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Taming the Muse: Or, Whatever! I Do What I Want!

January 24, 2010

Nathan's AvatarAbout the Author

Nathan is an amateur writer, poet, and self-proclaimed god.  He has written a number of short stories in a variety of genres, and recently started work on a fantasy novelette (or novel – he’ll know when he’s written the first draft) tentatively titled Scream of the Butterfly.  In addition to writing, he also enjoys hobbyist programming, playing Dungeons and Dragons™, and what he terms as “general geekdom”.  He lives in Massachusetts with his girlfriend, her two sons, four dogs, two cats, and his imaginary friend/muse Juanita Guadalupe Rancheros Nicaragua Gonzalez, III.

My imaginary friend has a severe case of ADHD.  If Juanita had her way, I’d write as though I were a passenger in a cherry-red 1968 Pontiac GTO cruising at 80mph on Route No-Clue-Where-This-Is-Headed with my ass dangling from the window and my butt-cheeks flapping flippantly in the wind, and I’d do so with as many superlatives as would fit on the page.  She’d have me babbling paragraph after paragraph about the nuances of this to that, and the message I was trying to send would be lost at sea, drowning in metaphors and similes, until it finally gasped its last Save Me and was lost forever.  Since I don’t usually plan on sending my point plummeting to rest in Davey Jones’ Locker, it’s important that I keep her rambling in check, filtering pearls of literary genius from irrelevant chaff, until I’ve gleaned enough to keep the reader entertained while still conveying whatever it is I wanted to say.

Juanita hates this process. She calls it Torture Most Vile and insists that I should consider her words sacred, untouchable perfection. I remind her that she’s imaginary and therefore doesn’t know shit from Jiffy Pop.

Whenever I announce that I’m ready to begin writing a work’s first draft, Juanita lights up as if she were a girl who’s just realized her parents bought her a pony for Christmas.  She flits through the air to land on my shoulder – Did I mention she’s three inches tall, and she can fly? – and whispers in my ear so quickly that she’s unintelligible.  The words are strung together in such a way that they sound more like a high-pitched hum than English, and I’m forced to flick her from my shoulder to garner her attention long enough to ask her to slow down.  Once she’s calmed  enough that I can understand her, I set pen to paper (or appendage to keyboard) and scribe every word she says without question or criticism.  For her, it’s a taste of heaven.

Juanita asked that I take a moment to explain a little about her. She’s a thin, hawk-nosed 22-year-old redhead with brown eyes, tiny, pointed ears and a mouth so large for her face that it’s comical. While her mother, Juanita Guadalupe Rancheros Nicaragua Gonzalez, II, was a fairy, she did not inherit her mother’s grace (she was born with big feet and often trips over them when she walks). Nor does she have her mother’s wings.  Juanita can only fly because her father, Bob, was a leprechaun, so she’s able to wield a little Irish magic. Because she’s a half-breed, she does not own the traditional pot of gold. Instead, the Leprechaun Guild of Little People and Potted Gold awarded her a pot of coffee. She guards it fiercely.

Once I’ve written the first draft and Juanita is beaming triumphantly at her masterpiece, I set it aside for a time so that I can come back and read it with fresh eyes. When I revisit my work, hours or days later, I invariably find a variety of unnecessary adjectives, adverbs, and hyperboles that are irrelevant or detract from the story. Then, to Juanita’s dismay, I set to work cutting words, phrases and even paragraphs from the manuscript, tossing them to the dogs of revision like so many table scraps. She’ll stomp one of her clown feet on my shoulder and argue with every change, insisting the reader needs to know the intricate history of the sprinkles on the protagonist’s donut and how they feel about being eaten, while I retort that she is an idiot and she should keep her idiot mouth shut and let me work.

After I’ve revised the story, revised it again, and probably revised it a few more times, I set it aside once more.  Juanita skulks off to a nook somewhere to pout, and I spend a week or two trying to forget what I’ve written.  When I return to read it again, I scan for missing details.  My petulant muse returns to my shoulder to whisper her suggestions, and instead of describing the sprinkles on our protagonist’s donut, we explain to the reader where the protagonist eats the donut and why it’s important enough to mention.

We illustrate all the sights and sounds of our scene, taking care to mention the sweet scent of baked goods and the bustle of customers buying cookies and cakes.  We tell our reader that the protagonist visits Fay’s Bakery every morning before work and always buys a dozen donuts, half powdered and half with chocolate frosting and sprinkles.  He eats one of each with a cup of coffee, and then gives the rest to a homeless man living in an alley beside the bakery.  Thus have we informed the reader that our protagonist is a philanthropist, and our scene has meaning.

After going through this process with scene after scene, Juanita grudgingly accepts that the story reads much better and congratulates me on managing to salvage the mess I’d made of her original manuscript.  She smiles and apologizes for her behavior, and I tell her she’s still an idiot.  Then, I go about correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation.  Once I’m finished correcting my work, I give it to someone else to read. From there, depending on my test-subject’s response, I either revise the story again or consider it finished.

And that is how I keep my muse in line.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 24, 2010 7:51 pm

    I. Love. This.

    Damn, I wish I could write like you… 🙂

    Oh, and for those of you caught unawares… this is my eldest son. 🙂

    • Jan permalink
      January 24, 2010 9:47 pm

      I wish I could write like that, too. Nathan, you are incredibly talented and Julee, you are a very proud, loving mom and have every right to be. 🙂

      • January 24, 2010 11:03 pm

        Thank you for the kind comments, Jan, and yes, I’m a very proud, loving mom. 🙂

        I can honestly say with no parental bias that I think Nate’s literary skills are brilliant, and I really do envy him his ability to paint the word pictures he does.

        We writers are a different breed. Even if you’re related to us, if you write something that stinks – we’ll tell you so. It’s like an unspoken code of honor amongst us to be honest when critiquing each other. I’ve read a lot of Nate’s work, and though a lot of it isn’t particularly in a genre I’m familiar with or a huge fan of, still, he just blows me away.

        It works both ways. He read one of my stories the other day, and was complimentary, but also offered some great constructive criticism that he’s absolutely right about!

  2. January 25, 2010 1:23 am

    You almost lost me at ‘butt-cheeks flapping flippantly’. I stuck around to see if ‘turgid member’ or ‘moist loin’ showed up. Also, you might want to take a look at ‘spelling, grammar, and punctuation’–made me laugh.

    • Nathan Olney permalink
      January 25, 2010 2:48 am

      lol I couldn’t ask for a better place to screw up my punctuation. Classic!

  3. Shay permalink
    April 19, 2011 9:09 pm

    I have always loved Nate’s writing. I feel lucky that I get to call him a friend. Thanks for sharing, Nate.

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