The Muse vs. the Demons

Sometimes writers can’t write. Creative juices ebb and flow, and sometimes they simply dwindle to a trickle. There are times they run dry altogether. Or maybe life just gets in the way and diverts them. There is no perfect world for writing, and authors have different methods for getting the job done. But one thing I’ve learned for certain: To be a serious writer, one needs solid inspiration, a good chunk of time and plenty of discipline. Oh, and let’s not forget a command of the language. These are the tools of the trade. Leave one out, and the job isn’t getting done today.

There are times I need to remind myself that I can write. I know that sounds silly, but artists tend to need validation and approval. Most of the time, we get it from others when we share our work with the world. But on occasion I need my own approval. So I go back into my document file and read excerpts from my novels. Then I say to myself, “See, Fran? You can write. You’ve done it before, you can do it again.”

So this morning I went into my most recent novel, “A Time to Dance,” and found the following excerpt. Ironically, it’s a fictional account of this very struggle—an artist grappling with his creative compulsion. The Muse is roused, but then she must do battle with the artist’s inner demons. Believe me, I didn’t need a degree in psychology to get inside the character’s head for this scene…

 

Dylan left the open bottle of vodka on the kitchen table. He didn’t have to pick Kylie up from ballet school for another four hours, and he had no plans for his day off. All that occupied his mind was the image of Niki and her fragile beauty. How her racing pulse had been visible in the hollow of her throat after he kissed her. How the flush had risen up from her low neckline to paint the truth all over her face. How every motion…every turn of her head on that long neck…lured his eyes with its fluid grace.

Without any designs or effort, she had conjured a powerful animating force that had been hibernating in a dark corner of Dylan’s soul. Like a Muse.

He took a few swigs of his drink and topped it off before carrying the glass to his bedroom. Setting it on his dresser, he took a deep breath and opened the closet door. For a few minutes, he stared at the large black case, half buried behind the trappings of his everyday life, before bending down to push the pile of sneakers and backpacks aside. As soon as his hand clutched the handle, a voice rose up from another dark corner within him.

What are you doing? You can’t play that anymore. You’re wasting your time.

Dylan let go of the handle when the cello case was halfway out of its hiding place. It looked like a beached seal lying across his sea of shoes.

But he recalled how Niki had seemed enchanted by the man playing the guitar in the park. Her hand had tightened on his, and he’d felt the physical response of her body to the sound. It was like she had been dancing while barely moving a muscle.

Niki was the reason he felt compelled to play again. He just had to tackle a few demons first.

Dylan grabbed the handle and hauled the case out. He stared at it again and took a few more gulps of vodka. Squatting down, he unfastened the metal clips but didn’t open it. His hand stood poised on the lid, as though it were a coffin and he was about to view an exhumed corpse.

Don’t go there.

He opened the lid and stared at the beautiful cello lying in dark blue velvet. He remembered the day he bought it like it was yesterday. His high school music teacher had told him he was far too talented to play a rented instrument, and she had helped him hunt down the best deal on a quality cello. She had even accompanied him to a special store in Manhattan, where he’d put down a meager deposit on an instrument previously owned by a cellist from the New York Symphony. It took almost two years of working construction with his Uncle Donny to pay it off and bring it home. At the age of sixteen, he had earned every poignant note. But all hell had broken loose when his uncle found out he’d emptied his pockets for a musical instrument. Everyone had assumed he was saving up for a car.

What’s the matter with you? You listen to some flaky music teacher when she says you’ve got talent, but you don’t listen to me? You’ve got golden hands, kid, and I don’t mean for music. Keep working with me, and I’ll teach you the trade. You’ll make a good, honest living.

But Dylan had made it into Julliard, and he’d hung up his tool belt.

Dylan grasped his cello by the neck and lifted it out of the case. It was an action so familiar he couldn’t believe over five years had elapsed since he had last done it. Kylie had been a baby when he put the cello in the back of his closet. At the time, Tracy had been growing unhappier by the day, and Dylan had thought he could fix it. He had thought if he put the music aside for a while and helped Tracy with the baby, things would get better.

But they didn’t.

Daddy, why is Mommy mad all the time?

I don’t know, bug.

Is it because I’m a bad girl?

You’re not a bad girl.

Dylan pulled out the chair from the small, messy desk next to his bed. Sitting on the edge of the seat, he slid the cello’s endpin out and positioned it between his knees.

Grow up, Dylan. You have responsibilities now.

He had responsibilities, all right. First, there had been massive student loans. Tuition at Julliard had not been cheap. Then there had been a discontented wife. Finally, there had been a four-year-old girl whose mother had abandoned her. Was his music really to blame for all of that? Did his extraordinary gift poison everyone around him? Could an inanimate string instrument corrupt a woman’s heart and send her into another man’s arms?

But his cello wasn’t an inanimate object once it was in his hands. It became an extension of his innermost self—a self who felt out of place in the world.

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In The Beginning…No Words Yet

A lot of people have asked me what it’s like to write a book. They especially want to know about the creative process. So this blog will be my answer. As I write my next novel, I will share my quiet insanity. I’ll share the blocks and brainstorms (without giving the story away, of course), the conflict and the discipline, the agony and the ecstasy. I’ll also share the unhealthy effects of a solitary, sedentary job on an otherwise sociable person.

Where do I begin? (The first page is always the hardest. But you knew that).

Human beings are born with instincts and compulsions they sometimes can’t escape. Most people feel the biological need to procreate, and some just need to create. But creating a work of art, especially a novel, can be likened to the long and sometimes painful process of giving birth. In the beginning there’s a spark. (The idea or message). The spark ignites love. (The writer becomes obsessed with the idea). The love needs to be expressed and brought to life. (The writer is ready to forfeit everything to bring that idea into the world). I don’t know why.

By the time the story is born, the writer is usually in physical distress.

I’ve been under the power of this compulsion since the age of eleven. And I didn’t start out wanting to write short stories or poems. I wanted to write hundreds of pages, creating stories for the characters in my pretend world. As a child, I created characters for myself and my friends when we played. Maybe as I got too old to “play house,” I didn’t want those characters to disappear. So I wrote them down and gave them a story. On a toy typewriter. That’s no lie. That’s how it all started.

Throughout high school I was more into music, and songwriting was my main creative outlet. But even as I loved singing and playing my instruments, I began to notice that my love of music had an added dimension that didn’t seem to plague my friends and family members. When I heard a song I liked, I couldn’t just sit back and be transported by its entertainment value. I always felt, “God, I wish I wrote that.” Talk about compulsion.

I did a lot of performing—high school glee club, church groups, a rock band—but I was never as comfortable in the spotlight as I was being a writer or composer.

As a young adult working in Manhattan, my leap into the oblivion of serious writing was not a conscious decision. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was bored at work one day, and I put a blank piece of paper into the typewriter. (Yes, I’m that old—it was a Selectric II typewriter). Two years later, I had a 900-page novel about a Norwegian immigrant who became a lumber baron in the late 19th Century. You can’t make this stuff up. (Wait a minute…yes, I can make this stuff up. Maybe I should say truth is stranger than fiction).

Now, almost 28 years after that first piece of paper went into the typewriter, I have honed my craft. I know my platform. I try to be disciplined. And I implement all the tools I’ve acquired along the way.

But the story still begins with a spark.

There is a message inside of me that wants to be heard. It’s at the root of all my stories. The power of human connection. So this is how it happens: An idea comes to me while I am watching the news one night. Almost immediately, two figures emerge from the recesses of my mind as though they had always existed there. They are my new characters, and they are waiting to be given names, attributes and physical traits.

I want you to love them, so I will be very particular about every detail I create for them. A lot of thought will shape them. A lot of notes will be taken. When I see them very clearly…when I know them by name and sense they are real…I will write biographies for them.

In my next post, I’ll try to explain how this happens. For now, I will simply savor their conception like a satisfied lover. If I still smoked cigarettes, I’d be lighting one up right now.

From the Beginning of “The Healing”

If you were born between 1945 and 1964, listen up!! There is a new literary genre out there just for you! It’s called “Boomer Lit,” and I recently joined a group on Goodreads for authors who have written books that would be of particular interest to the baby boomer generation. This group has put together a blog-hop called Boomer Lit Friday, and we are sharing excerpts to offer examples of this new genre. Check it out at http://boomerlitfriday.blogspot.com/

Here is my offering for this week–an excerpt from the very beginning of my novel The Healing…

Karen Donnelly stood on the grassy overlook and gazed out at Long Island’s Southold Bay. The beach at Founders’ Landing had always been a special place for her, but lately it gave her no comfort. While the gentle surf lapped at the shore below, anxiety pulsed through her—a tide with a force all its own. The roaring in her head drowned out the summer breeze rustling through the nearby trees. She was in a constant state of tension, and no curative setting, not even the place where her best memories were born, could bring her peace of mind.

She closed her eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. If she tried hard enough, she could slip into that other lifetime and ward off the melancholy that threatened to overwhelm her. It should have been easy to pretend it was thirty years ago. The same dense maple trees shaded the familiar spot where she stood. The same picnic tables still offered cool respite from the heat of the sun. The air smelled like it always had. But when Karen opened her eyes, she was still standing in her altered world. She looked around like a child lost in her own backyard. There was no sound of splashing water or laughing children rising from the beach like music from an old transistor radio. The picnic tables, once hidden amid the chaos of vacationing families and randomly parked station wagons, now sat like weathered sculptures on an abandoned landscape. There were no children playing, no dads barbecuing, no moms chatting over iced tea. It wasn’t peaceful or heartwarming. It was just sad.

Simplify…Are You Kidding Me?

Every New Year’s Day, it’s among my many resolutions. Every season of spiritual renewal I vow to make it my new way of life. Intellectually, I grasp the value of unfettering myself from so many material pursuits. Aesthetically, I recognize when the space around me is balanced—a tended garden or the living room of a friend who knows her feng shui. Lately it is the one goal I find most attractive and…alas…most unattainable.

To simplify my life.

I would believe the whole concept to be a myth if I didn’t actually know people who live in the paradise of simplicity. In my novel, “The Healing,” the character named Grace is such a person, and I created her in the likeness of a dear friend. Yes, people like this actually exist. They are detached from their worldly possessions. Their minds appear to be unclouded. Their lives are in order because their priorities are in order. And they take each day as it comes without dwelling on the past or getting anxious about the future. This is what I envy most—the ability to live in the moment.

Even though I’m not one to make lists, I have this notion that I am unable to relax until I accomplish what I set out to accomplish. “I’ll go for that nice walk, but let me finish this first.” Or, “I’ll sit down to read after I’ve done the bills and cleared off the desk.” That list of mine might not be written down on paper, but it’s branded on my brain. It gets longer as I get older and life gets more complicated. At this rate, I’d have to live three more centuries before I could disentangle myself from my own expectations.

So instead of fantasizing about the end result—A Life of Simplicity for Fran Pergamo—I’ve come up with three rules that I will attempt to impose upon myself:

• Prioritize

Spiritual well-being has to come first. Not only does it set a person on the right path, but it is the source of inner peace and purpose. Human connection is second—family, friends and those with whom we come into contact each day. Everything else is optional, flexible, or downright dispensable. I believe this wholeheartedly. Can I live my life accordingly? I’m working on it.

• Avoid Being Overly Sentimental

This is so hard for me. I have been sentimental about people, places and the objects connected to them ever since I was a toddler. Hubby Jim and I are both the babies in the family, and it’s evident in our attachment to “things” that belonged to parents, “things” we’ve given each other, “things” that remind us of a person or an event we wish to somehow immortalize. Unfortunately, our younger son is the same way, so we preserve everything knowing he’d be willing to keep it all. Now I’m starting to think, why would I do that to him?

We have what matters in our hearts. Yes, keep one or two things. Keep the pictures. Write down the history. But every tool, every kitchen gadget? Even as I write this, I realize it’s like some form of idolatry. Will I be giving away all that stuff? We’ll see.

• Do One Thing At A Time (And Finish It)

I often spin in circles when I have a full day at home. Today I am writing this blog post, and I probably allowed myself to get distracted more than twenty times. I would’ve been done hours ago if I didn’t jump up to “get something else started” every time I had a random thought. This is a matter of discipline, and if this is the path I chose, I can’t keep detouring. I can make excuses about the artistic mind or say that I NEED the distraction, but then I can’t complain when I find myself juggling a dozen unfinished projects and commitments in a day.

So here I am writing instead of cleaning out my closets. Here I am writing instead of visiting an elderly loved one. But I will finish this article and post it today.

I vow to simplify my life…tomorrow.

Are you in?

Welcome to My Blog!

I wrote a story about the importance of the human connection. Call me a dreamer, or better yet, call me old-fashioned, but I believe that love really does conquer all. Not the love of fleeting passions or fickle affections. True love is sacrificial. It sticks around for the “worst” in “for better or for worse.” It focuses more on “other” and less on “self.” Are you blessed enough to know someone who is capable of this kind of love? I am. I know a few of them. And I wanted to tell a story with these kinds of characters because they stoke the heart and ring true to everyone. If I was asked to define a mission for my book, it would be to rekindle what is at the core of human relationships and get back to the basics in life. In the last decade or so, it seems we are more connected to machines and selfish material pursuits than we are to each other. We launch our every thought into cyberspace thinking the whole world is waiting to know our opinion. We play games on the Internet without the laughter and personal interaction. We seek pleasure in simulated worlds. Meanwhile, the people we live with are sitting a few feet away. A lonely neighbor might be right across the street. Maybe the only thing that would make their day worthwhile is a bit of conversation or a shared cup of coffee. Instead, we are more interested in Hollywood celebrities than the real people around us. It makes for a pretty dysfunctional society. One last thought: We take too much for granted. Especially when it comes to the people we love. Every once in a while, tragedies like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina make us pause and take inventory of the things that should be most important to us, but unless we are directly affected, we don’t make an effort to change. Why is that? Why don’t we ever learn? I don’t think it’s morbid to imagine being stripped of your blessings. I think it’s a necessary exercise in appreciation. What would you miss most?