December 20th, 2011 / 3:08 pm

My Muse Is Shitty Sleep Dreams

When I am asked about my writing process I am generally vague and will say I don’t really have a process because I don’t know how to explain my process without sounding completely insane. I saw this movie once, The Muse, starring Albert Brooks, Sharon Stone, and Andi McDowell. It was terrible. He was a burnt out screenwriter and Sharon Stone convinced him she was a muse or something, and suddenly he was writing again on this script he thought was really hot shit. Even though the people around him thought he was crazy for believing in this muse, he needed that faith to keep writing. He needed to believe the inspiration came from some external influence.

Throughout history there have been many famous muses–Kiki de Montparnasse, Patti Smith, Edie Sedgwick, Amanda Lepore, figures great artists drew some kind of inspiration from. Writers have muses too. F. Scott and Zelda seemed to bring out a certain something in one another. The Brownings were clearly inspired by each other in their poetry. A lot is made of these muses and they are often as lauded as the creative types who drew inspiration for them. It’s so exciting that these muses have a certain je ne sais quoi that brings about great art and literature.


Sometimes, as creative people, we need to believe muses exist because we need a tangible way of explaining how we come up with our ideas. I can look at my writing and identify a moment or snippet of conversation or person I saw who inspired a given story or essay, but I have a much harder time identifying how I assembled an entire story or essay. I don’t have a muse but clearly there is something at work, some driving creative force.

I don’t write at a specific time or for a set amount of time each day.  I don’t have a designated creative space. I write across several different computers. I don’t need to be at a desk or have a magical combination of books nearby. I usually don’t keep notes or inspirational trinkets. If someone ever asked me to take a picture of my “workspace” it would probably be a picture of my uncomfortable couch where I do most of my writing because it is across from the television. If I have a muse, it is an endless loop of Law & Order: SVU. I could probably write to the soothing lull of Captain Cragen’s voice forever. That’s how I wrote my dissertation and even thanked SVU in the acknowledgments.

But. I do have a process, sort of.  It’s not as glamorous as Edie Sedgwick or as easily explainable as forcing myself to write for two hours a morning. I start writing, generally late at night, because I will have procrastinated for hours by cycling through an endless loop of browser tabs—to read news, read submissions, play Scrabble, and refresh my work and personal e-mail accounts with a near-obsessive frequency. Finally, there comes a point where the Internet quiets and there’s nothing new to look at so I might as well write. I have a folder where I keep a ridiculous number of documents. Some of them have two or three lines I dashed off thinking, “This will be a great bit of dialogue,” or, “I want this to be the opening of a story.” Others are stories I’ve made significant progress on but have somehow stalled because I’ve written myself into some kind of corner I need to work my way out of. A great many are empty documents with just a title because more often than not, I start with a title, and the story follows. I browse through these documents until I find something I feel like writing. This can take a very long time. I check e-mail one more time! Because! Maybe someone is up very late and wants to talk to me! They never do.

I find a project I want to work on and I start poking at the story and then it’s like 5 in the morning and I need to try and sleep before work so I go to bed and that’s when my real writing process starts. I have a really hard time falling asleep so to stave off boredom and to lie still so as not to disturb anyone else, I will imagine myself living the story I’m working on.  The more progress I’ve made on a story, the more wholly I can inhabit the story. That’s the best word I can think of. I just pretend. Eventually, I fall asleep but it’s not a great sleep. It’s a waking dream and I remember all of it. A couple hours later, I immediately go to my computer and write down all the story I pretended to be a part of in my shitty sleep. When I’m lucky, the entire story comes out in one sitting after a shitty pretend story sleep. I do this for about three nights and the closer I get to being done, the more I live the story in my head. I even do it when I’m awake at this point and I get really frustrated when I have to stop daydreaming to work and interact with other humans and such. Don’t they see? I’m in my story, working things out. I want to stay there.

I made sense of what my process actually looks like this week while writing a story I was completely obsessed with. I was momentarily confused when I snapped out of a deep reverie and found myself at Walgreen’s, buying rubberbands (???), instead of in a hospital in Los Angeles where I was a resident eating yogurt. It was very jarring because I can totally day dream or shitty sleep dream in a very convincing, immersive way. As I thought about how I might explain that my “process” is to simply live the story in my head all day and night until it’s done, I realized I understand why people point to muses. It seems so much more exotic to point to some magical person who has imbued you with creative power. There’s a lot less glamor in saying, “I just play pretend.”

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  1. Bobby Dixon

      Working on the run is the best. Watching TV is the best. 

  2. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      I’m not sure about the glamour thing, I actually think the kind of total immersion you’re talking about sounds totally glamorous.

  3. ryan chang

      great post. i like your ‘shitty story sleep’ process because it’s not a regimen. also that yr ‘process’ also involves doing everything possible on the internet except writing before writing

  4. sam salvador

      i’m jealous that you can turn good titles into stories. i can never do that. & some of these titles are super clever, i swear.

  5. MJ

      Diving into the quantum mechanics of it all, it is very likely that muses translate to the energy of another individual that compliments (be it “positively” or “negatively”) the energies of ‘the artist’. Ie, energy contains information, our bodies are geared to interpret the universal energies and translate that information into a way for our brains to decipher. It may not always purposed/conscious influence, but muses still exist. While the idea of ‘nothing but muses’ seems like a joke, the muse (or perhaps, the idea of a muse) is very much a real, scientifically quantifiable thing.

  6. Roxane

      The Internet is a key, key component.

  7. Roxane

      I am a fan of TV for sure.

  8. Roxane

      I love working from titles. Sometimes, though, when I’ve written a story from a title and the title then no longer fits the story, I get mad.

  9. Matt Tyler

      dude i do that fucking exactly.  

  10. Matt Tyler

      (in regards to everything)

  11. Sara Habein

      It’s true, endless cycles of open tabs MUST be dealt with before anything can happen. 

  12. Tyler Christensen

      Roxane, this is spot on. I feel it too. Great post. 

  13. DeWitt Brinson

      I remember hearing an interview where John Fogerty said he wrote the titles to songs before he wrote the songs themselves.

  14. Cvan

      Titles first seems natural.  Cabrera Infante is one author who has the title first.

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  18. werdfert

      i tend to watch movies late at night then fall asleep and have this really Great Idea for a story, which upon waking, reveals itself to be just a permutation of the movie i watched +  my teeth falling out.

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  20. Jonathan Manor

      this is such a great post, I’m glad I found it

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  29. Dawn.

      Agreed. Playing pretend is totally glamorous. Best part of the day, any day.

  30. JSA Lowe

      Agreed. Also, I can’t stop wince-laughing at: “I check e-mail one more time! Because! Maybe someone is up very late and wants to talk to me! They never do.”

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