Finding your writing muse: it’s always the last place you look

image 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…

News reports:
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.

Morning conversations:
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.


image Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. This post is an excerpt from his upcoming book, Ned’s Nickel’s Worth on Writing: Pearls of Writing Wisdom from 16 Shucking Years as a Columnist, set for release in February. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

45 thoughts on “Finding your writing muse: it’s always the last place you look”

  1. I enjoyed reading about your Muse last year and this next article is a great follow up.
    My problem is not finding the Muse, but fighting off the multiple that seem to follow me around. Like you said, I never know when she is gonna bop me over the head. Last week it was in yoga class, this week it was while cleaning the toilets. I wrote about the first subject and wisely kept the second to myself 😉

    1. Ah yes, the muse of toilet bowls. I know her well, since that’s where most of my columns are headed after I write them. And if I were in yoga class, I’m sure my muse would strike there as well. But I probably couldn’t write about it with a clear conscience 😉

      1. Today, my Muse seems to have surfaced as a puking dog. Because of the Kansas tundra, our outdoor dog has been inside all week. Apparently a diet of cardboard boxes and toilet paper don’t agree with his delicate stomach.
        Surely there’s a story there….

  2. I’ve just set up my grandfather’s writing desk and sat with my hands poised over the keyboard. Today’s post is what came out. I apparently feel very inspired by that desk and I’m looking forward to more snow days sitting there!

  3. I wouldn’t want to put “being my Muse” on any one person, but let the role be shared by the multitude! They are everywhere, anyway, aren’t they? From the homeless woman I saw once with absolutely exquisite eye make-up, to the mattress salesman who ended up tearing up when I asked him the difference between hook and bolt rails (and then told me everything, EVERYTHING, before completely messing up my order … as I’d find out later), to the old guy whose suit smelled so moth-ball-y at the Vermeer exhibit years ago that my eyes watered — I could hardly see a thing (but then I wasn’t trying very hard). I imagined him digging it out of a closet that he hadn’t opened for years just for the occasion.

    1. That is so very true and well said; the inspiration of muses is all around us, as long as our eyes and heart are open. And assuming we aren’t tearing up from the scent of mothballs 😉

  4. And then , of course, there is reading Ned’s blog for inspiration – but , Ned can’t do that because he hasn’t written the blog yet to be able to use it for inspiration – unless of course, he went forward in time and read his own future blogs and the came back, and. knowing what would be in the blogs, used that information to write the blogs. Which would create a bit of a paradox for he couldn’t have written the blogs in the first place without knowing the inspiration. So,the moral of the story Ned is that we can use you for inspiration but, even if you had a time machine, you could not use yourself as inspiration without creating a time paradox. This would likely result in one of the time lords (perhaps even Dr. Who himself) to appear and create a TV prgram for it. Which is inspiration for the TV guys, but not for you.

    Thanks for the post and good luck!

  5. Yeah, the Muse has a sick sense of humor, all right. Mine waits until I have nothing to write with, like, say, up a tree with a pot of honey, and a hungry bear below. Wait, that might work… Thanks, Ned!

  6. After a couple of my very early posts, my muse deserted me, probably because what my muse wanted me to write and what I actually wrote were so very different. Muses can be fickle – and like many abandoned women, I’m managing just fine on my own, thank you very much.

  7. This reminds me of when I took a summer poetry class in the early 80s. I was just a kid, but our hippie-esque teacher took us along the Drag and told us to write down snippets of every single thing we heard: conversations, noise, whatever. I think I still have it somewhere. “Hey, what are you doing tomorrow?” “We’re headed to the lake.” Zing, zang, pink! (We were at an arcade…)

  8. My first reaction upon reading the names of the Muses was “You mo%$$#$&*#@, you made me laugh out loud. I wasn’t prepared for it I guess. And I mean mo%$$#$&*#@ in the most respectful way possible. Well done.

  9. Middle child works wonders as a muse for me, sadly though I cannot write everything she tells me because my site would quickly become x-rated. Your mention of maple syrup makes me sad, being that I was in Quebec this past weekend, purchased a tasty can of pure gold only to leave it at my son’s apartment.

  10. ‘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.’
    the absolute and utter horror…i once sat in an unlocked car in mid summer, in full sunlight and BAKED for 3 hours until my clothes and hair were soaked, rather than get out of the vehicle and risk people seeing me and knowing that i was with ‘those people’ who had the nerve to go off and have fun…in a public place.

No one is watching, I swear...

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