Welcome to Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing, that time each week when I rake up the scattered leaves of wisdom that have fallen from the tree of writing during my 15 years as a columnist, then offer them to you in a tightly sealed bag of literary knowledge, which happens to resemble a giant jack-o-lantern because we still haven’t used up the novelty trash bags we bought last Halloween.
It’s a weekly feature Publishers’ Digest has called “Insights every writer should know before deciding on a career in public sanitation,” and what The Master of Horror® Stephen King has heralded as “The kind of tips I would give, assuming I was still hooked on Percocet.”
But enough accolades!
When you consider that there were nine Muses in Greek mythology, you’d think finding yours would be pretty easy. In fact, I’m looking for mine right now. The Muses, as you probably know, were all extraordinarily beautiful women (remember, philosophers were all men back then), with names like Fallopia, Urethra, Tetracycline, Chlamydia, Herpes, etc., and were the daughters of mighty Zeus and the goddess of personified memory… uh, whose name escapes me. Each muse served as inspiration for different art forms, such as literature, oration, sculpture, music, Reuben sandwiches, and others.
I realize that last paragraph probably guaranteed that my muse is now hovering over our unsuspecting copy editor who, at this moment, is jotting down an outline for the next blockbuster literary franchise. But that’s OK! I like our copy editor. If she achieves fame and fortune with the help of my angry muse, I will be happy for her. I won’t buy her damned book, but I’ll be happy for her.
However, given that I’m Danish and not Greek, I’ve never subscribed to the idea of a muse, no matter how much Greek yogurt I shovel down my throat. That’s because, in the same way Kim Kardashian thinks she can still carry off a mid-riff tank top, I don’t want to rely on outside forces — or even good taste — to inspire me. As a columnist, I look to several sources of inspiration each day while, at the same time, trying to keep an eye out for inspiration in unlikely places. Often, it’s the unlikely that provides the most interesting perspective. Here are a few of the places I begin my day…
Given that I work at a newspaper, my iPad has a CNN feed. Not just because we’re too cheap to have an Associated Press membership, but also so I can keep up on important breaking news, such as the latest on North Korea’s threat to launch nuclear missiles at Justin Bieber…
Sure, we all know that’s not an actual news story (Hey, even Kim Jong Un won’t risk engaging the full wrath of Canada). But by combining the first two headlines that came up on my CNN feed, it sparked an idea. Whether it could catch fire remains to be seen. The important thing is that Justin Bieber — and the world’s maple syrup supply — are safe.
I admit it: I’m an eavesdropper. When I go to the coffee shop in the morning, I listen for key phrases in other people’s conversations. I’m not necessarily listening for information as much as the exchange of ideas and opinions. Many times, other people’s perspectives, particularly if they are uninformed or one-sided, have given me ideas for columns, characters or dialogue. In addition, there have been times when my misunderstanding of what was being talked about led to an idea. For example, I once wrote a column on how a Chihuahua had been called to jury duty in Los Angeles because its owners had obtained a social security number for it in order to claim it as a dependent…
Uh, wait. Sorry — that really did happen. I just thought I misunderstood the conversation. But hey, it happened in Los Angeles! I should have known better! Anyway, you’ll notice I specifically said “morning” conversations. That’s because people tend to be more relaxed in the morning, before they head to work, and well before the day’s stress has set in. They are fresh or, quite possibly, a little hung over. What comes out of their mouths is generally more interesting than what comes out at the end of the day. Assuming they aren’t a competitive eater.
Whether it’s standard newspaper or magazine advertising, television or radio, how many times have you found yourself shaking your head thinking, “The side effects are worse than the symptoms!” or “Do that many people really suffer from unsightly ear hair?” or “Why is it that TV commercial husbands are always balding and overweight while their wives look like fitness instructors?” Granted, these are questions actually has nothing to do with finding your muse; they are just things I’d like answers to.
Which isn’t to say you can’t find inspiration in advertising. I recently heard a radio ad offering treatment for TSAD (Teenaged Social Anxiety Disorder). Symptoms include: a lack of confidence, irritability, mood swings and resistance to family outings. Thinking back on my teenaged years, being told we were going on a family outing was like hearing I had just sat on a petri dish in a level-four bio-hazard lab; my hope was that death would come quickly and without mercy. My point? This commercial got me thinking — a condition for which the only available treatment is to write about it.
These are but a few of the places I find inspiration. As a writer, you are already hardwired for observation. Whether it’s at the coffee shop, helping out at your child’s pre-school, at the local post office or from somewhere completely unexpected, your muse is always waiting.
Assuming it hasn’t gone off in search of some Greek yogurt.