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.

Drop A Pin Here…

In the real world, I type my destination into my iPhone navigation app, and two pins drop—one for where I am, and the other for where I’m going. The journey is mapped out, and the techno voice guides me (hopefully) to the desired location.

Finding the desired location for a novel should be so easy. Maybe it is for some writers. Maybe I should take out a map, close my eyes, and pin the post-it arrow on the next setting. But I know I’m going to live in that place for a while (even if it’s only in my head), so I’m always very selective. For my earlier novels, I always picked a time and place that I wanted to research. That way, if I had never been published, at least I learned something! (That was a conscious rationale, by the way). Before the days of Google, I read tomes about London in the 1930s, leading up to and including World War II. Then I read about Vienna in the 1880’s, when anti-Semitism was festering, political upheaval was getting ugly and the art world was ideologically splintering…all to the tune of Strauss waltzes. Then I ventured out West to Denver in the late 19th Century. My last two novels have been set in places where I have lived: Astoria, Queens, where I grew up, and Southold, Long Island, where I spent summers as a child. These are places I have known and loved. They are places I can smell and feel. I want the reader to smell and feel the setting, too.

A setting has to have interesting traits, just like the characters. As an author, I wouldn’t be happy if I created real people and placed them in a two-dimensional world. If they are alive to me, then they need a place to live and breathe. I have to picture their home, their street. I have to feel the heat of the sun and see what they are seeing. Can they smell the seasons? Do they hear the clamor of traffic or the rustling of leaves in the breeze? What are the people around them doing?

If I want my characters to be alive to my reader, then I have to show them reacting (or not reacting) to their world. It’s as simple as that.

So I’ve decided where my next novel is going to be set. I’ve been to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a number of times when my sons were growing up, and my recent visit convinced me it would be the perfect backdrop for the story I want to tell. I can already picture the homestead, complete with its outbuildings and old pick-up truck. I can see the sailboats and the busy lobster wharves. I can smell the salty breeze.

There’s a beautiful church on a hill, visible from the harbor. There are interesting shops and good restaurants. In the summer it’s mobbed with tourists soaking up a Maine Coast experience. Off season, however, life goes on up the road from that waterfront, and those year-rounders are hardy folks. That is the Boothbay Harbor I wanted to explore while I was there. Their connection to the land and sea goes way beyond a Maine Coast experience or the aesthetic appeal of their lighthouses and sunsets. Their connection continues when the restaurants are closed and the sightseeing boats are dry-docked.

Which brings me to the premise of my story. It will be about going home…and why home is not always a place.

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.