Tell me this: if someone knocked on your front door just as you’d turned the light off to go to sleep, would you get out of bed and answer it?
If it turned out to be someone you thought you recognised, but couldn’t be quite sure, and they beckoned you to follow them into the night, would you get your coat, close the door behind you, and only then ask where you were going?
No, you would not (or if you would, you seriously need to rethink your security procedures).
Yet this it is what we writer types do when the muse comes knocking. You may be safe and cozy in bed, then just as you turn out the light, inspiration strikes. You’ll remember it in the morning, right? No, says the idea—write me down, now. You clamber out of bed, find the nearest post-it note or envelope, commit the idea to paper, and climb back into bed. Out goes the light again.
Don’t be silly, says the muse. That’s not the end of the idea. There’s more. This bit’s even better. Reluctantly, you turn the light on again, scribble on the (now too small) post-it and get back into bed. The light goes off and will stay off.
Fat chance, says the muse. Just write down this next bit of idea, and you can turn it into a poem.
Now, I don’t know about you, but for me being told by the muse to write a poem is like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, cleaning salesmen, and a trick or treater coming to the door at the same time. Under ordinary circumstances, they will never gain admission. I don’t do poems.
And yet, one obeys the muse, unquestioningly. True, when the first spark of inspiration is gone and the intellect takes over, the original thoughts the muse bestowed undergo stringent editing. Some are even discarded. But in that first moment, we get our coats, leave a trail of post-it notes, and follow to wherever it takes us. Why?
It’s a question of trust. It’s what a writer, or any artist has to do—have faith in their own voice. If you reject the spark of an original idea and fail to see where it takes you in that first draft, your work can become artificial or inauthentic. As soon as you become self-conscious that what you are doing is perhaps a little foolhardy, and you leave the door unanswered, the honesty of the moment is gone. You can rationalise and develop later, but for goodness’ sake, capture the original idea first.
It’s not just about the content, but also the form. It’s no good me saying ‘I don’t do poems’—some ideas just aren’t fit to be anything else. Equally, some things just are sitcoms or stage plays, or scenes for a novel. Mostly I try to pretend everything can be a scene for a novel – helps the word count. But the muse will tell you quite sternly, ‘This is obviously a [play/novel/sitcom/ film/ epic poem]’ and you must obey. Should one get a deal to write the screenplay of one’s book, one could have negotiations with one’s muse, perhaps with the help of one’s agent, but for the first form, the muse knows best. So now I have a poem to enter for Bridport.
You will know your own muse well. It might be a gut feeling, the sudden exposure of a latent idea as you type, a flash of inspiration as you are out on a run. It may give you rotten ideas; it may give you great ones. Usually there’s a mixture. But when it calls, you should listen.
On which note, I must go—there’s someone at the door…