A Capricious Muse Comes to Call (Or, A Walk Through the Neighborhood)

There are times when, antsy and frustrated at the lack of creative direction, I sit down and try to force the issue.  I’ll hold a brainstorming session . . . with myself.  It’s not like I don’t have any ideas.  On any given day, I generally have a handful of what I like to think of as decent possibilities.  None of them are fully formed, and all of them are as amorphous as a literary amoeba.  But they’re something.  They represent a start.


The thing is, these ideas have been lying around for a while, uninspired, limp and about as riveting as day-old baked potatoes.  Sure, they’re workable.  But only in the barest sense.  I don’t get excited about them.  I don’t really care.  The very thought of crafting a story around them feels like a chore.  And one thing I have learned the hard way from experience, after repeated sessions of banging my head against a granite wall, is that if I don’t feel revved up about a story idea, no motivational pep talk is going to imbue it with the necessary vigor.  Whenever I’ve attempted to begin a story in such a halfhearted manner, the result is a flat, anemic piece that never goes anywhere.  It is doomed to fail before the first word is written.


So what do I do, then, between stories, when I don’t have any new, inspired ideas to build upon?  Granted, in the days directly after completing a long writing project, this dilemma takes care of itself.  For a while, maybe a few weeks or even a few months, I may not want to undertake a new story.  Kind of a post-novel sabbatical, if you will.  But the literary malaise doesn’t last forever.  Eventually, as surely as fall follows summer, the need to write, to plot, to form, to create, returns, with the force of a pile driver.  And this is when the lack of a ready-made story can cause a sense of unease.  I need to write something!  But I don’t have any ideas worth writing about.


After a few weeks of this stalemate, this nowhere zone of literary quicksand, I begin to feel genuine panic.  Is that it?  Has the well run dry?  I can’t make ideas happen.  They either come, or they don’t.  And if they don’t, what will I do?  The questions continue in rapid-fire, machine-gun succession, taunting, accusing, pleading.  The creative path, far too often, is one laced with insecurity, and when searching for an idea to write about, the insecurity rises to a crescendo.


So, in response, all I can do is live my life.  If I had a magic formula, an “ideas button” I could press, I would.  Any writer would.  If I had a surefire way to send an SOS signal to the muse, the signal would be sent!  Alas.  The muse cannot be paged or prodded.  It comes when it comes, and the job of any writer is to remain open, watchful, observant, vigilant not to miss the cues.


Because the cues can arrive at any moment, and often when we least expect them.


For my “day job,” I work as a technical writer for a small-town New England software company.  The office sits at the edge of town, and there is a neighborhood directly behind it.  It’s an old neighborhood, with houses dating back to the 19th century, many of which are large colonials with covered front porches and crisp, black shutters that frame the windows.  Mature maple trees and sturdy oaks dot the lawns, in summer creating a green canopy filled with the chirping of songbirds.


I frequently take walks through this neighborhood.  On my lunch break, I’ll head out and weave through the side streets for the better part of an hour.  When I walk, my mind usually wanders, perhaps calculating my options for the fantasy football draft, reliving old memories, thinking about my WIP, if I’m in the middle of one.  Or, just as often, I simply observe my surroundings, taking it all in, enjoying the New England summer, which is all too fleeting.


And sometimes, every now and then, something will hit me.  It happened just last week.

As I neared an abandoned cape, at the back end of a dead-end street, I paused on my way.  Something about the place struck me–which was strange.  After all, I’d walked by here hundreds of times on previous lunchtime excursions.  What was so different on this day?  And yet, I was transfixed.  If a neighbor from across the way had been peering out the window just then, they may have wondered why I was just standing there, stock-still, in the middle of the road.


The house had seen better days.  The beige siding was peeling in places, the roof had a few shingles missing.  The lawn was uncut, the weeds spreading like a contagion, overtaking the porch.  In the driveway, parked in front of a dilapidated garage, there was a rusted-out car, its tires punctured and flattened, the out-of-control shrubbery from the side yard enveloping the vehicle in a greedy, green embrace.


The place looked easily a hundred years old, likely more.  Though abandoned now, no doubt much life had been lived within its walls in previous decades–children playing, laughing, people talking, planning, scheming.  Crying.  Especially that last one.  Maybe it was the angle of the sun that day, the quality of the light.  Maybe it was the cawing of a crow that flew overhead.  Or perhaps it was the silence on the street.  Not a soul stirred.  No one was outside.  The breeze picked up, and in it there were echoes.  Whisperings.  Secrets of past hauntings, past tragedies.


Of course, I don’t know if there were any tragedies in the old house.  Perhaps its history is as nondescript as a November Wednesday.  But something was calling out to me.  Something was resonating.  And that’s when I realized.  After a months-long hiatus, the muse was speaking to me . . .

Since finishing The Singularity Wheel. and publishing it in January, no new idea had energized me.  But now, at the back of this quiet dead-end street, gazing upon this decrepit, empty house, here it was.  Out of the ether, unplanned for, unscripted, completely of its own accord, it came.  It wasn’t complete–not even close.  The idea would need fleshing out, muscle and sinew attaching to bone; veins and arteries would require a still-absent heartbeat to manifest, to pump the blood that would drive and propel the story.  But that would come later–with hope.  At the moment, I was just riding the high that an “a-ha” creative moment always brings.  Where, seconds ago, there was nothing, now there was a firm foundation, a foothold upon which to build a literary structure.


I continued to look at the house.  A squirrel leaped onto a low tree branch and climbed to the top, shaking leaves as it went.  I wondered if the rodent was vying for a better view to peer in to the house, through an upper window.  Perhaps it, too, had caught wind of the muse.  And the secrets that upstairs room held . . .


In the story idea that had materialized, a boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, with a bent toward science and inventiveness, a self-professed “nerd,” is arguing with his best friend.  Because, though they are best friends, there is jealousy, too, rivalry.  Anger.  And this boy, this nerd, has conspired with a handful of classmates–all present–to gang up on his friend, scare him . . . just a little.  Push him toward the window, make him worry that he might fall.


And then something goes terribly wrong.  A trip, falling backwards, toward the window, out the window, down.  He didn’t kill his friend, did he?  No–he’s not dead.  But somehow, in its own way, the result is even more horrific, even worse . . .

The nerd and his co-conspirators must live with what they’ve done.  We follow this nerd through high school and college into adulthood, as he wrestles with this catastrophic accident.  How can he erase the past, or even change it?  Is there a way?  And as he seeks and quests and pursues, how does his guilt and his obsession affect his relationships with his wife and kids, his family and friends?  And, even if he can alter the past, or twist reality itself, what would the ramifications be?  Would something unintended happen?  Is he risking too much?


I took one last look at the abandoned house at the back of the dead-end road.  The squirrel chattered from above.  Then I walked back to the office.

I didn’t have the answers to the story’s questions and possibilities–yet.  And I couldn’t even be sure the story would be written, or finished.  But it was good to be fired up, to have a story to start.

To have a literary path to follow.

I’ll just need to see where it leads.


Thanks so much for reading!


32 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. kimberlywenzler
    Aug 17, 2018 @ 20:38:03

    Great post Mike. I can totally relate. Good luck with the story!


  2. ritaroberts
    Aug 18, 2018 @ 07:56:25

    Hello Mike, It’s amazing what can spark off an idea for a good story.Here is one that happened to me but I could not afford to have it published. After my partner had been given to stronger antibiotics he woke the next morning to tell me he had been dreaming about squirrels talking to him in the New Forest. Immediately it gave me an idea for a story which I entitled” Minstrel John and the Squirrels” of course it is a childrens book.The reason for the title was that I had just been doing my family tree and discovered that I had an ancestor who was in fact, a Minstrel of the woods. This is on my blog if you would like to read it, When you have time.


  3. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Aug 18, 2018 @ 12:06:54

    Funny, the way our muse works, huh? Sometimes when I read, it gives me the urge to write and brings new ideas. The muse begins working. Other times while reading through my own books looking for an excerpt, for example, other ideas will come to me. Keep a notepad or your phone handy and by your bed or in the shower because I have a feeling your muse is silently at work for the moment and will be telling you more as time goes by. Good luck, Mike.


  4. Donna Gwinnell Lambo-Weidner
    Aug 18, 2018 @ 23:37:42

    Oh those muses! Glad yours is back!


  5. Karina Pinella
    Aug 19, 2018 @ 13:28:19

    So true about having to maintain that enthusiasm to get to writing the whole story. Sounds like you have a possibility here with the nerd.


  6. evelyneholingue
    Aug 20, 2018 @ 00:01:17

    You write so well about these moments of pause that follow the release of a book. Everyone who writes can only relate. Too many ideas can be a problem too:)
    New England quiet old towns can trigger great writing ideas. I really like the setting of your budding story. Isn’t it exciting when we find ‘something’ and then follow the thread? Gives me the goosebumps each time.
    Good luck with your new piece, Mike.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 20, 2018 @ 17:06:14

      Thank you, Evelyne! Yes, I hadn’t thought of that–too many ideas can be just as severe a problem as too few! I have rarely been in the former situation, though often in the latter.:)


  7. Teagan R. Geneviene
    Aug 21, 2018 @ 20:03:44

    Marvelous, Mike. It’s easy to see how that captured your imagination. Happy writing. Hugs!


  8. natuurfreak
    Aug 21, 2018 @ 20:51:21

    Het enthousiasme spat er af.


  9. Lyn
    Aug 21, 2018 @ 22:49:49

    I love your description of the old house, Mike, and where it sent your mind. That’s one of the reasons I like photo prompts – they tend to stir the sleeping muse – not always, but suddenly there can be that slap on the back of the head when said muse wakes up 😀


  10. reocochran
    Aug 29, 2018 @ 00:54:00

    Mike, your muse gave you a new suspenseful mystery. Will those involved ever face a challenge of a group not being supportive of their opinions or ideas? Consequences are sometimes karma or fateful paybacks.
    Knowing the boys have consciences helps me to forgive their hurtful actions and taunting words. . .
    Take care and hope your muse continues to prod you forward. Smiles, Robin 🌞


  11. Ste J
    Aug 29, 2018 @ 01:57:32

    It’s always a good day when reading about your inspirations and plans. This one sounds great, it really is amazing how on a certain day something seen many times becomes something more, it keeps the days interesting and life forever inspiring.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Aug 29, 2018 @ 17:06:04

      Thank you! And it really is odd (in a good way) how the familiar can take on an unfamiliar flavor out of the blue like that. I actually just had a short story idea hit me recently as well in just such a manner. It’s good to be back writing creatively again.


  12. jessicawrennovels
    Sep 01, 2018 @ 00:52:48

    Michael, I am not ignoring you. Hotmail has blocked me from sending messages until I pay them a fee. How ridiculous is that. Any how you can email me at jessicawrennovels@gmail.com


  13. A. Guanlao
    Sep 24, 2018 @ 22:20:12

    Hi Mike! 🙂 I am glad to hear that you have a new story idea, and I enjoyed reading how it came to you. The creative process is certainly full of surprises as well as frustrations. I think we have talked before about a work having a life of its own beyond the one that we give it with our words and imagination. 😀

    Seeing those old houses in your post made me think of the ones I have seen here in Sacramento. There are some old Victorian houses here in midtown and downtown Sacramento. A few of them date back to the 1800s.


    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 25, 2018 @ 14:05:11

      Thanks so much, Arlene! There is definitely something about old houses that can kick-start the creative process, isn’t there?:)


      • A. Guanlao
        Sep 30, 2018 @ 22:25:54

        You are welcome, Mike. Yes, old houses can do that, but I tend to think about what could be haunting the houses. I guess I have seen too many horror movies and read too many ghost stories. It will be October tomorrow too. 😀

        I am sorry it took me awhile to get back to you. I have two freelance writing jobs now, and I had to turn in more work than usual right away last week.

      • The Eye-Dancers
        Oct 01, 2018 @ 19:08:58

        No apologies necessary, Arlene! I know all about freelance work.:) I have been swamped with proofreading assignments from the publishers I work with! I haven’t had as much time as I’d like to devote to the blog, but I hope to write a new post soon . . . Always great hearing from you.:)

      • A. Guanlao
        Oct 04, 2018 @ 09:10:36

        Thank you for understanding, Mike. Wow, you must be very busy if you are working a day job and doing freelance work. The store I went to a few days ago is already putting out Christmas decorations. Where does all the time go? I enjoy hearing from you too. 🙂

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