

Lines of Purpose and Perception

Because I am a creative writer, I often take ideas and run with them.  That means, even the closest approximation of a character to a muse becomes at once both more and less than that person.  It’s not them–it’s me, my relative intellect and experience, shaping an approximation of them.  There are those who adhere to the philosophical tenet that perception is reality.  I could not disagree more when it comes to the products of inspiration and a muse source.

A very dear friend of mine–whom we’ll call Yoda, since reverse her grammar she does–has been a muse for some years.  Her approximation and her real self are very different.  There are things characters based on her will do or say that conform to what I know of her.  But because we have grown close over the years, there are topics and behaviors that are off-limits.  They’re too personal, too real, and I feel invasive if I use them.

Other muses over the years will also be able to tell you that I adhere to this strict observance of emotional privacy because I love each and every one of my creative well-springs.  That doesn’t mean I necessarily love the people–I have some muses I don’t like very much as human beings.  Still, there are laws of privacy and respect, even in regards to them.   I feel obliged to tend them with care, to not abuse or exploit them.  But because the products inspired by a muse are not the muses themselves, I also feel a need to maintain a perceptual anchor.  I write love poetry, erotica, and short stories that deal with deep emotional complexities.

A Hero is a Creation, not a Being

It would be all too simple to fall in love with a character, to develop feelings for a muse because of a creation they inspired.  That’s dangerous, and it’s also why I insist on knowing my muses particularly well.  To say that I need to “keep it real” is exact, and not a cheesy colloquialism.  Human beings are flawed, sometimes selfish, and rarely as pure as a hero character in a story.  Muses themselves are seldom as good, smart, sweet, genuine, altruistic, or motivated as the characters they inspire.  I may write sexually charged erotic poetry about someone I don’t feel particularly interested in, because they spark the words in my brain.

Here’s the rub.  How easy would it be to convince myself that a muse and the iterations–my perceptions, personification, and creative permutations–were one and the same?  I think it’s a danger of those with too much imagination for their own good, to imagine that the poetry, the story lines, or the characters themselves, are inseparable from the individuals they draw from.  This is far from the case, and because the dawning of attraction and the attributes that win my esteem happen mostly in my own head, a muse upon whom this is visited is often completely baffled by what they see as a sudden attachment on my part.

So I keep my language distinct.  I employ platonic terms of affection, such as Dork.  Especially with new muses, with whom I feel a drunken sort of creative infatuation, I try to remain a bit dry and pragmatic when talking with them.  I know it sounds odd to most of you, but I promise, it’s the way I’ve come to deal with how I am as a writer, a creator.  It would do me no good to love someone for what they are not, and it would also pose a danger to that particular creative well-spring.

In the future, should you find that you’ve been made a muse of mine, here’s a quick reference list of things to remember:

  1. It’s about you, and yet it’s not.  Creativity is a two-part dynamic in which the creator invests a good bit of themselves.
  2. Don’t try to run or imitate furniture.  This only makes you more interesting.
  3. Don’t be afraid.  You won’t be the new kid in class forever.
  4. Remember, muse status is a compliment, not a punishment.  If it freaks you out just that much, say so.  I can find other ways to feed my word factory.
  5. Not every muse is a friend.  Sometimes, even people I hate inspire me to write, though they get no say–for them, it is a punishment. Even so, there are still rules.

Chances are, most of the people I encounter on a daily basis will find their way onto the page in some form or another.  But it’s important to differentiate between page fodder and muses.  With the former, direct representation is often the result–gestures, patterns of speech or turns of phrase, even physical appearance and behavior.  With a muse, the inspiration is what counts–they may spur me to write poetry about quantum physics or gardening, in which there are no humans represented at all.

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10 thoughts on “On the Page: Thoughts on Writer Responsibility and Maintaining Relationships With Those Who Inspire Us

    1. It’s the way I’ve managed to balance having close friendships with amazing people and also be a writer that draws on those relationships. It’s just a system of ethics. How should it surprise you?

      1. Oh I gathered that.Your writing about it in such a clever manner is what doesn’t surprise me, in light of reading your other writing. Inspiring. And that was my best Yoda-speak attempt.

  1. Oooooh. Can I be the bartender? The bartender with a sad secret? The bartender with a sad secret and a “persuader” under the bar in case a bearded hipster dick hassles you? The bartender with a sad secret and a “persuader” under the bar in case a bearded hipster dick hassles you, and who lives over the bar and works on his book after closing, recording the passing parade, and who sends odd letters in to the paper? 🙂

    1. So basically, you want me to render you as a modern-day Chacer, who owns a bar called The Apothecary, which was cool before English was Modern? It’s a pen, not a magic wand….or is it.

      “Geoffrey Chaucer was a cross dresser with social climbing ambitions, and a Fairy Godmother who knew all the right words and how to use them…” The Muse is silly this morning.

  2. Um, that wasn’t exactly the ‘sad secret’ I was thinking of, but you’ve got poetic license. I was thinking more along the lines of the tragic death of a lover in a freak bumper car accident at the amusement park. Sad and unusual, I guess.

    I think I need to have a little chat with your Muse, by the way. She hasn’t had her coffee yet, has she? Actually, Chaucer is a very, very distant relative. He was a social climber, though. Married the sister of one of John of Gaunt’s wives.

    1. No, she *has* had an hour or two of intense pretzel-time on the yoga mat. Just drinking my first cup of coffee. That’s interesting that you’re related to him (I hope he’ll forgive my misspelling his name.) It was the idea of watching from the window and writing it down that tripped that trigger–he sat at his window in the gate house and wrote Canterbury that way.

      I did know he was a social climber, but not that he married with that aim. I’ve always seen him as the Doer of Odd Jobs on the scale of nobility, with his various inspector appointments.

  3. He won’t care. He didn’t really care about spelling much. And… he’s dead. 🙂 His wife was French, Phillipa De Roet. Her sister was Katherine, a longtime mistress of John of G., who was a son of Edward III. He married her late in life, and that’s where the connection happened. and Geoffrey managed to survive the chaos somehow. It’s a pretty iffy connection, I realize. No better than 50-50, given the lack of records from those days. It’s kind of like believing in astrological guidance. 🙂

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