Harnessing the Muse: How to Stay Inspired

This is a guest post I wrote in 2012 for the wonderful Women Writers, Women Books, a creative organisation that supports and promotes the work of women writers throughout the world. 

Art is anything and everything that stirs the emotions.

To create art therefore requires an understanding of emotion; a clear sense of how lived experience impacts and expresses our inner world. We writers, like every other type of artist, gain inspiration from the world around us and from our own experiences.

A lot of people believe that when it comes to artistic talent, you either have it or you don’t, but I disagree. Truly compelling writing comes from an understanding that the components of narrative, such as character, plot or dialogue for example, are simply the tools of our craft that we employ to inspire specific emotions in our readers. We want them to be drawn into our story, to care about our characters and become passionate about their progression and growth. I believe that the best way to do this is through close observation of our own emotions, which helps us enter a state where our mind’s eye can see art in our everyday lives.

 Around four years ago, not long after I had completed my degree in English and creative writing, I discovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Her ‘morning pages’ exercise put me firmly in control of my muse and remains my most powerful source of inspiration today. Not only did I notice a marked and continual improvement in my writing because of it, I also experienced a dramatic impact on my mental and emotional wellbeing.

Learning how to understand and monitor my emotions was a crucial skill I had to acquire for my own survival. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder and secondary borderline personality disorder (BPD). Although these are complex conditions, it’s safe to say that mood swings are a feature of both. If left unchecked, emotions can frequently become overwhelming, causing chaos to the point of disaster for the sufferer. A couple of years before my diagnosis I had started seeing Maria, a psychologist who suspected I had BPD and began to work with me accordingly. A thoughtful, considered woman with a kind face and sparkling blue eyes, Maria taught me the importance of monitoring and tracking my moods. I discovered mindfulness, a spiritual practice derived from Zen Buddhism that focuses on observing the experience of each moment in a detached way.

I learned how to tune in to my mood and stop running away from negative emotions.  I sat with these feelings until they passed instead of forcing them to the back of my mind where they controlled me unchecked anyway. I tempered intense feelings with logic and I exercised self-compassion. In short, I became the master of my own heart instead of being its slave.

It was around this time that I discovered the morning pages, which embodied the work I did in therapy in a hugely practical way. I also became a mindful writer, which completely transformed my work. The exercise, carried out daily just after waking, involves writing (or in my case typing) three pages of longhand without stopping before beginning the day. For me, it is an exercise in inducing an active state of mindfulness. I often begin with emptying my mind of all the mundane thoughts that clog up my creativity: the friend I forgot to call last night, the check I must put in the bank today, the client that won’t get off my case etc. There is usually a point when I just want to escape the pages; I get frustrated and wallow in self-criticism, or I’ll simply type the words ‘I have nothing to say’ over and over. But once I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m committing to the exercise, I accept it, and that’s when the real fun begins. My world goes quiet and a feeling of peace washes through me. I stop worrying; planning and reflecting, and I sense a reassuring inner power. Senses are heightened and the moment I’m in comes more sharply into focus. I notice the quietness of the house before everyone rises for the working day. The pale yellow light leaking through the curtains that implies a fiery sunrise to come. My breathing is relaxed and deep – I have woken content. I smile as the cat gives a big yawn and a stretch before settling into sleep once more. I notice myself thinking that the days are getting longer and that it will soon be summer. Birds sing their mating calls in the treetops outside my window. I start to turn my experience of the moment into a story.

For me, the pages became an invaluable aid in helping me to process my daily experience, turning even the most mundane events into vivid scenes full of possibility and potential. My writing projects started to take off; I could see clearly the purpose and direction of my work, and I gained confidence in the integrity of my ideas. By being able to embrace my own emotions, I was better able to convey those of my characters. If they were feeling sad, angry or happy, I knew where they would be feeling it in their bodies and what they might notice more clearly around them as they went about their day.

If I wanted to truly imbue my writing with a sense of reality, I would visualize my scene and focus intensely on sensory experience. The writer’s eye is watchful by nature, always searching for the details that make words truly come to life. By learning how to place aspects of real experience alongside the vision in my mind, I began to understand how believable fiction is created.

 I am currently writing my first book, and have found that the combined impact of therapy and healing-focused writing explored in books like The Artist’s Way and Jill Jepson’s Writing as a Sacred Path have made me a better writer, as well as putting me firmly at the ‘high-functioning’ end of the bipolar and borderline spectrums.

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