[GUEST POST] Blake Hausladen on The Modern Muse; Practice, Memory, and Song

Armed with an English degree from Ripon College and an MBA from Chicago’s Stuart School of Business, Blake Hausladen has enjoyed a sixteen-year career in the shadowed back-office realms of the financial industry. He currently works in Chicago and writes in his free time. His debut publication, Ghosts in the Yew was released in May of 2011 and is being re-released in February 2013. The second book in the series, Native Silver, is expected this summer.

The Modern Muse; Practice, Memory, and Song

Surrounded by zombies, vampires, and other forms of the infected at a recent convention, I had the opportunity to try and answer the question what is your muse? How do you find it? How does someone crack his head open on a daily basis and spill out words in some semblance of order, again and again, reinventing an idea born so long ago that a notebook and map is needed to find it?

It is not a new question, after all, but there are a few thoughts I’ve had on the subject that I’d like to share—a method to my particular form of madness (600-page first-person-multiple novels).

The story of them, the Muses, is antique. The daughters of Zeus as well as the daughters of the King of Macedon have long been credited with mythical powers prerequisite to inspire art. They are fine tales that attempt to chase down what it is in us that causes inspiration.

Of the many flavors of mythos behind the Muses, I have long gravitated toward the version accredited to Pausanias (a Greek cartographer from the late second century I’d never heard of either until I hit that first writer’s block and wondered why). In Pausanias’ telling of the muses, he reduced their count from nine to three, and they very elegantly personify what later researchers have proven with studies of the human brain. More on that later. But first let me introduce you to them and what they are for me as I sit down to write. They are Aoidē “song,” Meletē “practice,” and Mnēmē “memory.” Which to me have come to mean the music I listen to, the method by which I write, and the way I preserve the memory of my inspiration.

I use these three things whenever I lose that spark—to return me to that place in my head where I first went when I had that idea that I fell in love with.

Examples perhaps.

After four years, how do I keep the voice and kindle the desire to write the story of a broken man who is struggling up from the abyss of wine? He is tiresome to write after a time. When I lose him, and I do, I can find him where I was when I first had the idea for him. Listening to a heavy smash of deep bass (song), holding an old musty notebook and a black pen that vomits ink (practice), and surrounded by military maps and drawings of battles and equipment (memory). A quarter glass of wine and one thought of the reason he wants to drink so much more, and it all comes back. The pen moves, the old pages fill, and I can write him again when and wherever I please.

The same method works on a larger scale. My latest project has been done almost entirely with the same pen, on the same kind of notebook, listening to the same music, and sitting before a wall-sized whiteboard complete with the entire storyline and every map and drawing that I have created as the story was born.

An amount of work ethic is required, but discounting the desire and time needed, the way I preserve my muse, is by feeding my brain what keeps it in that place.

And returning for a moment to the question, why does it work, there is strangely (or not, depending on your view of science) a great deal of contemporary evidence to support Pausanias’ preconditions for the arts. Studies have shown that students who are allowed to study in rooms where they will take a test perform better, and others have shown that tasks performed with the same music are done better and faster.

So the next time you find yourself blocked—well and truly separate from your story, painting, or poem—stop yourself before you step away. Remember what and where you were that first time. Were you walking, talking, alone, sad, hungry, happy? Were you on a park bench? Crammed in a backseat waiting for someone to come outside and start that damned cold car? Did you type it on your blog? Did you sketch it with chalk on a big green board? Remember it and try to find a music that fits the mood, a practice that put your hands and your eyes on the same target, and some object that will awaken the memory of that thing you love.